Friday, April 20, 2012

Surviving a busy spell: phase 3 = lists

Write it down.  That's phase 3 of my when-I'm-way-too-busy coping mechanism.

You knew I was going to say this.  You just wondered when.  I make lists all the time.  When I get busy, the lists are even more essential to me.  A list is not just some kind of security blanket for the obsessive-compulsive (although, thank goodness,  it can certainly be that for people like me -- hah!)  When people  are under stress, both memory and decision-making suffer.  So writing things down helps to avoid brain farts, minor mishaps, or even huge mistakes.

The point of a list is not to make my life conform to the list.  Just because I write it down, doesn't mean I have to DO it.  It just means I no longer have to actively remember it . . . my list will remind me.  More written on the paper; less clutter in the head.

Every time I think of something I might want to do, it goes onto my list.  (I keep all my lists in my planner).  Big or little, I just write it down.

What happens once I've got my list together is more of an art form than a science.  I know from past experience that I tend to write down more tasks than I can ever accomplish in a single day.  Some people deal with this using the "three big rocks" method (choose the three tasks you really need to accomplish, and just do those), and I understand the appeal of that.  But my day is often full of many important little tasks; if I did just three of the things on my list, my world would fall apart.

Instead, once I've got a list, I do a kind of quick triage.  I'll often read through my list quickly, marking some of the tasks with a "U" or a "V" or other symbols.
  • For me, "U" stands for "urgent" -- C-son needs meds today.  I have to prepare for my class before the class happens this afternoon.  If I don't register for the conference today, I lose the early-bird discount.
  • "V" stands for "vital", the tasks that are central to my identity and my values.  Getting exercise.  Doing math.  Hugging my kids.  (Yes, I write "hug kids" on my to-do list, because I'm the kind of person likely to forget to do that.  Sad but true).  
  • Depending on what else is on the list, I might also mark some items with a telephone (on days I have a lot of calls to make) or an "e" (on days there are a lot of emails to send out).  This allows me to "batch" my tasks.
Given that I don't have enough time in a single day to do everything on my list (and trust me, I don't), I try to whack away at the U/V parts first.  And sometimes, "whack" means just not do it at all: to heck with that conference.  Or, I'll run tomorrow when it's not raining, but skip it today.  Crossing something off my list because I decided NOT to do it feels really good on a busy day.

I also try to ease some of the mental strain of large to-do lists by deliberately moving some big tasks into the future, when the semester is over and life will be less hectic.  In May, I'm going to review a paper an editor sent me, and I'll also work on a newsletter that has no fixed deadline.  Both of these are things I want to do, but I don't have to do them now.  So they're not on today's to-do list (try saying that three times fast!); they're on a "May" to-do list.  I can forget about them for a while.  Phew!

Having a list isn't a method for getting everything done.  Hardly!  For me, it serves more as a way of getting peace of mind -- it reminds me that I haven't forgotten to do something important.  Reminds me that what I am doing right now is really the most important (to me) thing to be doing.  That if there's something important I didn't do, at least I know I didn't do it, and can try to work around that.  That, since I can't do everything today, at least I'm making choices about what I can do today.  

1 comment:

  1. I don't know how people, especially busy homemaker moms survive without lists! How can a person remember everything and stay sane? I like what you said about "no longer have to actively remember it", the act of writing it down frees up some brain space and I can then concentrate on the task at hand, knowing that I can refer to my list to figure out what's next. Great post.