Six To-Do list methods to get you organised

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I have a lot on my plate at the moment. I was the one who put it all on my plate so you don’t have to feel sorry for me. I’m happy to have all the things to do, but the long list can get overwhelming. That’s why it was so good to wake up yesterday* with the thought,

There’s a difference between the things I have to do, and the things I have to do today.

To-do lists are fascinating things. I think we all approach them differently and that’s why there are so many different methods out there. And because a part of my brain thinks that if I write the to-do list perfectly then I will get a whole lot more energy and miraculously get a whole lot more done, I have tried many different methods.

Mind Map

Is this even a to-do list? I mean, really? It’s not even list shaped.

I find mind-maps great for when I’m trying to get a handle on the overall shape of my life. Like the time when I was trying to figure out what options belonged to the various parts of my life and what I could just say no to because it didn’t fit in what my life was supposed to be. I don’t use it so much for everyday use. I much prefer list shaped lists like…

The Autofocus System

This system from Mark Forster had me tempted in a big way. You can watch the video here. Look at him – he seems so calm and there’s this huge list that gets crossed off as you go so there are pages and pages of finished items. And I loved the idea of looking at all you have to do and picking the things that jump out at you as the things I could do now.

But when I tried to use this method I found that the list was overwhelming. I felt like all the things on the list were on my plate. They were all tasks I had to do. And if I didn’t differentiate them somehow by writing them differently, then in my head they were all tasks I needed to do today.

I use a long list like this as a master list. I need to put every task down somewhere so I put them all in one long line in a list book (a small notebook) and use it as my depository of all the things I need to do at some stage. I’ll tell you what I do with this master list later. It’s good for my poor brain to know that all the things are written somewhere and that I know where that place is. That brings peace.

When I told Moz about this method he found another problem too. He said that if he worked that way he would only do the tasks that he found easy. The harder tasks he would leave until some magic time when he would be able to get his brain around them instantly. So when he is working on a long to-do list he uses…

The Four Quadrant Method

For Stephen Covey’s method you take a piece of paper and and divide it into four. Across the top you write Important and Not Important, and down one side you also write Urgent and Not Urgent. So you have four quadrants: Important and Urgent, Important and Not Urgent, Not Important and Urgent, and Not Important and Not Urgent. You divide your tasks into each of these.

It’s pretty self explanatory but you need to remember to do the ‘Not Urgent but Important’ tasks as well as the ‘Urgent and Important’ because the not urgent tasks are usually the things that will move you forward to your dreams and such. For more info look here.

Bullet Journal

Here is my guilty secret: I love watching bullet journal videos. Like this from Little Coffee Fox. Bullet journals are awesome. Beautifully created pages from scratch. Beautiful lettering, lovely little charts of different colours taking note of the amount of water drunk each day and the amount of exercise performed, monthly pages and daily pages and goals and targets. All gorgeously laid out and coloured.

Who has time to do that?

So while I have time to watch the videos, and I use Washi tape as bookmarks to draw attention to my list pages in my everything note book, and I now write a form of an index in the front of my notebook, I couldn’t say I use a bullet journal.

Sticky Note Method

This comes from Mark McGuinness who wrote a great book called Productivity for Creative People. I think everyone is creative in some way so it should probably have been called Productivity for People. Anyway, the idea is that you write your tasks for the day on a sticky note, a Post-it note. A reasonably large one – he uses three inch by three inch size. But the day’s tasks can only be tasks you can fit onto that sticky note. Once it’s full, your day is full. The next tasks go on the next sticky note for the next day.

My Method

So what do I do? I do a bit of a combination of the lot. I keep a notebook where I list all the jobs I can think of as a running list, a bit like the autofocus method. That’s the bucket where I put all my thoughts so I don’t forget them. I also put everything else in the notebook – notes from seminars and meetings, things I need to remember about a paper I’m writing, all the stuff. So I use the bullet journal index idea in the front of my everything note book so that I can find the pages easily afterwards. I also mark the list pages with Washi tape so I can turn from one list page to one five pages earlier with ease.

