How I Tamed My To-Do List, Stopped Looking Like a Flake, and Regained my Sanity

by | Apr 24, 2012 | Achieving Balance | 39 comments

I recently had a feedback session with my Air Force Reserves supervisor that wasn’t entirely rosy.

By and large, he was happy.  But then he turned serious and asked me, “Can you handle some honest feedback?”

I took a deep breath.

He’d noticed that I had the habit of panicking when I felt I had too much work on my plate, and then rashly canceled on my commitments.

I didn’t necessarily disagree.  I knew I had the habit of signing up for too many activities and projects, mainly because I’m easily excited by opportunities to problem solve.  When my to-do list got to be more than I could handle, I re-prioritized and either wrapped up or backed out of the work that no longer suited me.

What was wrong with that?

He pointed out that not only was I clearly suffering emotionally when I felt overwhelmed, but I was hurting my professional credibility as well.

He told me I had a time management problem.  I argued I had an over-commitment problem.

Over time, I realized he was right.  And the problem was far worse than I realized.

Fortunately, I discovered a process that, with just one day of concentrated effort, allowed me to take control of my calendar, break my enthusiastic tendencies to over-commit, and finally (finally!) let me feel in control.

Today I’ll show you step-by-step how I did it.

Do more great work … up to a point

In his book Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork. Start the Work That Matters., Michael Bungay Stanier highlights why we need to be conscious about managing our time between bad, good, and great work.

When I worked in the corporate world, most of my work fell into the categories of bad and good work. Bad work is the pointless, meaningless work that wastes your time but someone inexplicably keeps asking you to do it.  Good work is the vital, useful, and profitable stuff that keeps organizations running.

But it’s the great work most of us are interested in.  For organizations, it’s the stuff that drives strategic difference and innovation.  At the individual level, great work inspires and engages.  It is deeply meaningful work that connects to your aspirations.  But Stanier also provides a warning

Great Work is also a place of uncertainty and discomfort. The discomfort arises because the work is often new and challenging, and so there’s an element of risk and possible failure. Because this is work that matters, work that you care about, you don’t want it to fail. But because it’s new and challenging, there’s a chance that it might.

This is an issue no one talks about as you consider making the transition from a decent career to one you love.

You will be tempted, particularly the over-achievers among my readers, to take on more great work than you can handle.  For the first time in your life, you might see your full potential reflected in every project you consider, every collaboration.

Those of us who already have a tendency to over-commit can very nearly drown when surrounded by opportunities to pursue great work.

As Stanier brilliantly puts it

What are you saying yes to? And by saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

In many cases, we’re saying no to sanity, to sleep, and to professionalism.  And the worst part is, we largely don’t even realize we’re doing it.

The step-by-step plan to sanity and fulfillment

While it’s not really necessary to show you the actual projects and decisions I wrestled with, I want to walk you through my thought process.  It all started with making three very important lists.

Step 1: Capture how you spend (and want to spend) your time

So let’s start by focusing on the positive.  What are the things I definitely know I want to do (in no particular order)?

  1. Give a TED talk
  2. Continue some sort of offering for the No Regrets Career Academy
  3. Write books
  4. Creative marketing (e.g. make “viral” videos)
  5. Interview series
  6. Continuing my education (books/seminars/masterminds)
  7. Grow my blog
  8. Spend quality time with my family

Now what are the things I think I’d like to do?

  1. Seminars & workshops for corporate settings
  2. Client mastermind program
  3. Find sponsors for my work
  4. Put on my own live event
  5. Regularly scheduled coaching calls
  6. Travel

Finally, I annotated other activities that take up my time.  This will include things like sleeping, eating, and chores.  But it also includes good work, stuff like answering blog comments and (ahem) my Reserve work.

Step 2: Analyze for “critical mass”

The first thing that struck me just looking at these two lists is: no wonder I often feel inadequate!

Nearly every activity on the two lists above is a big project requiring focused effort, a lot of learning, and connecting with the right people who can help me move it forward.

For example, I’ve been frustrated that my number of blog subscribers has been stagnant for several months now. I fooled myself into thinking I’d reached the point where I could just write a great post every week and the numbers would magically rise on their own.

Growing my blog requires an investment, one I couldn’t provide because I was too busy working on other activities on my dream list.

In fact, my lack of focus actually meant in some cases, I was losing ground.  There’s the concept of critical mass, and in most cases, I was spread too thin to reach it.

