When a To Do List is the Worst Thing To Do

doing your best

I got up on that awful Monday morning, got dressed and ready to go, and sat at my desk to begin my day’s work.

First, I wrote out a list of things that I needed to accomplish in the week. I usually write that in my bullet journal. I write about the projects I’m focussing on and the tasks that need to be accomplished. So the list has things like:

Write DM3 (that’s the latest novel in the Deadly Miss series that I try to write something in each day – that’s one of the project-type tasks)

and

Book car in for a service (a task that doesn’t really relate to any special project)

Then I turned to my day planner. This has the day divided into hours and I can plan my day with it, using the tasks I’ve written in my bullet journal. Having the time allocated to certain projects or tasks usually helps me to work when I need to, and to not put too many tasks into any one day.

Usually it helps me to get my work done.

Usually.

On this particular Monday morning, I finished my list in my daily planner, looked at the day and the week, and realised that I wouldn’t get it all done. Again.

I had been through many weeks like this, where there were just too many tasks for the time available. And here was another one. And I couldn’t see how the work could get done.

I couldn’t handle it.

I went to bed and cried for half an hour.

Sometimes lists are a really good idea.

Sometimes crossing the tasks off makes you feel so productive and useful.

But sometimes the list just shows up how much you’re not getting done. How far you still have to go. How overwhelming life is right now.

Sometimes a to do list is (gasp!) a bad idea.

I got out of bed eventually, and I made it through the day and through the week. But for that week I ignored the daily planner, and just worked off the list of tasks and projects in the bullet journal.

That is, I sat at my desk, knowing that I had half an hour or two hours or whatever, I looked at my lists of tasks, evaluated whether I should be doing a thinking or non-thinking task, and just had a go at whatever took my fancy.

And I got through the week. I got heaps achieved. I felt great about it.

I didn’t knock everything off my list, but for that week I went easy on myself. If I achieved anything I gave myself high praise. If I missed things, I didn’t let myself worry about it. The aim was to get through the week with my mental health intact, not to get everything done.

This week’s podcast interview is with Amber. Amber suffers from a couple of fairly severe mental illnesses and she shares with us how we can help those we know who are mentally ill. But talking with her also made me think about each of us, and how we can help ourselves stay mentally healthy.

In the same way that we eat healthy food and exercise to keep our bodies healthy, each of us can also do things that help our own mental health to stay tip top. (And, of course, in the same way that we go and see a doctor when our physical health is breaking down, any of us may, at some time, need to see a specialist about our mental health.)

Sometimes the thing we need to do is give ourselves a break, like I had to do in the ‘no to-do list’ week. Sometimes we need to put down our phones and have a break from social media for a while.

I also think it’s important to think about what we’re putting into our brains. The Good Book says, ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable –  if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ (Philippians 4:8) We can help ourselves to stay mentally healthy by reading good books, watching uplifting shows, talking about positive things.

What do you do to take care of your mental health? Have you had to give yourself a break at one time or another? Have you found that sometimes to do lists don’t work? What excellent or praiseworthy thing do you like to think about?

 

Are you missing some of my blog posts? They come out every Monday. Sign up to follow the A Quiet Life blog on WordPress, or you can sign up to my newsletter on www.ruthamos.com.au  and you will receive every post straight to your email inbox. You will also find my podcast, my book ‘My Year of Saying No’, and any short stories or other books will be up there as they come along.

If you would like to support this blog and the podcast then you can head over to Patreon.com/quietlife and help me out for as little as a dollar a month. Thank you so much!

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A new way to divide (and conquer) your to-do list

success meme

I’m trying something new in the organisational process. I’m always ready to try something new, I’m always hoping that I’ll find that thing, that perfect thing, that will give me more energy and make my days go more smoothly. And right now I think I’ve had a bit of a brainwave, even if I do say so myself.

The problem.

I work from home, running three businesses.

  • My editing business – academic editing, technical editing of insurance reports, that kind of thing.
  • My fiction writing – the R. J. Amos business.
  • And finally, my non-fiction author business (Ruth Amos): this blog, the podcast, and books.

The difficulty I have is figuring out what I should be doing at any one time. In some parts of the day (usually the mornings) I have energy, I can think, I can do creative work. Other times (after lunch, anyone?) I’m tired, I can’t think well and I need drudge jobs to do. Jobs that I can do with music on in the background, or jobs that require a bit of waiting around for things to load. Jobs that don’t require my undivided attention and creativity.

So, when should I do the different jobs that my different businesses need me to do?

It’s always easy to prioritise the editing jobs – they are money in my pocket, and they are jobs that other people need done.

