Thursday, April 21, 2011

Do You Use Lists?

April is traditionally the busiest month of the year for me. My Writer's Market and Poet's Market books are deep in their production schedules, my Poetic Asides blog runs the popular April PAD Challenge, and I'm usually busy with other fun projects. Last year, I admit that I became overwhelmed.

I felt like everything was coming at me from all directions, and I didn't know how to address one issue without completely failing at everything else. In fact, I felt about as hopeless as I've ever felt. And that's when I decided to create a daily task list.

This year, I've had more on my plate than ever before, and I actually feel in control (at least most of the time) of my destiny. I still have Writer's Market and Poet's Market; I attended the Blue Ridge Writers Conference and Austin International Poetry Festival; I released a self-published collection of poems that are nearly sold out; I've led 2 Tiger Cub den meetings; and oh yeah, there's still that April PAD Challenge over on Poetic Asides. Plus, I have lots of other daily emergencies to attend to, but like I said, I've been able to avoid feeling too overwhelmed through my use of a daily task list.

How My Task List Works
My task list is very simple. I use a composition book, so that I can have all my tasks centralized. In a 100-page composition book, I'll label 91 pages (or 13 weeks) with the day of the week and the date. The reason I include both day of the week and date is that I don't want to schedule weekday tasks on the weekend or vice versa. I leave 9 empty pages in the back--just in case I need them to make other notes or charts during that 13-week period. I've included a picture to illustrate my process.

As luck would have it, I am about to finish one Tasks book and start another.

On each day, I only list a manageable number of tasks. Let me repeat that: I only list a manageable number of tasks. I don't list out everything I could possibly get done, because minor emergencies and requests seem to arrive daily. I have to leave time to get those accomplished too.

This forces me to prioritize and break big tasks into smaller pieces that I can accomplish on each day. If I don't get everything finished on a certain day, then I have to move that task on to another day--and depending upon how involved that task is, it may force me to move other tasks around as well. The main thing I try to avoid is having a Mega-List that is completely impossible to achieve, because that sends me back to where I was in April 2010.

Do You Use Lists?
Sometimes a list can reassure; other times, it can intimidate. Either way, lists do give writers something to cross out, which is essential to keeping focus in trying times. My question to readers is this: Do you use lists? If so, how (and when) do you use them?


Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer


Inspired to create your own lo-tech task lists?
Buy a bundle of composition books. They're definitely handy for task lists, but I also like them for composing poetry and outlining my fiction and nonfiction.


Anonymous said...

I live by lists. I make a list for everything. I am in college right now, so managing my time is crucial. I make master lists of all the assignments I have to do, a minor lists of all the reading I have to do and by when, then I make smaller weekly and daily lists. I break large assignments down into lists, such as "this day - do research, next day - make an outline." It has made the difference between being an A student who is on top of things and being a D student who is always a day late turning things in. There are days when I am so overwhelmed my lists will actually consist of such items as: "Eat" and "Take a shower"...LOL

Robert Lee Brewer said...

It's funny you should mention that, Deri, because I've had to include eating on my task lists before.

A. N. Loebick said...

I have two lists going at one time usually -- one is my "at work" list and the other is my "at home list." I try to never let my work task list bleed over into my at home list.

My at work list is a lot more structured. I have a spiral-bound notebook instead of a comp book, and I have each page broken down into two days.

Like you, it keeps me semi-organized and sane throughout my days.

S.E.Ingraham said...

Lists are my lifeline - I'm serious. Years ago I read a book called "The Side-Tracked Home Executive" that addressed women like me who did not have a domestic body in their body and gave tips on how to keep body and soul (and house and home) together with a series of file cards and dividers and yes, lists. While I didn't adopt everything they suggested, I still use a couple of things and some of them overlap my writing life and make it easier.
My family know that more valuable than our safe-deposit box at the bank is a file box titled "Where Is It?" No matter what they (or I) might be looking for, it is undoubtedly filed or cross-referenced in this box. Masking tape? Check "tape" or "masking" or "repairs" - it saves going to Home Depot and ending up with 20 rolls of masking tape! And, no matter what I am stowing or putting away - even if I'm super-sure I will recall where this tablecloth, costume, pair of gloves, etc. are - I make a note of it and file it in the box (which has grown to four boxes now but is still referred to as the "Where Is It Box?")
I do a similar thing with submissions - using a system of "where is it?" for poems, fiction, non-fiction etc. and cross-reference it with publications - I try to keep decent records so that I know where things are all the time, especially since I've stepped up the amount of things I've started sending out and getting back (I want to know how soon I can send something out again, for one thing ...)
I also have an old Teacher's Lesson Plan book that was my husband's but he never used (he gets a new one every year and has never used them so I have a stack) - they're approximately 300 pages fat and have various dividers but mostly they can be adjusted to be whatever I want so I use them for - you guessed it - more lists.
I still haven't found a system that works perfectly for me with this book but it's come closest to anything else I've used, in conjunction with my daytimer (I do quite a bit of volunteer work and need to keep my meetings and speaking things straight so it's important that my lists and my dates work in concert).
Anyhow, - the book of lists has dividers this year that are: Soonest, Bring Forward, Soon, Sometime, Submit? Writing and Miscellaneous. As vague as these headings probably sound, they do tweak me to do certain things and I make myself review them at least twice a week so I get things done on time (usually).
I guess most important is the ongoing list that reminds me about all the other lists and when to review same ... whew, what now? I better consult a list ..

Carrie Anne Schmeck said...

I use my trusty yellow 5x7 pad. I make my own check boxes next to each item. My latest thing is to list goals for each of the following: home, paid work, wannabe paid work, ministry, support for husband's business work, and other. So far, so good.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

That's a good idea, A.N., about not letting your home and work tasks blend.

And, Carrie, I think a 5x7 pad works just as well as a composition book.

Sharon, thank you for sharing your experiences with lists. That's like an entire guest post in the comments!

Susan Ujka Larson said...

Yes, I use lists. Mine are in a spiral notebook. They are not as organized as those mentioned in your post or in the other comments. It would benefit me if they were, but I'm feeling overwhelmed with how to get it all organized!

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Susan, I used to use a mega list that just had everything I needed (and/or wanted) to accomplish on it. The problem I had with that list is that it got to the point that I felt like I was looking at a task tsunami, and I was too overwhelmed to act. Breaking things down into manageable days has helped me overcome that. And I can put "making and managing task list" as an actual task and budget time for it.

Anonymous said...

I use lists everyday. I find the home list most challenging to maintain or accomplish. I don't split days in my notebook cuz there are days when I have only 3 tasks in the list and there are days when I have an overwhelming list. When my list is overwhelming, I use the 'Urgent/Important' Square Grid I learnt from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That helps.

Nic said...

Great post that got me to thinking... All those composition books left over from my kids school years are going to find new life. LOL


Anonymous said...

the latest list i started is "my really cool extra names list" as a page on my blog. since i just started it, there is so far only one name. but, it's a good name that i used for several days.

Anonymous said...

I wrote about my own "mega list" recently -- I ended up tossing it out, because (like you said above) it was too overwhelming. Normally, I'll try to write 3-4 items per day -- the big ones -- and if they don't get completed, they move to the next day.

Interesting post, Robert. Glad you have things in order :)


Anonymous said...

i am trying out your list method...curious how it might work for me.
there is something about crossing things off that is pleasing. especially things i don't really want to do.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thanks, everyone! This is what works for me, but I know others have their own little systems that get the job done.