Monday, September 27, 2021

P.S. Why your master running task list is so long, and why it doesn't matter

In my last blog, I waxed eloquently about the virtues of the master running task list. I stand by everything I wrote.

But I failed to address one important issue that often causes people to avoid or give up on this method:

"The list will be so long."

So this is a postscript to explain why that is, and why it does not matter.

So first the facts. 

Your master list will be long.  David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, says his master list typically exceeds 100 items. Today my list has 102.

But here's the thing. Your list will be only as long as all the work you've agreed to do!

Not putting tasks on the master list does not make the tasks go away. Putting them on the list does force you to face the reality of how much you have taken on.  

This leads to another benefit of a master list: If you decide you have taken on too much, you are all set to prune.  (A topic for another day.)

The good news: You'll never need to do everything on the list.

You will be thinking "What? (or something more colorful...) I thought the master list was supposed to include all the tasks that I have committed to do?"

Correct, but with one important "rider:" All the tasks you have committed to do at the time you recorded them."

You are saved from doing them all by reality. Your priorities, day-to-day work requirements, and life situation are constantly changing, and thus your task commitments must necessarily change as well.

Last week you were committed to buying an electric car. You create a list of tasks related to finding a dealer, exploring financing options, followed by the purchasing process. This week, you discover that due to a computer chip shortage it may be years before these cars are available. Because you need a car now, you instead buy a used 2016 Subaru Outback with low mileage. (If this sounds like a true story, it is!)

Last month, you planned to grow a sourdough starter from scratch. Yesterday you discover that a family member does not like sourdough. (Also true...)

In essence, the master list is a database of all the tasks you think you will do, based on current conditions. This means a functional master list requires regular review and updates. Weekly would be ideal.

You use the list as a database from which to select the tasks you will do in real-time, such as this week or today.

Oliver Burkeman, my current favorite time management thinker, describes this interplay this way:

"...Keep two to-do lists, one "open" and one "closed." The open list is for everything that's on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it's not your job to tackle it: instead feed tasks for the open list to the closed one - that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can't add a new task [to the closed list] until one's completed... You'll never get through all the tasks on the open list - but you were never going to in any case, and at least this way you'll complete plenty of things you genuinely care about." (Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, p. 256).

If it has just occurred to you that the daily MIT List is such a closed list, you are correct!

So don't pay any attention to the length of your master running task list. Instead, focus on the relief of not having to remember anything and the benefit of having the full list of task options from which to pick the best ones to do now.

Call to Action: (every blog is supposed to have one, but mine often don't....)

Start your master running list!
  • Begin by taking some time to record every task you can think of, as well as any already listed in some other location.
  • As new tasks occur to you:
    •  If you can do them immediately, do that. 
    • If you can't, record the task on your master list.
  • Review the list regularly, examining each item in light of your current situation. Revise or remove items as appropriate.
  • Use the list to select the actual work you will do in the near term - during the week, and each day.

And, discover Oliver Burkeman!!
  • Read his blog posts. If you like them, subscribe to get the new ones delivered to your doorstep... well, email inbox. 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Is your task list a repository of stress?

"My to-do list is a repository of stress," Julian announced in his first coaching session.

I was taken aback because my own to-do list has been my life-preserver for over 20 years. But then I thought about the many workshop participants and clients who have said the same thing, albeit not so memorably.

Why was something that worked so well for me failing so many others?

I re-wound the mental video of my own productivity journey back to the beginning, 20 odd years ago.  One of the first books I read was Jeffrey Mayer's 1990 book, If you haven't got the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over? #BestBookNameEver.

His recommendation: Use a "master running task list."   

I adopted this approach then, and have continued it ever since, through four different jobs, and several "tool" changes.  

And, I realized that very few people have this kind of list.  And thus, this post, to acquaint you with the basics of such a list.

