Monday, January 31, 2011

Ten tips for taming a beastly to-do list

I tried so hard to manage my to-do list during a week of visiting writer pals on the other side of the country. Despite my best efforts, I came home to find my to-do list had developed fangs and a fondness for chasing me around the house with its pants down.

Admittedly, life’s gotten crazier in the eleven months since my agent landed me a book deal. Despite her savvy negotiating skills, she failed to grant me six extra hours a day, so I make do with 24 hours and a lot of caffeine.

I won’t claim to be an expert on time management, but I'll share a few tips I’ve learned for taming a to-do list that threatens to bend you over its knee and paddle you with a wooden spoon (unless you like that sort of thing, in which case you should carry on as is).

1) Omit nothing from the list. It might seem silly to include chores like emptying the trash and clipping your toenails on a to-do list with important tasks like submitting copy edits to your publisher. Don’t let silliness stop you. Not only does it ensure you won’t forget anything, it gives you a much-needed sense of accomplishment when you cross off completed items.

Walk me, please!
Dog guilt is a powerful force.

2) Tackle the guilt tasks first. You know what I mean by guilt tasks – the stuff that niggles at your brain and makes you feel like a lousy human because you haven’t done it. Maybe it’s clearing the clutter off your desk, calling your brother, or taking the dog for a walk. Tackling a guilt task seldom requires as much energy as you lose by having it hanging over your head. Get it done, cross it off, and move on.

3) Be smart with high-priority tasks. The most important thing on my weekend list was inputting my critique partners’ feedback into my current manuscript. Even so, I waited until the second day of operations to take a stab at it. When it comes to writing, I need my brain to be clear and creative. Those adjectives don’t describe my mindset when I’m cowering under my bed as the to-do list growls and calls me a pansy. Putting off the big tasks isn’t lazy – it’s strategic.

4) Do double-duty. Skim your list for things you can do simultaneously. Can you fold laundry and chat on the phone with your beta reader? Scrub the toilet while brainstorming a sex scene? Turn your to-do list into a blog post? (Um, yeah…)

5) Ditch the distractions. I’ve learned to switch off email alerts and Twitter notifications when I’m neck-deep in my to-do list. I’m easily distracted as it is, so I really don’t need…hey, look – a squirrel!

6) Add stuff just to cross it off. Yes, I have performed tasks not on my to-do list and written them in afterward just for the satisfaction of crossing something off. Surely I’m not alone in this?

7) Neuter your next list. One thing that killed me this time was watching my number of unread emails hit triple digits and keep climbing. Though plenty were trash, it still took time to make the assessment and hit delete. Determined to make things more manageable next time, I went in and changed some Facebook and Twitter settings to help reduce incoming messages in the future.

8) Save communication for when you’ve made a dent in the list. I get snarly when I’m stressed, and that’s hardly the right frame of mind for emailing my editor or calling my mom. Unless there’s someone you want to snarl at, save communication for when you’re feeling more upbeat about what you’ve accomplished.

9) Timing is everything. Hitting the grocery store at noon on a Sunday is a good way to ensure you’ll spend an hour in line pondering what sort of prison sentence you'd get if a cop opened your trunk and found the decomposing bodies of a slow cashier and the woman behind you who cursed at her kids. Can you save shopping for evening? Skim your list and make note of time-sensitive tasks. Calling the insurance company probably has to happen during normal business hours, but visiting the adult video store to grab an extra pair of pink fur handcuffs can wait until midnight.

10) Don’t forget the downtime. It's OK to recharge your batteries by reading a chapter in a good book while having a glass of wine. It's probably not OK to reach the end of the book or the bottom of the bottle before your list is done.

What are your favorite strategies for tackling a to-do list? Please share!

Now that mine is curled up under the desk purring, I need to go kick it. Gotta remind that bitch who's boss.

19 comments :

Sarah W said...

Number ten is the tough one!

Bethany Mason said...

I usually break down bigger tasks on the to-do list. It looks like there is way more to do but instead of avoiding the big things, I think, hey, that's a little thing, I'll do it now. Before I know it, most of the little things are crossed off and I realise I've done the big scary task.

Shakespeare said...

I agree with everything... although I ALWAYS wake up with a coffee and some sudoku in the morning, before all the crossing off begins.

Another thing--make sure you can take the list with you. I have a list book I keep with me all the time, from nightstand to car to desk, and it ensures I can always refer to what's next. Very, very helpful.

Coffee's done, so I need to get to work!

Girl Friday said...

LOL, I totally add things after I've done them just to have the pleasure of crossing them off! :)

Bev Rearick said...

