Ever get the feeling that you just can’t keep up with all the stuff you need to do? That there’s so much ditz to cope with that you can’t get to the important things, but if you do the important stuff first, then there’s no time left to deal with the steadily mounting pile of ditz? Lately, I’ve felt my life is out of kilter because I don’t organize my time well enough to keep up with all the challenges, chores, and commitments that fill my days to overflowing.
Yesterday I worked from four in the morning to nine at night, with one break to fiddle with the pool equipment, one break to reheat some leftovers for a midmorning breakfast, and…and that was it. When I could no longer type another word or edit another confused sentence, in came an e-mail from the client expressing his wonder that I hadn’t edited two other documents he was in a hurry to get. It was almost 10:00 p.m. before I got up from my desk and stumbled into the kitchen to fix dinner.
Lists have always worked pretty well for me. But recently the sense of being utterly overwhelmed has left me too flummoxed to write lists. What to put at the top of the list? And how to get through all the things that need to be done? And when the stuff on today’s list doesn’t get finished (because there’s just too darned much to do in 12 or 14 hours), what gets lost from tomorrow’s list?
My lists sink beneath an ocean of too-damn-many-things-to-do-at-once.
Lately it has occurred to me that instead of compiling endless lists of tasks to plow through, it would make better sense to devote blocks of time to working on one general type of activity. Anything that didn’t fall into that category would be put off to some other block of time, which would be dedicated to a different kind of activity. “Blocks of time” would be restricted to whole days and half days. Theme Days and Theme Half-days.
On a theme day, all I would work on is projects related to the specific theme. And quite a few themes come to mind.
For example: I need to spend a fair amount of time on freelance projects. Right now, that work gets stuffed in around the many other things that need to get done, and it often suffers because something I perceive as more urgent gets pushed forward. Before long, I’ve fallen behind on the editorial work and then find myself laboring, bleary-eyed and fuzz-brained, to finish a late project—at midnight or one in the morning! The quality of the work suffers, and so do I.
So let’s suppose that instead of resolving (vaguely) that I must get to thus-and-such a project tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow, and so on to infinity…), I had a Copyeditor’s Desk Theme Day. What would happen on such a theme day? Or on any other theme day?
Copyeditor’s Desk Day: Read the current client’s manuscripts, proof detective novels, index page proofs; hustle business
Teaching Day: Prepare for classes, meet classes, read student papers, enter grades & attendance, communicate with students online
Cleaning Day: Do laundry, clean house, wash the car, clean out the garage, organize closets
Shopping Day: Run around the city chasing down food and household necessities
Gardening Day: Clean up the yard, fiddle with the pool
Bookkeeping Day: Enter data in Excel & Quicken, reconcile bank accounts
Social Day: Hang out with friends, go out and do something fun
Choir Day: Sing
Blog Day: Write and schedule a bunch of posts, submit stuff to carnivals, host carnivals, study SEO and AdSense, learn more stuff
Some of these activities don’t require an entire day’s worth of effort at any given time. So a single day could consist of two Theme Half-days. Choir, for example, occupies the better part of Sunday morning but is over by about 11:30. Sunday could be a double-theme day, then: Choir Day and Shopping Day.
The to-do list would contain only tasks and goals related to the day’s theme, plus of course the basic survival chores. So a Sunday, to continue that example, would be mapped out with a list like this:
• Feed dog
• Walk dog
• Change clothes
• Bolt snack-like lunch
• Write shopping list
• Go to Costco, Target, WalMart, Safeway, Trader Joe’s or Sprouts, AJ’s or Whole Foods, & Ace or Home Depot
• Unload car, unwrap & repackage bulk items, and store purchases
• Feed dog
• Walk dog
• Read & answer e-mail
• Check blog
• Fall face-forward into bed
Other types of activities need only be done once a month or once every couple of weeks. Bookkeeping, a half-day project, can wait until all the bank statements are in hand and then be combined with some other activity that can be completed in half a day: light housecleaning, for example.
Some activities need to be done every day or nearly every day—but they may or may not need to occupy an entire day. These themes could be assigned to days as activities need to be addressed, and shifted as workload demands shift. Hence…
• Blogging, Socializing
• Choir, Cleaning
• Copyediting, Teaching
• Teaching (grade papers)
• Gardening, Teaching
• Copyediting, Shopping
• Blogging, Teaching
• Copyediting, Teaching
Here’s the beauty of this scheme: it eliminates the gestalt. The frantic, scattered Brownian motion-like activity that consumes every day is replaced with focus on a set of closely related tasks.
To-do lists are focused instead of impossible agglomerations of disparate jobs that are running late.
And they’re shorter. Anything that’s not related to the day’s theme doesn’t appear on the to-do list. That helps to rein in the sense that you have so many things to do that you don’t even want to get started.
I haven’t tried this plan yet, but starting tomorrow I’m going to.
Think it’ll work? Do you have a system that works for you?