My to-do list: a work in progress

You’d think by now, more than a year after I was downsized, I’d have it all figured out. I’m pleased with the way things are evolving in terms of my writing, but,  honestly, I thought my to-do list would be shorter, and hoped that my house would be perfectly organized.

I know that houses and to-do lists are works in progress. No matter how many items you cross off your list, there’s always something else to be done.

Last week, I decided to figure out why my to-do list seemed to be unusually problematic. I’ve been keeping it on my iPhone, and the list has gotten so lengthy that it’s inconvenient to scroll through.

I decided to copy the list and transfer it to a Word document on my computer, so it would be easier to read. I was horrified to see that it took up more than a dozen pages.

It took time to sort out. I think the biggest challenge is keeping the important items at the top of the list. As other items are added, older ones are more likely to fall through the cracks.

My list also gets longer when I start a task, but only finish part of it. When I email someone but haven’t heard back from them yet, I make a note beside the original item.

I also found some items that didn’t really belong on my to-do list in the first place: books to read (I have a separate list for that), credit card transactions that I don’t have a receipt for (so I’ll know they’re legit when I have to pay), and blog ideas that I may not even end up using.

But there are enough legitimate items that I wonder if I need to put more effort and creativity into plowing through them.

I try to focus on one item at a time, but sometimes it helps to pick three smaller tasks to complete in succession. It’s not an intimidating number, but finishing three tasks feels like an accomplishment.

In the end, I think about the famous Nike slogan. Just do it.








Lessons from my new front door mat

In last Thursday’s post, I wrote that I miss my paper to-do list, in part because I knew at a glance which items were older.

The truth is, I still know at a glance if an item is new or old… although now I have to scroll down to see all the items on my iPhone list.

Sometimes I end up inputting the same item a second time, or literally moving it closer to the top of the list, so that it won’t fall through the cracks.

Recently I deleted a couple of longstanding home-related items on the list. They weren’t “major” tasks in terms of difficulty or how they would affect my life, but removing them from the list felt like a significant accomplishment.

Probably the most symbolic one for me was finding a new front door mat to replace the ratty old one. In addition to all the work-related things I wanted – and still want – to accomplish, I needed to tend to things in the house. I thought I would start at the front door, and work my way in.

The new mat didn’t make it to the top of the list for a long time, and it was nagging at me. I felt I hadn’t properly “started” to work my way through the house.

Now, when I think about my new front door mat, it reminds me that:

1. Sometimes things loom large psychologically, but don’t really take a huge amount of effort.

2. The payoff can be disproportionately large, compared to the amount of work involved.

3. Starting at the beginning – taking one step – makes it easier to get to the next step.

4. Little things can make a difference.

5. Sometimes, little things turn out to be big things.

Yesterday I set the timer on my phone for fifteen minutes, and worked on the book that I’ve been neglecting for the past couple of weeks. Just a little effort, and I feel like I’m back on track.




Sometimes I miss my paper to-do list

I’ve had a running to-do list for a long time. These days, it’s on my iPhone, and I don’t really have a paper to-do list.

Sometimes I miss the paper list that I used at work as a reporter, because I knew at a glance which items were new and which ones were older, as well as which ones had been crossed off.

Usually, I would begin the list on Monday, writing in black ink, and circling high-priority items in a different colour. I would use the same pen to add any new items that came up the same day. The next day, I would use a different colour to add new items, and to mark with an asterisk any high-priority tasks from the previous day that I hadn’t completed. And so on throughout the week.

By Friday, the page was full – and very colourful.

Now, when I finish an item on my electronic list, I just delete it. I have a separate e-list for recurring items, which I mark with a virtual check mark when they’re done.

My paper list provided tangible proof of what I had done all week. Now, even though I know I’ve been busy, sometimes I wonder where the time has gone.




Time management

One of the books that made an impression on me when I was a kid was Cheaper by the Dozen, an exuberant 1948 memoir by siblings Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey about growing up in a family of twelve children.

Last night, I thought about that book for the first time in years. For the record, I’m a mom of two, but for a long time after reading Cheaper by the Dozen – probably at age 10 – I wanted to have a dozen kids myself when I grew up.

I liked the idea of a big, happy family – impractical as it might have been – but I was also intrigued by the fact that the father was an efficiency expert, incorporating all kinds of little time-savers into the family’s everyday life.

I guess the book came to mind last night because yesterday was a long stay-at-home, catch-up-on-my-to-do-list day. Despite the number of items I crossed off my list, I would have liked to accomplish more.

I do have strategies for staying focused and getting things done, although some are better than others.

For a journalist, there’s nothing like an imminent deadline to intensify focus. Early in my career, someone I interviewed gave me a card with the saying: “If it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done!” It hung on my bulletin board for years.

It’s not that I’d recommend leaving things to the last minute, but it’s reassuring to know that it’s possible.

There’s also the “Swiss cheese” method, which involves breaking down an intimidating or labour-intensive task into manageable chunks. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard of it, but apparently it originated in a  1973 book by Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life.

That strategy was especially useful when my children were young, and my free time was fragmented and defined by their schedules.

Another helpful tool is the question I often ask myself: “If I get nothing else done today, what one thing do I want to do?”

This morning it’s posting my blog entry.

I may also want to revisit Lakein’s book, but not today. I’ve added it to my list.


My Little Orange Notebook

About a month before I lost my job, I bought a little orange notebook that has kept me on track since I stopped working.

In April, after the president of The Canadian Jewish News announced that the paper would cease publication, neither I nor my co-workers knew what was next for us. As it turned out, many of them are still at The CJN, because the board reconsidered its decision following a public outcry. The paper is being published again after a six-week hiatus, but about a third of the staff lost their jobs as part of a restructuring to make The CJN financially viable.

Meanwhile, I’ve filled 26 pages with ideas, as well as a post-work “to-do” list that I’ve been adding to as I go along.

Yesterday I spent time looking through my notebook. It’s a good yardstick for me, so that I can see how far I’ve come.  It also prompted me to dredge up some of the older items and give them higher priority on my to-do list.

My first entry, dated May 12, had to do with my new LinkedIn membership. “Add experience [to my profile],” I wrote.

“Start a blog,” was another entry.  I’d forgotten how much research I did before taking that step. I looked at the pros and cons of various blog hosts, and examined food blogs and writers’ blogs. I found out what I could about blogging, in general.

I considered various names for my blog, some of which were taken, but in the end opted just to use my own name.

The notebook also has entries related to a book that’s been percolating in my head for the past few years, and even a couple of ideas for more books.

As well, I have entries related to courses that could help me in my job search.

My biggest fear about losing my job was that I would have too many hours to fill, and I wouldn’t know how to use them well. My little orange notebook is helping to ensure that isn’t the case.