What to do with the To-Do’s

in Productivity

Forget time management! How do I manage the dreaded to-do list? I’m not sure I’ve figured out my last best way, but I promised I would talk about some of the to-do embellishments I’ve started using. I’ll do so, and then get into what topics I intend to share with you over the next few months.

In my last post, I described how I create my to-do list each night for the next day. In the past, I’ve listed the items in the order I intend to do them. Lately, though, I’ve “remembered” what’s known as The Pickle Jar Method and started using it again.

The Pickle Jar Method

Pickle Jar with StonesThe Pickle Jar Method refers to filling a pickle jar with items like the tasks you’ve considered for your to-do list. The most effective way to fill the jar is to start with larger rocks – your most important tasks to complete today. Then come the smaller, gravel-sized stones. These are your less important tasks.

Third is the sand – your maintenance tasks. I put making and eating meals, doing laundry, and reading the paper into this category. Last is the water. These are your recreational activities.

If you think about it, you’ll realize that each addition to the pickle jar fills in around the previous contents. It would not work at all if you started with water or sand. There would be no room for anything else. Hey, I think I’ve had days like this!

The translation of this concept to your to-do list is similar to the old prioritization scheme that had you assign priority A, B, and C to your items, doing all the A tasks first, B second, and C last.

How’s That Working For You?

Things To Do with PrioritiesI found, though, that when I attempted to implement my to-do list this way, so much time was still devoted to lower priority, but mandatory items like cooking and eating dinner, laundry, checking my daughter’s homework, etc. that the large rocks often still didn’t get done.

So I’ve found my way back to the chronological list – with some enhancements. I created a master plan of how many hours a day I want to spend on various categories of activity. For example, three hours daily on cooking and eating and one hour per day on reading the paper. I allocate four hours each day to my own projects and the same amount to client projects. And, of course, I have time for household chores and personal tasks.

If I get eight hours of sleep each day, that leaves sixteen hours to divide among these categories. So I set target amounts of time for my five categories. Keeping in mind my client, project, household, and personal priorities for the day, I create an agenda with the start and end time of each activity. I’m pretty generous with the amount of time for each task to make sure I have enough time, and to allow for “extra” tasks not on the list like reading email and unexpected phone calls.

ChecklistThis served as quite a wake-up call the first few days I did it. I didn’t have nearly enough time to do everything I wanted to! The other noticeable difference was that the amount of time I could spend on household tasks was much more limited than I was used to if I intended to get as much work done as I hoped. I realized I needed to choose one or two household tasks per day and leave the rest for later.

Gee, could this be part of the reason I wasn’t getting as much results in my business as I wished for? Hmm.

Working to a Strict Schedule – Me?!

Woman with ClockSo, this is the system I’m using now. But please don’t think I’m actually following this schedule every day. Oh, no! I’m not that disciplined or organized. Each day I find myself doing tasks out of order, and some still fall off today and move to tomorrow’s list. Even so, in these early days, I’m finding that I am indeed accomplishing more than I often do.

I do seem to be allowing time for my most important tasks since I’ve already thought about how long they’re likely to take. But it’s not just in the business area that I’m doing better.

Part of my scheme allows my to read – for fun! – before bed each night for 30-45 minutes. Yes, this is very pleasurable for me, but it accomplishes more than than that. It relaxes me and allows me to get to sleep faster. Giving myself permission for this time is significant. Since I almost never feel like I’ve done enough work, I often don’t read for fun at all, or I “steal” time when I think I should be working. Stealing the time doesn’t make it nearly as pleasurable since in the back of my mind, I’m feeling guilty for not working. Allowing myself this time in my schedule also gives me something to look forward to at the end of the day – and encourages this night owl to go up to bed on time!

I’d be very interested to hear what strategies and techniques you use and how well they work for you. Leave a comment and share your time management experiences.

What’s Next?

As you can probably tell, I’m sharing some of my challenges with you here in my blog. Now that I’m back on a more productive track, I’m feeling very enthusiastic about the products I’m creating and the tools I’m using to create and distribute them. During the next few months, I’ll share what I’m doing, how, and why, as well as how it’s working out. There’s a new version of my website in the future. I’ll also have some free webinars to share and news about my new products, so stay tuned. Good stuff ahead!

Sue Mangefrida Beck December 7, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Peggy – I literally just finished walking around the house making out a two page to-do list. How did you know?

Max Schwanekamp December 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm

I have many of the same issues. The small stuff crowds out the big stuff all too frequently. Part of that is a desire to feel “done” about something, and for me anyway it’s partly a failure to objectively consider my larger objectives personally and professionally, so everything effectively has the same priority level.

How about posting a sample of your to-do plan? I’m wondering about specifics, because one big challenge I see is that when I set a limited time for menial maintenance tasks, sometimes the cruft builds up unacceptably (figuratively and literally)!

Sue Mangefrida Beck December 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I get hung up on do I do what’s most important, or do I tackle the big things that are going to take up the most time?

Peggy December 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Sue, I think there are lots of to-do lists being generated at this time of the year!

As for your question, I think you go for the most important things. For me, they often are the things that take the most time and that’s why they get squeezed out of my schedule. By actually allotting time to things I want to do each day, I put aside a big chunk (or several smaller chunks) to get those big projects done.

Sue Mangefrida Beck December 8, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Thanks Peggy – I hope all your to-dos are happy to-dos!

Peggy December 8, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Yes, it is a constant struggle for me – as my recent posts have described! Today, for instance, I’m 5 hours (!) behind my schedule. And writing this comment is NOT on my schedule. 🙂

I haven’t perfected this – obviously – but there are a couple of facts that make this a little better than it sounds. First, I left 2 hours empty in my plan because I knew I had a good chance of getting behind today. Second, I’ve had 4 unexpected phone calls so far, three of which were important either personally or professionally, and the last was from someone whose calls I always take. 😉

I took longer getting groceries than I planned, but got enough of the right things to be stocked for the next couple of months, not counting perishables.

So what will I do with more schedule than I have time? Well, I will probably try to accomplish a few things in less time than I allowed, and one or two tasks will fall off today’s plan and land on tomorrow’s.

I’m finding that trying to allocate the right proportion of time each day to my categories – client work, my projects, household chores, the paper, eating, recreation, and personal chores – helps me make sure I don’t neglect one or more areas altogether.

As far as the household chores, I’m aiming at about an hour each day. This doesn’t count the cooking and cleaning activities to do with eating. So today it’s groceries, tomorrow it’ll be laundry, etc. I should mention I have someone who I pay $50 to clean my house once a month. I still clean ‘busy’ areas between her coming, but it’s well worth the money to have it done well once a month. Maybe you could consider this?

I’ll be happy to post an example of my schedule, but I’m going to wait just a bit until I get better at it. I’ll post my plan for a day, as well as how I actually spent my time that day. I promise to pick a representative day, and not an ideal one! 🙂

Max Schwanekamp December 10, 2010 at 3:09 am

Good point regarding hiring someone to fill in the gaps with domestic tasks and by extension other maintenance or low-priority-high-frequency tasks. That “delegate” thing is still a challenge for me. Oh no, I’m not a control freak, I just like to have things done the right way.

Peggy December 10, 2010 at 7:14 pm

As a recovering perfectionist, I understand. Happily, the person I found to clean for me is more compulsive about it than I am, so it works out well. If you’re picky about who you delegate to, you don’t need to worry about being picky about each delegated task, because they’ll do that for you, too!