But if I always do those jobs first, if they always take up my time when I have energy and I can think, then I’ll never get books written. And that would be a problem because I quit my job to write books.

Also, when I get to the tired times, I often don’t have enough brain to decide what to do with my time. I have enough brain to do a job, just not enough to think about what that job should be.

The solution (I hope).

I have decided to break my to-do list into two parts: thinking jobs, and non-thinking jobs.

All the writing comes under ‘thinking’. As do the phone calls, planning, academic editing, and recording of podcasts. All the things that need energy.

Under ‘non-thinking’ are tasks like posting promo material, website maintenance, the less technical editing, book formatting, reading, and listening to podcasts.

This is a change for me because now ‘writing the blog’ comes under ‘thinking’ but ‘posting the blog’ comes under ‘non-thinking’. A job that once was a single task has been divided into two. The same with the podcast. I need to record the introduction in the morning when I have energy, but the editing together of the different audio segments, and the posting online, those things don’t require the same energy and come under ‘non-thinking’.

I am hoping that dividing things this way will help me to make the most of my creative hours, but that it will also help me to make the most of my tired times. That having the list already divided in this way will help me to decide quickly what I should be doing, rather than letting me aimlessly scroll social media while I try to figure out which task I could summon up the energy to concentrate on now.

Social Media

Speaking of social media, dividing jobs in this way should also help me stay away from that distraction when I have the brain for creative things. It’s pretty creativity-zapping, the social media entertainment flood, and I need to stay away from it while I’m trying to do my thinking tasks. This means that you won’t get happy birthday messages from me until the afternoon, but I think you’ll cope.

I will go onto Facebook or Twitter when it is time for me to post promo things, when it’s time for me to let you know that my blog is ready, when it’s time to post a newsletter, but try to stay off when I’m concentrating on the ‘thinking’ tasks. I think it will help.

So that’s me, how about you?

Have you tried something like this? Are you as addicted to to-do lists as I am? Are you a morning or afternoon or evening person? When do you do your creative/thinking tasks? Let me know in the comments.

Getting my priorities right

Today’s blog is going to be short, I reckon. I don’t have time to fit much into it. I don’t have a lot of time to do anything today, actually. I was a little stressed about that this morning but I’ve decided to change my mind.

You see, Moz is on holidays, so we left the alarm off and had a nice slow wakening rather than the ‘keep an eye on the time and jump out of bed’ one that we normally have.

Which meant that after my normal morning routine I was running about an hour later than usual and starting to panic that I wasn’t going to get enough done today.

I usually start my work day by writing in my journal. It gets my thoughts sorted out before I try to write anything that anyone else will be reading. And I started by journal today by saying what a lovely morning it had been, and how excited I am to be getting my daughter Jess from the airport (she’ll be here for a short and sweet four day stay), and then I wrote, ‘But I find I’m stressed.’

Why was I stressed? I was stressed because I had a long list of things that I could be doing. A long list of tasks that are necessary for moving my different businesses forward. And what with taking it easy this morning, and picking up Jess at lunch time, and so on, I was not going to make it through my list of tasks.

But then I realised I needed to reframe and reprioritise.

Today is not a day for churning through work tasks. I have a lot I could be doing, but even this blog is not something I have to do. I don’t think any of you will die if the blog gets released one day later than I planned. In fact, I could leave the blog, not write it at all, and nothing dreadful would happen. It’s good to remember that occasionally.

Today is a day for concentrating on my family. For enjoying the rest that comes with school holidays. For giving Jess a big hug at the airport and making the most of having her with us for a very short time. For going out to lunch as a family because we can. And for watching Dr Who together tonight (we’ll be late because Caleb will be at uni until 8pm so no spoilers, please!!)

Sometimes it is important to focus on work, to strive to get through the jobs and to put your pleasures on hold for a while. Sometimes the day needs to be prioritised the other way around. It’s part of the rhythm of life, the seesaw of living.

We are leaving in an hour or so to pick up our daughter Jess from the airport  and today will be a family day. I’m going to enjoy every minute of it. The tasks will wait.

I hope that whatever your day holds you also will know what to prioritise and what to let go.

Are you missing some of my blog posts? Sign up to follow the A Quiet Life blog on WordPress, or you can sign up to my newsletter on www.ruthamos.com.au  and you will receive every post straight to your email inbox. You will also find my book ‘My Year of Saying No’, and any short stories or other books will be up there as they come along.

If you would like to support my writing and the creation of my podcast (coming soon, I promise) then you can head over to Patreon and support me for as little as a dollar a month. Thank you so much!

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.