photo via MonikaHibbs.com
Let’s be honest, from time to time, we all have mini (or major) meltdowns relating to our to-do list. It’s easy to do when we’re expected to say yes to every meeting request, every opportunity, every anything thrown our way.
It’s also funny, because (disclaimer) I originally wrote this article way back when I had a 9-5 advertising job. I thought it would be interesting to revisit it, and see how much had changed, and if it still applied to my current, self-employed situation. It turns out, that no matter what your job, having a strategy to tackle your to-do list is imperative, regardless of your profession.
Here are the tricks that I return to again and again when my to-do list starts getting scary.
1. WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN
This sounds silly, but this tip has a zero percent failure rate. It doesn’t matter if it’s the tiniest task in the world. Chances are, you’ll get sidetracked and forget about it. Not only will the act of physically writing it down help you remember, but it’s tricky to forget something that is staring you in the face. Secondly, if you’re feeling really overwhelmed, again, write out your to-do list. Once you see how many things you have on paper, you’ll feel much better once you have an official action plan to get it all done. Not to mention, it probably doesn’t look as bad on paper as it did in your head.
Also, experiment with different ways to write things down. For example, some people like to use physical paper (like the Day Designer or the Design Love planner, which I’ve heard wonderful things about–has anyone used either? I’d love your feedback!) or others like to use email, notes on their computer, or a word document. Experiment with different ways of making your list, and then use what works best for you.
2. BUCKET YOUR TO-DO LIST
This brings me into my second point, bucket your to-do list. Whether it’s by task type, category, or even if you can rank your tasks “Low-Medium-High”. This will help you prioritize and focus only on the big things.
I’m also attempting to organize my schedule in a way that allows me to dedicate certain days to certain projects. For example, on Tuesdays and Thursdays ONLY I work on X. Mondays and Wednesdays ONLY I work on Y. Once you get in a rhythm, you accomplish things so much faster, vs. stopping and starting for a couple hours each day here and there.
3. CHANGE UP YOUR SCENERY
When I’m having concentration issues, it always helps for me to change my scenery. Book a conference room, work from Starbucks for a couple hours. Even take a 15 minute walk around the block. If your days are meeting heavy, see if you can schedule a coffee meeting instead of a meeting in the office. Your day will be much more productive if it’s less monotonous. Even if you don’t work in an office, it can get stale really fast staring at the same wall at home, or sitting at your breakfast bar working 8 hours per day. Get out of the house, and you’ll get a new perspective.
4. PICK UP THE PHONE
I really struggle with this one because I’m the kind of person that likes to have everything in writing (you know, “I have in this email right here that you agreed to this deadline” kind of thing). Contrary to that though, we accomplish so much more when we can engage in conversation. Instead of sending 10 one-off emails, call someone and discuss it with them live. Better yet, stop by their desk and talk it through. Congratulations, you just saved yourself from what would have been about 2 hours worth of emails!
5. USE GOOGLEDOCS TO TAKE ALL YOUR NOTES
This is probably the most useful for me. I have a running google doc with notes from every conference call, every meeting, presentation, discussion, etc. That way, there’s no rummaging around my desk trying to find my notes. No worry in throwing away the sticky note with the client feedback I just received. I’m able to access it wherever I am, anytime, any place. This is extremely helpful even if you don’t have a full time job. Maybe you’re a student- create a separate googledoc for every class and keep all of your notes in the same place.
6. USE YOUR CALENDAR
No brainer. Have recurring tasks? Put reminders in your calendar when you have big deadlines. Even if you forget, your calendar will remember for you!
7. STOP SCHEDULING SO MANY MEETINGS
When I first read this article in Psychology Today I was floored. A recent study found that 30% of our time spent in meetings is wasted. Stop scheduling so many damn meetings! If you need to ask someone a few questions, refer to point #4. You don’t need to “schedule a meeting” for that purpose. Use them sparingly! This was probably my #1 biggest productivity problem when I worked at an agency. We would seriously schedule meetings about meetings about meetings. (Yes, that actually happened.)
It’s a little different as a blogger and a freelancer, because you aren’t working with a team that you can huddle together and say “okay guys, let’s revisit our meeting strategy.” I get several meeting requests per day, but they’re mostly networking based. Everyone wants to grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, attend an event, etc–and I WANT to say yes to all of them, but if I did, I would have no time in the day to get anything done. This is probably one of the biggest pain points that I have. To fix it, I’ve attempted to only schedule meetings on certain days per week, at certain hours of the day, to really preserve my “golden hours” of productivity.
For example, I am way more productive in the morning. I probably accomplish 75% percent of my best work by noon. After that my productivity goes down significantly, which makes it a great time to do more busywork that doesn’t require a lot of focus, and also meet for coffee, get outside, network, do photoshoots, etc.
8. PICK 3-5 BIG THINGS. FOCUS ON THOSE FIRST.
When work gets overwhelming, sit down and re-evaluate what is actually on fire. Pick a handful of things that need to be done that day. It makes things much easier to tackle. Be realistic. You aren’t going to accomplish 10 things. You likely have several deadlines you can move back, or items that aren’t time sensitive. So do just that–move them back.
9. STOP FREAKING OUT. NOBODY IS GOING TO DIE.
In my advertising career, one of the best accounts I’ve ever worked on was an ice cream brand. I remember being extremely stressed out at the office one summer day (you know, peak ice cream season) and my boss said, “Jess. We’re selling ice cream. Nobody is going to die.” It was a total eureka moment, and that attitude has stuck with me ever since. Stop freaking out about things that don’t matter! When something goes wrong, take a deep breath. Think about how it factors into the big picture. Chances are, it probably doesn’t.