Prune Your To-Do Lists, Mercilessly [en]

[fr] Plus tôt on admet que l'on ne fera pas une tâche, mieux c'est (avant qu'elle nous pourrisse la vie durant des mois avant de mourir de sa belle mort). Soyez donc sans merci en révisant vos listes de tâches. Posez-vous honnêtement la question: vais-je vraiment faire ça?

Yesterday, I opened Things for the first time in… a year, maybe, to see if the link to a video I wanted to watch was still in my old lists there. It wasn’t, but trawling through the state of my to-do lists from Going Solo times made me realize just how much stuff was in there that I never did. And I’m still alive.

I’ve known this for some time: a good way to make our lives miserable is to stack our to-do lists (or next action lists, if we’re GTD-enabled) with piles of tasks that we will end up not doing. Seeing all those old tasks I never got around to doing reminded me, once again, of how important it is to realize as early as possible if I am not going to do something.

I think the first time I really heard somebody talk about this explicitly was at the Going Solo conference in Lausanne, when Martin Roell gave his talk on “Self-Organisation for Effectiveness” (watch the whole video, but the moment in question is about 10 minutes in). He told us that, contrarily to some understanding of GTD (who is to say what’s right or wrong?), he recommended throwing out as much as possible from action lists. YANGTDI: You Are Not Going To Do It.

It’s a bit the same frame of mind as when you come back to your e-mail inbox after a holiday. You can usually safely ignore the stuff that’s marked URGENT in all caps, because chances are if it was urgent a week ago, it’s simply not relevant anymore.

I think that this is where lies the trap in GTD’s “Someday/Maybe” list. Also because we quickly forget one important step in the GTD process, which is that when we put a task on a next action list, it means we are fully committed to doing it. That, I have found, is simply just not the case most of the time for mere mortals like us struggling around with imperfect implementations of GTD in our lives.

So, here are some ideas. They’re not perfect, but they might help.

If you’ve been ignoring an item on your list for a long time, take a moment to look at it. First, make sure it’s a real next action and not a project in disguise, because that could be why you’re not getting around to doing it. Then, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, honestly, deep down inside in your heart of hearts, if you are really going to do it, or if you’re going to keep on procrastinating it until it disappears into a little puff of smoke, in which case you’d have been better off removing it from your list straight away and preventing it from adding to your stress.

How do you know you’ve been ignoring a task for too long? Some systems have that built-in. For example, when I was in my notebook phase, once a page was filled with tasks-done-and-still-to-do, I’d copy over to the next page all the tasks that still needed doing. Once you’ve copied over a task to the new page five times, you start to realize that you’re not doing it.

Yesterday, somebody told me of another method: at the beginning of the week, make a list of tasks you want to accomplish. Opposite that list, draw columns — one per day. Each day, ask yourself if you are committed enough to spend (say) an hour and a half on that task. If you are, draw a green dot on that task’s line. If you aren’t a red dot. At the end of the week, look at what you haven’t done, and look at the amount of red vs. green. The decisions to make are probably made, by that time.

Another trick I have is that I have a sub-heading, in my lists, which is called “Obviously I’m not doing this”. That’s where I send tasks off to die, when I’m clearly not doing them but don’t have the courage to get rid of them completely. A bit like the “Should throw away but can’t yet” box in your cellar.

A corollary to this “task pruning” attitude is to extract subsets of tasks for given time periods, like I started doing (and still am doing) when I plan my week. Or on a stressful day, when you feel swamped, select three things (or five!) and forget about all the rest.

But the main point here is: show no mercy for those idle tasks that just sit there, make your life miserable, and never get done.

Similar Posts:

Weekly Planning: Third Week (Learning Steps) [en]

Here we are — I’ve completed my third “planned” week since I started looking a bit further ahead than the current day (first week, second week, passing thoughts). Gosh, it was a busy week. I had only two office days, and I realize that it is not quite enough.

Around me, I’m faced either with people who are used to planning their weeks and find it normal, or people who could never dream of doing it, so busy are they putting out fires day after day.

I was like that for a long time. How did I get where I am now? I’ve been thinking a lot about which were the “first steps” on the road from chaos to “planning”.

Oh, before I forget: when I say I plan my week, I mean that I have a rough outline of what I am going to accomplish during the week, and on what day. It doesn’t go any further than that. Like when I “plan” my day, I don’t decide “I’m going to spend between 9 and 9.30 doing this, then do that for 20 minutes”. I know what I want to accomplish in the day, and go from there.

So, back to what brought me here, let me mention a few landmarks or “important steps” you might want to meditate upon if you are currently too busy putting out fires to even dream of planning your week. They’re in no particular order, because I think I haven’t quite finished figuring this out yet. If you spot one that seems doable, then start with that one.

