For those of you who have known me for awhile, you likely know that I used to be quite anal retentive about goal-setting. Each December, I would start thinking about my version of New Year’s resolutions which were to do some hard-core planning for the year. I really like the “Inbox Zero” equivalent of personal planning, and my to-do list reflected that preference.
If you haven’t seen Inbox Zero, it is originally for people who had trouble managing their inbox. In the planning industry, it was the “do you manage your inbox or does your inbox manage you?” idea. In short, most people have large inboxes. Dozens, hundreds of messages, maybe even thousands, all in a single folder. Which is an incredibly inefficient filing system. Think of it as the equivalent of 200 post-it notes around your desk. How do you find anything? How do you avoid missing something critical?
The Inbox Zero approach is designed to remove that clutter. You go through every email in the box until you’re done the first time. With each email, you either deal with it immediately (for something that takes a minute or two)…and if it is a repetitive task like answering a request for a copy of some document you regularly send out, then take a few extra minutes to setup macros for quick responses. Then any future one of those requests can be dealt with in seconds. Many of the emails are likely ones that you can just delete. At least the first time you do a triage. And then there are two final categories.
The first category is for ones that are simply things you want to read later. You don’t have to “do” anything with them, but you don’t want to delete them either. Think of them as an equivalent of a “To Be Read” pile of books. Do you need that TBR pile on your desk? Nope, file them in a folder and pull some out from time to time when you are available. Or if it is really important to you, schedule 15-30 minutes a day where you’ll just read the best thing in the folder, shutting everything else out.
The last category is for the “to-do” list items. You didn’t respond yet, you have to do some work on them (maybe your boss was tasking you with something), and it isn’t something you can just file and pull out later. This is your “active” set of emails. But why are they in your inbox cluttered up with everything else? The Inbox Zero approach insists that you at least move them to an ACTIVE folder with no more than a screenful of emails or you make a list of action items and put them on your to-do list. Then, you can move them around on your to-do list, reprioritize as needed, delete if necessary or possible, whatever you need to do. But you’re not using a pile of electronic post-it notes on your desk to do it.
Mental Inbox Zero
To me, the Inbox Zero’s real benefit is that it declutters your active workspace so your to-do list isn’t screaming at you “do me, do me, do me”. You aren’t managing your inbox so much as managing your time in comparison with all your other priorities. But once it’s on the list, you don’t have to be trying to remember it mentally. It’s gone from your mental inbox. It’s on a list, and you can read that list when you need to. In the meantime, you can focus on the most important or urgent task YOU choose to do next.
So I used to apply the same principle and discipline to my to-do list. I have a master list of things I am planning to do, thinking about doing, or maybe just dreaming about doing some day. Some of the items are almost bucket list level; others are short-term items like picking up the drycleaning. So, with lots of refinement over the years, I created my own personal development model with “blue” cerebral / cognitive items, “green” family or emotional items, “yellow” social or community items, and “red” financial or active leadership items (see the image to the left of the title). The colours match up with the Insights Discovery model for personality profiles, which has its limit but works as an organizing metaphor for me. I have extensive groupings and categorizations too within those colours:
- Health, weight/fitness, cooking;
- Family, home organization, reading;
- Finances, organization, activities;
- Learning, photography, astronomy, volunteering; and,
- Computers, website management, blogging, media management, writing.
22 categories in total, with three levels of prioritization within it — things I can do in the next week or so; things in the next month; and things that are parked for now.
I then keep a separate “subset” list that I use for my weekly to-do list. It’s essentially the “things I can do in the next week”, but triaged into five more granular priority levels. I use it to manage my week, without being cluttered by looking at my MT or LT priorities. I’ve already done the triage at the start of the week, now I just manage what I committed to this week. If something new comes up, I either write it down on my to-do list and add it during the weekly update, or I add it to a temporary folder and triage that each week for additions/changes.
Two years without my to-do list
I had been using variations of my approach for almost 20 years when I decided two years ago to put it on hold. There was a very specific reason — I thought, at the time, that if I was to make any progress on my goal of weight loss, then I needed to marshal all my resources to that goal. And I was right, in a way. It was indeed the only way to make progress initially. But over time, I’ve slipped. I had managed to achieve almost 20% of my overall weight-loss goal when depression wiped me out. It kicked my ass good. I had promised myself I wouldn’t return to a long list of to-do list items unless or until I achieved my goal.
But over the two years that I’ve been working on my weight loss in varying degrees of commitment, I realized that my initial success was great, but I can’t maintain the pace. So it is going to take me almost 3 times as long to achieve my goal, measured in years rather than months. I honestly can’t maintain a good mental state that long without some structure to the rest of my life.
And therein lies the benefit and the rub. My to-do list can both give me a sense of accomplishment or momentum and distract me from real growth opportunities (measuring the wrong thing or missing real growth opportunities because I didn’t put it on the list). It both focuses and narrows my perspective.
For two years, I have figured out what I need to do on my weight, and I feel in control of where I’m going. Maybe not at the pace I would like, but on track. I’ve got the initial tools I need now, and I know where to get the next set I need later. And the next set after that.
But my mental health needs that original structure back, and so I sat down this past weekend and updated my to-do list. I’m exaggerating the gap a little…I had updated it about 4 months ago, and about 8 before that, and about 8 before that. Nothing really aggressive, just weeding out things that had expired or already passed for time. Or were simply just not relevant to me anymore. For example, I took into account considerations where I went “left” on some decision point and I could therefore drop the possible options if I had gone right instead. I was simply updating it, I wasn’t managing it.
Let’s be clear though…this is not a simple to-do list. There are 280 items on it. It is, in fact, more of a detailed project management tool where the “project” is me. Even my sublist for this week has 67 items on it, although I would say only about 20 are really truly “this week”…the other 47 are more ambitious areas to consider if I start moving down that path on one of the areas. 50-60 is about normal for me, with about 20 “core” goals and another 40 that I wouldn’t mind seeing some progress on, as time permits.
So far I have knocked off ten, this post itself is number 11 oddly enough, and what was number 1? Updating the list itself. It is almost always number 1. I can’t manage my priorities if my priorities aren’t up to date. Past the initial 10, another five or six are well underway, so I’ll probably hit 20-25 things done by Sunday. A bit above average, but it fluctuates.
One of the benefits of the to-do list is it gives me an automatic sense of momentum. I know what all my “items” are, I’ve triaged the 20-60 that I might do something about this week, and I’m knocking a bunch off the list. By definition, I’m working on things that I’ve already determined are important to me. Which usually allows me to stave off basic depressive tendencies.
Occasionally, the momentum bubble bursts. New projects coming in are usually not destructive to me, I expect those and I’m flexible enough to adjust. New priorities? By definition, I have to adjust. That’s why the list exists.
However, what CAN suck the life out of me is bogging down on 2 or 3 items in different categories. If I run into a snag on one area, I can usually get some juice out of progress on another area here or there. But if I run into multiple blocks, then there is a risk that my frustration with two or three will start to ripple into others that were originally progressing just fine.
None of that is insurmountable. I feel like I’m back on track, although the schedule of the day tends to present some challenges to shifting gears between work life, homeschooling life for my son, general family life, and carving out some time when I can be productive on personal items. I’m even ready to blog again about my weight loss plans, albeit a bit more obliquely than before.
But for now, I’m happy to be back in business.