For each of the tasks on my list, I made a guess as to how many hours a week I thought I needed to reach critical mass.  These are estimates for now, and in all likelihood are probably still too optimistic, but it’s a place to start.

Step 3: Put some ideas in the “ice box”

We all know there’s only 24 hours in a day, but many of us conveniently ignore that fact when deciding how to spend our time.

I’m not suggesting you give up on your dreams.  Quite to the contrary.

I’m suggesting each needs its own space to breathe and grow.

I can see myself up on that TED stage.  I really want to make that happen.  But I also know that will probably be a much easier task once I’ve accomplished some of my other great work ideas.  I can save it for later.

I also realized that given all the big items on my “definitely want to do” list, nearly everything on my second list of “would like to do” would likewise have to wait.

Lastly, I took a number of items off my “stuff that takes my time” list by outsourcing them.  I hired a housekeeper.  I hired a travel agent.  Does it cost more to do that?  Absolutely.

But this exercise helped me see the invisible cost I was paying by not getting help: I was constantly stressed out and unable to focus on what mattered most.

Step 4: Set your core work hours

To further simplify the process, I created core work hours.  The concept is a little like skimming money off the top of your take-home pay and putting it into savings.

Basically, you set aside time for the things of greatest consequence.  Your core hours are the hours that remain.  And that is what forces you to get serious about prioritization.

I came to my core hours by setting some fixed parameters:

  • The time from when my daughter gets out of school at 3 PM to when she goes to bed at 8 PM is set aside as family time.  This obviously includes dinner, but might also include chores that can be done together, such as grocery shopping.
  • I stop working at 10 PM every evening.  This ensures I have time to let my mind wind down and get at least 8 hours of sleep, since normal wake-up time in our house is 7 AM.
  • My weekends should largely be reserved for more family time, socializing with friends, travel, chores, or just plain ole down time.  My only exception is from 8 to 10 PM on Saturday and Sunday.

This gave me 44 hours of core working hours.

Step 5: Build your ideal week

You’ll remember in Step 2 we set aside the hours we thought we needed to reach critical mass. Now the trick is to fit these on the calendar within the core work hours you’ve designated.  I found the best way to do this is to just draw it out.

A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Some activities, like continuing education (shown here as CE), can easily be broken into small chunks.  But many activities benefit from concentrated focus.  Be honest about these, and if you can’t give an activity the critical mass and focus it needs, maybe it needs to go in the ice box.
  • An ideal (and free) tool for managing the number of tasks you’re working on at any one time is Kanbanery.  You can set lists for to-do, doing, and done.  Best of all, you can limit the number of tasks in your “doing” list.  I love it!
  • Create time for the unexpected, infrequent, and less than ideal.  Things like doctor’s appointments, travel, visiting relatives, etc.  Your schedule has to have some slop or you’ll drive yourself insane.
  • You have the ability to break your own rules.  Finishing up a big project and want to work all weekend?  You can!  The ideal week schedule allows you to make conscious decisions about how you want to spend your time.
  • You can move things around as needed.  For example, this schedule provides 8 hours for coaching a month.  I can do that in 2 hour chunks each week, or I can take 2 days each month at 4 hours each.

Step 6: Where’s Waldo?

Believe it or not, you can go through all these steps and still realize you forgot something important.

For me, as I looked at my ideal week, a light bulb went off when I realized there was no time for going to the gym.  My life (and fitness levels) up until now started to make a lot more sense.

I had several choices:

  • I could remove some core work hours
  • I could adjust my parameters (for example, one day a week I might get less sleep)
  • I could outsource some of my regular work, like getting my daughter ready for school, to my husband one day a week, then use the other two options for the rest of the time.

The point is, the choice was mine, and for the first time, I could accurately weigh the consequences of whatever I decided.

Is this a fantasy?

In the past, I told myself I just had too much to do.

As Alice Walker says

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

You decide how you want to spend your time.

Not everyone wants to hear that message.  For the longest time, I know I didn’t.  Being busy, overwhelmed, and in-demand seemed like the hallmarks of success to me.  That didn’t change when I left the corporate world and decided to work for myself.

I acted as if a burden was being thrust upon me, instead of acknowledging it was one I was choosing to carry.

That doesn’t mean that lots of people won’t rush in to tell you what they think you should be doing with your time.

Your boss, your spouse, your friends, your co-workers … they all have demands.  Some of the demands and distractions will even reside in your own head.

