Email for your to do’s?

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Should you use your email as a to do list?

There are pros and cons, as there are to most other organizing issues. 

The cons: 

  1. It gets too crowded in your in box to find things effectively, unless you’re a champ at deleting emails (forest for the trees syndrome),
  2. even if you use clearly labeled folders, you can have too many places to look to find your to do’s (a GTD no-no),
  3. you have to rely on the way the email is phrased by its writer, which won’t be consistent with the way you’d write things on your own to do list (and you’ll probably have to wade through several paragraphs of blah blah blah to get to the to-do),
  4. once you do something, do you delete the email?  If you don’t delete it, it just clogs up the in box.  You can mark an email as replied-to, or create a whole stack of subject folders to parcel them into, but that’s a lot of work. 

The pros: 

  1. Hey, it’s right there.  No more work to do (such as writing it down elsewhere),
  2. some emails contain a to-do that will take you 2 minutes or less, so it’s not worth the effort to record it elsewhere,
  3. if you need to re-read a thread of messages to refresh your memory and trace the progress of the to-do, they’re all right there and
  4. you can park emails in a Waiting For folder so you can follow up on what you’ve done. I don’t generally recommend folders. It’s super easy to search your email so creating folders for everything is a waste of time. 

What do you think? Do you have a favorite method?

8 productivity traps to avoid

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What is productivity, really? It’s not just clearing off your desk or ploughing through your email inbox. Stop, take a breath and make sure you’re getting the important stuff done.

Obviously, productivity involves producing. Producing widgets, events, reports, sales. The more producing you do, the more money you have and the greater success your company has. Right?

It’s not that simple. It doesn’t matter how many widgets you produce if no one buys them. It doesn’t matter how many reports you produce if they’re irrelevant. So, productivity must be tied to a worthwhile goal.

This is a simple concept, but one that is easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of the day. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking you’re productive when you answer emails and phone calls and get paper off your desk.

They clamor for your attention. The trick is to handle them or keep them at bay while you spend time on the things that actually are important, that are quietly waiting for you to get to them.

So, here are the eight productivity traps you need to avoid:

  • The “I can do it all” Trap.
    Newsflash: you can’t do it all, and you’ll never be able to do enough. There will always be more you could have done. This is the perfectionism trap.

    Solution: decide when enough is enough. What is the ROI on your time for a particular project?

    If you’re talking about getting a contract that will be half your profits for the year, spend a lot of time on it. If you’re talking about figuring out how to save $40 a month on supplies, spend an hour or less on that.

  • Picking a system and then not using it consistently.
    Stick with certain ways of doing things. Keep your to do list in the same spot and create items for it with similar language all the time.

    This allows your mind to concentrate on the content rather than being distracted by the form. Let the form be the holder for the content; something to bring it to you efficiently and invisibly.

    Each form has its own good qualities, so you just need to pick one. What if phone book entries were all written differently? Some with the first name first, some the last name, some the address first, some the phone number first? Can you see how much harder it would be to look through a book like that and find what you need?

  • The “But we’ve always done it that way” Trap.
    Take time to look at what you’ve been taking for granted and see if its efficiency or productivity can be improved. This can be anything from regular meetings to how your desk is set up to how you get to work in the morning.

    Anytime you hear yourself saying “we always (fill in the blank),” question that statement. Do you “always” for a good reason? A good reason two years ago may not be applicable anymore. Is it necessary?

    Could it be done faster or piggybacked onto another task? Sometimes just thinking carefully of the steps involved in a particular project can spur a brainstorm to improve it.

  • The “I don’t know what to do next” Trap.
    Be your own boss, and your own employee. When you’re the boss, you formulate and set goals and figure out ways to get there. When you’re the employee, you get down to work on those tasks.

    By separating these functions, you don’t second guess yourself as much. Your boss has already decided, for example, that a new brochure needs to be created and it should have certain elements and be ready in 3 weeks. As the employee, you start writing the new copy; you don’t waste time worrying about whether the old copy really needs changing, or if 3 weeks is a realistic deadline.

    If new information comes up while the project is in progress, the plan may change. But, again, trust that the decisions you make as the “boss” are the best you can make with the information available, and then let your “employee” act on them.

