10 Mar

To-Do Lists and an Announcement

My mother used to haul around a fat, cloth-covered binder called a “Day Minder.” It was scribbled over with notes, paper-clipped with lists on scraps of paper, and ridged with ugly tabs. Teenaged me would roll her eyes every time Mom pulled this brute out of her over-stuffed bag to write down a new appointment or remind the family of some forgotten chore. Sure, she was managing the schedule and tasks of five people, but did it have to look so cluttered? Did she really need that many lists?

Then Mom got her first Blackberry. Overnight, the size of her purse shrank in half. The reign of the ratty Day Minder was over. Other than occasionally teasing her about it, my siblings and I quickly forgot about the old beast.

A few years later I went to college. My class assignments acquired more and more moving pieces, and I began keeping little lists to keep everything straight. By my senior year, I’d transferred these paper lists to a document. When I got my first job, I made this document into a spreadsheet and christened it “The Never-Ending To-Do List.” I began to tinker with the format after the list stretched to over a hundred items. I played with prioritization systems, inserted separate columns for appointments and followups, and added colors. I realized that I was constantly overbooking myself, so I reorganized the list into a calendar.

Now my fancy list is called “2D.” I can see my entire week in one screen. It’s color-coded and crowded with Important Things. Beneath the week are lists of additional Future and Pending Important Things for each of my three businesses and for my home.

To be honest, it looks a lot like an electronic version of the Day Minder. (Sorry, Mom–I get it now.)

Here is how the spreadsheet works: I find an unclaimed time slot in my schedule, type in the thing I want to do, and delete it when it’s done. This system has several advantages. I don’t overbook myself quite as often, I don’t forget things, and I know when to follow up with people. But there’s a huge disadvantage: when I finish something, it disappears. And at the end of the day, for a long time, I felt like I was running around all day and accomplishing nothing.

So, this year I began keeping a separate time sheet. When I do something for one of my businesses, I make a quick note of what I did and update my time for the day. I also feel like a massive dork; time sheets are one of those evil things employees dream of ditching when they start their own businesses, right? But it’s the only thing I’ve found that makes me feel like I’ve done something at the end of the day. Theoretically, knowing I’ve accomplished something will help me stop working myself into the ground.

According to said time sheet, I worked almost 60 hours last week. Because I’m stingy with my hours and don’t record everything, it’s safe to assume the real total is closer to 70 hours.

Don’t ever let someone convince you that you’ll work less when you work for yourself.

Now, I could say that last week was unusual. I had meetings. I wrote “Stories on the Spot” as part of a fundraiser on Sunday, which I’ll be posting about at some point soon. But the truth is that every week is unusual. As my husband is fond of saying, “There’s always something.” If I’m not careful, the somethings take over to the point where I haven’t had a day off in weeks and my chocolate consumption begins to be measured in pounds instead of ounces. Some people measure their busyness in cigarettes and coffee; for me, you can count the limp plastic carcasses of Ghirardelli chocolate chip bags. When my trash can is overflowing with shiny wrappers, it’s time to take a step back and look to see what part of the bigger picture is escaping from the frame and scribbling all over the wall.

Last Saturday, this website turned one month old. So far it’s been a fascinating experiment and a lot of fun. It’s also been a lot of work–according to my time sheet, more work than I can handle while still meeting my other commitments and accomplishing various other important tasks, like sleeping. So, here is my Announcement: I’m going to scale things back a little. My new goal is to post once or twice a week. Thanks for reading and bearing with me as I figure this whole thing out. 🙂

How about you–do you habitually overbook yourself or are you a Master of Zen and the Art of Scheduling Nirvana? Have you ever dreamed you were being attacked by angry sticky notes? Do you keep lists, more lists, and lists of lists? Please tell me about it in the comments!

2 thoughts on “To-Do Lists and an Announcement

  1. Every time I start a "to do" list, I begin with a few things I've already done that day, so that I can immediately check some things off. Makes me feel wildly productive, even if I never get to the rest of the list. If I actually do make my way through an entire list, I don't immediately recycle it, I let it loiter on my desk, treating it like some sort of trophy head of a rare and wild beast I've hunted. I can look at it and smugly say to myself "Look, look at that list of things crossed off. I did that. I am a productive goddam adult" (or at least I was, one one day, three weeks ago...). I certainly couldn't handle deleting the record of things I've done! And yes - you should scale things back a little bit, so that you're more available for coming out for beer. :)
    • Brilliant. See, this is one of my problems. If I don't delete the stuff I've crossed out, it becomes "useless clutter." The neat freak in me overrules the little kid stomping around in Dad's shoes and a striped tie who wants to feel like an adult... or something. ;) I need to work on getting to the "smug" stage of accomplishment. Smugness is valuable and I should practice it more often. Preferably over beer with friends.

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