April 9, 2015

Are You Drowning in To-Do Lists?

Drawing of rocks and pebbles with text: 4 Tips for Focusing on Your Priorities

We probably all have to-do lists rolling out behind us like Santa Claus’s naughty-or-nice list. I know I have writing lists, editing lists, publishing lists, promotion lists, blogging lists, email lists, family lists, calendar lists, personal lists, etc.

That list of lists makes me sound super organized, right? As though I always know what I should be working on and what my priorities should be. Ha! That would assume I have time to check things off the list.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not nearly as organized as I seem. (That’s assuming I do seem to be organized. *smile*)

“My schedule has been absolutely insane for so long that I can’t even remember when it last wasn’t insane. My inbox is a disaster where things go missing on a regular basis, my Twitter mentions are a stream of people I mean to get back to (but too often don’t), and my to-do list grows larger as I fall more behind Every. Single. Day.

I feel like I’m just barely not drowning. I joke about how my “method” is to flail randomly, but that’s not really a comfortable feeling for me.”

When I wrote that post, I was (secretly) staring down the to-do list for my publishing path, which included everything from edits and formatting to website development and learning how to put my books up for sale. Obviously, as I have two books for sale now and a third going up next month, I did manage to get things done.

So why does my to-do list never seem to relent? When I’m really focused, I get a lot done, so maybe part of my problem is that I’m not as focused on my priorities as I should be.

4 Tips for Matching Our Focus to Our Priorities

Sometimes I’ll focus really hard on…er, Twitter. Or Facebook. That’s not spending my time in ways that match my priorities.

Many of us are probably familiar with the story about rocks, pebbles, and sand and what that means for priorities. Summarized, the story teaches us that:

Our life—and the time we have to our life—is like a jar, and if we fill the jar with sand (busy work or procrastination time-wasters), we won’t have room in the jar for the big rocks (family or our life’s passions). Instead, we have to make time for the big stuff first and fit in the little stuff around those priorities.

I was reminded of that story when I came across a recent article about productivity by Laurie Merrill. Between social media and the need to keep up with our rapidly changing industry, we’re faced with a never-ending flow of pebbles and sand, and that avalanche can keep us from focusing on our big rocks.

So let’s talk about 4 things we can do to keep our focus on those big-rock priorities…

#1: Separate the Urgent from the Important

Just because something is urgent doesn’t mean it’s important. Social media, with the constant scrolling of our timelines and newsfeeds, can create a sense of scarcity—that the information will be gone forever if we don’t pay attention to it right now. (Dun dun dun!) But that’s a psychological trick to steal our focus and take our control.

Urgent causes us to react. We’re no longer in charge. Those who know me know that I’m a big Twitter user, but the best thing we can do is fit in Twitter around our must-do’s, our big rocks.

The same thing applies off social media too: Learn to differentiate between urgent and important so we can take action on the important stuff first. That’s how we maintain control.

#2: Overestimate Time for Priorities

Deadlines are great for making me focused, and I’m probably not the only one. But if we cut our deadlines too close, we can end up doing only a so-so job.

We can’t do an exceptional job with everything on our to-do lists, but our big rocks shouldn’t be shortchanged. Cleaning bathrooms? Eh, doing the minimum there is understandable. *smile*

But if something is important to us, we wouldn’t want to do a below-our-potential job just because we ran out of time. It’s far better to overestimate how much time we need for our priorities so we can do an extraordinary job with them.

#3: Label Activities for Priority Awareness

Some organizational systems encourage us to use tons of labels like A1, A2, B1, C1, etc., so every activity has a different priority. However, getting that nitty-gritty can eat up a bunch of time as we debate whether activity x or y deserves the A1 label. *smile*

However, it is good to label our activities to some extent, just so we’re aware of how we’re spending our time—and whether we’re doing a good job of matching our focus to our priorities.

I like the 4 simple labels from the article I mentioned above:

  1. Quadrant 1: Emergencies: Things we need to get done or the consequences will be severe. These crises and last-minute deadlines are important, but we don’t want to spend too much time here because it forces us into reaction mode, and we can easily burn out.
    From a writing perspective, although we might get a lot done while under a crisis deadline, this mode can stress us out, which isn’t necessarily good for our muse or our creativity.
  2. Quadrant 2: Our Big Rocks: These are the priorities that we want to work on proactively for the best results and productivity. This is where we make goals and plans and learn. This is where we’re most active and not reactive.
    From a writing perspective, anything creative, from brainstorming and drafting to business planning and learning, will have the best results when we’re in this mode.
  3. Quadrant 3: Distractions: These are the urgent but not important activities we all have to do. These are the emails we have to answer, the social media connections we have to stay on top of, etc. But there are no consequences if we don’t get these done right now, so we should fit them in around Quadrant 2 activities.
    From a writing perspective, we do need to keep up with email and our platform, but these activities can usually be done in little chunks so we can save our big time chunks for our writing activities.
  4. Quadrant 4: Wasteful: These are the activities that don’t have to be done—ever. There are no consequences if we don’t surf that gossip site or if we don’t watch that TV show. There’s nothing wrong with wasting time sometimes—just not when we’re supposed to be doing something else.
    From a writing perspective, we already don’t have enough time for writing, so we don’t want to waste the time we do have on unimportant things. If we find ourselves here when we shouldn’t be, see if we’re procrastinating because we’re stuck in our writing.