  • The “I just can’t focus on what I have to do” Trap.
    Most of us thrive on novelty. We crave variety. The latest thing almost always can get our attention.

    So you need to figure out some tricks to make your existing project seem new again. Tackle it from a different angle. Ask a colleague for advice and see it from his or her point of view.

    Break it down into components and then work a little on each one so you don’t get burned out on any one element. Pack up your materials and do some work elsewhere; a conference room, your kitchen, a café.

  • The “I need more information first” Trap.
    This is a variation of #1. You must control your options. People generally confuse having lots of options and choices with getting the best possible result. Fewer choices might mean that the best one was left out.

    But, lots of choice can induce paralysis. There’s an infinite number of questions to ask and conditions to satisfy to determine which choice is the best. And as long as you’re stuck on that task, you aren’t getting to the doing of the project.

    Have some simple criteria to judge options, gather them quickly and move forward. What really matters is getting the house built, not making sure you had the world’s best hammer to do it with.

  • The “Everything seems equally important” Trap.
    There’s no way you’ll get everything done. If you ever did, you can be sure more things would crowd in the door behind them.

    You must set up criteria for what the important things to do are. In addition, identify things that don’t meet that criteria and consciously decide not to do them. Be clear about what you’re not

    Why? Because if you don’t, those items will remain on a phantom to do list, forever undone and forever bugging you. Even though you’re not doing them, they suck energy away from the important things.

  • The “Everything seems equally important” Trap, part 2.
    If you can’t get everything done, and you don’t set your own criteria for what’s important, that means that someone else is setting it. Your boss, your mother, whoever.

    Think of this not as having to give things up, but regaining power over how you spend your time.

The payoff is having clarity about what you are doing, which makes you more productive and efficient. The way to avoid these traps can be as simple as maintaining a regularly reviewed to do list and remember to ask yourself, “why am I doing this?”


Getting things done, in a nutshell

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I came across a great, succinct description of David Allen’s Getting Things Done process on the ToDoist blog. Here it is:

  1. Capture – collect what has your attention. From little to big, personal to professional, record every single to-do, project or task that’s on your plate. Use a to-do list app like Todoist or even a simple pen and notebook, but get everything recorded as it pops into your head.

  2. Clarify – process what it means. Make the decision: are these items actionable? If not, remove it from your list. If it’s actionable, decide what action you need to take next. Delegate if you can. If it’s a big project, like Marketing Plan for 2014, break it down into a hierarchical order with subprojects and subtasks.

  3. Organize – put it where it belongs. Place actionable items in determined lists, like people to call, emails to send, or papers to write. Adding priorities to these tasks is ideal.

  4. Reflect – review frequently. “This is where the clarifying step pays off, because you should be able to pick something you have the time and the energy to do right away,” says Alan Henry of LifeHacker. Consistently revise your lists to decide what to do next. Schedule a weekly overview to see where you can streamline and update your lists.

  5. Engage – simply do. “Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence,” says David Allen.

I’m a big fan of the Getting Things Done system. All the steps are important. Capture and clarify have to go together. It’s great to have all your to do’s and ideas scribbled on Post-Its, but if you don’t figure out what to actually DO with each one, they’re useless.

After you figure that out, it’s usually clear where to put each item, the organizing step. When you haven’t taken time to clarify, your pile of captured ideas remains an undifferentiated and intimidating mess.

Reflect is a big step. It’s partly figuring out when you’ll do each task and also figuring out how each one fits in with your bigger picture. That is, all the other tasks, and all the other life stuff you have going on. You also consider what Allen calls context; what do you have time, energy, resources and the right environment for? For example, you can have a conversation while driving, but not compile your Post Its.

Finally, just do. Trust your system and know that the task you’ve chosen is the best thing to do right now.

This blog post also describes the Pomodoro method (using a mechanical timer for work periods and breaks) and the Seinfeld method (doing something each day on a particular project and not breaking that chain of actions). Check those out too!

Does a To-Do List Have to be a List?

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Most of us are way too busy to remember all that we need and want to get done. That means it’s important to use a tool of some kind to keep track of it all. The most common one is a to-do list.

What if you hate lists? What if the prospect of making a list fills you with terror? What if your list is so long that you want to go straight back to bed and forget about it?

The good news is, you can use other tools.

