A Daily List

Previously on this blog I talked about ‘The Everything List’ – the big brain-dump list of everything, the list that you use to clear your brain and to keep track of all the different jobs that you need to do. That is a really important list to use to get life organised, but it is not a list that you can work off on a daily basis.

If you just use the one big list, you run into a couple of problems pretty quickly:

1) You can jump from thing to thing on the list, never quite finishing anything and never getting focused work done, and

2) You end up feeling like you never achieve anything because the list never gets any smaller. 

This means you never feel productive, never get that nice feeling of being finished, never feel satisfied that you’ve done a good day’s work, and that leads to procrastination.

There is a solution: use a daily list.

The list for the day should be small. It should contain only the number of things that you can realistically achieve in that day. At first, that might be hard to judge, but as you go on you’ll start to see how much you can do and limit your list to those things.

For example, it took me a while, but I realised that editing 5,000 words takes me about two hours. I used to hope that I could squeeze it into an hour or so, and add more to the day. But now I know that if I get a 5,000 word editing job, I need two hours to do it. And so I set that time aside. I don’t try to do more than I can in the number of hours I have.

To keep the list small, it’s helpful to write it in a small place. You could use a Post-it note or an index card. I use a paper diary that has a week to a page, so each day has a small section of about 2 cm by 5 cm. The diary has the hours of the day on it too, so if I need to block out two or three hours for a job or activity I can do that and limit the amount that I can add to the rest of the day. Just having the limited space to write the list on keeps me aware that my time is limited too.

With this small space to write your daily list, you then turn to your master list. Look down that list and figure out what you are going to attempt to do today. What does today hold? As your eyes run down the master list, some things will catch your attention, maybe because they are urgent, or maybe because you have a desire to do them today. Both these attitudes are good – in fact, it’s a good idea to have a mix of things you have to do and things you want to do on your list if you can possibly achieve that. And don’t forget all the regular things too – checking email, washing clothes, all those repeating tasks. You need to set aside time to do those too. 

But only as much as you can fit into a day.

And what if a new job appears through the day? Because you’re almost guaranteed that something’s going to show up. You’ll have a request pop into your email in-box. You’ll get a phone call. Someone will knock on your door. 

Well, the thing is, your day is full. The new job either goes on the master list, or it goes on tomorrow’s list. But you don’t just try to squeeze it into today. Today is booked already. You have a complete list today.

If the job is extremely urgent, then you can bump one of today’s jobs onto tomorrow. But I don’t recommend that. If at all possible, tell the asker that your day is full today, but you can do the job tomorrow. You’ll be surprised at how often they will accept your explanation and put off the deadline.

Wouldn’t it be nice if time was unlimited? If you could squeeze more and more in to a day? But it’s not the case. Time and energy are limited commodities and we need to act as if they are. We need to take control of our day and use our time to serve us and to enable us to do the work that we have chosen to do.

Annie Dillard said, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.’ 

Let’s use our daily lists to make sure that how we spend our days gives us the opportunity to give to the world the gift that only we can give.

Do you have another way to organise your day? Do you use pen and paper, or an app on your phone? How do you make sure you don’t try to squeeze too much into a day?

Focus

Our culture seems to be a little addicted to overwork. I mean, working hard, putting effort in, getting heaps done. That’s all good, isn’t it? That’s valuable. That makes us feel like productive members of society.

We can tell ourselves that we are working and that it’s all goodness and duty, but maybe sometimes we are working long hours to avoid our families, or our feelings, or ourselves.

And just because we are putting long hours in, doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting heaps done.

Moz remembers a time when he was doing a night shift. He and his boss worked until around 3am when they realised that their productivity and efficiency had gone right down. They chose to take a nap for a couple of hours and then get back on with it. They finished up at around 7am.

If they had worked through, they probably would have still finished at around 7am. The nap gave them the boost of energy they needed to work efficiently for the rest of the night.

In a similar way, the other week my pastor took a mental health day. He works six days a week and after a while he got a bit tired. (Fair enough!) By taking a mental health day he could come back to work refreshed and get more done, more efficiently. 

But I hope you notice that there’s a word that keeps coming up in this discussion, and that’s ‘efficient’.

A business in the UK (Voucher Cloud) surveyed 1989 workers and asked them how many hours they would actually work in an 8-hour day. The answer averaged out at just under 3 hours a day. What did they do for the rest of the work day? They read the news, chatted, made snacks and hot drinks, made phone calls, and even applied for new jobs! 

