Sighkey said I must be good at time management. She then offered a delicate suggestion that list-making was crazy. She has perhaps attended one of those workshops where they tell you to say a nice thing first, so the truth won’t sting as much.
As it happens, I am very good at time management. I have taught classes in it. I really believe in it, too. This is because I used to be very bad at time management. So bad that the term could hardly be used. When I was a student, I could leave my house to go to the library and reappear three days later, having lost my shoes. I was off the scorn scale when it comes to time management. I was, I am sure, a source of constant stress and trouble to everyone around me.
Through diligent study and practice, I was able to overcome my natural scattiness. My life is calm and orderly and few people ever want to throttle me. I owe it all to to-do lists.
Here’s what I like about to-do lists:
1. By writing down what you need to do, you get rid of the hamster-wheel feeling that you have a lot to do and will never get it done.
2. Often, when you write things down, you see that it is in fact a manageable list and you can settle down to accomplish it. If you see that it is too long a list, then you can decide what really must be done and what has to be removed from the list — and go write that on a future day’s list, so you don’t have to keep it in your mind and worry about it. Or, for that matter, you can decide that it wasn’t really that important and cross it off.
3. By checking things off as they are finished, you can not only gain a sense of accomplishment, but can also see that things are being finished in time, or not. This allows you to monitor and adjust your work habits, or to develop a plan B before things become a crisis.
4. When you complete a task, you don’t need to dither about thinking what you should do next. You have a list. Even if you don’t dither, not being inclined to dithering, having the list allows many of us to accomplish more because we do not have the adjustment time between tasks.
Some people do not need a to-do list. My husband, for example, gets up early in the morning, goes to work and works hard at a well-defined job, and then is free to do whatever he wants. If one of the cars breaks down, it may be that fixing it is what he wants to do, but if he doesn’t want to, then he just doesn’t. This works for him because he has A Wife. If you do not have A Wife, or perhaps A Butler, then you probably need a to-do list.
Maybe not. Different people approach things in different ways. For example, I know people who keep all the important work they need to get to in stacks on their desks where they can see it, and of course also lose it. I know people who spend huge amounts of time fretting and complaining about how much they have to do, and rarely actually do any visible work, possibly because they feel too overwhelmed to make a start. I know people who operate entirely by schedule, so that they get all the repetitive things done without effort, but then feel that they are in a rut and are not accomplishing things the way they thought they would when they were younger. And I know people who simply never stop working, because they never feel finished.
You know I have to bite my tongue not to offer to help these people with their time management. Nowadays, I am paid largely to give people advice, but it is advice about how to teach reading or how to encourage children to learn their math facts, not how adults should run their lives.
So, in honor of all the people who tell me that they are exhausted and overwhelmed and can’t accomplish anything (and to whom I cannot give this advice), I will tell you the simple, classic method of time management. After all, you can leave now and ignore it, so I feel no compunction.
First, have a plan for your life. This doesn’t have to be detailed. My eldest told me the other day that she remembered back when I had the kids make timelines for their lives, and that she was coming up on the year when she had planned to have children. She had expected, she said, to feel older by now. I don’t think we necessarily need to have a timeline like that, but we should have a sense of what our mission is, or what-all we want to accomplish before we die. And we should decide which of those things are the most important ones, because you never know how long you will live, and you don’t want to run out of goals, so it is good to have more than you can do — but bad to realize that you did the ones that weren’t really important, and missed out on the ones that you really cared about.
Second, have steps toward those goals. You can determine these by saying, “In order to do X, I will first have to do Y.” All the Ys are the steps.
Third, match these steps up with smaller pieces of time. I like to make goals for a year, and then each month I make goals for that month that will bring me closer to completing my goals for the year. Then each day I list things that need to be done in order to move toward those smaller goals. I use a calendar and write things on the daily to-do lists in the future, too, so I can relax in the knowledge that they will all be done at the appropriate time.
The truly important things in your life, your major goals — these should have some movement toward them every day, however small a step it may be. Sighkey could, at this point, use terms like “subroutines” and “parallel processing,” but I can only tell you, if you don’t do something every day toward your mission in life, then you have chosen the wrong mission.
Some things are such big goals that they determine a lot of what else you do. For example, I have four kids. I might want to travel the world or have a taxing career — but I could not consider those goals until I finish bringing up my kids. (Actually, I already had a taxing career, before I had all those kids. Travel might be in my future. But there is no point in having conflicting goals at the same time. As Einstein said, “Time is God’s way of making sure that everything doesn’t happen at once.”)
Then add maintenance and margin. That is, you want to take care of and enjoy the things you have accomplished and acquired. Planting the garden is all very well, but it must also be weeded and tended and harvested, and there is no point in planting it if you will not also be sitting or walking in it and taking pleasure in it.
The people in your life, your health, all that sort of thing may not be on the list of “things you have accomplished and acquired,” but they still need maintenance. You can’t expect relationships with people to thrive if you ignore them because you are too busy, and you have to exercise and rest and otherwise care for yourself, too. You need a sabbath, or time to sharpen the saw, or whatever terminology you prefer, so you should build that into your planning as well. And, since things do not always work out exactly as we hope, it is good to put some extra time in your plans for getting lost, or having to wait for someone, or having trouble finding the details of that spitting incident.
And sometimes, even with excellent planning, we screw up or change our minds and do not get done what we should get done. If there is a deadline involved, or responsibility to someone else, that bothers me a lot. But my own goals that I make for myself, I do not feel distressed if I don’t meet them. I can reschedule, or accept that I am not really going to do it. If I had a different temperament and would be bothered rather than challenged by overplanning, I would just make my goal lists shorter.
And, yes, I am very productive. I’m proud of that. I worked at one place where I was deeply resented for it, but apart from that I can’t see any downside. Usually, coworkers are glad to have someone getting a lot of the work done. I’m also quite relaxed. As you know (if you read my blog and have total recall) I spend a lot of afternoons reading and knitting, or playing with my kids. And I owe it all to to-do lists. Thus endeth the testimonial in favor of time management.