As professionals in the not-for-profit sector, we are often overloaded with work. And yet we often look back at the end of the day and ask ourselves what we accomplished.
We were busy enough (often crazy busy), but rarely do we feel like we’ve made much progress. We’re like log-rollers—running hard just to stay on top of things.
What I’m going to suggest here is hardly new, and it won’t work for everyone.
Studies have proven people who take the time to think about what they want and write it down are more likely to accomplish it. Not just life goals or major ambitions but even on the micro-scale of your day-to-day to-do list.
I’m a list person. The first thing I do when I come to my desk in the morning is write down what I’m going to do that day. Checking things off keeps me on track and gives me a sense of accomplishment. People tell me how organized and productive I am, but I know full well that without writing things down, I would be anything but organized.
Granted, on any given day, I have about 72 hours worth of tasks. Putting them all on my to-do list would be overwhelming and cause me to freeze up and not get anything done. However, by focusing on priorities (take a look at your mission statement if you’re unsure about yours) and on what deadlines are coming up.
I pare it down to a doable amount. Even the things that don’t make it to a particular day’s list get done eventually.
I don’t always get everything done that I put on a particular day’s list. Life does step in now and again (like, every 20 minutes) but at the end of the day, I can always name what I’ve done, feel a sense of accomplishment for having done it and know I’ve made progress on important projects.
What about “time-blocking”?
When talking about productivity and how to get more done, someone will always bring up “time-blocking.” There are many theories about it. Some advocate the “pomodoro” method, where everything is done is 15-minute increments. Others prefer “focus time,” where you book one or two hours into your calendar to get things done. And there are hundreds of others.
Me? I don’t care. I often find these methods too rigid to work well in the kind of environment that most volunteer programs operate in daily. The amount of time I give myself to work on a particular task is less important to me than having a written list of what needs doing. So long as I have that list, I can get things done.
Trouble with procrastinating?
A bonus to making lists is, because everything is written down, I can tell when I’m avoiding a particular task. You know, that one thing that regularly gets bumped from one day’s list to the next. If I see that pattern developing, I sit down and figure out in writing why I’m avoiding that particular task or group of tasks.
The act of writing it down seems to bring it more under my control and I can look at it objectively. Whether the task is intimidating in size or I don’t really understand it, or if it’s just something I hate doing, I can look at it and find a way to deal with it. I could decide to break it into small steps and only do one or two steps a day. Or I might decide to train someone else to do it. Or, or, or….
If it’s not on paper, it’s easy to avoid even thinking about it. So the task, no matter how important, keeps getting neglected until it hits crisis point. And yet it may only take a bit of thought to deal with it.
Once you have a list, then what? How do you tackle it?
(Writer) Brian Tracy talks about “eating your frogs”. (Motivational speaker) Tony Robbins talks about putting in your “big rocks”. My high school teachers told me to answer the easy questions first.
Different ways of getting things done work better for different people. I do it all.
The first thing on my list every morning is my email. Most days, reading and responding to email is a reasonably quick and easy task for me. It lets me start the day off with a win. It also warns me about any impending crisis that might be hovering so I can add that to the list.
Then I focus on a “big rock” – some form of progress toward completing a large, important project. I rarely complete the actual project but at least I know I’m moving forward on it.
Then I “eat a frog” – tackle some task that I really don’t want to do (like bookkeeping)—one of those that I’m tempted to push off from day to day. Then I repeat. Quick and easy tasks. Progress towards a project. Something unpleasant.
It rarely works out that neatly, of course. Included on my list are meetings with people. If I only have a few minutes before a meeting starts, I’ll do a small task to fill the time, rather than embarking on a big one. I find that I can get more done this way.
I derive both flexibility and accountability from this method, if it’s even structured enough to be called a method. Flexibility to deal with the random things that always come up, and the accountability to ensure that the important things aren’t neglected is important.
All that from spending two minutes in the morning writing a well-thought-out list.
Lists keep me productive and organized. I hope they can help you get more done.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.