By working efficiently and effectively, you can get more done in less time and free up time to do what you love.

There are several tricks that you can use to get this efficiency and sense of focus.

Firstly, it is a good idea to figure out what you are working on right now. Make a list, prioritise, and then focus on the job that is the top of the list. If you’re jumping from job to job, you’re not going to make a dent in any of the tasks you need to achieve. Find one task, focus on that one, and get it done.

You can trick your brain into getting into work quickly by using separate spaces for different activities.

If your brain knows that this is a ‘work space’ then it will get into work mode much more easily. 

Caleb (my son) worked this out during the COVID year when he had to do his university studies from home. He had a desk and a desktop computer where he could have listened to lectures and worked on his assignments. The problem was, that desk was where he played his computer games. So when he tried to work at that desk, his brain told him that it was a gaming space. He did much better when he worked on his university assignments at the dining table, and relaxed by playing computer games at his desk.

As I do all my work from home, I need to do the same thing. I have a desk, an office space that I use for editing work and administration. When I want to write my novel or work on something creative I often move to the dining table, or even take my laptop to a café so that I can be in a different frame of mind. To relax, I head up to the lounge room. But I try not to do any work sitting on the couch. That is my relaxation space.

Another way to keep focus is to get rid of interruptions or distractions.

I used to keep Facebook and Twitter open on my desk top so that I could look at it for a ‘break’ through my work day. But I realised just how much I was being derailed by that, so now I usually peruse the socials on my phone in my relaxation place, rather than on my computer in my admin place.

And when I really REALLY need to focus I bring in another technique. This is the Pomodoro technique. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. Remember those?

I set the timer on my phone for 25 minutes. During that time I am completely focused. I do nothing else. No phone calls, no socials, no email. The job is the thing. I do the job. Then, the timer goes off and I give myself a five minute break. I walk around. I stretch. Then it’s back for another 25 minute work session and so on until I get the job done.

Studies show that it takes 5-10 minutes to refocus after an interruption. That is why it is so important to keep your phone on silent and your socials closed, and even to turn your email off while you focus on a task. 

Speaking of email, the best way that I have heard to deal with that constant interrupter is to only check your email three times a day and to deal with it as you check it. Schedule it in, like a meeting. That way it doesn’t derail your other good and focused work.

I don’t have a problem with good productive work. But I do have a problem if it takes over your whole life and leaves you no time for anything else. And one way that I see that happening is if you half-work when you should be focusing. It means your work drags out, doesn’t get done, comes home in the evening, takes over your weekend.

Instead, try setting a timer and really focusing on your work. That way, when you get it done you can really relax, have some fun, be creative, play, with no guilt at all.

What do you use to help you focus?

The Everything List

Today’s post is for you beautiful people who are feeling really overwhelmed right now.

The people who are finding that every time you turn around there’s yet another thing that you have to do.

The people who feel like they have so much in their head that if they add another thing then something will fall out. In fact, things might already be falling out, might be being missed, and you have no way of knowing what it is that you have already forgotten.

I have an excellent tool for just this situation. A tool that will work, just for you.

It’s an old fashioned tool. You might be so into apps and computer programs, smart phones and smart watches that you may have forgotten that this tool exists. But it’s a very good tool.

Excellent, in fact.

And for the situation of total overwhelm, I believe there is nothing better that you can use.

It’s a pen and a piece of paper.

Or, you know, a pencil, if you want to go even older school.

But make sure the piece of paper is a big one.

And this is what I want you to do:

Write down everything that you have to do on the piece of paper. Transfer everything on your mental list to the paper list.

No job is too big or too small. 

Just write it all down.

  • Clean the car
  • Finish the report
  • Make tomorrow’s lunches
  • Sort the sock drawer
  • Paint the house
  • Visit Great Aunt Mary
  • Buy Christmas cards
  • Write to the teacher about Billy’s homework

No job is too insignificant for this list. No job is too far off in the future. Every single thing that you can think of that you need to do, or to organise, every phone call or email you need to make, anything at all that requires an action or thought from you belongs on this list.

And another thing, resist the urge to sort the contents of this list right now. That comes later. At the moment your job is to dump on the piece of paper all the things you’ve been carrying around in your head.

You might even take a couple of days or a week to complete the list. You might think of new things to put on there. That’s good, just write them down.

