August 22, 2008
Take the dog to the vet. Plan the church picnic. Babysit for Susan. Buy school supplies. Learn French. And on and on…
If you were to dump your brain onto paper, you could easily have a 10-page, single-spaced, to-do list (scary, but true.) The reality is that we are tracking bundles of "stuff" for multiple roles (mom, consultant, volunteer), multiple contexts (at home, at the office, on the road), and multiple people (yourself, your husband, each of your kids.) Add in some hobbies or special interests and the task juggling is enough to make anyone's head explode.
Before you reach for the migraine meds, let's take a look at a framework for taming the to-do list beast.
What is an Action List?
In my Life Tracking post, I wrote that my Action List is on the front-lines. It is with me daily, a noble, hard-working, foot soldier that saves me from travesties such as forgetting the dry cleaning or requesting the wrong research. By compiling all of my day-to-day minutia, the Action List gives me valuable peace of mind.
How do I Make an Action List?
To create your Action List, you must first do a comprehensive brain dump. Basically, get everything currently residing in your head, on post-its, or in your email box, and write it down in one place.
Next, put any items that are strictly date-focused on your Calendar. Examples: 3pm dentist appointment on 11/17, vacation from 9/20-9/27, lunch with Mary Thursday at noon.
Once your Calendar has been updated, move anything that you'd like to do "someday" to a Forward List. Examples: read Jan Karon books, study chemistry, take up knitting.
Projects are next. Anything that is priority or time-specific and involves multiple steps goes on the Project List. You keep this one in front of you daily, but these items are more process-intensive and need their own home. Examples: prepare homeschooling materials, redecorate the living room, research article on brain development.
What you are left with is your Action List. This is an overall picture of things you need to do in the very near future.
How do I Organize my Action List?
Sorting your Action List into contexts allows you to combine activities when appropriate. Remember, our brain works best when we don't continually shift focus. If we group like-tasks, we get more accomplished with less effort. For instance, one common context category is Errands. You save time, energy and money in gas if you can glance at the Errand section of your Action List and realize that you can combine a library run, mail drop, and prescription pick-up into one trip. These tasks may not be connected by topic, but they are connected by their context. By aggregating tasks in this way, you get the benefit of economies of scale.
Some of my context areas include: Errands, Phone Calls, Email, Other Computer Work, Scott (including his "honey-do" list), and Notepad (this is where I keep post ideas and article topics)
When do I Update my Action List?
I like to do an overall review of the week on Sunday evening. I usually feel relatively relaxed then, and I like to get a bird's eye view of the week ahead. I look at what didn't get done last week – there are always plenty of tasks in that category – and those tasks get moved forward. Then, I look over my Calendar, Project List, Forward Lists and decide what needs to get done for the week. (Moving in a week-long time-frame works best for me because of the constant interruptions that are an inherent part of motherhood:-) Then, it is just a matter of checking my Action List each morning to determine what is on my agenda for the day.
When you are a mom, life is always a little bit crazy. By taking a more methodical approach to daily planning, you can reduce stress and create a more peaceful environment, while making the most of your time.