As I’ve mentioned many times before, I start off every day with a pretty full to-do list - usually numbering twenty items or so. On a good day, I’ll accomplish most of them - write a few posts for The Simple Dollar, answer email, check the comments, handle some correspondence, work on another writing project, read a few chapters in a book, do some household tasks, and so on.
Inevitably, though, my list at the end of the day has a few things left on it - the things left undone. Quite often, these things are the low priority tasks that I’d like to accomplish during a given day.
The obvious question is why are there things on my to-do list that I regularly don’t accomplish? Obviously, I’m overstocking my to-do list each day - something that a lot of people do. When I put things on that list, I genuinely want to accomplish all of the things on the list, but I simply run out of time to get all of those things done.
Those things left behind eventually dig at me. I want to accomplish them, but I sometimes seem to never get around to them. What kind of things? I want to make another batch of homemade beer, followed by a batch of homemade wine. I want to write more short stories. I want to devote more time to reading for my own enjoyment. I want to rearrange the furniture in my office. I want to add a bunch of shelving to the garage. The list goes on and on.
This probably sounds familiar to you. I know it sounds familiar to a lot of the people I spent Christmas vacation with. I brought up this situation in various forms to different people, and almost to a tee, they all identified with it. Even my nine year old nephew did to a degree - he mentioned a book that he’s wanted to read for a while, but never opened.
Here’s the catch, though. In a few months, I will have done most of these things.
Sure, on a day to day basis, I do leave things undone, and those things do bother me. However, instead of just leaving those little things undone, I use several tactics to actually make sure that I do get around to them.
Here’s the game plan for getting around to those little things you’d like to find time to do.
Make one of them a priority today. The biggest reason that things on your list get left there is because you view other things as having a higher priority.
On my to-do list, there are usually a few things that are of the highest priority for the day. For me, that’s usually keeping up with my required writing - I need to stay ahead with my written words, after all. I usually build my day around those tasks and fill in the gaps with other tasks of less importance, but still need to get done - like reading email.
My solution? I take one of those tasks I’ve been neglecting and make it a top priority for the day. So, for example, today my “suddenly high priority” task is cleaning up my office - along with my writing, I’ll consider today a successful day if I get my office arranged the way I want it.
Do one of the tasks first thing in the morning. Another approach that works well for me is to do this low-priority task first thing in the morning, just as I start my day. This works well because of the flexibility of my schedule, since I can take on personal tasks at the start of my “work day,” but it also works in many office environments particularly if the task is related to your job.
Put off those big “essential” tasks that you start your day with (for me, I usually start off with writing whatever I think will be the most difficult article of the day) and start your day with that simple task. Don’t check your email. Don’t get started on the task of the moment. Instead, get that little thing that you’ve wanted to do out of the way. Write that little bit of code that needs to be written. Read a chapter of that book you’ve been intending to read. Get that office clean. Get that sticky correspondence out of the way.
Re-evaluate your use of time. If you’re consistently bothered by the things left undone, it might indicate that some of your life priorities are out of order at the moment.
Start by taking a serious look at the things you spend your time on during the day, from the minute you wake up until the minute you go to sleep. What things are you doing during that time that you would describe as very low priority? What things are you doing that seem redundant, pointless, or a waste of your time? What things are you doing that could easily be bridged with other things?
For example, let’s say the thing you’ve always wanted to do is start reading some classic literature, but you can’t find time for it. You don’t watch television, your job is jam packed, and so on. But, when you look at your daily schedule, you notice that you’re burning twenty minutes or so during your daily commute, and you’re usually just listening to talk radio. Why not turn off Glenn Beck and turn on an audiobook of For Whom the Bell Tolls?
Typical places to look for extra time include time devoted to entertainment (like that evening television block), time devoted to commuting, time devoted to gaming, time devoted to … avoiding work by surfing the ‘net, and so on. Just replace these things with some of the things you wish you had time for and suddenly you may find yourself getting things done.
Eliminate a few of your responsibilities. For some, though, the above tactics won’t help - they really are jammed to the brim and they’re leaving things on the table that they should be addressing.
If you’re in this situation, your schedule is overstuffed. You’re walking a tightrope and eventually you’re going to trip, fall, and drop something important.
This means that it’s time to start looking at eliminating a few of your responsibilities. It may be time to step back from some of your volunteer responsibilities - perhaps you can resign from a board you serve on or can step down at the end of a sports season when you coach. It might even be time to have a discussion with your work supervisor about the things on your plate in the workplace.
Every schedule needs some breathing room - without it, you’re begging for disaster. Now’s the time to start making some space in your own schedule.
Ask for help. One effective strategy for clearing out an overburdened schedule is to simply ask for help. Are there not items on your daily to-do list that couldn’t be easily handled with the aid of others? Here are three options for getting some assistance with your to-dos - so you have time to take care of all the things you want to do.
Delegate. If you’re in a position where you have the ability to move some of your most mundane tasks to another worker, take advantage of that. Delegate some of your busywork to an administrative assistant or to a lower-ranking employee. In some situations (I found myself in this situation, once upon a time), if your work load is full of mundane tasks that are keeping you from excelling in the “big” tasks of your job, you can ask for an assistant to help you with these mundane things - freeing you to achieve the things you’ve been aching to accomplish.
Ask. If you need help with the activities in your life, just ask for help from those around you. Ask your spouse to help out more with household tasks. Ask your friends for a break from some of your engagements with them so you have time to recharge your batteries. Ask your family members to help out with some of the personal responsibilities you’ve taken on helping with a sick family member. Just ask - if you’re a giving person, those around you will often step up to help you.
Trade. If there are tasks in your life that you struggle with, perhaps you might be able to clear up some time by trading skills with someone. For example, if you’re struggling with a computer that doesn’t work well - the crashes keep you from getting work done - offer to trade the skills you do have to a person who can tune up your computer. If you have kids, offer to swap babysitting nights with the parents of a couple of your child’s friends - that way, you’ll have a couple free evenings a month that won’t cost you anything in exchange for one night of focused babysitting.
Often, the little things in life are the ones we are most proud to accomplish. Don’t let some of the difficulties of life get in your way.
The Simple Dollar chronicles a man's road to recovery from "total financial meltdown." As author Trent Hamm puts it, "The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two." We'll post a couple of entries a week, but you can check out his writing daily at www.thesimpledollar.com