Key features of  a master running task list
  • This list contains tasks, that is, things you plan to do.  It's not a 5-year goal list, bucket list, or Netflix series you might binge-watch list.
  • The list is called a master list because it contains all your tasks. Some tasks are "stand-alone" (call the dentist for an appointment). Others are part of a project (email Molly to schedule a meeting to plan our research project). They are all on the same list. #RedundancyIsSometimesHelpful
  • The list is "running." Add new tasks and cross them off when completed. No need to re-write the list. (The only exception is periodic "compression" if you have a paper list, as described shortly.)
As Mayer says, the master list is "an inventory of all your unfinished work." 
A master running task list solves two common todo list problems:
  • Multiple lists in different locations. The results? Lost or ignored lists. Not having the "correct" list when you need it.
  • Incomplete lists. You record some of your tasks and depend on your memory for others. The results? A pervasive feeling that you are missing something. And, indeed, you will!
As David Allen reminds us, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

 When I started, I followed Mayer's instructions to the letter:

  • Use lined paper. (I used an 8/11" legal pad; I've since switched to an app.)
  • One item per line.
  • Use every line.
  • Draw a line through completed tasks. (Wimpy marginal checkmarks not allowed!)
  • When you get to the last line on a page, go to the next and continue entering new tasks.
  • When half or more of the tasks are completed, "compress" the list. Tear out the page and add any undone tasks to the end of the list.   (If using a digital app, just delete, or, "hide" completed tasks.)
Note that the list does not need to be prioritized - you set your priorities when you plan your weeks and days.

Quick FAQ:  Does having a "single" list mean you have to mix personal and professional items?

Only if you want to!   (In the sample list above, I marked the Home items with an "H.")

If you want to keep them separated - which most people prefer -  you have two options.
  • Use a single tool (e.g. one notebook or app), but divide the items into two categories.
  • Use different tools. The risk with this approach is that you may work on the items on one of the lists and ignore the other. A solution is to always have both tools in front of you when you do your weekly review and your daily plan.
Your list has to meet your personal needs, functionally and aesthetically.  
  • First, pick a "tool." Paper or digital? For either, which of the many options? If you have a tool you like, use that. If not, I recommend starting with a lined paper tool. 
  • Then you need to develop the habit of recording every task (that can't be done immediately) in that tool. 
How to use a master running list:

  • Update the list. Cross off tasks that you have done and tasks that no longer need to be done. Add new tasks that you forgot to add. Compress as described above if most of the items on a page are complete. 
  • Identify priorities for the coming week. Mark those tasks in some way. For example, add a checkbox to the margin, or use a highlighter. 

  • Select your 3 most important tasks (MITs).
  •  Pick a short list of additional tasks you will do if you have time. 
I'll close with a confession.

Over the last few months, I have had a nagging feeling that my list system had become difficult to use. As I wrote the first draft of this post, I had an "Aha!" moment. My system no longer had a single running master list. I had instead "tweaked" into a collection of lists. 

I stopped working and immediately fixed the problem. 

Now every task is on a single list. My "life preserver" is re-inflated. My system is once again humming along, doing its job of supporting my "getting things done."

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Use front-loading to get high priority work done on time

Amy (not her real name), is an early career tenure-track faculty member in a science discipline, and is one of my coaching clients.

In a recent Monday session, she wanted help figuring out how to complete the institutional review board application for her newest research project. (This committee has to approve scientific studies that involve human subjects before the study can start.)

The application was due the following Monday, but she had been putting it off and had the entire proposal to write.  

Her bigger concern was that she was not spending enough time on writing and research because of other demands on her time, such as teaching. 
She was discouraged.
I suggested that we begin by making a plan for this application:
  1. We made a list of the specific tasks required.
  2. I asked her to schedule time on her calendar to do the work (a.k.a. "time blocks").
Her plan looked like this:   (I have removed all of her other appointment for clarity).

At that point, I said, "Stop!"  (In the nicest possible way...)

I asked her to instead add a block for today in the first time slot available.

We then looked at each of the remaining days to see what time was available for this project.  When we got to the weekend, I learned that she had plans to be out of town and could not use it to work. This reinforced the need to try to finish by Friday.

Once we had the big picture, we added more blocks. 

