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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Prioritization...The Missing Link in Many To-Do Lists

As I was unloading my dishwasher today, I came up with the idea for this blog entry. I've been battling low motivation and a scattered brain, like so many people do every day. Fortunately, I'm learning some really helpful tools (long story). I realized today why a lot of to-do lists don't work, and why I myself hated them for so long. To the already-overwhelmed brain, a to-do list just looks all the more daunting. Where do I start?, one asks, looking at the list. How do I know what to move onto next after I'm done one task? The answer? Creating a list by priority.

I know. Some of you are thinking, "Well, duh, Liz. I could've told you that!" But my brain just doesn't always think logically. Maybe you're not like me (you were born with better analytical skills) or maybe this little reminder on priorities will be exactly what you need to read. Even though it just about kills me ;), I list all of the things that I want to get done that day in terms of priority. Not just randomly, as I would've done with a to-do list in the past. If you're born organized, you already knew this. If you're like me, you may have picked it up along the way, but maybe didn't apply it. That old saying, "If you fail to plan, then you've planned to fail", comes to mind. I winged it for years. No to-do list or anything in the a.m. Just flew by the seat of my pants. That can be fun, at least periodically. But it usually doesn't make for a very satisfying life, one filled with achievements you can savor. To get everything done now that's required in my life, I no longer even have the luxury of choosing to be disorganized or to ignore planning time. Between writing work, college, studying, applying for a zillion scholarships, caretaking, homemaking, etc., sheer insanity would be the result if I didn't plan out my days now.

I encourage you to take five to fifteen minutes each morning and write out your own list of daily goals, in order of priority. You don't have to call it a to-do list, if that term is unappealing to you. Call it whatever you want. It won't magically give you motivation, but it will provide a sense of focus to see the flying thoughts of your brain put down on paper (or in your cell phone, if you're technologically-inclined). There's something about writing on paper that I still love, when it comes to writing it goals, be it short-term or long-term ones. I love technology, and I love going paperless, but paper will often get ignored less by me than the five zillion notes scattered electronically throughout my techie tools. But that's just me. I look at my list a few times in the day, keeping it close by. Because my memory sometimes fails me, writing things down is also a way of stopping forgetfulness in it's track. Whatever doesn't get done today, I simply move it to the next day's list.

Doing this is also a form of a reality check. Many of us think, "I can get this, this, this, that...and even more than THAT done!" Then when we make out the list of things rattling around in our brains, we see that we've written down seventeen items. Seventeen things that we're supposed to accomplish in eight hours. If you took the list a step further, and wrote down approximately how long each task would take (another step that I HIGHLY recommend you adopt as standard operating procedure), you may see that there's no way on earth that you or any other mortal being could accomplish all of those things in one day. You might be able to get half of those items on the list checked off, assuming that you have a high level of energy and get no interruptions or anything unexpected happening (which I've found never to be the case!)

Which leads me to my next recommendation. Get real with yourself. You may have wanted to get up at 4 a.m. every morning, work out for an hour in the morning, keep a spotless house, achieve that 4.0 GPA, make $250,000/year at a spectacular job, have time for every single person who needs you every time that they need you, and so on. However, if your average wakeup time for thirty years has been 7 a.m., you haven't exercised since 1986, are dead on your feet at 6 p.m. every evening without fail, and hate cleaning with a passion...you're going to have to modify, delete or delegate tasks from your life. You'll make yourself insane with frustration, guilt, anger and resentment if you consistently set impossible goals for yourself. It's important to acknowledge the constraints of time, your own energy level and any health problems, technology snafus (the bane of my existence lately!), and the inevitable human interruptions that will occur in your life. In other words...you aren't going to become a Superman or -woman. I greatly admire people who can work forty hours a week, go to college full-time, exercise six days a week consistently, always have a flawless home, and yet always seem available for community or religious services. But while I certainly do stretch myself, I will never achieve such perfection. Be very careful in comparing yourself to other people and their accomplishments.

I suggest aiming for three to five top-priority things to get done a day. Some days you'll be raring to go and will end up getting way more done. Other days, you'll be sick, overwhelmed by the unexpected demands of someone who needs you right now, or you're away from home for so many hours that getting one major thing done will be astounding. Accept this. People with young children, busy careers, a long commute, no help in the form of housekeeping, people with disabilities...the list goes on, but the truth remains the same. Life happens and when these things occur, your ability to get a ton done each day IS affected. This is not your fault! You shouldn't just, "Try harder!" You're not likely to be undisciplined, lazy or a failure if you just can't get it all done. Please, please don't beat yourself up. There will also be instances when you'll need to just take stuff off of the to-do list entirely, because the time or resources to do the item with simply aren't available. Do what you can each day with what you have available, and drop the rest.

Here's to being an organized minimalist,

Liz