Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Personal Organization with "The Ultimate List"

From GetYeDone to scribbles on post it notes, I think it's pretty clear that I love to-do lists. They give at least the illusion of control over a busy writer's life, allowing me to organize tasks verbally and spatially, and most of all there's something very satisfying about striking through my latest conquest.  Only recently, though, have I seriously considered the motivational effect a well-organized to do list can have, above and beyond the momentary glow of accomplishment (which GetYeDone's XP system is meant to magnify).

Some of my ideas have come from Randy Ingermanson's Advanced Fiction Writing ezine. Actually a newsletter, this monthly email hasn't exactly proven life-changing, but it's free, open-source, and offers some genuinely useful advice, especially for the personal organization side of things. Ingermanson is possibly even more devoted to lists than I am. One of his articles (that I managed to find shared online; although ezine recipients are encouraged to share credited articles, I'm afraid I deleted all the newsletters in my inbox in a fit of organizational madness) suggests the division of sublists into "Big Chunks" for particular categories of tasks. This is similar to GetYeDone's Odysseys umbrella lists.  Being able to distinguish connected tasks--adding logic to the overwhelming list--helps keep matters in perspective. Most importantly, though, is Ingermanson's philosophy of allocating blocks of time to work on each group of tasks. He allows himself to go over time-budget if he's on a roll, because it's worth it to get a task crossed off for good (a feeling I know--I stayed up writing by candlelight once rather than leaving a story to be finished another day). Yet also reminds us that "You will never get your life under control, if by 'control' you mean that all your lists are finished." An empty to do list can wait until you're dead.

And when you put it that way, gosh, it really can wait.

Although the individual tasks on any given to do list often can't wait. And that's why I find Ingermanson's time budgeting tactic so very useful. It gives a sense of immediacy--I am going to sit down for 90 minutes, and at the end of 90 minutes this will be accomplished!

Similarly, in another article Ingermanson suggests using a "Hate List." This is where you put the tasks you need to do but dislike (mine would probably include housecleaning, certain revisions, and school assignments).  Again, the principle is that once you dedicate a chunk of time to work on the items on the list, inertia will carry you along. You can do anything for a half-hour and after a half-hour, you might find you can keep going. And once it's done, it's done.

A combination of these principles, plus some secret sauce of my own, has produced what I affectionately call the Ultimate List. It isn't a list of things I hate necessarily (although tasks I dislike are included), but rather a back-to-the-wall, ultimate-priority list. The "just do it!" list. The "this is really happening" list. Looking at it feels a bit like going over that first drop on a roller coaster.

It's how I got through September.

