Thursday, August 18, 2011

What to do TODAY, Part 1: Tasks that must be done today.

"Work, not contemplating work, brings satisfaction..."
                             Kenneth Atchity (A Writer's Time, 1995)  

Defining your values and mission, setting goals and priorities, planning for priority work, and getting organized all contribute to a happy, productive life.  Each is an element of the contemplation of work.

But unless you actually DO things, you  won't "get no satisfaction."  (Apologies to Mick and the boys.) 

Today's post is the first in a series about what to do today.  You can begin using this approach even before you have organized, planned, or set goals and priorities.  

You can start using this approach today.

I'm going to use the following categories to classify all the possible "candidate" tasks (i.e. work) for a given day:
  1. Tasks that must be done today  (urgent and important)
  2. Tasks you would very much like to do today (important but not urgent)
  3. Tasks related to regular routine work   ("today's work") 
  4. New tasks that show up to triage (often in the form of interruptions)
  5. Other tasks i need to do sometime (the rest of your to do list)
You'll notice that for the first two categories I have parenthetically referred to the "quadrants" concept popularized by Stephen Covey . If you are familiar with this idea, you will see that the first category represents items that would fall in Quadrant I, and the second, in Quadrant II.

Let's start at the very beginning...

Category 1, Tasks that must be done today.

This category is first on the list because these tasks have the highest priority for the day.  Surprised?   Do you think that the second group, "important but not urgent" tasks should come first?  Read on.

Here are 3 sample tasks, and the back stories that put them on the "must be done today" list:
  • call Jim about the conference planning meeting to be held 6 weeks from now 
        The back story.  Jim has been out of the office until today, and I know that he is leaving for a long vacation to Thaliand tomorrow.  Today is the only opportunity to talk to him.
  • pay my VISA bill 
        The back story.   The bill is due in 3 days;  it takes that long for the payment to get there electronically;  if it is late my credit rating will suffer and I won't be able to buy that big new house I have been planning.  If I don't do it today, something bad will happen.
  • bake cookies for tomorrow's 4th grade bake sale
        The back story.    I  signed up to do this on the first day of school,  before I realized how busy I would be this month.  But, I made a promise, and it is too late to re-negotiate or delegate the task.    
  • submit my abstract for an upcoming professional meeting, as the due date for submission is today
        The back story.   Getting an abstract accepted for this meeting is important for my career, and it has an externally imposed deadline of today . 


How many "must do" tasks should I have each day?

If you are following my argument, you will immediately understand that the number is not predictable:  it depends on how many tasks MUST be done today.  Some days you will have a bunch, and other days you will have none.  

Shouldn't I be able to eliminate this category if I focus more on the second category (important, not urgent)?

No!   It is true that some deadline related tasks can be done earlier, and so the more of these you do in advance the fewer items will be in the "must do today" category.  But some things simply can't be done in advance, and, the circumstances of our lives simply don't allow for everthing that could be to be done in advance.   
Can you be more explicit about why this category is a higher priority than the "important but not urgent category?

Sure.  First, each of these tasks has been certified by you as having importance, and failure to do them will result in measurable harm to yourself or others, or, an imporatnat opportunity will be lost.

Second,  once you have completed these tasks -- preferably as early in the day as possible -- you will feel successful and energized.  Just the state you need to be in to work on those "important, not urgent" tasks.  

Why can't I "cheat" and put an important, not urgent task on this list?

Hah! The part of your brain that does not like to work will always know you are cheating.  Including these items will lead the "must do" list to lose its power, because the brain "sees" that not every item really must be done today.  Once that happens, the entire list is likely to be ignored.  Remember, we will talk about a way to incorporate category 2 items into every day -  so stick with me through the full set of posts. 

How to set up your "must do today" list

1. At the end of each day (or the beginning of the next), take a look at your calendar and to do /deadline lists, and then inventory any items floating around in your head.

2. Ask:  "Are there are any tasks here that must be done today?"

3. To clarify, ask "if I don't this task, will...
     ... I have lost the only opportunity to do it?
     ... something bad happen?
     ... I have broken a promise to someone?
     ... I have lost the chance to do something important to me?"
4. Write down the must do tasks in a visible place. 
I'll discuss list options in a later post, but for now write your "must do's" anywhere that you are sure you will look at: a piece of paper or pad,  a sticky note stuck to your computer screen, an index card, a white board, the note section of your calendar (on today's date!), or -- a method used by a past workshop participant - written on you hand with a fine point Sharpie marker.  (I am assured that the latter holds up to several hand washings per day).  
5.  Cross each off one as it is completed.
Got it?  Take out a paper and pencil, and start now!


Learn more about it.  See Micheal Linenberger's Mastering Your Now (MYN), Note that he uses the term "Critical Now" to refer to "must do today."

Next post:  Category 2 -  tasks you would very much like to do today (important but not urgent)

** If you have a specific question or issue you would like to see here, add a comment to any post, or send the question to me directly at