I remember my first professional “To Do” lists. Lined 8.5 x 11” paper. A single column of tasks, maybe 10 items or so long. Each box would be coloured in as the task was completed. Items that weren’t completed were moved to the next day’s list. So neat. So orderly. So utterly unsustainable.
The first weak spot in my daily organizing routine came when I was involved in my first big event. A project like that, there are so many micro tasks that writing them down took longer than doing them. The daily To Do list was no longer everything I needed to do that day. It because a suggestion, rather than an order.
The next weak spot came when I was involved in my first truly complicated policy effort. The thing about the work we do, us nonprofit types, is that we are often solving problems no one has ever solved before. How do you break the never-been-done activities you need to invent into bite-sized tasks, in advance? That leaves no room for intuition or iteration.
I persisted, but my lists got longer and the number of carry-over items increased.
I read one of those popular but utterly unhelpful books about getting things done, in which you create folders for today, tomorrow, next month, etc. I made the folders, and I never opened them. A procrastinator’s dream. Whole projects went AWOL for months and months thanks to a system designed for people who do work routine enough that they actually know what day it is.
After that, I developed a new technique. A couple of times a week, I’d brain dump EVERYTHING I needed to do into a list, then prioritize it. Lunch, laundry, work tasks, income tax, everything. That little trick worked for years.
More recently, I figured out that just listing everything I should do took too much of my day. At first, it took longer than a regular shower. Then, it was shower plus breakfast. Then it was the first hour of my workday. Then it was lunchtime and I’d still be listing and prioritizing. There’s too much. There’s always too much.
When you start out, you can get it all done if you just work harder. You stay at night. You work on weekends. You challenge yourself, and it’s exciting. But you’re also ignorant. You don’t know what you don’t know. You’re thinking about looming deadlines and goals, usually imposed upon you by the world. You aren’t thinking about the foundations you need to lay for 10 years down the road.
You aren’t thinking like a founder or an executive.
Once you do, the lists and priorities don’t work anymore. There’s not enough time in the day, enough bandwidth in your brain, or enough perspective to identify and rank EVERYTHING you need to do. The list of things you aren’t going to do today is long, incredibly long. And you’re hyper aware of it. You can’t apologize for it - you just need to ensure that whatever you did do was worth more.