Browsing the archives for the tasks tag.
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Principles for Prioritizing, Part II: Unimportant Tasks

Strategies and goals

This is the second article in a short series on prioritizing. The first article in the series, “Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets,” appeared Monday, and includes links to other articles on the site about organizing and prioritizing.

Less important tasks may need to be dropped
When prioritizing tasks, we’re always dealing with at least two variables: how important something is and when it needs to be done. Do we do the immediate, less important thing or start working on the longer-term, more important thing instead? There’s no easy answer to this, but there are some ways to figure it out.

Of course important tasks that need to be done soon should take priority, and unimportant tasks that aren’t needed right away should be bumped to the end of your list–which for many of us may mean (sadly) that there will be no time for them. But of those other two possibilities–more important but less pressing and less important but more pressing–the decisions become more difficult. If you find that you are generally getting important things done on time without your life going haywire at all, you can probably afford to do the more urgent but less important tasks some of the time. But if you find that important, long-term things are often not getting done, not getting done well, or not getting done until the last minute, then what generally needs to happen is for some of those short-term but less important items to be dropped entirely from your task list so that you can get the more important things done.

For example, if you have a choice of working on some tax paperwork that’s due next week and reading a book for your book club meeting tomorrow, and if you find you often have trouble getting things like that tax paperwork done on time, then it’s probably time to take a hiatus from the book club.

To put it another way: effective prioritization often means giving up on less important tasks.

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Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets

Strategies and goals

One of the most challenging things about managing a task list is prioritizing. You may literally have hundreds of things to do, from raking the leaves to learning a new job skill to making up a will. Comparing and ordering these items can be overwhelming.

Following are some basic principles to apply when prioritizing tasks that can help make sense out of a very complex set of priorities.

1. Priorities change all the time
It would be nice to be able to assign every task a priority that never changes, but from day to day–and sometimes hour to hour–too many things change for this to be the case. Scheduling a check-up becomes gradually more urgent the longer we put it off, or suddenly more urgent if health problems come up. Projects around the house may have to slide down the list of priorities when a new obligation comes up that makes it unlikely there will be time for them. Problems solve themselves or get worse from inattention; opportunities arise; people change their preferences and actions. Therefore, the best prioritization we can really achieve is the priority of things at the given moment, and the most effective task list is one that you can (and do) regularly re-prioritize.

This series will continue over the next several posts.

Related articles that may be of interest include:

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How Exceptions Cripple Organization

Strategies and goals

There’s a common, natural tendency many of us have to think of a thing as more important if our attention is focused on it. This can both help and hurt us. The helpful thing is that this can offer an easy way to get started on a task, because the more we think about something, the more likely we are to do actually do it.

Where this instinct hurts us, though, is in situations where we don’t organize a piece of information because we’re worried about losing track of it.

The problem is that to keep on top of a variety of incoming information, we need to handle all of it, pretty much without exception, using the same system. For instance, if we’re using a Getting Things Done approach to organization and an important letter comes in, Getting Things Done tells us to process it immediately or put it in our inbox. But we may hold back, thinking “No, I have to be sure to remember to do this! I’d better prop it up in front of my computer instead.”

Or if using a clean inbox approach, we might get a long e-mail from a friend who’s been out of touch for some time and think “Oh, I’d better not file that in my Reply/Act box, because I don’t want to forget to write back as soon as I can.”

Unfortunately, continuing to do this leads to pieces of paper lying around all over the place or e-mails stacking up in the inbox, each one of which distracts us from our organizational system and is hard to keep track of on its own. It’s too easy to not trust an organizational system and to try to make exceptions for whatever’s right in front of our eyes. When we do this, the organizational system rapidly collapses, because organizational systems that aren’t used to handle pretty much everything aren’t much use.

If a task or message can be handled right away, though, the situation is a bit different: responding to something immediately may bypass priorities (for instance, you might spend a lot of time on the reply to that friend when it’s more pressing to follow up on a medical issue), but something will get done. The most serious problems come when something that can’t be dealt with right away is held out for special handling.

