Features

A Two Step Process for Managing Your To-Do List During a Pandemic

My old Chief of Staff, Jay, once told me that the secret to being productive was to make a list of tasks and cross them off.  It seems like simple advice, but when you realize how much motivation it takes to follow, you learn how difficult it can be.

Last week, an article titled “Stop Trying to Be Productive,” made the rounds through the blogosphere.  Much like the subjects of the article, I start off each day filled with enthusiasm for what I can accomplishment.  But many nights, I go to bed having done just the minimum (and maybe only after I redefined what qualified as the minimum).

This week, I decided change that.  Thoughts of being incredibly productive are naive. We all need grace to get through this ordeal, and sometimes we need it most from ourselves.  But what if there was a middle way, a way to be a little more productive within reason?

During law school, I used a two-step system to help keep my studying, working, blogging, and personal tasks on track.  Because spinning so many plates requires a plan.  So this week, in the name of productivity, I decided to bring it back.

Step One: The Minimum + One.  Each night before I close up shop, I make a to-do list for the next day on my Russell + Hazel notepad and list how long each task “should” take next to it.  Here’s a sampling of some from last Wednesday’s to-do list.

+ Life Insurance Paperwork (15-minutes)

+ Re-structure Blog Amazon Page (45-minutes)

+ Clean Bathroom (1-hour)

+ Manage candidate Facebook pages (40-minutes)

+ Write candidate newsletter (45-minutes)

+ Pick Up Laundry Room (15-minutes)

+ Write Blog Posts (3-hours)

Just glancing at the list, all of the tasks seem to be of the same importance.  But obviously, they’re not —  some are for work, some are housework, and some are for the blog.

To visually differentiate between the must dos and the can dos, I highlight all of the  tasks that MUST be done that day in green.   Now, I know what minimum accomplishment looks like and won’t lose an important task in a long list.

+ Life Insurance Paperwork (15 minutes)

+ Re-structure Blog Amazon Page (45-minutes)

+ Clean Bathroom (1-hour)

+ Manage candidate Facebook pages (40-minutes)

+ Write candidate newsletter (45-minutes)

+ Pick Up Laundry Room (15-minutes)

+ Write Blog Posts (3-hours)

Now that I’ve built the floor, I put up the ceiling by choosing two additional tasks for the day.  (Wait a minute… Two?!?  I thought you said one?!)

I did say one, but the trick to consistently completing one task each day is to choose two — one attainable goal and one stretch goal. You aim for the stretch goal, but if all you can mentally muster is enough time and energy for the attainable goal, you’re still doing great.

From that to-do list, my stretch goal was to clean the bathroom.  My attainable goal was to pick up the laundry room.  But as you might imagine, after a long day filled with Zoom calls, I didn’t feel much like stretching.  So while I waited for our dinner to finish cooking, I picked up the laundry room.

I did the minimum, plus one.  Mischief managed.

Step Two: The Sunday List.  The obvious flaw in a system like this is that while you’re doing a bit more each day, some daily tasks will not be completed.  Therefore, those tasks will just be added to tomorrow’s to-do list.  And by the end of the week, you’ll have a list of tasks that you never got around just staring you in the face.  This is where the second step comes in to play.

If a task is still on my list at close-of-business Friday, it moves from the daily to do list to the Sunday List.  And the Sunday List rules all.

Once a daily task is moved to the Sunday List, it must be completed by the time I go to sleep Sunday or abandoned.  Because if I could go through a work week and a weekend without accomplishing the task, it’s time to re-evaluate whether it really needed to get done.  This was this week’s Sunday List, using the same color-coded system to differentiate between must dos, and can dos.

+ Re-structure Blog Amazon Page (45-minutes)

+ Clean Bathroom (1-hour)

+ Bathe Dogs (1-hour)

+ Clean Out Hall Closet (1-hour)

+ Schedule UPS Pickup (15-minutes)

+ Order Groceries (1-hour)

+ Bake Muffins (1-hour)

This week, only the tasks in green were accomplished (and only because I outsourced bathing the dogs to Kyle).  Black tasks were dropped from the list.  Because sometimes there are things that we want to do that we just can’t make time for, and that’s okay.

This two-step process keep me on top of my daily tasks without contributing to a sense of disappointment or failure when things don’t get done.  Sometimes, all I need at the end of the day is to know that I did just one more thing.  And sometimes, all I need on Sunday is to know that it’s okay to let go of the other tasks and start fresh next week.

LEAVE A COMMENT

    18 comments

  1. Kalee says:

    Thank you for this post! I think it’s going to be very helpful for me.

    April 7, 2020/Reply
  2. Sophie says:

    This system is such great advice! Thank you. This hasn’t been easy for me. Even though I’m still employed, my organization had a few layoffs and it’s really hit me hard knowing my friends are not employed. I’ve always done To-Do lists but I like this structure. Mental health needs to be assessed during this time of crisis.

    April 7, 2020/Reply
  3. Pam says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I love the balance of simplicity and structure! I’ve tried GTD (getting things done); and a ranking system of A (today); B this week; and C (someday). But i think i will try yours!

    April 7, 2020/Reply
  4. KimW says:

    Love this! I make my lists way too long because I am afraid I will forget to do something. Then, at the end of the day, I have that nagging “it’s all too much” feeling.This way seems much more manageable.

    April 7, 2020/Reply
  5. Amanda says:

    I love this! I’m a to-do lists person… a few months ago I started keeping my weekly to-do list on bright yellow paper (so that I can’t lose it) and crossing things off in Sharpie marker (it feels a lot more exciting that way).

    April 7, 2020/Reply
  6. LeaH says:

    This is a great system, thank you for sharing! I especially like the thought that if it didn’t happen during the week or on Sunday, it isn’t important enough to keep on the list.

    April 7, 2020/Reply
  7. Katherine says:

    So simple and practical – I am going to start using this tonight. I love to-do lists but hate that feeling of not crossing things off because my lists are always unrealistic. This seems like a good solution.

    April 7, 2020/Reply
  8. Margaret says:

    Great system. I’ve been having a running weekly list that I split by Work and Personal (literally a spiral bound notebook with a line down the middle. I then write deadlines next to the time-bound tasks. Because my work is billable I have a smaller notebook where I write down what I’m doing throughout the day and make a column to the right to pull in tasks from the major list. Generally about 3 work tasks and 2 personal tasks to start. Allows me to have a running list to refer to without overwhelming myself on a day to day basis. On Sunday I pull everything that needs to be pulled over from last week’s running list onto a new page.

    April 8, 2020/Reply
  9. Lina Baker says:

    Hey Abra! Thanks for sharing your list, and–as always–having our backs during this weird time. I love the idea of picking two important things to do and having a stretch goal, can’t wait to add that to my routine. I hope you and Kyle are hanging in there okay.

    I wanted to share one super great tool that has been really helping me be more productive–I think it tackles the overwhelm in a really helpful, motivating way. It is called the Pomodoro Technique, and chrome has a plug-in for it. It times you for 25 minutes of focused work, then gives you a break (length varies depending on how many “pomodoros” you have done). I never would have expected how much more I am getting done in those 25 minutes! Often i find myself wanting to keep working through the break, but forcing myself to take the break has also helped me find a little balance (and I am often able to slowly tick things off my chores list–wiping counters down, one break to clean the mirror, the next the toilet, etc.)

    Just wanted to suggest it in case you wanted to give it a try!

    April 8, 2020/Reply
    • Belle says:

      That’s cool.Thank you for sharing.

      April 8, 2020/Reply
  10. Carol says:

    This is so helpful, thank you!

    April 8, 2020/Reply
  11. kath gregg says:

    This is brilliant!!! I’m a die hard list maker but over the pas few years have lost the thread on keeping on top of my productivity via my list. You have set out a great way to get me back on track! Thank you for sharing. And by the way – you are rocking the blogging during a pandemic. I know you are having trouble finding your footing re: posting during this time but in my opinion you are doing a fantastic job. I need your daily posts and appreciate anything you are throwing up!!

    April 8, 2020/Reply
  12. Debbie says:

    Great ideas and so helpful, Abra. May I ask what grocery ordering service you use? My sister and I would like our elderly parents to begin ordering groceries here in Spokane.

    April 8, 2020/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Instacart. Safeway has the most reliable selection.

      April 8, 2020/Reply
  13. emma says:

    I have a love-hate relationship to lists and structure in general. I’m finding right now that having tentative structure is calming, even if I rebel against it. I’ve finished two on my must do list out of 6. However, I did think of additional things I could do and did those instead. REBEL! I’m having a more productive day overall and feel more in control. So it’s working!

    April 8, 2020/Reply
  14. Vidya says:

    This is a great system! One thing I do on my more productive days is to make separate lists (same paper) into small and large tasks. My personal rule is that if I’m struggling to do a large task and need a break but haven’t done enough to merit one, I’ll “procrastinate” by doing a small task. Very effective. Pretty similar to breaking it down by time as you have done.

    April 8, 2020/Reply
  15. Wendy Byrde says:

    I think you might like the Bullet Journal method. It seems overwhelming at first, but if you google minimalist bullet journaling, it’s not super different from what you’re doing, but can also incorporate a little bit more.

    April 8, 2020/Reply
  16. Caitlin says:

    Hmmmm. This sounds fantastic, except that I feel like I need a separate “rainy day” list. Like (and this is in a theoretical world where I can go out again) if my plans fell through for the evening, instead of aimlessly browsing I could say… organize my important documents box. Like, it’s extremely low priority and not time sensitive, but I do want to do it when I have time.

    Maybe I should just assign it to a Sunday and get it over with?

    April 13, 2020/Reply