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Are lists the answer?

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
5 min read

I haven’t logged into my Get It Done list since December 6th.  There are 37 things in the most recent version of it — the version that’s built up since I last deleted everything and started from scratch.  I also have 35 more items in my “Action” folder in my work email — that’s where emails go when they need more than the quick 2 minute or less answer I accommodate when I’m doing email triage.  Oh, and not to mention the 335 items in my inbox (from the last two weeks) that I have yet to triage … yeah.  Aside from work overload, task management kind of crushes me.

What I want is a ZenDesk for my entire “work” life (including the parts of my personal life that are “work-like” like managing finances, dealing with service providers, etc.).  I want one place where everything goes, that I can quickly triage once a day and filter out the “not going to do’s” which would then punt back an autoresponse to the sender; to mark the “do now’s” and the “do this week’s” so that they’re easy to spot and have a “due date” attached; to flag the “waiting for someone else’s”; and a field where I could add comments or “I’m working on it” notes so that the sender could peek at the ticket without having to email me to see if I got their first email and what the status is.  Then, after doing a stringent anti-spam campaign, my work email would be nearly silent (since almost everything would be going into my ZenDesk) and my personal email would be reserved for personal correspondence, and I’d be able to see it as a sanctuary to stay connected in long form with my friends and family, instead of another source of additions to the to-do list.

But, for now, I have my work email triage system, my Get It Done List, and that’s that.

In my efforts to get this life into balance, I need to figure out how to reclaim time to actually focus.  I don’t actually have ADHD — I am, traditionally, a deep-diver, with a great ability to focus and work even in the presence of distraction.  But the work life I have now IS ADHD … it’s monitoring a feed of customer messages, keeping an eye on internal communication, and trying to blot out the nagging voice in the back of my head asking, “But when are you actually going to DO your WORK?”  Now, when I carve out time to actually do project work, I sit down and am so distracted by the knowledge that the messages are still inbound — and will be there waiting for me when I’m done with this task, adding to the workload — that I can hardly focus.  It’s easier to just firefight all day than it is to sit down and carve out time and space to focus on work that actually takes effort and thought.  As a result, I’ve let my “focus” muscle atrophy and it desperately needs rebuilding.

Last night as I was winding down my day, thinking about how to organize the projects and tasks that make up my work and work-like parts of my personal life, I came up with this plan.

  • Clear out my GetItDone list.  At this point, almost everything on there is moot or completed, and a fresh list helps keep my mind more calm.  Once that’s cleared out, that list will become my “projects and next steps” list.  Every little request (especially by email) will not go on there.  Projects with their major phases or steps identified will — so this becomes my “Focus” list.
  • I have several projects that just require “Maintenance,” like doing account management or helpdesk time, or moderation, or other routine work that’s super tactical in nature.  Those projects get identified as “Maintenance” projects.
  • Now that I’ve got an idea of the projects that will require Focus and/or Maintenance, each day I’ll have a daily Short List of what’s reasonable to do — taking into account deadlines and priorities — that day.  I’ll pick one project from the “Focus” list and devote the morning to that project, I’ll schedule my email triage times, and I’ll pick a project from the “Maintenance” list and allocate at least an hour or two to those more tactical tasks.  At that point, there are barely enough hours in the day for bathroom breaks and lunch, so I think that’s about all I can squeeze in and I’ll call it good.
  • The time I set aside to work through my email inbox will aim for once at mid-morning, and once at the end of the day.  This will be time to triage, to address the messages I can address quickly, and to communicate expectations and file for “Action” the messages I can’t address quickly.  I’m going to try to reserve the morning for Focus-oriented work … so part of that will be not spending my morning triaging email (if I can actually get away with that and still be performing my job at an acceptable level).  If I spend the first few most productive hours of my work day working, then at least I’ve gotten something done before going into firefight mode.  “Action” messages either fall into a Focus project or a Maintenance project, so I can schedule the work on them accordingly.
  • And last but not least, the Short List will include my responsibilities to my personal life, since taking care of myself and my personal responsibilities is every bit as important as doing so in my work life.  Whether it’s something like keeping a commitment to a friend to get together, or making sure I get to the climbing gym, yoga studio, or out for a run, or what have you — my responsibilities to myself and my personal life seem to be the easiest for me to put “on hold” to focus on “more important” things.  Well — self — I’m here to tell you, that’s bullshit.  I am the most important thing.  My relationships, my health, my well-being, my spiritual life are the more important things.  So, giving them the importance they’re due, they go on the Short List.

Today, I woke up and haven’t yet logged into email (even though it’s nearly 9am, gasp).  Since I’m teleworking, I’ll have to do a quick triage before I dive into my Focus project for the day, but that’s only to spot any 911s from overnight since my co-workers don’t have the ability to walk over to my desk if something’s on fire.  By 9:15 am I’ll be working on a huge Focus project for the day, which I’ll hopefully wrap up by 1pm.  Since I’m so far behind on inbox triage, the rest of the day (ideally after a quick lunch) will be inbox triage and general maintenance work … no Maintenance Project for the day, but that’s okay.  And then for my personal life, I have to visit a bank branch to get a task done that has to be done in person, and I want to go climbing.  It’s been a very long time, and I miss it — and I miss who I am when I’m fostering that part of myself.

And just like in meditation, if I find myself wandering off the planned path, it’s not a crisis.  It’s an opportunity to observe that I’ve wandered off, and re-locate the path, again to get back on it … without judgment.

So that’s what I’m going to try.  What tips and strategies have worked for you, to actually get stuff done and take care of all of the parts of your life?

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.