The essence of an organizational system, or at least of the kind of organizational systems I can recommend as being truly effective, is using it for everything and faithfully reviewing everything in your system often enough that you never lose track of anything that goes in. It requires a leap of faith as well as a change of habit–and so it’s no wonder that it takes some effort to make the transition from organized to disorganized. But when that transition happens, our efforts are richly rewarded not just by improving our productivity, but also by transforming scattered, anxious feelings into a measure of confidence and serenity.

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How to Interruption-Proof a Task

Strategies and goals

Some tasks require more focus than others. For instance, I can fold clothes while carrying on an involved conversation, but do much better writing these posts with few or no interruptions. Many more involved tasks can be done in flow, a state of full focus and maximum effectiveness.

The trouble with interruptions
The High Cost of Distractions” describes what happens to us when we’re interrupted at a task that requires our full attention. In essence, our brain has to completely reorient itself to deal with the interruption, then completely reorient itself again to get back on task. In the process, we also lose some of the material we have in short-term memory. These effects are less than ideal, of course, and I talk about some strategies for working with distractions in “Locations That Prevent Distractions“, “Handling Distractions by Managing Responsibilities, Devising Rules, and Erecting Barriers“, and “Dealing With Distractions You Can’t Prevent“.

And we can interrupt ourselves just as effectively as other people and things can interrupt us. The way the Web is often used is a very good example of this: we might be doing something important to us and hit a difficult spot or begin to feel tired, at which point surfing the Web or checking e-mail is an easy way to feel like we’re doing something–even though it’s actually derailing our efforts.

Mapping out the task
Apart from dealing with the distractions or interruptions themselves as described in the above articles, the other useful way we can help ourselves stay with a complex task is to have a path forward. This usually involves writing things down, which is admittedly easier if the task is something on the computer, for instance, rather than waterproofing a basement or teaching children to swim. There is a simple technique that doesn’t require any writing down, however, which I’ll mention in a moment.

Having a way forward means at least knowing the next step you’ll need to take, and sometimes means fully mapping the task out, which is to say writing out each task needed in order. Looking at the task with this kind of breakdown in mind uses a different way of thinking than plunging into the task itself. For instance, if you’re cleaning out your attic, you could just throw yourself in, or you could come up with a plan and follow that. The second approach sometimes makes it easier to get started and is a good way to help protect against interruptions causing too much trouble.

Such a map, even if it changes as you proceed, provides something to return to when an interruption is over and you’re back at the “now, what was I doing before all that?” stage.

The “next step” method
The alternative to mapping the whole process out is to always know the next step. This requires going through the task thinking “OK, right now I’m weeding, and as soon as I’m done, the next thing will be to put in the new tomato plants.” When you get to the tomato plants, as you begin you think far enough ahead to know what the task after that will be. Always keeping the next task in mind makes it possible to know what to do when the interruption is over, much like the map does. It helps to remind ourselves of the current and next tasks just as an interruption is presenting itself, as this makes it easier to recall our place when that’s done. Afterward, simply getting started on the next task is often all we need to get back on track and into the swing of things.

Picture by Yersinia

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Willpower as Caring About Lasting Happiness

States of mind

Another way to look at willpower is to think of it as focusing on lasting happiness over short-term pleasure. It’s tempting to think of pleasure and happiness as the same thing, but happiness, which comes from living in a way that satisfies our real needs, is not the same thing as gratifying a momentary urge (for more on this, see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“).

So for instance, willpower to clean up a junk room at home means caring more about how we’ll feel once that room is reclaimed–or even how we’ll feel once we’ve gotten over the initial hump and are making exciting progress–than about the potential discomfort or annoyance of getting started. Willpower to stop smoking means caring more about having good health than about quelling a momentary urge or giving in to a craving to smoke. Willpower to work harder on schoolwork or at a job means caring more about the satisfaction of getting the most out of our daily efforts than about the great number of whims and distractions we’re presented with from moment to moment that sometimes seem more appealing than working.