Once you’ve got everything on your piece of paper you might find that you feel better already. There is a big difference between keeping it all in your head, and knowing that it’s safely written down somewhere.

So enjoy that feeling. Take a few deep breaths. 

Then look at the list again.

Now is the time to sort.

Now, there are a few ways that you can sort the list. And each of these could have it’s own blog post. But I’ll briefly outline them here.

1) You can make a big timeline. Give the jobs a due date. Put them on your calendar on that date. Now you don’t have to worry about the jobs until their due date comes around. You know your calendar will remind you then. So you can give yourself some brain space.

You don’t need to ring Great Aunt Mary until her birthday next month. Put it on the calendar.

Painting the house will be an autumn job, maybe next year. Put it on the calendar.

On the other hand, writing to the teacher about Billy’s homework needs to be done tomorrow. So put it on your calendar for tomorrow. There will only be a (comparatively) few jobs on tomorrow’s list and you can do them then.

2) Another way is to use the urgent/important quadrant method.

Divide another sheet of paper into four quadrants. Along the top write Urgent on one and Not Urgent on the other, down the side in the same way write Important and Not Important.

Now you divide your jobs among the quadrants. Are the jobs urgent and important (quadrant A)? Important but not urgent (quadrant B)? Not important but urgent (quadrant C)? Or neither important nor urgent (quadrant D)?

Once the jobs are sorted into the quadrants then you have four methods of dealing with them. 

For the A jobs, you really need to do those now. The B jobs need to be planned for in the future. The C jobs can be delegated to someone else. And the final quadrant? Those things should be dropped. You shouldn’t be wasting your time even thinking about them.

3) Another way to sort the jobs is using a mind map. I have created a map with me in the centre and from centre come categories such as home, work, school, church. Then looking at my large list, I divide the jobs among the categories. This helps me see which part of my life is the most overwhelming right now and helps me make decisions that might change that. 

4) A fourth way is to batch your jobs. Make a list of phone calls you need to make. Things you need to do in the car. Things you need to do on the computer. Things you need to do around the house. Or batch them under the headings of Do, Write, Call and Buy. 

Then when you’re in the car, do as many of those things as you can. When you’re ready to make phone calls, make them all. When you are able to get into email, write as many of those pesky emails as you have time for.

There are probably other ways to sort the big list of jobs. If you have a good method, I’d love for you to write to me and let me know about it.

One last thing I need to say on this topic is, make sure you keep the master list!

You might want to transfer it to a spreadsheet, or some notes software like Evernote or even to a task management app (I’m using the Moleskine app right now), but you really need to keep it so that your brain stays content that all of the jobs it was trying to remember are listed somewhere safe and sound.

I guarantee that this method will lead to clearer thinking, and much less overwhelm.

I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Please use the Contact Me form at ruthamos.com.au or find me on Facebook or on twitter @amos_rj. 

My Most Important Productivity Tip

We’re all back into it now. School has begun again, all the regular activities have started up. We’re back on the treadmill.

And it can really feel like a treadmill. You start on Monday with a list of things to do. You don’t quite get through them but you have high hopes for Tuesday. But the list keeps getting longer and you don’t feel like you can cross off very much. On Thursday night you have a moment of panic when you realise that there is no way that you will be able to get it all done on Friday and you realise you’ll have to take work home over the weekend. 

Saturday you chill out a little bit, sleep in maybe, do a bit of housework, but then you open the laptop or the file of paper and put it on the dining table. You don’t want to work on it really but it has to be done and it stares balefully at you over the entire weekend, robbing the weekend of its joy and robbing you of rest. 

‘If I have enough energy to do this thing I want to do,’ you tell yourself, ‘then I have enough energy to do the work I brought home.’ So you don’t do the things you want to do, and you don’t do the work you brought home either.

The net result is that you go back to work on Monday feeling more tired than you did on Friday and the to do list continues to pile up.

Which brings me to my very important top productivity tip of all time.

Rest.

The way we are made is that we need time off. I firmly believe that humans are made to function best if we take one day off a week.

A whole day. 

Of rest.

I must admit that I got caught up on the busy-ness treadmill last year and it took me to a bad place. And it’s a difficult treadmill to get off. Being productive is highly admired in our society. We begin to feel that our worth is tied to our productivity. 

But it’s not. 

We have worth because we are human beings, made in the image of God. 

And you know what God did once a week? He rested.

