Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On To Do Lists and Productivity

Somebody asked me in a comment about how I manage my "things to do" - Courtney I think? - and whether I've got a system as anal as my one for note-taking for research (though the commenter put it in a nicer way than that). I feel as if I've written about this before, though I can't seem to find a handy link. I have a theory of to-do lists that accomplishing 60% of any list is grand. But what is my actual process?

Well, of late, I've become a fan of iGoogle as my homepage. This allows me to indulge in my new love of Google 15, as well as to have things like the weather and Bejeweled come up every time I open up my web-browser. But also, this allows me to have the "to do" application come up, and this is a good edition to my system.

So here's the thing: I'm a fan of a traditional to-do list. On paper. I'm no good with electronic calendars and such, typically. I need to have a fairly flexible list, that can easily be shifted to different times of day and different days if necessary. I'm no good with "scheduling" things I need to do, in the way of blocking off certain hours for activities and actually accomplishing those in the slotted times. No, I need something that is more flexible. I aim for certain days and times, but I don't beat myself up if I need to reschedule.

So, the way I've typically worked is with a traditional planning notebook (non-electronic), a 5-day-a-week planner, and this has been my system really since high school. I'll admit that I've gone to one with hourly slots since entering the tenure-track (better for keeping track of meetings and student appointments) but I need to see the whole week at a glance. (I've been using a Burde weekly planner bought at Barnes and Noble for the past four or so years.) Now, I'll make a major to-do list each weekend, that has all the things, divided by topic. Then, I transfer different items on that list into certain days of the week, by which I'd ideally like to accomplish those things. Again, I hope for 60% productivity on any day. To me, this is success. I typically plan for much more than a reasonable person can accomplish, and so if I do the 60%, I'm actually being really productive. (This is something that I learned during my dissertation.)

The thing that helps with the iGoogle to-do, is that I've got something in front of my face that says what I need to do each day, and which is easily manipulatable. I've not abandoned my traditional paper system, but the electronic reinforcement has helped with things like making sure that the to-do list is on my mind, and making sure that I do "personal" to-do things as well as "work" to-do things. There is something really satisfying about changing the color of items that have been accomplished. And there's something great about deleting items and then carrying them over to the next day.

But here's my theory of the "to-do." My theory is that you've got to work with who you are. It's ultimately less productive if you try to fit yourself into a mold that isn't really you. For me, that means that I've got to be a paper-and-pen-to-do-list-person, at least for the most part. Things I type into the computer, if it's not just a repetition of the handwritten, for me aren't real. Those are things that I can (and do) ignore. Others can easily translate their lives into the electronic. I'm just not that girl. That's ok, but I need to know that in order to accomplish things.

I also do think that you need some version - in whatever medium - of a "master list," and then you need to break it down into bite-sized chunks. Whether the bite-sized chunks are on a blog (which mine sometimes are, often when I'm at "red-alert" level and really need to get things done) or whether they are in another form, switching mediums for the bite-sized chunks can help to keep your expectations realistic. The "master list" for me is sometimes overwhelming, and so putting the bite-sized chunks into the planner, or onto the blog, or onto my iGoogle to-do list, makes them manageable and realistic.

And, for me, I work better when I've got an overly ambitious to-do list, one that I know is impossible. I give myself permission to only finish 60%, but I feel accomplishment with the 60% and I'm over the moon when I do more. If I do realistic to-do lists, I typically still only accomplish 60%, and then I feel bad about myself and I'm behind, which sucks. If I accomplish more than the 60% on my current to-do lists, I get to feel like I'm awesome. And I'm ahead of the game. This is good.

So that's how I accomplish things. Maybe this will be useful for some people?


MommyProf said...

I started using iGoogle this year, too. Still working on the "motivation" aspect, which I haven't found an App for...

Courtney said...

Yep, it was me. Me who is drowning in papers to grade, papers to turn in, appointments to keep, forms to have signed, forms to file, and has almost no control over her bookbag. I may have a go at your strategy and see if that works for me. Thanks!

Nita said...

I too have been using the Burde weekly planner from Barnes and Noble. - I am disappointed that they are not yet carrying this calendar - Do you know if they have stopped carrying this specific planner? - let me know if/when you get yours....