  • Protect yourself. Set a very high priority on keeping “downtime” aside for yourself. Of course there are very busy periods where you won’t get much, but this shouldn’t be your “normal” week. Don’t answer the phone during lunch break, for example. Book an evening a week for yourself, and tell people who want to see you then that you “already have something planned”. Learn to become more comfortable about making people wait. If you always put others first you’ll just burn in the fire.
  • Set maker days and manager days. Yesterday evening, Claude pointed out to me that this was one of my first obvious steps towards weekly planning, back in April. It’s obvious: once you start having a clearer plan of how much actual time you’re going to have in the office to work on projects, it helps you not overcommit.
  • Under-promise, over-deliver. I can’t remember who recommended this, but it stuck with me. It helps me fight against my natural tendancy to underestimate the amount of time I need to deliver something. So I figure out a reasonable estimate, and then add a lot of security padding to give myself space for bad planning and other emergencies.
  • Everything takes more time than you think. I think David Allen says this somewhere in Getting Things Done, but I could be misquoting. It could be Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan, too. Or Merlin Mann. Anyway: the unexpected almost always adds time to things. And in the cases where it doesn’t and actually reduces the time you need for something, it’s no big disaster (OMG! I have too much time to do this! I’m going to die!). So, add a lot of padding to any estimation of how much time something is going to take you. It’s always more than you think. Try doubling your initial estimate, for starters, and see if that improves things.
  • End your day by looking at tomorrow. This is something I got from FlyLady when I realised it was important for me to have a “getting started” (=morning) and a “winding down” (=evening) routine. She recommends including 10 minutes in your evening routine to prepare the next day: check the train timetable, know what appointments you have, etc. It’s easy to do, and it means you’re not diving blind into tomorrow anymore.
  • Learn to say no. This is the really hard one for most people. I’ve become pretty good at saying no, but I’ve come a long way: initially, I was somebody who said yes to almost everything. I was both enthusiastic about all sorts of things and terrified of hurting people by refusing their requests. So I didn’t say no. I’ll probably blog about this more extensively at some point (I already did in French), but the important thing to remember is that as long as you have trouble saying no, you will not escape fire fighting. One thing that really helped me learn to say no was to start by never immediately accepting anything. Say you’ll answer in 24 hours. Then I used that time to have a long hard think about how I keep saying yes to stuff I want to do to help out, and then end up procrastinating, not doing it, feeling horrible because deadlines slip, etc. That usually gave me enough courage to say no.
  • Have a list. You can go all GTD or only part-way, like I have, but you need some kind of system or list to capture the things you need to take care of. Learn the difference between a project and a next action, and list only the latter. To start your list, just write/type down all the stuff that’s bubbling at the top of your brain and stressing you out. If you think of something you need to do while you’re working, add it to the list. Ask a friend to hold your hand (it can be through IM) if your list gets too scary. Trust me, it’ll be better when it’s written down — anything is better than being an ostrich.
  • Learn to prioritize. I have huge problems with this (in other areas of my life too). When it comes to work-related stuff, here are a few rules of thumb I use. Invoicing is high priority, because it’s what brings in the money and it’s not very long to do. Anything really time-sensitive is also high priority (if I don’t announce tomorrow’s meetup today, it won’t be any use, will it?) Responding to potential clients. Paid work for clients with deadlines, of course. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that will happen if I don’t do this today?” or “on this list, is there any item which is going to cause somebody to die if I don’t do it?” (start with “to die” and then work down on the ladder of bad things — thanks Delphine for that tip) also helps. This doesn’t mean you need to order your lists. It’s just to help you figure out where to start.
  • Admit when you’re in over your head. If you over-promised, said yes when you really should have said no, and basically find yourself incapable of keeping up with your commitments, tell the people involved. And use that safety padding again. If you told the client it would be done by Wednesday, and on Monday you already have that sinking feeling that it won’t be possible, tell the client. Apologize. Say you messed up if you have. If you’re pretty certain you can get it done by Friday, tell them that it’ll be done Monday. See? Safety padding. Under-promising. Of course this doesn’t work in all situations, but you might simply not have a choice — and it’s better to be upfront about a deadline slipping than keeping it silent. Not just for the relationship with the client, but for your learning and growing process. Same with money: if you need invoices paid earlier than you initially asked because you have cashflow issues, ask. If you can’t pay the bill, ask for a payment plan. Somebody might say yes.
  • You can only do so much in a day. At some point, you reach the end of the day. Either it’s time, or you’re tired, but at some point, the day is done. Pack up and go home. Watch TV. Eat. (Maybe not in that order.) Do something nice. Take a bath. First of all, it’s no use working yourself silly until ungodly hours, you just won’t get up the next morning, or if you do, you won’t be productive. Second, doing this will help you “grow” a feel for what can be done in a day.
  • Plan your day. At the beginning of the day, look at your list, and think about the 2-3 important things that you want to accomplish today. Rocks and pebbles might help. Forget all the rest and get cracking on those. You’ll be interrupted, you’ll have emergencies, of course. That’s why it’s important not to plan to do too much — or you’re setting yourself up for failure. I started doing this regularly this spring, first with index cards, then with a list in Evernote. At the beginning you’ll be crap at it, but after months of practice, you get better. And this is one of the building stones you’ll need to be able to plan your weeks at some point.
  • Save time for the unexpected. When I was teaching, I did quite a bit of time planning — I knew when I was in class and when I had “downtime” to prepare courses and mark tests. Doing that, I realized that I could not perfectly plan my time. There was always “unexpected” stuff coming up. So I started making sure I had empty time slots of “surprises”. At some point during the last year, I calculated that roughly half my time was taken up by “unexpected” things and “emergencies”. Now, it’s less, because I’m better at planning. So, depending on how deep in chaos you are, you want to make sure you leave enough “free time” in whatever planning you’re doing to accomodate everything you didn’t know about or hadn’t thought about. As organisation increases and stress goes down, the “things to do” will get more under control and there will be less and less emergencies — but it’s still important to leave “breathing space”.

This is more or less all I can think of for the moment. Is it useful to anybody? I like to think it would have been useful to me, but one can never know… would I have listened?

Similar Posts: