This is the first week back to normal after being disrupted for the autumn Jewish holiday cycle. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed during the month when I need to keep up on work, remind clients of my availability (hint), and do all the things I need to do.
It’s very easy to loose track of what’s important and being able to make split second decisions is crucial. How do I decide what’s most important when the sun is starting to set on a three-day holiday and several clients need me at once?
Well, first I need to know all the things that need to be done! To help me out, Fast Company posted this great list of 5 tips for Prioritizing Your Ever-Growing To-Do List. I like it because it provides a nice summary of things I already do!
Today I’ll begin to explain my process in performing the very first two tips, “list everything you’ve got on your plate” and “before you stop working each night, identify three to five items that must happen tomorrow.”
Tip One: Write it all down.
Write out every single task you need to do. Write it in one consistent location. It can be on paper (I believe steno notebooks are great for this) or electronically. It needs to be in a location you can trust. If you want to use index cards, get a box to toss them all into. If you want to write on post-it notes, please make sure you can’t loose them easily and corral them into one spot — a kids’ picture book could serve as a nice light weight portfolio. This list of all the things will become a trustworthy extension of your brain. You see, you can’t trust your brain to remember everything when you are trying to recall 18 things at once and when they may have had details modified along the way. Writing it down and having a reliable place you can sort and search is important.
While I kept paper todo lists for years, and still go off on a mini retreat with a cup of tea, a notebook, and my favourite pen to brain dump, I now store my tasks digitally. I do this by using a very customized solution, that works for me. This system has come about after years and years of refinement and trying many different systems. The moment I started trusting it completely was an amazing moment I will never forget. I hope someday everyone has that trust in their systems.
The key is that I write everything down and store it in the same system in the same format. I don’t have to think about any item on the list when I add new ones. I just add them.
Curious what I use? It is a geeky customized blend of Gina Trapani‘s todo.txt, the Master Action List as described in How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott, other task management methods described by Thomas A. Limoncelli in Time Management for System Administrators, and a few other things I’ve found that work well for me. I store my text files in Dropbox so I can access them from anywhere using my laptop, tablet, or phone.
Tip Two: Review each night and choose 3-5 tasks for the next day.
I actually do a two-phase nightly review and an early morning coffee-fueled daily planning session. As my day winds to a close before dinner, I review what’s still on the day’s list, what can be bumped to another day, and what still needs to be completed that night. I also look to see if something new has come in that is a critical priority (my clients are scattered geographically and noone has a 9-5 business). When I get upstairs and prepare for bed I open up a tablet and do another review. During this bedtime session I often just add lower priority tasks that I thought up while brushing my teeth (such as cleaning the shower), but sometimes I’ll remember that I wanted to check on something for a client and it hadn’t made it into my list yet. Do I really need this session? Yes. While it cuts into my reading time, I found that when I skipped it on work nights, I’d wake up half a dozen times with things I thought of that might be high priority. I’d either scribble them down in the dark, or get out of bed and take an hour to work on them, in either case I’d wake up exhausted to discover they weren’t as important as my brain thought at 3a!
Tip Three: a Complete Weekly Review
Every Friday after lunch, I perform a complete review. I take a look at the projects I’m working on, the tasks I’ve completed in the past week, and brain dump new tasks. I try to sketch out when I can work on them in the coming week. I also sort through and weed out the duplicates. Finally, I try to achieve inbox zero to make sure I’ve processed everything.
I hope you find these three tips helpful for curbing that overwhelmed feeling and let you quickly make decisions about the priority of any task.