Looking at willpower in this way doesn’t mean postponing the benefits for months or years: lasting happiness can start surprisingly soon. For instance, with the junk room example, within ten minutes we can start to experience pride and elation at finally making progress on a long-postponed job. The nagging concern about getting that work done also lifts, providing almost immediate relief.

It’s strange that things like a doughnut, which will be gone and maybe regretted in just five minutes, or avoiding a task, which skips the trouble of getting involved in the work but often ignores the fact that the work can be interesting and satisfying once we’re in the groove, can tempt us. After all, temptations and indulgences offer an obvious but very limited kind of enjoyment not at the time that we think of them, but a short time in the future, typically, while focusing on longer-term happiness often offers a less flamboyant but still meaningful kind enjoyment in only a slightly longer period of time. Why do we sometimes fall for satisfying the imbalanced needs of ourselves a few minutes in the future instead of taking care of the versions of ourselves that will exist only a few minutes after that? Why do we so often go for pleasure in five minutes when it’s going to lead to regret in ten?

Regardless, thinking about willpower in this way gives us a simple practice we can use to improve our self-motivation: when faced with a short-term choice that we know we’d like to make a certain way, whether it’s a temptation we want to avoid or a task we want to face, focusing our attention on lasting happiness and how we’ll feel about a good choice will make us more likely to choose the option we really want, while focusing on short-term pleasure will make us more likely to follow paths we won’t be glad we took.

Photo by h.koppdelaney


My Top 1 Task

Strategies and goals

Merlin Mann on his 43 Folders site (currently posting only occasionally as he works on his book) quotes Frank Chimero asking and answering this question:

Q: How do you maintain focus (on work, dreams, goals, life)?
A: You do one thing at a time.

While I think there’s more to know, I also think Frank has hit the nail on the head. As I mention in my post “How to Multitask, and When Not To,” our brains are rigged to only really focus on one thing at a time. This is one reason task lists fail sometimes: we get the whole list of everything in there, but then we look at it and say “Aah! I can’t do all that stuff! That’s overwhelming!” Then we run and hide, or perhaps waste three and a half hours surfing the Net to find out what happened to our favorite childhood TV stars.

Even when we bravely face our task lists instead of running away, it’s still difficult to get up motivation to do something when you’re simultaneously staring at three dozen other things you need to do. My solution to this was to create a separate “At the Moment” list in the task list system I use and to put just a few items at a time in that list, the ones that I’m pretty confident I’m going to get done in the next little while, or at latest by the end of the day.

My “At the Moment” list has proven very helpful, but it hasn’t entirely solved the problem. Nor has it solved the problem of sometimes picking whichever item from the “At the Moment” list is easiest or most fun, letting myself forget that others are more important or more pressing.

So I created yet another category: my Top 1 list. I’ve mentioned before the importance of knowing the next thing you’re going to be focusing on so that as soon as you get a chance to focus on it, you can start right in instead of having to regroup. The Top 1 list just takes this idea and makes it into a practice: whatever the next thing I’m going to do is, it goes on the Top 1 list. Then as soon as I’m done whatever I’ve been doing and am free to move on to the next thing, I look at the Top 1 list–the contents of which I usually already know–and there is the thing I need to tackle. Even if that one thing is unappealing, just spending a very short time–say, 30 seconds–thinking about getting that done is usually enough to get me in gear and ready to tackle it. Having that much focus on that one item alone makes it much more likely I’ll get it done.

Of course I put a new item on there as soon as the Top 1 task is under way, feeding from my At the Moment list, which is short enough to make this process fairly painless. And choosing a task to do next is usually a little easier than choosing a task to do now, since you don’t yet have to face the task when you’re just choosing it to do a little later.

All this process does is shove a few obstacles temporarily out of the way, but often just this little advantage can make a big difference; it certainly has for me.

Photo by Koshyk

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Getting Rid of the Little, Distracting Tasks

Strategies and goals

Here’s a quick and easy exercise: look at your task list (or if you don’t have your task list, just start jotting down or typing out a list of things you’d like to get done) until you find an item that will take five minutes or less to do–especially if it’s one that you really don’t at all feel like doing. You don’t have to do it now, so it’s completely safe to pick a really unpleasant one if you can find it.