To get your list down to a manageable size, divide and rename it. If you have an aversion to doing that intimidating important thing on your list, use a little structured procrastination. If you just don’t want to write a list, draw it instead.

Alexia Petrakos of the Alternating Current wrote today about how to-do lists suck. She’s tried written lists six ways from Sunday and they just don’t work for her. Her solution is to make maps and pictures instead.

I like how she describes the activity of map making and how moving her hand, hearing the sound of the marker (and sometimes the scent), and looking at them on her wall all help her remember and keep track of what she’s doing.

Appealing to multiple senses and learning styles is super effective.

I get the same result from writing my lists over and over again. I’m visual but I’m also wordy. Once I’ve written something, I have a visual memory of where it is on the page and the words I used to describe the task. Sometimes I don’t even need to look at the list again because the act of writing cemented it in my mind.

I never get that sense when I make lists on my computer, so I don’t do that anymore.

If you hate lists, quit making them. Try drawing as Alexia does. Try mind mapping, a specific type of drawing with words and pictures. If a technique doesn’t work for you, dump it and go for another one.

Do you prefer drawing to writing? Have a to-do list horror story to share? Let me know in the comments!

Mind Decluttering Mini Sessions

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For those of your who’ve been on tenterhooks wondering what the next incarnation of the brain dump would be, here it is. Keep reading to find out if it’s for you, or for someone you know (and tell them about it!)

Are you too busy and overwhelmed even to think about hiring me? Or even read this entire BLOG POST? 😉 You see a million things in front of you, every item catching your attention. Not one actually MAKING you feel like you’re whittling down your to do list.

And the panic starts to bubble in your chest.

You feel the prickle of frustration bunching your shoulders, and you burst out, “dammit, I have got to get this crap under control!” But there’s no solution to grab, and even THINKING about how to get a handle becomes ANOTHER thing on your to do list, so the idea is shoved to the back burner, again.

Meanwhile, time and money trickle out of your business. And that item you just shoved away could actually be the golden ticket that frees you from to-do-list purgatory.

Maybe you and I have talked or you’ve read my blog and know that I could help you. Then you think, “I don’t even have time to explain what’s going on! Much less carve out time to fix it.”

I’m going to give you that time.

Click here to schedule a free mini mind decluttering, or brain dump. We’ll talk for 20 minutes and get right into what’s bothering you. I listen. You feel stressed and want to attack everything at once. You can’t think straight and you’re not getting things done.

When you’re in the middle of things, it’s hard to see the way out.

This session will bring spaciousness so you can relax and step back a bit. That allows you to see the larger picture and understand what’s working and what’s not. You choose a next action or two and are confident that they’re do-able. Those holes where the money and time are leaking out will start getting plugged.

You’ll have the clarity and focus to know whether you want to work with me and what I can help you with. That’s going to be things like making more money because you’re working more efficiently and helping your clients more effectively. You’ll get back on track doing your best work with renewed energy and ease.

If you do decide that I’m your gal, we’ll concoct your perfect coaching package of phone sessions and email consultations. I wish I could solve all your problems in a mere 20 minutes, but alas, I can’t. You’ll need to commit some time if you want things to improve.

This can range from a “prepaid card” that entitles you to 15 minute decluttering hotline calls when you need them, or regularly scheduled longer sessions where we go deeper to ferret out clutter causing conditions and correct them (with alliteration!). Or a tailor-made combination thereof.

I’m offering these free sessions through June 10th only (they may come back another day, but I don’t know when, so do it now). If you’re tired of being too overwhelmed to do anything about being overwhelmed, this is your chance.

Tips for To-Do Lists

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I’m giving a talk tonight in San Francisco about optimizing your to-do list. There’s still time to sign up here: Biznik meeting.

To do list tattoo I’ll summarize my talk here, in case you can’t make it. First, there are a bunch of reasons to make daily to-do lists if you don’t already. They help you focus in on the small number of things you need to get done and actually can get done. Everyone is busy and gets distracted by myriad things daily. Put 3-5 tasks on your list.

Writing down those tasks clarifies them. When they’re in your head, they’re a little vague. If you have to write them or tell them to someone, you fill in lots of important details that your mental version overlooks. It’s important to write down projects that only you are responsible for. If you’re not accountable to anyone for them, you’ll often relegate them to your free time, and we all know that “free time” doesn’t really exist.