Whether we use these labels or not, the point is that whatever we’re doing, we can use labels to ask ourselves if that activity is the best use of our time. Awareness is often the first step to improving our habits.

If we use the quadrant system, each day we can run through a quick priority list: Do we have any emergencies to deal with? No? Okay, what big rocks should we work on? Etc., etc.

#4: Refuel Creativity by Finding Balance

As I said above, there’s nothing wrong with spending time in Quadrant 4. As long as we’re not ignoring Quadrant 1 or 2 priorities, we need to “play hooky” sometimes. There is a danger of pushing ourselves too hard and burning out or of feeling like we have to sacrifice everything for our goals.

Especially for our creativity, we have to “refuel” sometimes, and that refueling is often going to look like “wasteful” goofing off. As long as we’re goofing off in moderation, those activities can help us avoid burnout or recover from a Quadrant 1 burnout faster.

In other words, efficient refueling can get us back to our priorities sooner. So we need to find the line between wasting time that should be going to our big rocks and goofing off to refuel. The former isn’t helping us, but the latter can add balance to our life.

By staying aware of my priorities, I generally don’t lose too much time to Quadrant 3 or 4 activities, but I still have a way to go before I’m a poster child for productivity. And email will always be my nemesis. *grin*

For my own guilt and sanity, it helps to reflect on what I have gotten done sometimes too. That gives me the confidence that with the right focus, I can accomplish big things. *smile*

Do you struggle with too long to-do lists? How much time do you spend on non-priority activities? Are you able to focus most of your time on your big rocks, or do you struggle with a mismatch? Do you have other suggestions for how to match our focus to our priorities?

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An important factor: Sometimes fugue or difficulty concentrating has biological or health reasons.

That’s often the case for me. If I can’t concentrate, I might need food and/or vitamin D and/or saffron and/or antihistamine and/or… Okay, so there are some other possibilities, but those are the main ones.

Paula Millhouse

Creative re-fueling – love that concept, Jami.
For me, it’s essential. One tip I’ve found helpful is spending a few minutes on Pinterest (set a timer if you’re apt to get distracted).
I look at scenery photos, and photos of animals, etc. Recharges my batteries, and sometimes I find an answer to a plot issue.

Great post.

Christina Hawthorne

You were supposed to stop by and clean my apartment. You didn’t forget that did you? More seriously, this is a great system. I do essentially this when I’m at the top of my game. When I’m not at the top of my game I end up pacing, wandering, and staring into space. Not effective.

Glynis Jolly

I think I have my priorities right. What I lack is a to-do list that I can live with. I know, sounds nuts. My problem is that I have a very small desk. On it I have the cable box to get on the Internet, another cable box that I don’t know what it actually does, a phone in its cradle, a desk lamp (goose-neck so it doesn’t take up as much room), my PC screen, speakers, a small plastic box with Avil, lotion, Vicks, and pens in it, a bottle of water, Kleenex, scrap paper, and my coffee mug. There isn’t a whole lot of room let for anything else. I’ve tried the task list at Google and the Sticky Notes gadget for the desktop screen. Both are worthless for me. Right now I’m trying the OneNote app that has a link on my taskbar. So far it doesn’t impress me. I’ve tried alarms too. They work sometimes but not for things that I don’t do at a specific time. I really do need a task list that works all the time.

Joe Kovacs

Jami, at the beginning of your post I thought you might steer the conversation toward the need to BURN all to-do lists because the very sight of them could bring on an anxiety attack and…My God!…what if you lose one of those lists. It’s a classic case of organizing so you don’t get stressed and then getting stressed because you’re trying to stay organized. LOL!

In any case, my first paragraph largely explains how I do feel about trying to get organized too often. I do keep one or two lists, but for the most part I try to address requirements as they come in to avoid getting too hyped about organization. Yes, I know, that might fall under the category of prioritizing the urgent over the important, I get it. But I find that if I do move efficiently with items as they come to my attention and if I am aware of deadlines (these I always DO write down) then I pretty much know I’ll end up having time to get everything done.

I think your quadrant idea would just overcomplicate things for me though I suppose if I really made a commitment to try, it would probably just organize things for me. 🙂

Thanks for this insightful post.

Julie Glover

I needed these reminders today. I’m soooooo behind. Like 4 years behind. LOL.

Actually, I can see a lot of progress I’ve made in the last few years, but I don’t always organize my to-do’s well. I agree with everything you’ve said here! One thing I would add for myself is learning how to say no. Not every opportunity is one you should take, and I’ve learned to check anything I’m considering against my priority list. If it doesn’t match up, I have to say that tough word “no,” so I can “yes” to what really matters.

Mary Kate

I love the big rocks/little pebbles analogy! I’d never heard that before, though I guess it’s kind of like what I’m doing. I have an excel spreadsheet with a list of “first priorities” and “second priorities”. First priorities include write, exercise, and make time for friends and family. Second priorities include tweet, blog post, comment on stuff, make soup, etc. I’m not a naturally organized person but this method of doing things really works for me.


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