I have to say that after this weekend, your last tip hit home. Instead of getting my writing done, I actually spent the weekend reading two books. I've always thought of it as doing research (they were YA books and I'm hoping to write one myself).

I loved this blog. It gave great tips and thanks for writing them.

RobynBradley said...

Ditching distractions is a must. And I'll need to try thinking about sex scenes while scrubbing the porcelain. @Bethany, I also break down tasks into chunks (then I have even more to cross out - yay!). I find when I'm struggling with my list, it usually means I need a change of scenery (I work from home). So off I go with my laptop and list to my "remote" office, which is usually a Panera or Bruegger's. Sometimes that's just what I need to start tackling the beast.

Danica Avet said...

These are all great tips, Tawna! I always brainstorm while doing household chores. I also strongly believe in downtime, but I also brainstorm during my downtime so I suppose it isn't really downtime? I keep strict hours when writing, so I can put everything else in my life during my "off" hours. It really does help to have a routine and stick to it.

lynnrush said...

Nice list. I like the idea of the guilt ones first! I try and tackle a few things on the list, then go back to writing or relaxing, then do a few more and so on. Seems to work okay. For the most part! *LOL*

Great post this morning. Have a great day.

Linda G. said...

Great list! I think I have #10 mastered. Now to work on the rest...

Ana Quinn said...

This list is great. I am glad to know that I am not the only one who adds completed tasks to a to-do list, just so I can cross them off. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, which increases my motivation to keep going and tackling more items on the list. The more I get done, the more motivated I am to finish the list. :-)

Heather Hellmann said...

Clipping your toenails is very important. If you wait too long, you are forced to buy new socks. I learned from experience.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I never go to the grocery store on weekends because then I get the urge to throw food at people. Or they throw food at me; it did happen when I was a cashier back in high school. I usually go in the morning when people are still sleeping because I like to wake up early. Actually, waking up early is my strategy for getting things done. If I wait until nighttime I'm usually too tired and then it's that much easier to put it off until the next day.

Simon C. Larter said...

On the multitasking issue, I've found that you can accomplish a great deal while simultaneously drinking vodka. Writing, reading, laundry folding, Mario Kart Wii playing...y'know, the important stuff.

Unfortunately my workplace policies prevent me from doing dayjob tasks while bleezed. I'll have to talk to the boss about that.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

Set a timer. I can work on anything for fifteen minutes. Okay, ten. But if I set the timer and tell myself I can stop if I need to when it goes off, I might actually start the chore!

Candyland said...

I, too, have a short attention span and it takes me longer to comment on this post because...Sorry, I got distracted. What was I saying?

Jason said...

Six is my favorite - totally do this all the time.

I don't usually do lists unless I have a huge bunch of things to do before family comes over or something, but it's amazing what I get accomplished in a short amount of time when I do. Perhaps that should tell me something.

Huge, huge fan of the double duty checkoffs too.

Oh, and I always try and grocery shop after 8pm. Friday and Sunday nights are the best. Yep, we party hard around here.

Geoffrey Cubbage said...

I stand by the "Done, Bitches!" list in place of the To-Do list:

http://misanthropology101.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/writing-life-done-bitches-lists/

On an unrelated note, the "OpenID" comments option sometimes likes my WordPress ID and sometimes just spits out an "OpenID error." Any idea what I'm doing wrong there, or is it an ineffable and eternal mystery?

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I totally add things to my list just for the pleasure of crossing them off. I figure every accomplishment deserves a little pat. Makes up for all the times I kick myself!

Tawna Fenske said...

Sarah W, indeed it is! Hard to stop at just one chapter (or one glass).

Bethany, great idea!

Shakespeare, I often write my list on my hand, which becomes a problem when I wash a couple times.

Girl Friday, I do this constantly!

Bev, glad you found it helpful!

Robyn, I'm the same way with needing a change of scenery (which is usually when the dog gets a walk).

Danica, sometimes the best ideas come during downtime.

lynnrush, the guilt tasks will get me every time if I let 'em!

Linda G, well, #10 IS the most important one.

Ana, adding items after the fact also keeps you from feeling frustrated that you've been busy as hell but haven't gotten anything done.

Heather, a good reminder. Where did I put my clippers...?

Neurotic Workaholic, I'm pretty sure Hell looks like Costco on a Saturday.

Simon, bleezed? Thank you for my new favorite word.

Teri Anne, ooh, good idea on the timer!

Candyland, this is my third attempt at replying to comments. I keep getting distracted.

Jason, I'm with you on shopping Friday & Sunday nights!

Geoffrey, LOL!!!

Jeffe, all that patting and kicking, I'm going to start wondering if you write BDSM. Oh, wait...

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna