For the past couple of weeks, I'd found myself adrift. I'd pick up a project, work on it for a couple of hours, then put it aside and tackle another. I lacked focus. I felt confused.
Then I realized that when I'd cleaned my desk, I'd stuffed my to-do list out of sight. No wonder I didn't know "what to do" -- I couldn't see my list! I hadn't even updated it in weeks!
I've become a huge fan of to-do lists. I'd resisted this step for years, despite the urgings of my husband, who not only drafts multi-page weekly lists but archives them for years. Deep down, I never wanted to think of myself as the sort of person whose life was driven by lists. But now that I've taken the plunge, I've found that to-do lists are a powerful way to become a more organized, efficient writer.
To-do lists can help a writer in many ways. Here are just a few:
1) They help one prioritize. When you're juggling half-a-dozen tasks (or more) in your head, it's difficult to determine which should come first. They spin through your mind like a school of fish; first this one looks more enticing, then that one. The simple act of writing down one's list of tasks enables one to view them from a different perspective. Once they are on paper, it's much easier to see that A is more important than C, while D should move to second place, F has been dragging on far too long, and B -- well, B could certainly wait until another day.
"Prioritizing" can involve many factors. One, of course, is deadlines. If one of your tasks is due in two weeks, it's likely to move to the top of your list. However, deadlines aren't the only priority. Perhaps you've been meaning to research a topic you'd like to query to a new, high-paying market. The task has no deadline, but every week that you put it off is a week that puts you farther from achieving an important career move. Finally, to-do lists can help you identify tasks that you've been procrastinating over, and enable you to boost them to the top of the list so that they get done once and for all.
2) They help one organize. My to-do list doesn't just include business tasks; it includes key tasks in every area of my life. For example, if I'm planning a dinner party, knowing that a good part of my week will be spent cleaning and running errands will help ensure that I don't also try to load that week's list with six new query letters, a batch of interviews, and a book chapter.
To-do lists also enable one to look at a set of tasks and assign time-values to each. Once you've written your list, you'll probably immediately note which tasks are going to require a lot of time, and which can be done in a snap. I often find, for example, that I have a number of small "follow-up" tasks on my list -- phone calls for information, e-mails to follow up on a contract or inquiry, and so forth. Most of these tasks take no more than five minutes of my time, but they're the most likely to be postponed. Moving quick-response tasks to the top of my list encourages me to get them done and crossed off, adding to my week's accomplishments without cutting significantly into my schedule.
That doesn't mean that one should always move "quick" tasks to the top of the list. Some quick tasks are important; others are more trivial. It's always tempting to go for the "shortest job first," but this can defeat the purpose of your list by preventing you from tackling longer, more important tasks.
3) They help one identify problems. When you start maintaining to-do lists, you're likely to notice that some tasks keep "sliding" from one week to the next. When that happens, it's a warning flag that you need to take a closer look at the project.
There can be many reasons for procrastination. One is that a task isn't really that important to you. It may seem like something you should do, or something you might like to do -- but it never achieves top priority. If that's why it keeps sliding, you may wish to drop it from the list altogether, or postpone it to a later time -- because right now, it isn't really worth doing.
Conversely, you may keep nudging an item to the next week simply because it is important. Quite often, the tasks we put off the longest are the ones that are most important to us. Important tasks can be intimidating; if you feel unready or unwilling to tackle something of major significance, it's likely to keep sliding until you've identified, and dealt with, the fears and concerns that keep you from taking it on.
Finally, you may nudge a task from one week to the next because it isn't actually a manageable task at all. As I'll discuss below, there's a difference between "tasks" and "projects." For example, if you've put "write Article X" on your list, and it never gets done, it may be too large a "task." Perhaps it needs to be broken into smaller chunks: research the topic, conduct an interview, prepare an outline, write a first draft. There's no point in cluttering your to-do list with things you can't actually do!
4) They help one recognize achievements. To me, this is the most powerful benefit of a to-do list: Eventually, it becomes a "done" list. If you're like me, you may go through a day or week when you feel as if you've never stood still, yet you can't quite grasp what, if anything, you've actually accomplished. A to-do list not only helps bring order to your schedule, but helps you identify exactly what you have done with your time. It also helps you identify the fact that you've achieved many, or even most, of your goals -- rather than berating yourself for what you imagine you haven't done.
To achieve the benefits I've described, it's important to manage a to-do list effectively. Different people may have very different ideas about what makes an "effective" to-do list, but here are some tips that can be applied to just about any type of list:
1) It must be reasonable. A list that reads something like "write my novel, clean the garage, develop lesson plans to home-school my daughter, work on world peace" won't actually help you accomplish anything. It will simply lead to frustration. A list should contain only those tasks that you can genuinely hope to achieve within the timeframe of the list.
This means learning to distinguish between "tasks" and "projects." A "project" is the big picture: The desired end goal. Writing a novel is a project. Writing a chapter is a task. Some projects ("clean my desk"; "write editorial") are small enough to count as stand-alone tasks. Others need to be broken down into more manageable chunks.
Take a project like "write an article." While 2000 words may not seem like a lot, unless you can write them off the top of your head, chances are that you'll need to break the project into smaller tasks. These might include interviews (each one a separate task), conducting online or library research, writing a query letter, drafting an outline, writing a first draft, editing your draft, and so on. Each one of these tasks should go onto your to-do list as a separate item.
2) It must be in line with your longer-term goals. Creating a to-do list isn't as simple as jotting down a bunch of tasks for the day, or for the week. A to-do list works best when combined with a longer-term vision -- a set of goals and achievements that you wish to accomplish. For example, let's say that one of your goals is to set up your author website. A project like this involves a number of steps, some of which need to be taken sequentially, some of which can be handled simultaneously. By adding these tasks to your daily or weekly to-do lists, you remind yourself of where you are in the project and what needs to be done next, which keeps you on track toward your long-term goal while keeping individual tasks bite-size and manageable.
3) It must have a well-defined time-frame. I prefer weekly to-do lists, because my schedule on any given day can be quite varied. It's easier for me to aim to achieve a list of task by the end of a week than to attempt to assign tasks to specific days. Many people, however, prefer daily to-do lists, while others prefer to write out lists for an entire month.
Some people keep separate lists for tasks and for projects. Hence, one's monthly list might have projects like "write travel article" and "organize photo files," while the weekly list covers tasks like "conduct interviews" or "obtain photos from travel bureau." Some writers even maintain yearly lists, though I tend to think that items of that duration tend to be more along the lines of "goals and objectives" rather than "tasks."
4) It must be visible. Again, different folks have different definitions of "visible." My husband keeps his list on his computer. I've tried that, and I found that I never looked at it. The only thing that works for me is to have my list on paper, in a location where I can see it at a glance.
The simplest way to keep a list is to keep a notepad on your desk, where you can jot down tasks as they occur to you, and cross them off when they are complete. The size of the pad depends on the size of your list. I keep a small, lined notepad that has its own mini-clipboard. This helps me keep my weekly list to a reasonable size, and also gives me a way to manage longer-term lists, which I clip underneath the pad to refer to as needed.
5) It must be flexible. Keep in mind when you prepare a to-do list that it is written on paper, not graven in stone. No matter how well you plan, there's always a chance that something will come up that's more important, or more urgent, than the tasks on your list. When that happens, simply jot down the new task or priority, and don't be surprised if older items slide to the next week.
Some folks laugh at the notion of writing something on your list simply so that you can cross it off again, but I don't. Making a note of something I've done, even if it wasn't on the original list, helps me track my achievements and reminds me of where my time was actually spent. If I wasn't able to complete my original list, see the items that I added just to cross off helps me understand why.
Finally, remember that no matter how carefully you plan, life gets in the way. Regardless of your intentions, something may come up that makes it impossible to complete the tasks on your list. When that happens, simply accept the inevitable -- and bump the tasks to the next week.
To-do lists are great, but what happens when they're "done" lists? My husband archives his on his computer, but since mine are handwritten, that's not an option. Nor do I want a drawer full of crossed-out lists. To track what I've accomplished, therefore, I have set up yet another list: My "achievements" list. This tracks what I've done each day, whether it was on my to-do list or not.
For example, I'll note whether it was an "errand" day (which generally takes up one or two hours), or whether I've had a phone call from my sister (guaranteed to take up one or two hours). I'll note which projects I've worked on, and whether they are still in progress or completed. I'll note anything out of the ordinary that affected my schedule.
At the end of the month, I transfer this information into an annual "achievements" list. At that point I don't bother with the phone calls and errands and housekeeping chores; instead, I list "personal achievements" and "business achievements." If I took a week's vacation, or entertained a house guest, or took a weaving class, that goes under "personal." If I wrote an article, scanned illustrations for my clip-art project, or handled the biweekly newsletter editing, that goes under "business." Under business, I also note which long-term projects got completed in any given month.
Then, at the end of the year, I no longer have to wonder where my time went, or what I did all year. I know -- and I can congratulate myself on jobs well done and a year well spent. Because the best thing about to-do lists is not just that they tell you what you ought to do this week. It's that they enable you to say, "Ta-da! I've done it!"
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