I have a Collins Debden diary, a diary that my hairdresser recommended, it’s a week to a page. That gives me a place to write a list for each day, and each thing I write gets given a time segment too which sometimes I pay attention to and sometimes I don’t. But like the sticky note method, the amount of stuff I try to do each day is limited. I like being able to look at the day and see that at 2pm I should be writing a blog post and at 4pm it is time to go shopping for groceries. This could be done in a bullet journal but I like the fact that the layout is done for me.

Some very small tasks get completed easily within the time allotted. I will either put more than one thing on the line for that hour or I will just write ‘household tasks’ and use the longer list to inform what I should be doing.

I sometimes cross things off the list, and sometimes put a tick next to them, and sometimes I give myself a gold star if I’ve done extra exercise or written more than 2000 words or met some other arbitrary goal that I’ve set myself.

So I still occasionally get overwhelmed but I know I have the tools I need to divide that never ending list of tasks into smaller, more achievable chunks. And I need to trust that when I don’t get it all done today, that won’t be a problem. We are all given enough time, we just need to use it wisely and trust God with the outcome.

While I’d love to have affiliate links there are none in this post, I just have appreciated the info and pretty videos and thought you might too.

*If you’re wondering why I didn’t write this yesterday when I had the thought, it turns out that yesterday was a ‘to-don’t’ day. I needed to stop and do basically nothing yesterday. I finished reading one book and started reading another, and had lunch and dinner with friends. That was enough. No tasks crossed off. No productivity. Not even as much as one hour of exercise. But that was really necessary and important and today I’m ready to write a nice short to-do list in my diary and get on with it.

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A bad word

Should

I really should…

I don’t want to but I should…

The way it works for me is this:

“I really want to sit down and do some writing. But before I do, I should wash the dishes, and put a load of washing on. And I really should ring that person, pay those bills, organise that drawer.”

By the time I get through my shoulds I have no energy left to write, and no idea what it was that I wanted to write about.

You’ll notice that the list of shoulds is full of worthy and worthwhile activities. They are all good things to do. You don’t usually think, “I should lie on the couch all afternoon and watch movies.” That’s a whole different type of procrastination. No, the shoulds are all good things that really should be done.

When I was trying to do everything just because I should I was trying to do too much. I had things on my list that were not suited to me and that didn’t fit into my schedule. It was too hard.

I had an escape when things were too hard. I have used it since my childhood. When I couldn’t cope with my list of things to do, when life became overwhelming, when it was all too much, I would get sick.

I wouldn’t fake being sick. I wasn’t trying to please anyone except the internal task master in my head. No, I would actually become sick – temperature, sore throat, runny nose, swollen glands, I need to stay in bed for a couple of days, I’m sick kind of sick.

Let me tell you, this is not a good strategy. It is bad for your body for starters. It’s a bit like jumping out of a 10th storey window just to get away from the jobs on your desk. And what if things become overwhelming because you are at the start of an exciting project – something you really want to do? You shoot yourself in the foot over and over again.

I realised in my twenties that something had to change. Actually, I was being interviewed for a volunteer position at church and a wise lady asked me, “What do you do when the wheels really fall off?”

That’s when I realised what my strategy was. I replied, “That’s easy, I get sick.”

And she told me in no uncertain terms that getting sick wasn’t a reasonable strategy. I needed to find another one.

I guess that was the start of my learning to say no journey.

I used to use the word should as a catch all and it was derailing all the important but non-urgent things that I really wanted to do.

In the end my husband, Moz, gave me a way to work around it.

Should became a bad word, a word that I was no longer allowed to use. I had to think about a replacement word. I had to think about why I was stressing about the task. Why it had got onto the should list in the first place. What was it that I actually thought about the task.

“I should do the washing up first,” could turn into “If I get the washing up done, my house will look cleaner and I’ll be able to concentrate better.”

“I should ring that person,” might become “I’m feeling guilty that I haven’t contacted that person in ages.”

The first task would stay on the to do list, the second would move towards the bottom of the list.

Sometimes, I would find, when I really got down to it, that the task was only on the list because I was afraid my pride would be hurt if someone worked out that I wasn’t doing it. That’s not a good enough reason to do anything. If the reason is “I should give money to that charity because my friend who is on the board would not like me if I didn’t,” or “I have to go to that concert because everyone else is going,” that task needs to leave the list immediately.

I have found that the simple strategy of replacing the word should with another word or phrase has helped me to keep my to do list shorter and to reduce the stress in my life. Maybe you can try it.

How about you? Do you have simple strategies that help with the overwhelm of life? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

This post is part of a series I am writing about what I have learned about saying no. I’d love to have you join me on this journey. If you want to make sure you never miss a post, you can sign up on WordPress and the post will be sent to your email address every week without fail.

You’ll notice some special art in this series. If you want to see more of it you can find the artist on instagram @deteor42

Temptations (part 1)

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My biggest temptation when beginning this blog series was to list all the things I was doing at the beginning of the saying no process so that you would recognise just how busy I was. I wanted to list my job, my home duties, the care that I was taking for various people. I want you to see that I was Super Woman, that I had it all, that I was trying to do it all, that there was good reason for my near mental breakdown, for my near burnout. I wanted to justify to you my need to say no. Like it is some sort of competition: I’m so much busier than you are, when I go to work I have to walk sixteen miles through the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways, and so on.

Of course, the risk was that listing all my jobs would make you  say, “is that all? I have twice as much to get through as her. What is she whinging about? Talk about first world problems.”

One of the things I have learned this year is that I don’t need to justify to anyone why I have to say no. I really did need to start saying no though.

Here’s a quote from my journal at the end of 2016:

I am still deeply emotionally fatigued. I am having trouble making decisions or forcing myself to do things that I don’t really want to do. I am feeling ready to have whole days alone right now. And yet I’ve booked coffees fro the next three days and I need more bookings to have coffee with Ruth and Jane. I think it’s possible that one coffee a day with someone won’t wreck me. But it’s hard to tell, when you are bone weary. All I want to do is sit in bed and read and write and look out at the rain.

I’d love to write a blog post but I don’t have the energy. I really want to write my novel, but no energy. I want to clean the kitchen and get groceries and do office paperwork and so on but all I really want to do is sit here in bed and write and read and sleep.

That was a journal entry in the middle of my holidays. You can hear that I needed more of a break but I wasn’t allowing myself to have it. Whatever it was that I was filling my time with, it was too much for me. Things were out of whack and I knew it. I needed to learn how to say no.

Tiredness was something I knew very well. Bone-weariness was my old friend. I am now in my forties and I had decided at the end of 2015 that I needed to improve my heath to get rid of this overwhelming tiredness. I guess that was the 2016 project.

I worked on my diet – trying to find intolerances that would mean I wasn’t getting the correct nutritional value from my food. That helped a bit, I found some things that were doing me damage and I eliminated them from my diet.

I also cut down on sugar dramatically, changing my tastes so that I didn’t crave the sugar in the coffee, the sugary treats, the constant sweets to get me through the day. That changed things too – the ups and downs of blood sugar were evened out and I wasn’t getting the mid-afternoon crashes that I had before.

I dealt with some women’s issues and sorted them and got rid of the monthly energy crisis that was being caused by them. That was great. I cannot say how much better I feel from that.

Then I went to the doctor to investigate a constantly ticking eye and severe fatigue and found that I had Graves disease – an overactive thyroid. Treatment for that meant that my legs no longer felt like they were made of concrete. That it was actually possible to get the energy to do things again. It was incredible the change it made. If you’re feeling bone weary, get your thyroid checked. It could really help.

But after all that I still felt tired.

It became embarrassing to go and see my thyroid specialist. She would say each time, “How are you feeling?” and I would say, “Tired. So tired.” And she would say, “Well, your hormone levels are great so it’s not the thyroid.”