Now ask yourself: how many times have I thought about/spent time avoiding/reshuffled or scheduled this particular item? If the answer is that you jotted it down on your task list very recently when you were in the middle of something else, or that you just thought of it, either 1) you’re doing amazingly and don’t need any further information on this subject or 2) you have other less-than-five-minute items you’ve actually been avoiding and need to pick one of those instead.

Now ask yourself, just for fun or any insight it may provide, has organizing/keeping track of/thinking about/avoiding the item taken more time and attention so far than actually completing the task would? Even if the answer is “no” in this case, might it be “yes” in other cases? It certainly is sometimes in my life.

An example: my shower hasn’t been draining well lately, something I noticed a couple of weeks ago. I usually shower when I’m gearing up to go somewhere and don’t have a lot of spare time, so whenever I noticed the shower problem, I kept thinking (for the first week) “I have to remember to put that on my task list.” To my credit, as soon as I remembered it anywhere near my task list I did write it down, and I didn’t even fall for the trap of writing down “clear shower clog,” which is vague and doesn’t have a specific action attached to it, but instead wrote down “Check to see if I have any drain opener.”

Then the task sat for another week.

This morning I was reviewing my task list and doing my best to adhere faithfully to David Allen‘s very good advice about not handling things over and over: anything that would take a few minutes or less, I did it immediately rather than shuffling it around. When I got to the “check for drain opener” item, I went and checked to see if I had any drain opener. Nope. I could have then written down the next item “Search the Web for clearing shower drain ideas,” but since that too would only take a few minutes, I did it. A few minutes later I was upstairs in my bathroom, prying the drain cover up with a flat head screwdriver and then extracting gobs of my (and I suspect, the previous resident’s) hair. As a public service, I did not take a picture of that to illustrate this post. I got rid of the hair, washed off the screwdriver, and was back at my computer in hardly the time it would have taken to make a cup of tea. Then I checked the drain opening item off.

This was not always the way I would have handled things. Often in the past I would have thought “No no: organize now, do later.” The change in thinking for me was in considering these tiny tasks part of the the organizing.

Keep in mind that even if the task is very trivial, if it’s got some of your attention, it’s a win to get it done right away. That’s because there’s a point at which a task, however unimportant, takes more of your time and attention not to do than to do.

There’s a more advanced and effective step beyond what I did, which would have been to provide a little extra time to get ready each morning so that I’d have leisure to deal with the shower drain immediately when it came up. Allowing a little extra time here and there allows us to pick off a lot of things as they come up, and makes it easier to keep up with things like quick answers to e-mails, doing a few stray dishes that are sitting in the sink, or making a brief telephone call–all of which offers a more productive and less distracted life. It’s like clearing a clog to let water flow freely. And fortunately, it only takes a few minutes.

Some related articles:

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Why Task Lists Sometimes Fail

Strategies and goals

Task lists can help you get a ton of things done and give you peace of mind–but usually don’t. The average task list feels less like a train flying down the tracks of productivity and more like a train you missed, a train that’s going somewhere you don’t want to be, or a train wreck. Why? Here are the five main reasons.

1. The list isn’t really easy to get to and use
If you can’t pull up your task list in less than 30 seconds and easily update it, you’ll probably be too busy actually doing things to keep messing around with it. For a task list to be truly useful, it has to be easily accessible everywhere you might want to use it, and it has to be very easy to find, add, change, and check off items. Otherwise it’s a constant burden and an interruption, and it takes enormous effort to keep up with a habit like that.

Find a tool for tasks you love that’s available where you need it. Since I’m almost always near a computer, I like the free service called Todoist.

2. Not everything is on it
If you keep some of your tasks in your task list but others in other places–like sticky notes on your computer, scribbles on pieces of paper, or even physical reminders like leaving out something you need to fix instead of putting it on your list–then you can’t trust your list to tell you what you should be doing at all times, which is its job. An effective task list needs to have everything you need to do on it. This requires getting in the habit of immediately going to your task list to add a task whenever you promise to do something, think of something you need to attend to, receive something in the mail you have to respond to, etc.–or make sure all of your tasks get written down and use the paper management approach I talk about in this post about how to handle incoming paper and this post about organizing and filing.

