Monday, July 21, 2014

Surviving Summer To-do Lists

Last Saturday morning, I lay in bed composing my to-do list and listening to the (metaphorical) clock ticking (I have a very quiet bedside clock). It's nearly the end of July, and although I've made a dent in my to-do list, it remains long enough that I know there's more list than summer.

This is not unusual.

Given the fact that it was Saturday, I knew other people in my house would also want my attention, at least from time to time. As my mental list grew longer and longer, it began to seem increasingly unreasonable, so I adjusted my expectations, narrowing my list to a few key things.

While this is all very reasonable and logical, it does little to shrink the actual list, which crouches like a wild animal waiting to pounce just when I'm celebrating presumed progress.
Since I can't add any days to the calendar, I've decided on my own plan of attack in order to preserve the rest of the summer with some semblance of both sanity and accomplishment.

Targeted lists. Within fifteen minutes of getting out of bed on Saturday, I knew I needed to dump the mental list onto paper. I grabbed four sheets of lined paper and wrote a heading on each: WHO, WHAT, WHERE and CP.

  • WHO: the catch-all list for the people I've been wanting to get in touch with to schedule a lunch or coffee date.
  • WHAT: the standard to-do list.
  • WHERE: my errand list.
  • CP: Class planning to-do list, perhaps the largest animal in the zoo), broken down into chapters (to read), lessons (to plan) and other miscellaneous, bite-sized tasks. 
Separating the lists by category made each one a little less daunting, allowed me to break enormous tasks (class planning) down into smaller ones and made it easier to find what I was looking for without combing a complex list for a single item. It also allowed me to put similar items together, which made things more efficient. When I'm leaving the house, for example, I need to check only the "where" list to determine the errands I need to run.

Chunked time. Years ago, a friend told me about the Fly Lady website, which advocates, among other things, tackling things in fifteen minute chunks of time. It didn't take me long to become a devotee of timer-setting, a strategy I recommended freely to my elementary students when we discussed tackling organizational tasks that seemed overwhelming.
One of Saturday's prime tasks was reclaiming my dining room table. Unfortunately, the table contained many homeless items that ended up being relocated to my office until they could be properly sorted and stored. I set a goal of spending fifteen minutes a day going through everything that got dumped in the office until it all ends up where it belongs. Last night, I discovered that what appeared to be a substantial pile on the counter was actually pretty easy to wrangle, and though my fifteen minutes became 35, the reward was well worth it.

Sampling. When the list is long, it's easy to feel as though I'm making progress in one area at the expense of others. Using the chunked time strategy above, I can make a little progress on several things in one day….and by doing "a little of this and a little of that," I get to keep some variety in my day as well. Admittedly, some days call for a dedicated approach to one task, but sampling a few undesirable tasks (and mixing them in with things I enjoy) helps me to make progress on the stuff I don't wanna do.

Flexibility. I admire people who can set a schedule and stick to it, perhaps because I am rarely one of them. I like flexibility for the same reason I like sampling: there are days I just don't wanna do the things I put on the list. When the items are time sensitive, I don't have a choice, but when they're not and a better offer presents itself, there's often no good reason not to move them to another time. And during the summer, better and more valuable offers (e.g. fun family stuff) seem to pop up often.

Armed with my strategies, I'm ready to tackle the rest of my summer. What strategies work for you?


  1. I have two planners: a "home and family" planner and a work planner that covers my freelance assignments, contributions, blog work and work for the social-media accounts I manage for a Catholic school and a video production company. It really helps me to be able to divide my task lists that way.

  2. This may not be possible or practical for everybody, but this is what works for me. I do my planning on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, I don't work, and I have an ongoing appointment every single Thursday at 3 in the afternoon in a really nice part of town. I block off the rest of that afternoon for my weekly "cultural outing": museum, monument, exhibition, or just a nice walk and people-watching in a new neighborhood or an old familiar one. My whole week revolves around that Thursday afternoon, so I know that any other appointments, work, job-searching, food shopping, gym, or house cleaning have to be done in another time slot. I try not to overload each half-day, so I can do one important thing in a morning, and one in the afternoon of the same day. I try to group my errands together, because I find that the most time is consumed by getting ready to go out of the house (finding documents, keys, loyalty card, money, directions, etc) but once I'm finally out there, I can get a lot of things done. I try to have a plan B just in case something's not open when I thought it would be, or I'm missing a document I needed for that errand, so that my time out of the house is not wasted.I also know I have to more or less be back in the house every weekday evening by 7 pm to make dinner, so that forces me to be organized to get back in time. If I know I'm going out in the evening, I make sure I take out what we're having for dinner and maybe pre-cook it before we leave if we're going to get back too late. I don't find it necessary to write lists anymore, except for grocery shopping. A simple paper planner with 2 pages per week, and a pencil with eraser, is all I need. I find this method leaves me with plenty of flexibility to change my mind and re-schedule something on another day if I don't feel like doing it, or as you say "if a better offer presents itself" (ie: the sun is shining for the first time in a week, so the heck with going to the gym). And one last thing: it's important to always have "down time": to think about what you just did or who you saw, eat a meal, or change out of sweaty clothes before going on to the next activity.I enjoyed reading how you both plan - it's rare to talk to other people about these things! Sorry this was so long!

  3. Thank you both for reading!

    Barb, that sounds smart! We have a family calendar that has all of our appointments on it, and that's my starting point for everything else.

    I used to put everything in my planner, but have discovered since I retired from a single job that lots of my tasks are large and need to be broken into chunks. That was where I fell apart with a planner. I know it's possible to make that work, but when my brain gets cluttered, I do better when I see it all spread out. Just by breaking my class planning into smaller pieces, I've checked off four things in the past two days. Guess I need that positive reinforcement!

  4. Karen, no need to apologize for the length of the comment -- I love when a blog inspires others to share!

    See, now you are one of those able to stick to a schedule people I was talking about! I'm better than I think I am, but have also discovered that being "in the mood" for a task makes me better at it. The place I have to work at being flexible is when I've got my schedule all set and someone else in my family has other ideas….

    Your cultural afternoons sound great!