Make sure your list items are really to do’s and not entire projects. You can’t “do” a project. Projects have multiple steps. If “redecorate the guest room” or “design the new brochure” are on your list, you’ll feel lazy and incompetent for not doing them. Instead, put “look at curtains for the guest room,” or “draft the Services section text for the new brochure” on your list.

If there are undone tasks hanging around on your list, make a “not to do” list. This is where you write down those tasks that you feel guilty that you haven’t done, but you honestly know that you’ll never do them. Things that others want you do to, or that you feel you “should” do. Even when these aren’t written down, they nag at you. Put them on this list and then burn the list! Let go of those tasks forever.

When are you going to do the things on your list? Make sure you know where your time is going, if you find yourself running out. Track your time by setting an alarm to go off every hour. Stop and make brief notes about what you did since the last alarm. Don’t judge yourself, but get curious; when do you get most distracted? By what? How long does it take to do routine tasks? We often underestimate that time because we do them automatically and the time seems short. Until you know where your time is going now, you can’t make effective decisions about changing what you do.

Keep losing your list? Have it tattooed on your arm. Courtesy of robstephaustralia.

Natural Organizing

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You aren’t a cookie cut from a generic mold (even though you’re sweet). You deserve more than a cookie cutter approach to organizing. Methods you’ve read about in books may partially work, or not work at all. Or they’ll work for awhile but then something happens to make them stop working.

That’s why it’s so important to have your own personalized system.

Your system doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. It doesn’t even have to look like a system to anyone else. What matters is that it works and its flexible (to accommodate your expanding, changing life). It has to be simple enough that if you drop it for awhile you can pick it up again without much grief.

Mainly, your organizing system has to suit who you are and what your life is like, today.

That’s why I emphasize awareness and intentionality. You know things about yourself, like, you’d rather have things on a shelf than in a drawer. Here’s an example, featuring multiple calendars. Here’s another one, from me.

I’ve tried on several occasions to use online or computer task lists and I never stick to it. I revert to small pads of paper that I keep next to my computer. That works fine for me. Although I’m on the computer all day, having the task list on there just never felt natural to me. My hand was always reaching for a pen.

My system is not terribly tidy or photogenic.

It’s a cycle of writing down notes and to-do’s and then putting the notes somewhere for safekeeping (in Evernote, usually. So, yes, I do type them) and rewriting my to do lists by hand as things get done or just dumped off the list.

There’s rarely a time when you’d look at my desk and say, “my, how organized!” That’s because I just got off a call and have a page of notes, or I haven’t crossed off enough items to decide it’s time to rewrite my list.

It’s always in progress. Always.

Why does this work for me?

  • I like a to do list I can see all the time. I don’t want to navigate to a new window to view it. That bugs me.
  • I can easily experiment with new formats and schemes, such as making categorized lists, drawing different bullet shapes, or drawing boxes around tasks to highlight them. All these things can be done instantly with paper and pen.
  • I can stuff a list in my pocket and go out and do errands without synchronizing anything.
  • I can spread out multiple pages on my desk and compare them and reorder them effortlessly.

This is just one example of how I discovered a hybrid system that works for me, based on my reading, client experience and, mostly, self awareness. There’s no reason to use a system just because a book says so, or you paid money for it.

Want help discovering how to organize your time and your stuff in ways that feel natural and are easy and satisfying to use? I’m thinking up a way to offer you a free sample of this, so stay tuned! Or, ahem, go to the Hire Me page.

Make a not to do list

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ImageTo do lists are a dime a dozen. I’ll bet you have a dozen hiding somewhere on your desk.

They have important tasks on them, but are also liberally peppered with:

  • things you don’t really have to do
  • things you keep saying you’ll do, but don’t
  • things you have no intention of doing, but think you should
  • things that were a good idea at the time, but have become irrelevant

You get the picture. The problem with having them on your to do list is that they distract you from the real to do’s, the ones that will make you money, advance your career and develop your super powers.

The beauty of a “not to do” list is that you’re allowed to keep it in the back of a drawer in the unlikely event that you’ll want to move something back to the do-able realm. Nothing will be lost. This also stops them from nagging at you.

That’s it! Start now. Hone your to do list into a powerful tool, not a catchall for every idea that comes across your desk.