Managing my To-Do’s and my Not-To-Do’s

Magnus BasiliumLike a lot of people, I am a list person.  I love checking things off of my to-do list, and at the end of the day I love feeling like I’ve gotten a lot accomplished.  I manage my list in my Cozi calendar app, which is awesome because I can access it anywhere, but it’s a ridiculously long list and sometimes it makes me feel more overwhelmed than productive. Plus it tends to be a mishmash of all of the things I need to get done in every aspect of my life, and there is huge variance in the levels of urgency. A lot of stuff has been on my to-do list for months.

Moving forward with freelance web design, pillow-making, bookkeeping and just life, I started feeling overwhelmed with managing everything on my list.  I felt like I was swirling all over the place instead of moving in an intentional direction, confused about what I should tackle first.  So I decided it was time for a new approach.  I decided it was time to try the sticky approach.

What is the sticky approach?

Well, it’s inspired from my software development days when we used a methodology called “Scrum” to build web applications in an iterative, incremental, and flexible way. Projects were broken down into iterations, and every two weeks (the length of an iteration) we’d have a big meeting where we would come up with the set up functionality we could deliver at the end of the iteration, then we’d write down all of the to-do items associated with those deliverables onto sticky notes.  After that we’d meet every morning for fifteen minutes, gathering in front of a white board covered with the sticky notes arranged in a grid system.  Then we’d take turns saying what we did yesterday, what we would do today, and if we had any impediments.  Stickies of completed stuff would be moved into the ‘done’ column, and stickies with stuff to do today would be moved into the ‘in-progress’ column.  At the end of the two weeks we’d move our updates from the development environment to the QA environment to get tested.  There’s more to it, but that’s basically the gist of it.  I thought it was great.

Simple-kanban-board

So a few weeks ago, sick of feeling like I was running in place, I bought a few packs of stickies, and created stickies for everything on my to-do list, then grouped them into sections.  In the pillow section I organized them further into these groups:  ‘design’, ‘market’, ‘sell’, ‘manage’, and for web development into these groups:  ‘develop’, ‘market’, ‘learn’, ‘manage’.  Then I made sections for ‘blog’, ‘krypton’, and ‘life’.  For a lot of the groups I needed to make sub-groups, like for the pillow-making/marketing group I made these sub-groups: ‘etsy’, ‘craft fairs’, ‘branding’, ‘website’ and ‘advertising’.  Wow there was so much!

When I was all done I thought it was cool to see the big picture of everything I was trying to do.  This was a perspective I couldn’t get from my huge to-do list.  Now I could see the magnitude of it all.  I spent a long time just staring at it all, thinking of a strategy.

my sticky method

I meet with a couple of other crafty ladies every other week, a kind of check-in and knowledge-sharing support group, so I decided this would be my two week iteration schedule, so that every time we met I would have something to report on.  For my first iteration I made some goals and put them on stickies.  These were:  ”Apply for the Urban Craft Uprising”, “Get taxes to accountant”, “Set up bookkeeper interviews”.  Then I grabbed to-do stickies and put them which each goal, and also made some new ones.

My done pile!

Okay, now I was ready to kick this thing off!

So I made two more stickies, one that said “Today” and one that said “Done!” then I pulled a few stickies for the things I thought I could accomplish that day, and put them under the “Today” sticky.

Now, every morning when I get to the office, after I’ve done my meditation and checked my email, I sit down in front of my sticky board with a cup of tea and plan my day.  I move the accomplished stickies into the “Done!” pile, and move today’s stickies into the “Today” section.

I’ve been doing this for over a month now, and while that is probably not enough time to shout “Success!” I have to say I am feeling so much more sane.  I feel like before I was making my goals way too big, like “Be in the Urban Craft Uprising.”  It needed to be broken down, so I changed it to simply “apply for the Urban Craft Uprising.”  ”Hire a bookkeeper” was also too big, so I made a smaller goal of “Set up bookkeeper interviews.”  And the goal “Send taxes to accountant” was much better than “Do taxes!”.  Already I am feeling very accomplished.  I’ve applied to the Urban Craft Uprising, gotten our taxes to the accountant, and hired a replacement bookkeeper.  Woo hoo!

Getting Things DoneAfter I launched my Sticky Method, I got turned on to a guy named David Allen, an author and productivity expert who calls his method, “Getting Things Done” or “GTD.” I have his book “Getting Things Done, The Art of Stress Free Productivity” on hold at the library, and in the meantime I watched a TEDX video he did called The Art of Stress Free Productivity and checked out his ebook from the library “Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Getting Things Done.“  It’s pretty good stuff.

One of his key concepts is “mind like water” which he explains on his web-site this way:

In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.

This is a powerful concept for me, because my head always seems to be a whirlwind of thoughts like What’s next? or Am I doing the right things?  or How can I make more money? He also says, “Your mind is a great place to have ideas, but a terrible place to manage them.”  I’ve been spending way too much brainpower trying to manage it all in my head.  He also prescribes these five steps that provide order to chaos:

  1. Capture.  Collect what has your attention.
  2. Clarify.  Process what it means.
  3. Organize.  Put it where it belongs.
  4. Reflect.  Review frequently.
  5. Engage.  Simply do.

These steps really seem to support what I’m trying to do with my sticky notes.  I’m getting everything out of my head, onto to the stickies, bucketed into goals and actionable steps. Every day I do a quick review, select my to-do’s for the day, and every two weeks I do a larger review and create reasonable short-term goals for myself.

Wow!  This is turning out to be a very long and potentially boring blog post (or as Todd would say “So, to make a long story boring…”) But I wanted to write about this because time management can be so tricky.  I always thought I was pretty good at it, but that was before I started working for myself and juggling so many things.  Working for someone else, my life was a lot more compartmentalized and focused differently.  There was the stuff I did at work, and the stuff I did at home, and other people watched my kids a lot.  Now it all blurs together, plus there’s so much more – taxes, business and personal finances, insurance, etc.

That’s why I am so excited about my “Sticky Method” of managing my workflow.  I think it’s going to help me so much.  And I think it is complimented nicely by the “Getting Things Done” method of David Allen’s (I still need to learn more), which reminds me of the importance of keeping a clear mind, and not overreacting or under-reacting to circumstances, but interacting with them, like a rock being thrown into a pond. ripples-in-water

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