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.