Maybe it’s Not the To Do List

When it comes to productivity and to do lists, there is a plethora of apps and processes that promise to alleviate us of our stress and make our lives so much better.

Many of these tools help us accomplish those things. But there are also situations where we look at our list, whether it’s in a notebook, on an app or in our head and we still get overwhelmed. There is just too much to do and not enough time. Apparently, the ancient Romans had the same issue!

I’ve been pondering if there is a root cause. Something besides the number of tasks and the time we have. Even the most disciplined people can “fall off the wagon” and need to get back in control. What causes this?

The founder of Ness Labs, Anne-Laure Le Cunff (@anthilemoon) has just begun a YouTube channel and she discusses three types of motivation when it comes to procrastination. One of which I want to discuss here: perceived abilities.

If we look at our to do lists we see a lot of tasks that come within the brief of our job, whether that job is your employment or a more casual (non-KPI’d) role, like being a dad or a friend or a maintenance guy around the house (I have the fix the headlight on my car! Update: it’s fixed! 🙌).

We can look at the list of tasks and some are relatively easy to do. For me, presenting in public comes relatively easy, simply because I’ve done it so many times and feedback has been good (or, perhaps, polite! 😉). Therefore, if someone asks me to do a presentation, I’m not going to get too anxious, in fact, I’ll probably look forward to it! Weird huh?).

In another area of my role, as a Change Analyst, I’m relatively new to the function and I’m working on an IT project, which is also new to me. I’ve been asked to develop a change plan. Not something I’ve done before. I have been given guidance and a template and plenty of support. I still procrastinate and look at the task, not with dread, but certainly with a little less confidence than giving a presentation. There are so many elements that go into a change plan I don’t really know where to start, or what is enough information and what might be too much.

As I develop my change analyst skills, this will become easier. We grow, even if subconsciously, in the things we repeatedly do.

Therefore, when I suggest the list isn’t the problem, I’m suggesting it might be the skill set required to complete the tasks on the list. Brian Tracy authored the book, “Eat That Frog” to help people get over the toughest task of the day early. My question is, “Why is it tough?” Referring back to Anne-Laure‘s* video, she also discusses two other motivational areas: head and heart. She explains it better than I can, so head on over to the video (and subscribe while you’re there).

For many of us, me included, a long list can cause anxiety in and of itself. But then, as you decide which task to tackle first (or second, or third …), you need to be aware of what skills you have to complete the task. And what skills you need. And once you have decided that, what are you going to do about it to become more competent, less anxious and enjoy the task more.

Here’s my Plan

My process will be to look at tasks and batch them. As Tim Ferriss* (among others) has written and spoken of time and time again you don’t need to know everything about a topic, you just need to know the top 20-30% of things (Tim refers to speaking Japanese and how many words you really need to learn!) To me this means: what skills do many of these tasks require and what skills do I need to develop.

Touch Typing

I have been procrastinating on touch typing. Why? Even though I am making small progress, I just want to be able to do it now! I start and stop with the practice. I know becoming competent will benefit me, especially as my mind races with thoughts that I cannot get out quick enough.

Learning how to develop a Zettelkasten

Another is developing a Zettelkasten approach to note taking to help me learn more, with more interest and, in the long run, learn quicker.

Both of the above would help me develop change plans better, as one example, and through more effective research and developing ideas.

The list itself, at least for me, isn’t the basic issue. It’s having or developing the skills I need to complete the tasks on the list; whether I am looking at the larger outcome (Change Plan) or breaking it down to smaller tasks.

Coming Up: How Developing the Skills adds to the Time to Complete Tasks

*shameless name dropping! 🙂

Facile

Definition: Easily accomplished (Latin, French origins)

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” – Einstein

When I started training to be a facilitator, I learnt where the word facilitator came from – facile. To help make things easy to accomplish.

That was it, my job was to maker things easier for others to their jobs well.

People like James Clear in his book Atomic Habits also promotes making things easier when you are trying to take on new routines.