All I’m saying is: it’s your choice to listen.

I recently had a feedback session with my Air Force Reserves supervisor that wasn’t entirely rosy.

By and large, he was happy.  But then he turned serious and asked me, “Can you handle some honest feedback?”

I took a deep breath.

He’d noticed that I had the habit of panicking when I felt I had too much work on my plate, and then rashly canceled on my commitments.

I didn’t necessarily disagree.  I knew I had the habit of signing up for too many activities and projects, mainly because I’m easily excited by opportunities to problem solve.  When my to-do list got to be more than I could handle, I re-prioritized and either wrapped up or backed out of the work that no longer suited me.

What was wrong with that?

He pointed out that not only was I clearly suffering emotionally when I felt overwhelmed, but I was hurting my professional credibility as well.

He told me I had a time management problem.  I argued I had an over-commitment problem.

Over time, I realized he was right.  And the problem was far worse than I realized.

Fortunately, I discovered a process that, with just one day of concentrated effort, allowed me to take control of my calendar, break my enthusiastic tendencies to over-commit, and finally (finally!) let me feel in control.

Today I’ll show you step-by-step how I did it.

Do more great work … up to a point

In his book Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork. Start the Work That Matters., Michael Bungay Stanier highlights why we need to be conscious about managing our time between bad, good, and great work.

When I worked in the corporate world, most of my work fell into the categories of bad and good work. Bad work is the pointless, meaningless work that wastes your time but someone inexplicably keeps asking you to do it.  Good work is the vital, useful, and profitable stuff that keeps organizations running.

But it’s the great work most of us are interested in.  For organizations, it’s the stuff that drives strategic difference and innovation.  At the individual level, great work inspires and engages.  It is deeply meaningful work that connects to your aspirations.  But Stanier also provides a warning

Great Work is also a place of uncertainty and discomfort. The discomfort arises because the work is often new and challenging, and so there’s an element of risk and possible failure. Because this is work that matters, work that you care about, you don’t want it to fail. But because it’s new and challenging, there’s a chance that it might.

This is an issue no one talks about as you consider making the transition from a decent career to one you love.

You will be tempted, particularly the over-achievers among my readers, to take on more great work than you can handle.  For the first time in your life, you might see your full potential reflected in every project you consider, every collaboration.

Those of us who already have a tendency to over-commit can very nearly drown when surrounded by opportunities to pursue great work.

As Stanier brilliantly puts it

What are you saying yes to? And by saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

In many cases, we’re saying no to sanity, to sleep, and to professionalism.  And the worst part is, we largely don’t even realize we’re doing it.

The step-by-step plan to sanity and fulfillment

While it’s not really necessary to show you the actual projects and decisions I wrestled with, I want to walk you through my thought process.  It all started with making three very important lists.

Step 1: Capture how you spend (and want to spend) your time

So let’s start by focusing on the positive.  What are the things I definitely know I want to do (in no particular order)?

  1. Give a TED talk
  2. Continue some sort of offering for the No Regrets Career Academy
  3. Write books
  4. Creative marketing (e.g. make “viral” videos)
  5. Interview series
  6. Continuing my education (books/seminars/masterminds)
  7. Grow my blog
  8. Spend quality time with my family

Now what are the things I think I’d like to do?

  1. Seminars & workshops for corporate settings
  2. Client mastermind program
  3. Find sponsors for my work
  4. Put on my own live event
  5. Regularly scheduled coaching calls
  6. Travel

Finally, I annotated other activities that take up my time.  This will include things like sleeping, eating, and chores.  But it also includes good work, stuff like answering blog comments and (ahem) my Reserve work.

Step 2: Analyze for “critical mass”

The first thing that struck me just looking at these two lists is: no wonder I often feel inadequate!

Nearly every activity on the two lists above is a big project requiring focused effort, a lot of learning, and connecting with the right people who can help me move it forward.

For example, I’ve been frustrated that my number of blog subscribers has been stagnant for several months now. I fooled myself into thinking I’d reached the point where I could just write a great post every week and the numbers would magically rise on their own.

Growing my blog requires an investment, one I couldn’t provide because I was too busy working on other activities on my dream list.

In fact, my lack of focus actually meant in some cases, I was losing ground.  There’s the concept of critical mass, and in most cases, I was spread too thin to reach it.

