Are you good at doing stuff? Tell me how you get stuff done.
May 21, 2013 12:16 PM   Subscribe

I constantly have a huge list of things to do in my head and I'd like to get better at organizing/prioritizing them.

The thoughts swimming around tend to be:

1) stuff I have to do immediately --work assignments, replying to emails, lunch dates, errands (going to the bank/store)
2) Habits I'd like to work on -- schedule of cleaning, exercise/biking schedule, going to be earlier
3) Maintenance/other appointments-- car, doctors appointments, etc
4) Random stuff I'd like to do -- go to a new museum! go kayaking! try skydiving!
5) art career/project stuff -- networking with people, participating in galleries, doing personal work to develop more of an presence
6) big goal stuff-- date/toward a relationship, save for a house?, travel

I think I'm slightly ocd so I generally feel better if I have every little thing written down somewhere (which then allows me to "clear" it out of mental space). The problem is finding a system that would best help me tackle all these things. So far I've been just writing everything down on notes on my iphone--I currently have 284 notes and a lot of them are repetitive, but I just keep creating more notes every time I think of something (even if I've thought of it before). I also keep a physical planner, but I sometimes fall prey to overbooking myself. Usually I'll come up right against a deadline and it'll be easy to decide to devote all my time to that one thing--I won't have time to think about all that other stuff. I become more productive out of necessity, but after it's done I have to regroup. I'd just like to get better at being a responsible, organized adult--I get so caught up in thinking and planning stuff instead of actually doing it. Maybe it's a matter of simplifying and letting go of some stuff, but I don't know.

So help me out, mefites! When you have a head full of goals/to-dos/dreams, what do you do to help you prioritize/stay focused? How do you work toward that person you want to be? Any helpful apps/techniques/mantras? I know it's not always possible to boil this down to something simple and everyone is different, but any advice would be appreciated!
posted by sprezzy to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
1. Stop writing lists.
2. Do the first thing that you think of doing.
posted by xingcat at 12:24 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you use the reminder app? I find that a lot more useful than notes for keeping track of things that need to get done because I can check them off.

1) stuff I have to do immediately Little things like this go on my reminder list, and when I have downtime I plan for when I can get a string of things done. I know I'll be driving to the mall on Thursday and on my way I can swing by the bank, etc.

2) Habits I'd like to work on This one I have more trouble with but you can do something like Joe's Goals or another gamification app or site that rewards you for consistency

3) Maintenance/other appointments Calendar - for the dr I make my next appt while I'm at the dr for my current one. I also put in reminders to check on whether I need to make an appointment.

4) Random stuff I'd like to do -- I keep a life list spreadsheet with the random things I want to accomplish and check on it periodically to see if I have time/money for something. If I do I put it on the calendar to make sure it happens!

5) art career/project stuff -- don't know that I can help much with this. I just try to fit in a few minutes here and there for personal projects, but some people prefer to schedule out time on their calendar.

6) big goal stuff-- big goal stuff can all be broken down into small tasks. Interested in dating? set up a profile somewhere. Want to save for a house? Make an auto-transfer that will put money aside for you. Find the small steps that will nudge you along without you worrying too much about it.
posted by brilliantine at 12:30 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rule #1: what has a deadline? Work on that first, in order of "what's due first?"
#2's and 3: write it down in a calendar and follow a schedule.

As for the other three things, why don't you work on those first and then get to the other three, which are a lot vaguer to do and have no deadlines?
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:40 PM on May 21, 2013

For things that are weighted pretty evenly and can be done in any order, like chores to clean my room, here's what I do:

- Write a list of no more than 12 things (it's good to limit yourself or, as you've seen, this could go on forever);
- Number that list from 1-12;
- Roll a pair of dice, and do that numbered chore;
- Cross that one off the list, and roll again.

Sometimes I like to include pleasant things in there so I get a break now and then.