3. It doesn’t get reviewed regularly
If you put things on your task list and then avoid looking at it again, then it won’t be up to date or useful. If you’re not looking at your task list regularly, it’s probably because your task list is stressing you out (see #s 4 and 5, below) or because it’s too much of a pain in the neck to use (see #1, above)–or both.

4. It lists wishes instead of tasks
Many task lists contain items like “Take care of leaky faucet.” This is not a task unless you already know how to fix a leaky faucet and have all the tools and supplies you need. A task is something that you immediately know how to do and can act on without having to figure out anything new; anything vaguer than that is just a wish, and when we look at wishes on task lists our first reaction is likely to be “Ack, I’ve got to take care of that … uh, but why don’t I [fill in your choice of procrastination here] first?” On the other hand, if the item is “Go to hardware store and buy 3/8 inch washer,” then you may think “Hey, I’m driving past there anyway … I’ll pick that up.” (Of course, once you check that off you need to immediately add the next step.)

If you have to figure out a task in order to do it, the task is figuring out what to do, for instance “Write down a plan for taking care of the leaky faucet.” Thinking things through is a perfectly good task, the first step in a sequence of steps that will eventually lead to a completed project.

5. No prioritization
If your task list is just a big mass of things that need doing, you’ll have to review and reconsider the whole thing every time you go back over it unless you take the “pot shot” approach. The “pot shot” approach can work–you just look for the first task you can do right now and tackle it–but it means you may spend all your time doing unimportant stuff.

So don’t let your task list stay a big mass. Break your tasks down into categories by the situation you’ll be in (at computer, at home, errands, etc.) and migrate more important tasks to the top. Then when you’re ready to consult your task list, just consult the right list for your situation and look at the top few items to see which one seems to be most pressing.

It may help to keep in mind that it’s not just a matter of knowing how to use a task list, buy also of being willing to adopt new task-related habits. Just knowing how to do it isn’t enough.

There’s a lot more a person could know about task lists, but the most important pieces are all in those five items. If you want more detail, I highly recommend Dave Allen’s book Getting Things Done, from which several of the ideas in this post were extracted.

Photo by GTD enthusiast MrMole


4 Ways to Make Sure You Get a Task Done

Strategies and goals

Have you ever broken a promise–even to yourself–without meaning to? Maybe you offered to do something and didn’t get around to it, or made a resolution and didn’t follow through, or it you wanted to be involved in something but forgot to show up because there were other things going on.

If you haven’t had this experience–if you never neglect to do anything significant you intend to do–then you don’t need this article. For the rest of us, I have four simple points that help ensure things get done.

1. Get it down in writing somewhere you’ll see it. Our brains can only hold a few priorities at once, and those priorities shift from hour to hour, or even moment to moment. If you have a task system that you already actively use, that’s an ideal place to put the task. Or you could put a temporary note somewhere in your way. For instance, whenever I have to remember to bring anything with me in the morning, I put a post-it note on the front door, where it will always present itself to me before I go out. Another option is to put a note in a calendar system you use, or to have it pop up as a reminder in your e-mail program, phone, or PDA (if you use something that offers a reminder feature). Whatever you do, it needs to be in writing so that you don’t have to depend on having the information in short-term memory, and it needs to be somewhere you’ll naturally see it again so that you don’t have to keep an item in short-term memory just to review it.

