I am a person who lives and dies by her to-do list. And right now, I’m dying – because I am following all the prescribed rules except one.
Here are the things I’m doing well:
1. I clear my in-box. I deal with each email the second I read it – by responding, deleting, or transferring to my to-do list.
2. I have a single list. I have A’s, B’s, and C’s for my priorities, so I can tell what is most important to do on any given day.
3. I make sure I have long-term goals. And I put them in my list of A’s. I identify the items I must get done before the end of the day. But I also add at least one non-deadline-based item that helps me reach a bigger, life-changing goal.
4. I rewrite the list every day by hand. Because if something on the list is not worth taking the time to rewrite by hand, it’s not worth taking the time to do.
5. I make sure I get all the A’s done first. Only then do I move on to less important items. Just kidding. I don’t actually do that. But I know I should. Honestly, I can tell that it doesn’t really matter if I follow all the other rules when I’m not doing this one.
There’s a book by Michael Stainer titled, Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork. Start the Work That Matters. And I know I have a problem sticking to stuff that matters: As soon as I typed the title, I thought, "Why is the word ‘that’ capitalized?" I checked back on Amazon twice to make sure. It doesn’t seem right to me.
Then I tell myself I need to check the AP Stylebook to see what the rule is. I think ‘the’ is never capitalized in a title and ‘that’ is optional, but I think, in this case, it looks better as lower case.
Then I tell myself, look, I just really need to get this blog post done. Even if I check the AP Stylebook, it will take awhile to find an answer, which is probably not going to be easy to find because, honestly, I’m not the queen of Google searches. Even if I manage to do that, I will not feel like I have accomplished something important today. But if I finish this post, I will feel like I am meeting an important goal of writing a blog post each day.
Also, I tell myself that the best work I do is when I am not constantly distracted by randomly interesting searches. Like, the last time I remember doing this was, in fact, last night, when I got stuck looking up soporific. It means sleep inducing. But I thought maybe I was missing a nuance of the word because it was in a picture caption in a movie review. Who puts a word like that in a picture caption? So I thought it had another slang meaning or something. And then, when it turns out that it really does mean sleep inducing, I didn’t feel accomplished. It was not on my to-do list. And I can’t even figure out how to slip it into my own writing. Unless you find my paragraph about soporific to be soporific.
Stainer’s book has a chapter written by me. Which, I’m sure I wrote only because I put it on my A list 400 days in a row, sending it to him, finally, ten days late. Or something like that. And he has chapters by other luminaries who I am convinced do their A list before they even eat breakfast: Seth Godin, Chris Guillebeau, Leo Babauta. The important thing about reading a book like Stainer’s is that if I read people telling me that I should not do bull---- work all day, then I am more likely to hold myself accountable to my A list.
A Matter of Discipline
This problem comes down to my struggle with self-discipline. I think everyone struggles. I think there’s a Maslow hierarchy of self-discipline. First you have to get out of bed in the morning. Then you have to write a to-do list every morning, and write a schedule to accommodate it. Then you have to have the self-discipline to start giving up stuff because you don’t have time for everything. The highest form of self-discipline is admitting that you will not be doing all the things you wanted to that day.
I have done all that. So what I’m left with is stuff that is easy to do. But it’s usually B’s. And some stuff that’s hard to do. Those are the A’s. Today I told myself no surfing. No staring at the wall. No reading my book.
But then I saw a GChat link from Michael Roston about the Dutch parliament. I had to click. It turns out that there is a group trying to make sex with twelve-year-olds legal. So they formed a political party in order to get the laws changed. But the group dropped out of the election because they found they are spending so much time campaigning that they are losing focus of their main goal, which is to legalize pedophilia.
And I thought: Dutch pedophiles are more focused on their long-term goals than I am.
My problem is that I cannot write my own long-term goal in as clear a way as the pedophiles. I coach so many people who tell me they can’t move forward because they don’t know where they are going. And I tell them, "make something up." I tell them to commit to a goal, any goal, and move toward it until you think of a better one. The act of moving toward something helps you crystallize where, exactly, you want to be moving.
I wish I could tell you I’m doing that, but recently I’ve been writing about it more than doing it. Because I’m scared. It’s so scary to commit to a goal when you know it’s not the real goal. Success requires a leap of faith that goal setting is trial and error and the process of finding clarity – not the one-time process of immaculate conception of clarity.
When I was learning about to-do lists, each step seemed too hard. An empty in-box seemed impossible. Hand writing a to-do list every morning felt absurd. But in each case, after I did it a while, it felt right and probably essential to me. So I guess I will just have to trust that if I force myself to choose a goal, my goals will get more and more clear, and the productivity piece will start falling into place.