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work is advocating for setting up guidelines to make deep work easier.

Why would we try to make it hard for ourselves?

We should be doing what we can to make our lives and those we work with easier or simpler to help them and us achieve our goals.

This starts at home and continues into the work itself.

At home it begins with things like ensuring we get the best possible sleep, eating heathy meals (which can vary between individuals), getting enough sunlight and exercise. Simple things in themselves but each can affect our happiness and performance, particularly when added together.

If we are not happy, our energy and focus suffers, which will in turn affect our work. And as we get to work, how do we structure our days so we can be the best we can be?

It can be having specific routines and clear expectations. This will allow you and your direct reports to know exactly what is required, when and how.

There is a peace of mind and clarity in knowing what to do and how to do it.

For example, every day, before I get to the office I have listed my 3 Most Important Things (MITs) . They are my focus for the day – outside of my routine tasks. My day will already be busy so by having these priorities I can say no to casual, generally less important requests and focus on daily responsibilities and my 3 MITs.

I think of it like this: at the end of each day I am going to mentally reflect on how I went, even just casually. Was it a good day or a bad day? And then, what caused it to be good or bad? What was in my control and what was not?

If I allow the tasks of the day to jumble up and cause chaos that is my responsibility alone. Yes, there will be days where the “proverbial really hits the fan” and I need to throw my plans out, but over 221* working days in a year, most of those days I will be in relative control.

I will be in control because I have plans, routines and execution strategies to help me focus and keep things simple. I don’t need any further friction.

I do these things to make my life easier. Work, sometimes, is not easy but I don’t have it make it harder than it needs to be either.

 


*221 working days is determined as follows (in Australia):

  • 365 days in a year
  • – 104 days are 2 day weekends
  • – 20 days are annual leave (if taken)
  • – 10 days are public holidays
  • – 10 days are sick leave (if taken)

 

On Being Productive

I’m not sure when the “self help” industry started and I’m not sure why it started when it did.

Today it’s easy to see why. People are overrun with tasks, deadlines and responsibilities. Not all of which are useful. Many of which could be dropped and no-one would notice.

My productivity journey began in 1996.

I’d just been appointed Human Resources and Sales Manager for a newly developed business unit in a bank. It was termed Direct Banking, where people would call in to have their home loans assessed over the phone. All common place today but back then, major change.

It was very exciting as we worked long hours, changing systems and processes on the go to make sure we kept up with demand and expectations. The adrenalin and achievement was like a drug. We couldn’t wait to get back to it each day.

My manager, a very crusty Welshman who demanded a lot, noticed I was a little chaotic in the midst of all this. He suggested I stop in at McDonalds first thing every day and plan my day.

“What I was going to do? What I was going to achieve?” That was it, nothing more.

I agreed with the idea and so my affair with productivity (and coffee*) commenced.

This small activity made a lot of difference. We had our business plan so referencing that I could easily determine my next actions and explain why if asked.

Three things happened:

  1. The day became a lot clearer and therefore more enjoyable.
  2. My team were also better led because I could give them better guidance and they achieved more.
  3. We began to get ahead of our plans and be ready for the “next thing” – we looked forward to the “next thing”.

Obvious in hindsight perhaps.

But sometimes all we need a small nudge and the world falls into place.

What I was doing at McDonalds was listing my 3 – 5 MITs (Most Important Things). They would be my focus for the day.

They helped me make decisions and guide me throughout the day. If I got distracted, back to the list: “What do I need to accomplish today?”

I then coached others on developing their own MITs.

The term MIT (Most Important Thing/s) is now productivity lore. But it was there all along. The rate of change just gets us bent out of shape sometimes and we can neglect ways a small but powerful activity, either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, can prepare us for the next day.

Q: Do you follow something like this? Do you do something different that is just as effective or more effective?

Let me know.

*Coffee – I’ve transitioned off McDonalds coffee mostly but back then, when it was free re-fills all day, and being on one income, it was a bit of a lifesaver at times. 🙂