2. Figure out the next explicit action you need to take. An action is a specific behavior that you already know how to do. For instance, “clean the garage out” isn’t an action, because where do you start? And are you supposed to clean it all in one marathon session? etc. Instead, think about what you would do if you were going to start on the task right away, and how you would describe it if you were going to have someone else do it for you. If the thing you want to get done is cleaning the garage, your next action might be “sit down with calendar to find a four-hour block of time to start working on garage” or “Call dump to find out hours” or “E-mail Jerry to find out if he wants the old couch.” Explicit actions free you from worrying about the whole big project, whatever it is, and allow you to focus on doing one specific thing that you know how to do. If you don’t know what to do, or do but don’t know how to do it, then your next task is to get the information you need. It could be “Talk with Marcia to find out what she wants moved out of the garage” or “Find blog posts by people who have successfully cleaned out their garages” or “Sit down at computer and brainstorm things I’ll need to do to get the garage cleaned out.”

Once you’ve completed that action, figure out what the next action is and write that down (or do it immediately and follow up with the next action after that).

3. Be prepared to say yes. It won’t help to know that you need to do something and know what it is if you aren’t going to do it when the chance arises. At some point there has to be a decision that “OK, I’ll do that now.” Fortunately, this is much easier if you know that you have do do something and have a specific, doable action in mind.

4. Fix conflicts and obstacles. Some tasks won’t need this step. Depositing a check, reading an article on the Web, or making pancakes for the kids may not present any serious difficulties. However, if your next action is “Talk to mom about moving her to a senior care facility” or “Draft letter of resignation,” for instance, there may be barriers between you and getting that action completed. Here are some of those barriers and what to do about them.
A. Lack of knowledge. If you don’t know how to do what you need to do, then probably your real next action is to learn something–by reading, seeking out someone more knowledgeable, taking a course, finding a step-by-step guide, etc.
B. Anxiety, fear, guilt, anger, etc. If a negative emotion is getting in the way of you taking the action you have decided to take–for instance, if you’re too angry to talk constructively with your coworker who just caused your big project to fail, or if the very thought of talking to your mom about assisted living makes you want to go stick your head in the sand, then it may be necessary to work through that emotion as your next action rather than moving ahead with something more task-oriented. Working this through could be accomplished by journaling, talking with a friend, or talking with a therapist or other professional. You may simply need to apply idea repair.
C. Someone or something you’re waiting for. If someone else needs to do something before you can make progress, you have three choices: wait for them and do something else in the mean time; try to encourage them to move ahead; or find a way around them. Realistically, there may be times when you don’t have any other option than to wait, but these are the minority: usually, there will be something you can do to move almost any project forward, even if it’s just preparation for a later step while you wait for someone whose input is necessary for the current step.

Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation.

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Relieving Stress by Understanding Your Inputs

Strategies and goals

This morning I got out of bed with the realization that I often have to sort out the same set of e-mails twice: once on my desktop and once on my laptop. Realizing that this was getting in the way of me keeping on top of e-mail as it comes in, I found myself a good Web-based interface for my e-mail, where I started by working on just my last ten days of e-mail. I went through every single non-spam message I had received in that time, sorting them into appropriate folders, responding to or following up on the ones that could be done within a minute or two, and putting about half a dozen that will require more time into a special “REPLY/ACT” folder where I’ll be able to easily tackle them in order. Then I went over the past month and a half and any marked e-mails in my own inbox and added anything that stood out to the REPLY/ACT folder.

And now my inbox is empty. This doesn’t mean that I have no e-mails to respond to, but that I’ve cleared away everything except the e-mails that will need detailed responses and have those easily accessible in priority order. As new e-mails come in, I’ll deal with them in a similar way, since I have a system in place and am going to the same spot to handle e-mail whether at home or on the road. Instead of always opening my e-mail box to a long list of mostly-unimportant e-mails, I’ll open it to a few things that I’ll review, fire off quick replies where those are needed, and have a single place where the bigger tasks will go. Everything else will get filed away. This takes very little time, now that my system is set up. And since I had been gradually developing my ideas of how to sort e-mail in past attempts at this process, it all came together quickly, in just over an hour!

Update, March 30th: I’ve continued emptying my inbox this way virtually every day since I started the process, and it has continued to be much easier than my old process. My REPLY/ACT folder sometimes gets more full and sometimes less, but “full” in this case is at most 16 items. The system seems to be working, and I’m definitely much more responsive than I have been in the past, in large part because I get the short responses out of the way immediately regardless of how important they are and have the e-mails that need longer responses somewhere they’re easy to find and pick off.

