From Overloaded to Organized
Clear the chaos with step-by-step instructions on getting organized
By Catie Smith
School bus, school lunch, after school activities- meetings, bills, events and dare I say, “Date night,” we all tackle hundreds of daily activities from just as many roles from parent to employee and volunteer and friend. With so much to do it is easy to become overwhelmed with a flood of post-it notes, task lists and email reminders. As you enter the New Year with a fresh, blank calendar on your desk, you say to yourself, “I’m going to be more organized!” With visions of a clear desktop and completed to-do list dancing in your head, you pick up your pen. But, where do you start?
For those who don’t have a clear idea of what they are working toward, it can be difficult to decide what tools are best to get you from overloaded to organized. Creating project lists allows you to capture all of the information related to your many different roles and their projects, whether those projects are urgent, ongoing, or aspirational. Here’s how you can keep yourself productive in each of your life’s roles.
First, Recognize your Roles
Make a list of every Role that you fill. You undoubtedly wear many different hats, and a project list is a great way to get an overview of your responsibilities. Roles can range from well-defined professional titles (Vice President of Sales) to more abstract family functions (Mom, Dad, Coach).
Don’t forget your personal Roles. If you want to achieve balance, you will need to give your personal development the same kind of conscious attention that you give to your other roles. Examples of personal Roles are: Aspiring Gardener, Reader, and Friend.
Profile Your Projects
Next, list the Projects that fall under each Role. Projects can be specific events, ongoing responsibilities, or goals. Don’t worry if one Role seems to have more Projects than the others. Over time, your Project Lists will help you to see where you spend your time, and the lists will evolve with you as you balance your time.
Arrange Your Action
Finally, add Action Items to each of your Projects. Action Items are the tangible to-dos that will carry you to the finish line of your goals. Categorizing your Action Items at the Project level allows you to clearly define the steps ahead for each Project and Role. Project Lists allow you to focus on the efforts that are most important to you at this time without losing track of your other endeavors while they are on the back burner. For more information, consider reading Getting Things Done by David Allen.
Prioritize Your To-Do List
Action Items gleaned from your Project Lists are the foundation for a well-prioritized to-do list. Without Project Lists, a typical to-do list might look like this:
• Class picture May 16
• Learn to grow roses
But, where should you start? What actions do you need to take?
Tackle Your To-Dos
Take out your current to-do list and transfer every item to its appropriate place on your Project Lists. For this example, add a new project to the Role: Aspiring Gardener called Project: Learn to Grow Roses with the Action Item: Buy book about roses. Follow a similar pattern with “Taxes!”
Next, separate the Action Items from the calendar items. A to-do list is not a calendar and a calendar is not a to-do list. Mark “Class Picture” on the May 16 date on your calendar, and remove it from the to-do list. If there is an Action Item associated with a calendar item, add it to your Project Lists. For example, you might need to help Jenny find the perfect outfit for her 6th grade photo.
Review Your Routine
Now that your Project Lists are complete, review and update them at least weekly. This only takes ten minutes, and it is the key strategy to stay ahead of your yourself at every step.
Every evening, review your calendar for the next day and decide on one or two priority Action Items for the following day. Move those items from your Project Lists to your daily to-do list.
Accomplish Your Action Items
But you may say, “What, just two tasks? Don’t you know how much I have to do?!” Yes, there is a lot to do, but expecting to get every Action Item on all of your Project Lists done tomorrow is unrealistic. Your day may not go according to plan. You may do a few low-priority items first, expecting to get to your highest priority items in the afternoon. Then, Jenny’s school calls. She is ill, and you spend the rest of the afternoon caring for her. By 9:00 PM, after a busy evening, you realize that you didn’t get your highest priority Action Item accomplished, and you stay up until midnight trying to finish it.
By selecting just one or two high priority tasks, you can feel confident that, by the time your day speeds off track, you will have already gotten your important items completed. Selecting your Action Items in the evening allows you to make decisions in a relaxed, purposeful frame of mind, rather than trying to formulate a plan while frantically making breakfast and driving the kids to school. You can have your necessary materials ready to go, allowing you to get straight to productivity. If, after successfully completing your priority tasks, you find that you have free time, not to worry! Just go back to your project lists to find a well-organized selection of Action Items just waiting to be done. Or, maybe, just go sip a cup of coffee or enjoy some well deserve “me time.”
Keep Track of Your Children’s Activities
Your children are just as busy as you are, if not busier! Keeping track of your own calendar and to-do list can be challenging enough, but trying to manage your entire family’s schedule can be downright daunting.
If your kids are old enough to have some control over their own schedule, an online, sharable calendar like iCal or Google Calendar can be a useful tool. Sharing calendars electronically allows every family member to see how their personal activities fit into the schedule of the family as a whole. Calendar sharing can also help to eliminate the “But I told you that I needed 6 dozen donuts this morning!” When the class party is listed on the calendar, everyone knows the definite donut deadline. The notes fields of the calendars should be used to share information such as required donuts, ride arrangements, and clothing needs.
Remember that a calendar, especially a shared one, is a calendar, not a to-do list. When Mom sees the class party on the calendar with donuts in the notes, she can add the item to her own task management system, such as in a Project List under Role: Mom to Jenny, Project: Survive 6th Grade, Action Item: Buy donuts for party on January 23.
Mom and Dad can create un-shared calendars to note their professional or private events. An additional “Tentative” calendar can be used to mark possible events in a light color. It can be helpful to use a program like Week Calendar for iPhone to get a week-at-a-time view, which is the most useful format.
If your children are younger and you control their schedules, a paper planner can be a more efficient tool, because there is no need to sync, and writing on paper is much faster than typing on a tiny screen. Again, a weekly format is the most useful. A “Mom” planner with separate space for Mom’s activities, plus a section for each child, is ideal. There are many layouts available, but most importantly, the page should allow you to see the activities of each child separately and get an overview of the family’s schedule as a whole.
When noting activities, make sure to include information about rides, snacks, and uniforms. This will help you plan your schedule to accommodate your responsibilities, while feeling confident that you know that Alice’s mother will pick Jenny up from dance class. A highlighter can be a useful tool to draw special attention to rides and snacks that will be your responsibility.
Use Technology To Back Up Your Brain
Often, important information, dates, or to-dos come up as you are running around town. Writing that information on a sticky-note, the back of an envelope, or the top of your child’s homework is not the best strategy to make sure that it will make it way to its proper place on your to-do list.
Email to the rescue! When a scrap of information, a quick request, or a tentative date comes up in conversation while you are away from your planner or calendar, use your smart phone to email the item to yourself. Make a note in the subject line: “Buy donuts for Jenny’s class party January 23,” and press send.
Make a habit of only processing your email when you have your calendar and Project Lists at hand so that you can file the emailed item in the proper place, rather than leaving it to linger in your email’s inbox, which is not the most effective place to keep your to-do list.
If you use the Evernote program and app to manage your Project Lists, you can email an item directly to Evernote, where it will be tagged automatically and placed in the correct notebook. Search the Evernote help for more information.
Applaud Your Accomplishment
With the help of Project Lists, a prioritized to-do list, and a unified family calendar, all supported by the appropriate technology, you can be sure to stay organized and productive in 2013. Productivity and organization are not ends unto themselves, however. Use your newly discovered free time to focus on your personal goals and spend time with family and friends. By the time 2014 rolls around, you should have a lot to celebrate!
Catie Smith is the creator of Plan My Planner, where you can build personalized and customized planning systems. Catie lives in Westlake with her husband, Adam, and their two dogs. Thoroughly organized, she happily spends much of her free time in Southlake, browsing the delicious aisles of Central Market.