One of my (many) faults is that I will over-complicate things, and it’s probably easy to see how that would have the tendency to infiltrate my business and personal life in insidious ways.
I’ve been a daily planner junkie for most of my adult life – both out of necessity and unbridled geekery. I’ve relied on a number of different methods to keep tasks organized, from a piece of plain notebook paper to feature-rich software. For the past couple of years I’ve relied almost exclusively on electronic methods, with the occasional scrap of paper thrown in.
For my business I use software called Swift To Do List for a number of reasons, none of which are particularly relevant to this post. Despite having used the software for a couple of years now I have never felt as though I had it set up in a way that really worked for me. My task lists would get out of hand and overly complex, bogged down in a bit of a hybrid mixture between David Allen’s GTD system and a mixture of other tricks that have worked for me personally in the past. But when I’d load up my To Do list every morning it seemed like I needed to skim through the entire thing in order to make sure that the most important things were “bubbling up” to the top. I didn’t have faith in my system, things had fallen through the cracks before.
Despite adding various toggles for the priority of a specific task, despite adding due dates and start dates, and despite the fact that I would assign them to specific areas of my business – the entire thing felt cumbersome, and so the worst happened: I started to avoid my task list altogether.
That’s a dangerous place for me to be, because I suffer from “shiny ball syndrome” (which isn’t nearly as dirty as it sounds) in that I’m easily distracted by whatever “shiny ball” happens to capture my attention at any particular moment. A new viral video making the rounds on Facebook? Shiny ball! The unread posts count on my Feedly page? Shiny Ball!
With that sudden change in focus, the email that I just read giving me a deadline for an upcoming project has now dropped completely out of my mind. It’ll pop back in again five days later, usually at a ridiculous hour like 4am, jolting me awake and inducing a cold sweat that will have me stumbling across the house in the dark to write it on whatever scrap of paper (an envelope, an empty Snickers wrapper, the back of a magazine) happens to still be laying on my desk.
I immediately went into my software and deleted all the convoluted categories, priority levels and contexts that I had set up over the past couple of years. In their place I created only two priority levels: Urgent and Not Urgent. No more lamenting over whether something is “high” priority, “low” priority or “critical” priority. It’s either urgent, as in it has an expiration date and that expiration date is coming up, or it’s not urgent, as in IT CAN WAIT.
Then I created only two categories: Important and Not Important. I used to have a mind boggling number of categories. I assigned things to specific areas of my business (a design project, advertising/marketing, blogging, partner projects, administrative tasks, etc.) As though I ever just tackled ONE specific area of my business in a particular moment. I never questioned whether that was helpful in any way, I just did it.
Now an item is either important, which for ME tends to be things that I feel are pretty detrimental to my business or a personal/professional relationship, or they’re not important, which I typically use for something that I really like the idea of but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it if I don’t get it done. I would never presume to know what’s important or not important to another person – that’s just how I divvy everything up.
Then I sorted all my tasks into one of the two priorities and one of the two categories, so an item is either Urgent and Important, Urgent and Not Important, Not Urgent but Important, or Not Urgent and Not Important. I work on them in that order.
I created the free, printable PDF file for those of you who like the go the traditional paper route. I also keep one printed out on my desk for more personal tasks and for anything that pops up after I’ve finished working for the night. I transfer those items into my software the next morning when I look it over or start a new sheet.
I’m still sticking with my software for the bulk of my task handling. One of the features that comes in handy on Swift To Do List is the ability to assign hot-keys to user-defined variables, so I’ve assigned hotkeys for each of the four squares. CTRL+1 takes me to the Urgent and Important list, CTRL+2 to the Urgent but Not Important, etc. Once one is clear I move on to the next. Same principle, more geek friendly.
You can download the printable 8.5 x 11″ PDF here: Printable Task List