The revised plan looked like this:

This plan had several key differences from the first one:
  • We added a deadline notice, in red, on the following Monday
  • We blocked out the weekend by setting an all-day event shown as "out-of-office." (Outlook). This created a visual reminder that the time was not available.
  • You may have noticed that the total amount of time blocked was nearly the same in the two plans. Six hours in the first and 7 hours in the revision. 
  • The distribution of the time, however, was quite different.  Half of the time was in the next two days in the new version.

At our meeting the following week,  Amy reported that she had submitted the application on time, and, experienced no stress when doing the work.

She told me that both things I had recommended, the detailed task list and scheduled time blocks, helped.

But the most important thing was getting a big chunk of the work done at the beginning of the week:
  • She had time to deal with the questions that came up as she drafted the methods
  • When the IRB website had a glitch there was time to get it fixed.
  • She was prepared when she met with her collaborator to finalize the application. 
  • She was asked to take on an extra teaching assignment late in the week because of the illness of a colleague. She was able to do this without panicking because the application was nearly done at that point.

The Free Dictionary defines front-loading as to "distribute or allocate (costs, effort, etc.) unevenly, with the greater proportion at the beginning of the enterprise or process."  

A very rough schematic sketch....

And that was what we did for Amy's IRB application work.  In fact, we used a  double dose of front loading in Amy's IRB work plan. We front-loaded the week, with half of the planned time in the first two days, and each day by scheduling the blocks as early as possible.

Like Amy, you can benefit from front-loading too.

You will get more time to come up with ideas and transform them into a final product. When glitches arise, as they will, you will have more time to fix them. If that weren't enough, you have much less pre-deadline stress.

But, you may be thinking, doesn't this just induce procrastination?  (You know how that goes, "I have plenty of time so I can put it off to another day."  Not that I have ever had that kind of thought...)

Actually, used properly, front-loading can actually prevent procrastination! 

For me, "properly" means starting work on a project "early," defined as "before I think I need to start." 

Starting early, for me, removes the pressure to get it right the first time.  Ideas and words flow more freely when I know I have plenty of time.


What kind of work should I front-load?
  • Of course, you can front-load any kind of work.  But, I recommend reserving it for important projects that will take a lot of time, and that you are likely to put off.
What time intervals should I front load?
  • Over the entire time project period. Schedule time to get started as soon you add a front-loadable candidate project to your list.
  • At the beginning of regular calendar interval planning.
    • For long projects, consider the year, quarter, and/or month.
    • Always front-load the week and each day. You should do it when making your regular weekly and daily plans. (😉😊)
How many projects should I front-load at a time?
  • You need to be choosy.  Pick the work that is highest in impact, especially if it has a hard deadline. Maybe one or two projects at most.
  • This is not incompatible with working on multiple projects simultaneously. Putting in a big chunk of time early often means you can keep the project moving forward later in smaller amounts of time. Writing a paper is a good example. If you can get a first draft done quickly, you can do the revising in smaller time blocks.
  • In practice, this means you will often have one project in the front-loading stage and the rest in "regular time" mode.
What if I am always fully scheduled at the beginning of the week or every morning? (For example, teaching, client meetings, patient care, or group meetings that you can't change.)
  • Try choosing a different day or hour the beginning of your planning interval.  Instead of Monday, use Wednesday (or the first day with open time). Instead of 8:00 am, block the first time that is available that day.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

What to do TODAY, Parts 2 & 3 Redux

A couple of weeks ago I received an email with a new blog post from... 


This was a big surprise as I not written anything new.

Careful examination revealed that this post was actually published in 2012.

The "re-issue" was a complete accident!

(I was looking at old content in my blogging platform the day before, and must have accidentally clicked the "Publish" button. Yikes! )

But then I thought more about this topic, how to make an effective daily task plan, and realized that it is a foundational strategy and that most of you have not seen it before.

So, maybe not such a big mistake after all...

Then, I realized that some of you may be waiting with bated breath for the promised Parts 2 and 3.

