To-Do or Not To-Do

What’s the first thing you do when you get to work? Or when you start a new project? Ok, so my first step is really to go and get coffee, but the next is to make a To-Do list. This contributes to the myth that I’m a highly organised person when, truthfully, I am a disorganised person who sought help for their condition.

Back in the halcyon days of my undergraduate degree I had an average of 7 lectures/tutorials a week and spent the rest of my time reading and essay-wrangling, so it wasn’t until I entered the ‘real world’ that I realised how badly I used my time. This wasn’t helped by my compulsion to leave everything til as close as the deadline as possible (observation of my siblings suggests this may be genetic), which only works when the preceding 12 weeks have entirely revolved around researching and thinking and scribbling about the topic you now have to write about. My first job, which came with a range of Service Level Agreements, targets, and deadlines, taught me that I don’t thrive under pressure, rather, I manage. What has stuck, from all the Time Management books and seminars that followed that first ‘real world’ experience, is the art of making a list.

“Surely everyone can make a list!” I hear you scoff. I agree – anyone can list things on a piece of paper, and many of them do. What I’m talking about is the next step, where you break down bigger tasks into their component activities, prioritise, sort, and transfer the items onto a diary or calendar to make sure that they happen when they’re supposed to. I admit this seems like a lot of work, and, if your list is “Buy milk; visit grandma; mow lawn,” you probably don’t need to break it down, and will be able to decide the order in your head. No, the To-Do list comes into it’s own when you’re balancing work and home life or dealing with multiple ongoing projects. Use them enough, and many of these lists will become your daily habits and routines.

Carpe Diem notepad
How to liven up a dull list.

To-Do lists also help me to think more creatively. I would consider myself a visual learner, so things are somehow more real to me once I’ve written them down. Because I prefer pen and paper, I find that I will doodle, underline, draw arrows to link items and little walls to separate them. I have even been known to colour-code my lists. I also like the stationery options involved – my Carpe Diem notepad comes out for particularly difficult lists because the designs make me laugh and introduce an element of fun. Physically writing things down, listing all the steps, also helps me to be more realistic about how long things will take, and lets me build in some fun list items to reward myself and keep me motivated.

To some of you this is probably starting to sound like procrastination –  time spent writing a list is time you could have spent getting on with things. That thought does worry at me on particularly busy days, but experience has taught me that it is worth the time to make sure that nothing gets forgotten, and to feel that I’m prepared for what lies ahead. Another objection might be that it’s not worth writing lists and planning your day out, because something unexpected could come along and knock you off course. Yes, sometimes my list does get derailed, however my original list then acts as a map, getting me back on track – I’m more adaptable thanks to the supposedly inflexible list. Essentially, I’m saying that a list works like a breathing exercise for my brain when it goes into panic mode.

Of course I still forget things (we’re pretty sure I’m human), and yes, I have days when I ignore the list and watch tv instead (not at work I hasten to add!), but I’ve found the peace of mind that comes with a To-Do list always draws me back.

Plus, everyone thinks I’m really organised.


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