What Stress Has to Do With Organization
We can mostly only do one thing at a time, so ideally we’d always know exactly what that one thing should be at any time. Let’s say you’re at home, no phones are ringing, and nothing’s on fire. What do you choose to do with your time? Relax and watch a movie? Wash the plate and glass on the counter? Go over your kid’s homework? Fix that squeaky door? Catch up on some reading for work? Call your old friend from college you’ve been wanting to get back in touch with? Organize papers for tax season? Every responsibility–like housekeeping, friendships, bills, work, concerns about world hunger–and every way we communicate–like mail, notes sent home from school with kids, email, voice mail, conversations with family members–provides another potential source of things that might need to be done. And it’s exactly the same in a work or school environment, often with a completely separate set of systems in each location.

The problem is that all of these inputs can be stress-producing, if not overwhelming. Without some serious organization, it’s next to impossible to keep track of all of them at once, which means that anything that isn’t getting taken care of can potentially be a distraction and a worry. You find yourself regularly pushed around by thoughts like “Do I really have everything set up for the trip next week?” or “I keep thinking I need to pick something up at the hardware store” or “I’ve got to remember to get back to that prospect with a quote.”

Fortunately it is possible to channel some of this chaos and cut back on stress. Here are a few quick tips to that end, inspired in part by my continued reading of Dave Allen’s excellent organizational book, Getting Things Done, along with other sources.

Recognize your inputs. Anything that’s not in the place where you want it to be, may need to be acted on, needs to be reviewed to decide whether you need to act on it, is in the way of you knowing or doing something you need to know or do, etc. is an input, a potential “to do.” That doesn’t mean that you need to waste attention to all of those things every time you notice them, only that they’ll tend to dilute your focus unless you’ve got some kind of reliable system in place to handle them.

Don’t let the noisy things distract you from the important things. An e-mail about a new version of some software you use may be interesting and may pop up right in front of your face while an important financial matter that doesn’t have a specific deadline could be lingering in the background. It can help to have places to put lower-priority things  as they come in, for instance an “Interesting/check out” folder in your e-mail program for that e-mail to go until after the financial matter is settled.

Minimize the number of task systems you use. Almost everyone needs more than one task list: for instance, you might have an e-mail program with messages that need to be read, responded to, or acted on; plus a traditional “to do” list, a place to stack incoming mail, etc. But it’s easy to let task systems proliferate–a few notes written on paper here, an occasionally-updated PDA task list there, a stack of unreviewed papers on your desk to go through, etc.–making it difficult or impossible to determine what the one thing you want to do at any given time is, because there are too many places to look to figure that out.

Ditch unimportant tasks. Still have last week’s newspaper because you didn’t get around to reading it but might still? Consider how often you’ve gotten around to ever reading a week-old newspaper before, and if it’s close to 0% of the time, the newspaper can go. I’ve found sometimes in the past that I’ve been hanging onto an unimportant tasks for years–something that really would be good to do, but has never been important enough to trump all the other things that are going on in my life on a daily basis. It can be freeing (and a good way to cut down on an unrealistically long task list) to be able to look at some items like this and say “I’m just going to decide to not do that one.”

Part of how you’ll be happiest dealing with all of these inputs will depend on whether you want to organize your life or just keep the noise level down a bit. You may find you want the productivity and peace of mind you can get from a real organizational system. Allen’s book is a good resource for tackling this if you decide to.

On the other hand, maybe your life isn’t all that hectic, but a little additional clarity and order will help–in which case the suggestions above might be enough to give you the lift you’re looking for.

If you’re not sure whether it’s worth committing to a big organizational effort, ask yourself: Am I sometimes not taking care of things I need to get done, with bad consequences? Do I feel overwhelmed or anxious about the things I need to do? If either of these is a yes, time spent organizing effectively can provide relief while making more efficient use of your time. A successful organizing effort pays for the time it takes to do it in short order, and doesn’t have to necessarily be done all at once to be effective.

Photo by andres.thor

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