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Marathon Writer – To Do or Not To Do?

To-do List Myth

We put items on a list in order to get them done.

To-Do List Reality

The more things on a list, the more things that are never completed. The longer the list, the greater the guilt, and guilt is a strong de-motivator.

We say we put things on our to-do list so we can get them done, but in reality, we’re know one of three outcomes is likely

  • We get the item done.
  • So much time passes that the item becomes irrelevant and we cross it off the list.
  • The item remains on our list for a long time, generating guilt and convincing us we are ineffective, bad people

Feeds and Seeds

To-do lists are made up of feeds and seeds. These terms were coined by Douglas Rushkoff, in Present shock : when everything happens now. Feeds aren’t a problem; seeds are. It’s important to recognize the difference.

Feeds are temporary

  • The United Fund Campaign closes at 3:00 PM on Friday. If we’ve already made a donation or don’t plan to, we basically don’t care.
  • Feeds don’t stack. By 4:00 PM on Friday, that message is off our to-do list.

Seeds stack

  • Seeds are spring-loaded and often generated by other people.
  • They send us e-mails, assign us tasks, or have expectations for our help and cooperation. Each time we get a seed message, we open a loop on our to-do list. That loop remains open until we’ve done the required task.
  • Every unanswered question and every task we haven’t yet completed stays in the most active part of our brain, waiting for an answer.  We open more loops in one hour than our grandparents opened in several weeks.
  • Seeds stack. Right now I’m carrying about 50 seeds on my to-do list, and I suspect I’m at the low end of the scale. Many people have over 200 loops open; some have over 500.

Unwind the Spring-Loaded Seeds

The biggest thing we need to do with seeds is unwind the spring-loading someone else applied and re-load it so it works for us. Opening an e-mail isn’t a commitment to do something; it’s a chance to assess what is being asked of us. Instead of grabbing a pen and adding Read article Carmine sent me for Tuesday’s meeting, to my to-do list, what I really need to do is an assessment.

  • The article is twenty-seven pages long.
  • Carmen has no idea what my workload is like between now and Tuesday. Essentially, she’s put the ball in my court and I am conditioned to value her spring-loading over my need to control my own time.
  • If I give this situation any thought at all, I console myself that the meeting is next Tuesday, and not thirty minutes from now.

What are my choices?

  • Look at my calendar and see if I have a block of time to read a twenty-seven page article.
  • Ask Carmen exactly how this article relates to Tuesday’s meeting. If she says it will be a large part of the afternoon’s discussion, then I’m going to have to find time to read it; but if she says that she’s planning to use the 3 principles in the sidebar on page 19 as a discussion guide, then I know I can get by with a lot less reading.
  • Negotiate a mutually-agreed spring-reloading with Carmen. This includes letting go of some tasks.

Seeds Take Time

The next biggest thing we can do for ourselves is remember that each seed, each loop, each to-do item, whatever we want to call them, is a time commitment. Look up Alice’s new Zip code takes less than 5 minutes. Repaint the bathroom takes an entire weekend, maybe longer.

It may help to add a time element to an entry. Look up Alice’s new Zip code (5 minutes). If we see we have several less than 5 minute items, we can group them together and get them done all at once. Or if we have that bathroom to paint, maybe we need to pick the weekend we plan to do it.

Also, it helps to break down big jobs, like the bathroom, into the first small step. Instead of reminding ourselves to Repaint the bathroom, how about reminding ourselves to Measure bathroom walls, so we’ll know how much paint to buy?

Personalize our Lists

The third thing we can do is make our to-do lists fit our personality. Some people go gaga over a slick black leather notebook, pristine white paper, and a premium fountain pen. Other people like colors, doodling, and silly messages to ourselves. If you’d like to see some cool things people are doing with their to-do lists, I recommend checking out the Google + community, The Bullet Journal.

My to-do list? Electronic all the way. iCal with 20 color-coded categories and as many automatic repeating reminders as I can build in. For my permanent records, a PDF copy of the previous month saved at the beginning of the next month.

One of the things I’d like us to do this year is build a bookshelf of books we’ve found helpful getting us into writing and keeping us there. I’m devoting the last Tuesday of each month to building that bookshelf. Next Tuesday, January 27, I’m focusing on the first book. I’ll tell  you which book got me into serious writing, and why. See you then.

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