For each of the tasks on my list, I made a guess as to how many hours a week I thought I needed to reach critical mass.  These are estimates for now, and in all likelihood are probably still too optimistic, but it’s a place to start.

Step 3: Put some ideas in the “ice box”

We all know there’s only 24 hours in a day, but many of us conveniently ignore that fact when deciding how to spend our time.

I’m not suggesting you give up on your dreams.  Quite to the contrary.

I’m suggesting each needs its own space to breathe and grow.

I can see myself up on that TED stage.  I really want to make that happen.  But I also know that will probably be a much easier task once I’ve accomplished some of my other great work ideas.  I can save it for later.

I also realized that given all the big items on my “definitely want to do” list, nearly everything on my second list of “would like to do” would likewise have to wait.

Lastly, I took a number of items off my “stuff that takes my time” list by outsourcing them.  I hired a housekeeper.  I hired a travel agent.  Does it cost more to do that?  Absolutely.

But this exercise helped me see the invisible cost I was paying by not getting help: I was constantly stressed out and unable to focus on what mattered most.

Step 4: Set your core work hours

To further simplify the process, I created core work hours.  The concept is a little like skimming money off the top of your take-home pay and putting it into savings.

Basically, you set aside time for the things of greatest consequence.  Your core hours are the hours that remain.  And that is what forces you to get serious about prioritization.

I came to my core hours by setting some fixed parameters:

  • The time from when my daughter gets out of school at 3 PM to when she goes to bed at 8 PM is set aside as family time.  This obviously includes dinner, but might also include chores that can be done together, such as grocery shopping.
  • I stop working at 10 PM every evening.  This ensures I have time to let my mind wind down and get at least 8 hours of sleep, since normal wake-up time in our house is 7 AM.
  • My weekends should largely be reserved for more family time, socializing with friends, travel, chores, or just plain ole down time.  My only exception is from 8 to 10 PM on Saturday and Sunday.

This gave me 44 hours of core working hours.

Step 5: Build your ideal week

You’ll remember in Step 2 we set aside the hours we thought we needed to reach critical mass. Now the trick is to fit these on the calendar within the core work hours you’ve designated.  I found the best way to do this is to just draw it out.

A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Some activities, like continuing education (shown here as CE), can easily be broken into small chunks.  But many activities benefit from concentrated focus.  Be honest about these, and if you can’t give an activity the critical mass and focus it needs, maybe it needs to go in the ice box.
  • An ideal (and free) tool for managing the number of tasks you’re working on at any one time is Kanbanery.  You can set lists for to-do, doing, and done.  Best of all, you can limit the number of tasks in your “doing” list.  I love it!
  • Create time for the unexpected, infrequent, and less than ideal.  Things like doctor’s appointments, travel, visiting relatives, etc.  Your schedule has to have some slop or you’ll drive yourself insane.
  • You have the ability to break your own rules.  Finishing up a big project and want to work all weekend?  You can!  The ideal week schedule allows you to make conscious decisions about how you want to spend your time.
  • You can move things around as needed.  For example, this schedule provides 8 hours for coaching a month.  I can do that in 2 hour chunks each week, or I can take 2 days each month at 4 hours each.

Step 6: Where’s Waldo?

Believe it or not, you can go through all these steps and still realize you forgot something important.

For me, as I looked at my ideal week, a light bulb went off when I realized there was no time for going to the gym.  My life (and fitness levels) up until now started to make a lot more sense.

I had several choices:

  • I could remove some core work hours
  • I could adjust my parameters (for example, one day a week I might get less sleep)
  • I could outsource some of my regular work, like getting my daughter ready for school, to my husband one day a week, then use the other two options for the rest of the time.

The point is, the choice was mine, and for the first time, I could accurately weigh the consequences of whatever I decided.

Is this a fantasy?

In the past, I told myself I just had too much to do.

As Alice Walker says

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

You decide how you want to spend your time.

Not everyone wants to hear that message.  For the longest time, I know I didn’t.  Being busy, overwhelmed, and in-demand seemed like the hallmarks of success to me.  That didn’t change when I left the corporate world and decided to work for myself.

I acted as if a burden was being thrust upon me, instead of acknowledging it was one I was choosing to carry.

That doesn’t mean that lots of people won’t rush in to tell you what they think you should be doing with your time.

Your boss, your spouse, your friends, your co-workers … they all have demands.  Some of the demands and distractions will even reside in your own head.

All I’m saying is: it’s your choice to listen.