Each item on the Ultimate List:
  • Must be specific ("write blog post about your to-do list," not "write a blog post")
  • Must be finite ("write a blog post about your to-do list," not "do blogging.")
  • Should be small (one blog post, one book review, one short story. For larger projects like my books I may block chapters together--so at the beginning of last month I had "Revise Starter Guide chapters 3 & 4," or "Revise the novel up to Chapter 5). 
  • Should be something I put off when not reminded & forced to do it. Pleasanter tasks like going to the grocery store, cooking dinner, or giving myself a relaxing long shower don't count. Nor does "finish reading R. Scott Bakker's The White-Luck Warrior." I would do those if not reminded. Admitting that I really do need to finish the laundry, though, is another issue. As is writing up a book review (some days I really enjoy writing book reviews, but on others I'm brain-dead. I need to remind myself to strike while the mental iron is sharp...or some other confused metaphor). 
  • The Ultimate list includes a due date where appropriate. Some dates are self-set, while some are deadlines for submissions, assignments for my writing course, or arranged by a contract. 
  • Strictly speaking, the tasks due for completion sooner go higher on the list, so if necessary and Zero Hour approacheth, I can drop all other tasks and just focus on that one. I do this for anthology deadlines and used to do it for final exams & research papers, back when I had those. I've even met anthology deadlines in between studying for finals. 
  • My other addition to the Ultimate List, and perhaps the most important: The "Why?" column. There must be a reason to complete this task. It helps prioritize and motivate, not to mention serving as an answer to the perennial "how did I get into this?" Right now I have a lot of "I made a personal promise" tasks, whether that promise is my Kickstarter fulfillment, receiving a free copy of an ebook in exchange for review, or a contract. I also have '"family/friends" (2 birthday gifts to wrap for two separate people), writing goals ("for the fans" should I need an outside motivator), and tasks that will provide me with income (the ever-persuasive $ sign).
  • There is a danger of adding too many tasks. The Ultimate List works best with 5-7 items. I once had 14 pending (too many book reviews) and that was excessive. I had to sit down and make several points of order more specific--One Hundred Days is not going to be mailed to an agent anytime soon, but I can finish addressing my inline comments for all chapters by the end of this month. Even if I'm nowhere near finished formatting The Starter Guide... for Smashwords upload, I am close enough to taste the completion of the second draft, so that's what I'm currently shooting for. 
  • The Ultimate List is for "Live" errands, tasks which I should be working on right now, not vague wishes for things I might do eventually. If my "Why" proves less persuasive and the due date isn't until October, I might push back an assignment in favor of a more urgent one. 
  • Also, when I've done all I can do on a project for the time being, it's done. A discussion with a classmate at the Writer's Center encouraged me to look into making an audiobook of Aqua Vitae. I've uploaded the relevant information into the Audiobook Creation Exchange, but I have no other pending tasks until someone auditions to produce it.  
  • Because a long list of strikethroughs can be less than motivating, I've created a new list every time I've finished at least half of the old list. I try to keep the total number of tasks less than a dozen, and make the goal of trying to finish at least 1 task a day. 
  • There's also a danger of complacency--especially when I also list tasks in my daily planner. I cross out all the planner items for my day and forget to look at the Ultimate List. The workaround is simple: I select tasks from the Ultimate List to write down in my planner. 
  • In addition, for general productivity I've discovered the magic of "Days off". I used to not allow myself any time off--when I wasn't at my internships, I was writing--but that wore me down fast. Now that I'm self-employed and my time is all my own, my rule is to work from 10am-6pm on weekdays, and from 10-noon some Saturdays. Past that, I'm "off". This doesn't mean I'm not allowed to work on List tasks, but doing tasks during my off time is a bonus. I won't feel bad if I don't do it, I'll feel rather good if I do. This does mean I need to be more serious about my on time, though. 
I've been using this method for around a month, and it has paid off. Especially, it's helped me to keep up with blogging (on this blog and on my internship and contract works) and book reviews. It's also helped me get through some revisions, chapter-by-chapter, and one short story has been completed, typed up, and submitted. I also kept on top of my Writer's Class assignments and some of my larger errands. The size of the task really does matter--smaller is better. For bigger tasks, the Ultimate List is handy as a source of reference, to remind me what I should be working on when I'm not sure what to do. It's less useful for when I feel like I don't want to do anything, but even there, it helps to have a menu of options so I can pick the least difficult.

I'm using my Ultimate List in tandem with GetYeDone. On GYD, I record some of my longer term goals, and once a week or so I log on and check off every one I've reached. I bask in the XP gains before returning to work. Not everything pending in my GetYeDone log is on my Ultimate List, and not everything on the Ultimate List translates into GetYeDone XP (errands, for example, don't really matter).

A last thought on awarding XP: after a personally trying phone call the other day, I hung up and thought to myself, I think I leveled up with that! If only there was some way to record...Oh. As I near level 10, I ponder what I should do to reward myself. Buying myself something nice is a questionable reward, given my current budget (I've also started keeping a cashflow record, and let me tell you, watching it go is making me much more careful with my cash!). And rewarding myself with time off may not be useful, either, given that would cut into the productive hours I've just learned to make better use of.

In any event, I have two more tasks in my planner for today and they're both on my Ultimate List. So I'd best get going with that!