And I would think, “Damn.”

It’s not that I wanted to be sick. But it was great to be able to blame the thyroid for the tiredness, to blame something out of my control, outside of myself. To be able to take a pill and feel better. But now I was taking the pill and still feeling bad, I knew that the change in my life had to come from me.

I had to simplify my life. I had to build in margin. I had to figure out what it was I wanted to spend my limited energy on. I had to make some difficult decisions.

I had to learn how to say no.

How about you? Are you feeling the same way? Feeling the constant overwhelm, the constant pull and tug to do the things you know you should do? Feeling that all the things on your list are completely overwhelming? Or is there some health problem that you needed to get fixed in order to get your energy levels up?

I would love to hear about it in the comments.

This post is part of a series I am writing about what I have learned about saying no. I’d love to have you join me on this journey. If you want to make sure you never miss a post, you can sign up on WordPress and the post will be sent to your email address every week without fail.

You’ll notice some new art in this series. If you want to see more of it you can find the artist on instagram @deteor42

My dream life

I’ve been reading a new organisational book. I think they’re a bit of an addiction for me. I just love them. Especially if there’s a picture of a coffee cup or a journal and pen on the cover. I’m very sensitive to suggestion.

They usually have excellent advice and this latest book is no exception. It had really good advice on how to write lists and prioritise. How to make your special project a priority. How to encourage yourself and keep track of the progress you’re making.

I really enjoy the books and I’m always disappointed when I get to the end.

While I’m reading them I’m so full of hope. They just sound so confident, so sure that if you just follow their advice (to the letter) then your life will suddenly be amazing. All you have to do is follow their particular method of organising your day, their method of keeping track, their method of making lists, and suddenly you’ll be making millions by working just 3 hours a day and all your dreams will come true.

It reminds me of when my lovely in-laws bought a George Foreman grill. You know ‘knocks out the fat’ – it was essentially a toasted sandwich maker with a disability. Shorter front legs made it slope forward and all the fat ran out when you were cooking stuff. The parents-in-law bought one, then the brother-in-law bought one. The family loved their Georges – every week we met for dinner and they would rave about how great the food was. And, truth be told, it was pretty good food – my mother-in-law is a pretty good cook! We didn’t buy one. We didn’t have a whole lot of money to spare. So the lovely in-laws bought us one for Christmas.

After a couple of weeks we met up for dinner again and they asked us ‘How’s the George?’ We had to tell them – it made everything better! The food was better, we were exercising more, our sex lives were better, our jobs, the kid’s behaviour, everything was better! Oh dear.

This is how I think when I’m reading these books. It’s all going to work. It’s all going to be better.

It’s not that my life is bad to start off with. In fact, it’s pretty excellent already. I don’t know what I’m expecting!

I’m sure that some of the things I have put into my life from reading these books have helped my life be more organised and less stressed. The strategies are pretty much the same in every one and they are good strategies. But I always feel let down by the end of the book because I get to the end and I still have the same life, the same time pressures, the same job. And that’s not going to change by me putting in some new organisation program.

I know that the fault lies with me. With my inability to say no to anyone who asks me for help (should I write this here? Don’t ask). And, also, with my health at the moment. Maybe I only read them when I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, maybe I don’t need them when I’m getting things done and feeling like I’ve got it together.

There are things I can change, there are things I can’t, and there are things that I think I wouldn’t change, even if I could. And all these things add up to my life.

Maybe the trick is to find a book that perfectly describes your life and tells you that it’s great just as it is. Or maybe to write your own self-help book that tells you that you’re pretty good, really. That you can make it just as you are. Because each of us is different. We have our own dreams and hopes and pressures and needs and stressors. We don’t fit into anyone else’s ‘get it done’ mould.

I guess one of the things that makes me, me is the enjoyment of reading organisational books. So I’m going to enjoy that enjoyment but I’m going to choose to not beat myself up at the end. And I’m going to be grateful for the life I have. Like all the organisational books tell me to. Here’s to life!