To-do lists … Part 1: The Listmaker in Distress

Warning: This story is not for all audiences. Specifically, you should only try to read this if you are an organization geek. Do you fondle office supplies and make endless to-do lists and color-code your files? OK, then you might be interested. Otherwise your eyes may glaze over and you may fall asleep, drool on your keyboard, drown your computer in saliva, and thereby invalidate your computer warranty which usually doesn’t cover water damage. I take no responsibility for these or other ill effects.

Part 1:  The Listmaker in Distress

In Which We Meet Our Heroine, Understand Her Trials, and Watch Her Muddle Through the Muck of Ill-Fated Non-Solutions

(Well… I liked writing the subhead, but I don’t think I can affect the Canterbury Tales momentum for much longer.  I hope you, dear reader, will accept my apologies for the abrupt shift in tone.)

In my constant quest to organize myself, and especially now in my busy busy pre-book-launch phase (8 weeks to go! omg!), I have been desperate for a way to keep track of all the things I need to do. So I went web surfing and guess what, many brilliant listmakers with actual technical skills have come up with ways to help ME!  How sweet of them.  I thought I would share my dilemma (this part) and some of the cool tools I found (tomorrow).

I am basically a listmaker at heart. I tend to make my to-do lists in various journals and on scraps of paper.  I then lose track of them, so I am often writing a new version of what is more or less the same list because I can’t find the earlier list(s).  This is not so bad, since I actually love making lists, but it is kind of a waste of time.  It would be better if I used my love of listmaking to make new lists, I think, like the list of impossible dreams made possible, or a list of the ways cat love is superior to human love, or a list of vegan ingredients to try putting into cookies.  Maybe I need a list of cool lists to make…   ok, so you see the problem.

I also like to group my to-do items into categories, like: Book tour tasks. Phone calls to make. House stuff.  Things to buy.
Even when I have it together enough to have such a list and start doing the items on it, often I get super stressed because the list of things that I need to do is way more than I can realistically do in a day or even week. I usually don’t realize this ahead of time, so I scale the peaks of valiant productivity and then crash in valleys of despair at how much is left to do.  

So what I need is a realistic sense not only of the tasks to be done and deadlines, but also of priorities and how much time each one is going to take. In my heart of hearts, I believe that things like writing an email or doing laundry take … zero minutes.  You just do em in between other things, right?  It is amazing to me that actually, when I track it, writing a work-related email — original content, not just a reply to something quick — takes an average of 15 minutes.  It just does. Likewise, most things that I need to do take a lot longer than I want to admit.

I’ve tried various paper systems. Lost the papers or the lists got too complicated to keep on paper; scratched-out items and long doodly lines going every which way made me feel less not more organized.  From time to time I realize it would be good to harness the power of computers

So I made a pretty Excel spreadsheet with colors and categories and columns. The main problem was that it wasn’t really integrated into my daily life, so I would forget to look at it for days on end.  Even if I put it on my computer desktop, or printed it out and posted it somewhere I could see it, I just didn’t find it satisfying or enjoyable; in fact, looking at 65 items at a time made me feel very overwhelmed, even if most of them were off in the future.  Also, it couldn’t be very easily synced to my ipod Touch, which is a feature I’ll want when I’m traveling.

Bottomline I want and need a centralized place to sort out all my ideas into lists, then prioritize and see them daily in a way that will actually help me get the things done. And of course it has to be easy to use — because making the list can’t be more time-consuming than actually doing the things on the list! — and free or very low cost, because even though I am empress of my own universe, my income is definitely that of a, um, writer.

5 thoughts on “To-do lists … Part 1: The Listmaker in Distress

  1. Girl, you should SEE my lists. I make detailed little forms on which to place them, with color-coded boxes for different subjects and dates and smaller checkoff boxes inside for the satisfying X when a task is done. I make lists about making lists. I make lists of lists I want to make someday. So, yeah, your warning at the top of this post sucked me right in. I’m running off to read part 2 now.

  2. Pingback: Minal Hajratwala » Blog Archive » To-do lists … Part 2: Quest for Solutions

  3. Lovely ideas, thanks … one immediate and one possibly long-term…
    Doing less is a nice idea and has been possible at certain times. Not so much so right now, but I look forward to a time in the near future when I can return to my normal doing-less self.
    At some point I will blog about all the things I had to NOT do in order to actually write my book. Over the course of seven years, I became an expert in doing less. At this particular moment, I’m working on building muscle to do more.

  4. Hey Minal
    Did you find omnifocus? It CAN be synched, but only with the iphone I think, and which has contexts and time it will take, etc. You can look at things by when they’re due, what context they have (ie computer, errand, phone, etc.) I’m still getting going with it, and it’s not perfect, but it is nice…
    Good luck with organization and congrats on your book!

  5. I’d like to make a suggestion, and you’re welcome to ignore it.
    I had problems organizing my stuff. I tried different systems of boxes, folders, shelves, etc. For what I thought were unrelated reasons, I decided to get rid of 80% all non-essential items I owned. My “organizational problem” (that’s what I thought it was) improved significantly, of course. And it spread out to other areas of my life: I stopped buying almost all unnecessary things. I moved into a much smaller, much cheaper apartment, and was able to reduce the number of hours I worked.
    I’m suggesting you stop thinking about the list, and look at what you are actually doing. Maybe get a baseline idea by writing down what you actually do over a certain period. An hour, a day… whatever works. Keep it simple- no sentences or anything. Don’t make any judgements about the data. That will let you know what you actually do and how long things take.
    I’m also suggesting simply doing less. I know, I know – you can’t. Well, you can if you decide to. What is actually important to you? Do those things. We all have to do some bullshit tasks, but they can be efficiently.

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