Sure, the stories we have of Jesus are stories where he ‘broke’ the sabbath. Where he healed someone, or his disciples pulled off some grains of wheat and ate them because they were hungry. But as a general rule, Jesus rested on the sabbath. His treatment of the sabbath warns us not to get too stupidly strict about what is work and what is recreation, but still, rest and recreation are vitally important.

The thing that got me off my treadmill was to simply stop. To take a full day of rest each week where I didn’t catch up on the week’s work, and I didn’t make myself do anything.

A day of no ‘shoulds’.

There’s a great fear that keeps us working and working, but that fear is groundless. It is the fear that if we stop, things will fall apart. It is based in the pride that says that we are the ones keeping things together. But God is the one that holds all things together. And taking a day off a week is a discipline that says that we trust him more than ourselves. That he is God and that we’re not. And that even if things do fall apart, we know that he will bring good out of the rubble.

So I encourage you this week to take a day off. Just one day out of the seven. I don’t care which day it is, but whatever day works best for you, take it off for rest and recreation. I promise you that you’ll feel better for it, and that you’ll work better the next week.

It’s always better when you work according to the user’s manual.

Getting Started

the writing den
This is my writing space. I have been working on finding space for all my chemistry textbooks. The shelves are looking nice and neat now. Time to get words on the page.

So far in this new life of mine, I haven’t been very productive on the writing side of things. I have many excuses – time in LA, family time, Moz and Caleb being on holidays, and so on. And I have been productive in other areas – lots of work on the editing business, sorting out the bookshelves in my den, getting the housework done – all of these things are worthwhile but when they are taking the place of writing then they start to look suspiciously like procrastination.

There are many different ways of getting yourself to write. There is the method of word count – writing 1000 words a day, or 500, or even writing 50 to get you started. Or choosing to sit at your desk until you have accomplished your 1000 words, or 2000 or whatever. There is the method of time blocking (see below), there is the method of heading to a café to write, or using the library, both of which are especially good for productivity if there is no wifi access, I’m told. There is getting up at 4.30 am to write, or staying up after every one else has gone to sleep, neither of which appeal to me very much.

Many (if not most) writers don’t have any choice as to when in the day they write. When I was working full-time I wrote for fifteen minutes at the beginning of each day and that’s all I had time for. Others write in their lunch hours, or in little snatches of time around looking after children.

I now have much more time to write. I don’t have unlimited time, I need to make sure I spend time on my editing business as well. But I have much more freedom as to when I write. I can choose (to a degree) how I will organise my day.

I’ve been thinking that it would be a good idea to block out time to dedicate to writing. This is the time blocking method I was talking about earlier. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. My problem has been one of perfectionism. I haven’t blocked out any time to write because I want to block out the perfect time.

Up until now I have written mainly in the mornings. First thing, before work. But now that I don’t have set times for work, I can decide exactly which hours of the day to dedicate to writing time. But I haven’t been sure which time to choose.

What if the best time for writing is in the afternoon when I have finished off some of the annoying but urgent business and home tasks? What if I need to be writing in the morning when my creative thoughts are freshest? What if straight after lunch is best, the dreamy time when I can get my self-editing mind out of the way? Or what if I put the writing time in my calendar in a place where I would be better off exercising, or editing, or answering email? I don’t want to block out hours and get it wrong. I don’t want to have an imperfect day when I get less writing done than I could if I got the timing just right.

And of course, this type of thinking leads to no writing being done at all.

So for the week ahead I have bitten the bullet and blocked out some hours for writing each morning. I have also blocked out hours for the editing business in the afternoons. In between I will do housework, have coffees with people, exercise, and make meals etc. If this week doesn’t work well, then I will try a different schedule next week.

Sometimes when I’m being a perfectionist I just have to make a choice and see what happens. The other option is to spin around and around trying to find the perfect option and to never start at all. If you are facing a choice where there is no obvious right answer, and you’ve got yourself stuck in the perfectionistic spin like me, I encourage you to make a choice and give it a go for a while. Let me know in the comments how it went.

Incidentally, while I’ve chosen the morning hours for writing next week, I’m writing this at 5pm on a Saturday and it’s flowing really well. So there might be a bit of adjustment necessary, or I might just have to try different styles on different weeks until I find a method that works very well.

And there’s always the possibility that my writing process will change and that different things will work on different weeks. I need to make sure I give myself permission to change the routine when it’s appropriate. But in any event I need some routine to get me started.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Six To-Do list methods to get you organised

to-do-list_o_915180

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.