It's the end of a long and satisfying day. I got everything done that I wanted to, within reason, and I didn't even have a To Do list for the day, which is sort of the antithesis of this post; but even so, today was productive and satisfyingly balanced: I made headway on two separate client projects, spent some quality time with my mom-in-law, worked on cleaning up storm debris, and helped Matt grill some burgers on the back patio (and then ate them - mmm, chargrilled meat!), and now I'm capping the day off by spending some quality time with the blog (which also happens to kill the writing bird, so yay for that). All of that, despite taking time out to watch American Idol and Glee (Lee DeWyze was awesome! But not as awesome as NPH! Who was in turn not as awesome as the Idina/Lea duet! What can I say? It was a great night to be a fangirl).
As great as today was, the unstructured-yet-productive days are pretty rare for me. Even on structured days I tend to run into problems and don't get as much done as I'd like (as discussed last week, I owe a lot of that to my TV habit). With ADD, I find it difficult to focus and stay on task under the best circumstances. Add to that chronic hay fever clouding my brain and a wonky thyroid and sleep apnea conspiring to sap all of my energy, and keeping my butt in my office chair long enough to get work done without falling asleep (or falling prey to about a zillion different distractions) is just plain hard.
One thing that's (usually - today being a rare exception) essential to getting past all of this and keeping my day on track is the ubiquitous To Do list. But it doesn't really help me to simply write down the things I need (or hope) to get done each day. I've come to realize that there's a strategy to creating a really effective To Do list, one that has every item checked off at the end of the day and leaves you with a smugly satisfying sense of accomplishment and done-ness. Here are some tips to strategizing YOUR To Do list to achieve the best results.
1. Make a "priority list" for the whole week. Be selective and ruthless in your prioritization, leading with firm deadlines, things that MUST get done that week. Follow that with things that it would simply make your life easier to get done that week, and round it out with some personal projects. Then when you make each day's To Do list, you can refer to this list to help ensure that you're not forgetting to take care of the important stuff. Additionally, I also keep ongoing "Must Do" and "Wanna Do" lists to help keep track of both client obligations and personal projects, and I try to pull from both columns when making up my weekly list.
2. Only list the things you need help remembering to do. I used to have a bad habit (which I still haven't entirely broken) of padding my list with the routine things I do every day, bunching them all at the beginning to give myself a "head start" on crossing things off and get that boost from feeling accomplished at the sight of all those check marks. The problem with this is, as the day stretches on and my brain gets tired and starts looking for excuses to quit, seeing all those check marks gives it a false sense that it's worked really hard and deserves to be done for the day - no matter that the only things checked off are "eat breakfast", "get dressed", "brush teeth" and "feed the cats".
3. Keep it short. I read somewhere that seven is the maximum number of items you should have on your To Do list. The reason had something to do with seven being the maximum number of things that the human brain can process or remember without getting overwhelmed (which is why phone numbers are seven digits). I usually do pretty well by sticking to this rule. On days I attend church or am otherwise pressed for time, I'll even cut it down to five.
4. Be selective, and be realistic. Keeping a short list means hitting the priorities and sometimes letting go of the things that aren't as important. This is very important if you have ADD or suffer from "too many irons in the fire" syndrome and have a difficult time deciding what you should be working on at any given time. I have a tendency sometimes to fill up a whole page with things I hope to get done, but there's never enough time in the day to complete those lists. I've found it's better to keep it pared down to the things I actually have a reasonable shot at accomplishing in the time allotted.
5. Work in order. This is also related to the last two items. Only you can decide which order is best, but write down the tasks in the order that you plan to do them, and then stick to that order. This might mean putting the biggest or most tedious chores first to make yourself do them before rewarding yourself with the more enjoyable tasks. For me, since it's a lot easier to force myself to work on something for someone else than for myself, this means putting first the personal projects, like editing my novel or writing this blog, that I would otherwise most likely let slide after I got done with my client projects for the day. Speaking of which...
6. Make a balanced list. Try not to fill it up completely with obligations to others, but to leave a slot or two open for things you want to do for yourself. This is a good way to make sure you nurture yourself, whether it's by spending time doing personal projects, making exercise a daily obligation, or simply keeping your life in order by doing mundane chores around the house.
For me, a daily To Do list usually includes two or three client projects (or one big project broken down into a few manageable tasks if I'm under deadline), a household chore or two, a writing task, a personal or business development task, and some form of exercise. This usually makes for a pretty well-rounded day and leaves me with the feeling that I'm moving forward in every area instead of focusing on just one dimension of my life while the others stagnate. If I'm under tight deadlines, that changes, but I try not to let it become a rut that I get stuck in for very long.
Need more help? Here are Six Free online To Do List and Project Management Tools.
Do you have any strategies to add? What's your biggest obstacle to overcoming distraction and procrastination? Share your insights in the comments.