Today you can exhale.

With no further ado: What to do today, Redux.

A paper template version for a daily plan:

Part 1: Tasks that must be done today.

Identify tasks that must be done today because there is an external deadline of today, or, you have promised someone else you will do it today. (That is, use external, not internal criteria.)

Some (many) days you will have nothing on this part of the plan. BECAUSE ON SOME DAYS THERE ARE NO TASK DEADLINES or PROMISES DUE.

Part 2: Tasks you aim to do.

Aim-to-do tasks are tasks you would very much like to do today but are not  due today.

Aim-to-do's should generally be high-priority tasks that move important work forward.

These are typically tasks you would not get to in the flow of a normal busy day. They are "in addition to" your regular routine tasks.

The list should be short, using these guidelines:
  • On most days, no more than three.
  • On a heavily scheduled day,  maybe only one.
  • For a day with lots of discretionary time, the list can exceed 3, but tasks should be listed them in priority order.

However, having a plan does not guarantee it will be followed. 

🤯  😉

What will help you stay on track?


Part 3: Triage new tasks

As I am sure you know, triage originally referred to the battlefield practice of sorting persons with injuries into those who needed immediate treatment and those who could wait. It's still used in emergency rooms everywhere.

You can triage new tasks that show up as well - no injuries required!

The core question: "Must this new task be done today?"

If the answer is YES: add it to your MUST do's.

If the answer is, in your opinion, NO, the decision to defer depends on who is wanting the task done. 

If a colleague or someone who you supervise is asking:
  • Explain that today is not a good day, and choose a mutually agreeable completion date. (By the way, you will have now made a promise that must be kept by the appointed time.)

If it's your boss (or other "up-the-chain" person:
  • You can agree to do it, or, consider negotiating. You'll usually know instinctively which is the right choice.

If this is YOU thinking you "should" do the task today:
  • Ask yourself, "Is this new task either more important or more urgent than the remaining tasks on my aim-to-do list?
  • If it is, swap out one of the remaining aim-to-do tasks you had planned with this new task.
  • Otherwise, defer, and write the task at the bottom of the daily plan list. You could have a section named "to do when I am done with my musts /aims."

"Triaged" daily plan with new tasks added in red

Finally, use these metrics for evaluating the effectiveness of your plans.

MUST do tasks:
  • Deadlines are being met and promises are being kept
  • Tasks from this list are only rarely deferred to another day.
AIM to do tasks:
  • On most days you complete these tasks.
  • Your highest priority work is moving forward.
  • New tasks are (mostly) not displacing more important or urgent tasks on your plan.
  • All deferred tasks are recorded so that you don't forget them.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

It's resolution season!

I'm sure given the innumerable troubles of this past year many of us are thinking about making some.

If you are thinking of making resolutions this year, here are some resources about different types of resolutions, and how to increase the odds of keeping them. 

Most commonly we decide to develop new self-improvement habits.   

As you must know, almost all of these resolutions fail!  In one widely cited study, only 19% of resolution makers succeed, and most people give up within a few weeks.  

It's not necessarily the goal itself that is the problem.  Instead, lack of planning and follow-through, or starting when you are not yet committed to making behavior changes are common issues. Here are links to 3 guides to effective habit formation:

  • How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide by James Clear.
  • The Simple Guide to Creating Habits for a Great Year by Leo Babauta
  • Got a New Year’s Resolution? Here’s how to make it stick! by Charles Duhigg

Although "habit goals" are common, there are other options. 

Set a theme for the year.  A popular approach is to pick one word that exemplifies an attitude, value, or way of being you will focus on.

Author Gretchen Rubin suggests making a list of things you will not do.

Pledge to "just" stay in the moment as your life is happening.  Matha Ringer, another of my favorite bloggers, describes this approach as: 
"..go in the face of the unknown and relax into what is taking place trusting the solutions will be provided and listening for what to do next." 

My own resolution fits in this last category:

Focus on the present.
Go slow.
Be grateful for everything that is an improvement over last year.

Happy New Year to each of you!