Sunday, May 15, 2011

Internal Rules and the To Do List

How do you manage your mental To Do list?  A great high school teacher once told me that there's always one most important thing that you have to do.  Put that thing at the top of your To Do list, ignore the rest, and do it!  Now it's done, now you have a next most-important thing to do, so put it on your To Do list of one, and then do it.  This helps us prioritize and not get overwhelmed by how long our list is, but instead of making a long list, just do the thing that is most timely or most important. 

Now, what this rule ignores is that sometimes your most important thing could take all day and you might never make it to the next most important thing.  This could be a big problem if they both need to be done by tomorrow. 

It also ignores the fact that some of us can multitask, although I think the latest research says that we can't do it well. 

I think this works for short-term goals, but not for the long-ish term.  For example, I have five work-related tasks that I need to accomplish this summer (without pay, 9-mo contract).  Each of them could take an infinite amount of time.  Instead of doing the most important one first and possibly never getting to the others, I'll have to work on each task twice a week for a bit.  I was messing around with how I might do this and threw it into my Google Calendar to see how it works once my summer school class starts up.  Here's what it looks like:


The big problem today, though, is that right now I have a daunting task that I have to do to finish up my semester-- grade long research papers.  There are 20 things I can think of that I'm actually really excited to do right now, like make my summer syllabus, start researching for my climate change class in the fall, organize all of my papers from this semester into their respective binders, etc.  However, if I follow my internal rule that I can't do these "fun" tasks until my one most-important task is done, I can't touch these things I'm motivated to do right now until I finish my grading, which I am not motivated to do. So my internal rule is keeping me from doing the things I'm motivated to do.

Here's another example.  Dave spent an extra day in Boston and bought me two books at the Harvard Book Store that he knew I'd love (see previous post, what a sweetie!) and I'm just dying to read them, but my internal rule says that I have to finish the two books I'm actively reading now before I can start these new ones.

Here's one last example as to why this might be a bad idea.  Every day, the last thing on my mental list of things to do is to exercise.  Do I ever get to this?  Nope.  The result?  Hiking/backpacking season is two weeks away and I am a muscle-less blob. 

I'm curious how all of you think about your to-do list and your goals.  Do you write it down?  Use a digital version?  (Note the cool check-off list you can put on each day in the Google Calendar above.)  Do you make internal rules for yourself like I do?  Does this help or hinder your progress?  I've heard of some women saying, "I'll wait to have kids until..."  so I can imagine this internal rule thing might hold true for really huge life-goals.  What do you think?


Becky said...

I use Google tasks for my work-related to do list and show it on my Google calendar (which I use for my personal calendar but is also what my office uses for office events.) The only problem I have with this system is that at the end of the day, it's too easy to drag my uncompleted tasks to the next day on the calendar, so I have a few tasks that I've been dragging from one day to the next for weeks. ;) I also wish Google tasks had a way to prioritize tasks so that they'd be listed in order of priority. My current solution is to put asterisks before the most important ones so that the pop to the top of the alphabetical list for that day.

YellowBunnies said...

Becky, the asterisks idea is genius! I also get annoyed that my list isn't in order of priority. I also suffer from carrying tasks over to the next day for long periods of time. Ah well.

Anonymous said...

YellowBunnies... this is MOH (Janis)! Miss you bunches and just started reading your blog again. Hope you will be in the hometown area sometime soon. Hope all is well. Do you know Lily is going to be a big sister?? :)

YellowBunnies said...

Janny!!! Had no idea Lily is going to be a big sis! That's what happens when I'm an awful friend and don't return phone calls. Ugh. Sorry! Will email you or call soon (especially since you might not read this)!