Tackling To Do Lists

Understanding (your) Self:

In my social psychology class one week we studied the concept of The Self.  Roy Baumeister, author of the popular book Willpower, and editor of the text my class used, proposes that there are three basic roots, or areas of study, when considering selfhood: Self Awareness, Interpersonal Relations (how others perceive us), and Self- Control (how we make and achieve goals).

Since Self-Control is fascinating to me as a person trying to navigate this ‘growing up’ thing, I paid particular attention to that section of the text. I grinned when Baumeister cited some research that confirmed my personal experience that “self awareness is essentially for the sake of self-regulation.” Self regulation is therefore necessary to achieve goals.  My initial impressions of adulthood are that most of it is an exercise in self-control.

Self Control and Adulthood:

Well, in order to achieve anything long term (and in direct contrast to childhood – almost everything necessary to function in adulthood is long term – owning and caring for property, paying bills, contributing meaningfully to society, raising children…etc) you need to have a certain level of knowledge and mastery – which is mostly achieved through self-controlled study or experience.

Which leads to another personal conclusion that to-do lists are a necessary tool of adulthood in a modern world where we’ve got dozens of competing goals we need to decide between prioritizing.  BUT… even though tackling to-do lists will help you get many things done – depending on your level of energy, time, and motivation you might find it impossible to check things off.

This is why I think it is equally important to categorize things to do and then use the right strategy for tackling the To-Do list. I don’t think you can always accomplish tasks in the same way each time, mainly because you become accustomed to that particular approach and then start slacking off.  There’s a similar phenomenon in dieting – people get bored of eating cottage cheese, salads, and chicken every day so they start seeking novelty – and fall off the bandwagon.

Here are 3 of my strategies for tackling to-do lists and achieving focus.

Note: These strategies are particularly for tackling mental work.

3 Things Method

The Three Things Method:

Every 2 weeks I make a list of mental tasks that need to get done – generally things I can’t accomplish with my son around. This allows me to identify what times are useable (nap time, bed time) and what times aren’t (the witching hour 5-7pm). Then depending on the day and amount of time available, I pick 3 things (the most important on the list!) and focus on ONLY those 3 things – nothing else on the master list.  Clearing my mind of the other items makes it easier for me to focus.

Checkbox Method

The Checkbox Method:

I have a weak prospective memory – or in other words – I’m easily distractable. (Doesn’t the first one sound so much better?!).  I might sit down to read a book, then remember I need to answer an email, and find myself reading a newspaper article which prompts me to check my bank account.  It’s easy (for me) to lose an hour of productivity that way. Which is why, when I often start work I take a scrap piece of paper and make a series of boxes.  Each box represents 15 minutes of focus on a task.  If I complete 15 minutes of focus, I check it off.  If I don’t, I X it.  I feel a certain level of shame if I look at more than 2 boxes with an X in them, which prompts me to try harder to focus.  In my experience – focus begets more focus… and I can usually con myself into just fifteen more minutes of work.

Categorize Method

The Balanced Modes Method:

On my master mental tasks lists there are generally three types of tasks: thinking, reading, and writing. Although I sometimes have the energy to tackle 3 reading items… I often don’t. Who can read 100 pages of psychology textbook at once?  Answer: Not me.  So, I try and balance the tasks that I accomplish by switching between two modes.  First I’ll read for a set amount of time or length – then I’ll write for set amount of time or length.

Additionally…

I also like Gretchin Rubin’s 15 Minute “Tackle a  Nagging task” method which I read about in “The Happiness Project” (highly recommend!).  Sometimes tasks are so tedious, or difficult, or simply abhorrent that you can’t do it,  So, you break the task down into 15 minute pieces and you commit to doing 15 minutes (and ONLY 15 minutes) on the task every day until it’s complete.  This works for mental tasks AND other household tasks.

Could you see yourself using any of these strategies?  Do you have other strategies to get yourself through your to-do lists?

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One thought on “Tackling To Do Lists

  1. oflions says:

    A lot of times, I put a few easy things on my to-do list, because once I start checking things off, it makes me want to check more things off, so if I put something quick (like water the plants) on the list, I’m more likely to be motivated to do something that takes more time and effort.

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