Sounds like this technique might work for your #1, and you can include some other things (make appointments, go exercise, do some work on your art) in there, too. At the end of the day I feel so accomplished!
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:58 PM on May 21, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'm a planner. Sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed. When I feel swamped by the number and scope of what I have to do, I jump from project to project, advancing several things a little bit. Nothing's *done,* mind you, but things move forward.

A paper calendar is the best way for me to see at a glance what's going on. Some projects and appointments are small, and some are energy sucks; seeing what's on there helps me weigh what else I can fit in terms of time and energy.

I use my phone to make lists of "town" stuff: books I hope to find at book sales; parts I need for projects, etc. It's with me when I need it, and not stuck on a paper list at home.

Errands: I write them down in the order I plan to do them, and then double-check to make sure I have everything I need with me before I leave.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:59 PM on May 21, 2013

Try to minimize the amount of stuff you have to think about or save for later. You can weed out a lot of these things by a combination of automating and acting immediately.

Automating: set up automatic savings for your down payment fund. Set up recurring appointments on your calendars for random/big goal/habit stuff. Set an alarm on your phone that lets you know when it's 30 minutes before bedtime. There is an app for evvverything. For example, if you have an iPhone, Checkmark (which is free today) can let you know when you are near the bank or grocery store to remind you to stop in and run your errand.

Acting immediately: respond to emails right after you read them and then delete or file them away. As soon as you think, "oh, it'd be good to see Susan for lunch," send her an email asking her if she's free for lunch on Wednesday. As soon as it occurs to you that you need to call the cable company about your latest bill, call them up or start a live chat.

Your system of just writing down whatever comes to mind in separate notes in your phone may be causing more chaos. Consider using a more robust (and searchable) notetaking method such as Evernote, and group tasks/notes together by category. Also, this recent AskMe may help you.
posted by payoto at 12:59 PM on May 21, 2013

I am actually bad at getting stuff done, but whenever I DO get stuff done it is because in the morning (or night before) I budget the hours of that specific day with items from the big list -- then I work off the time-budgeted list for that day with limited amounts of time devoted to limited priorities, rather than trying to do random things off of the giant, never ending master list.
posted by third rail at 1:11 PM on May 21, 2013

I'm a list person too!

That said you do have a lot of stuff here and one big list might not be the way to go.
Here's my system:

1. To do lists: To do lists can be multi faceted but usually are short term things that don't go beyond the week. I find it can help to section my to do list by day. Chores like dishes and vacuuming also go on here. It's satisfying to strike things off.

2. Calendar or Planner: I use a monthly calendar or planner that mostly serves as a reminder for appointments and events. No deep details, just something like "meeting with Jane Doe at 6." Anything I have to do for that meeting goes on the more specialized to do list. Random stuff like new museum visits, skydiving, networking, etc. would also go on the calendar. If you don't assign a date for something like that it is harder to remember when you get time off.

3. Big Goal items: Big goal steps get done on a case by case basis. Saving for something, for example, can be done automatically through direct deposit. Meeting people to date might already happen through the other events and activities on your calendar.

4. Distancing the Bucket List: Bucket list stuff that is either far in the future, not currently financially feasible, or not currently realistic for some other reason (like traveling to a foreign country for a month or something) goes on a list that I keep in my general files. It only gets looked at about 2 times a year and helps me remember what I have to look forward to eventually.

So basically I guess I organize by time urgency: stuff that needs to happen this week, stuff that needs to happen this month, and stuff that needs to happen over a period of months or years. It also helps to remember that dishes and vacuuming don't take nearly as long as you might think.
posted by donut_princess at 1:17 PM on May 21, 2013

When I make a list of things, I also estimate how long they'll take to work on, or how long I'll want to work on them. I do this by the # of hours, and I try to overestimate. It isn't 100% but if I stick to the schedule I can typically get everything but the last item done. Half the time I get everything on my list done.
posted by hellojed at 1:20 PM on May 21, 2013

I am a big fan of the Franklin Covey time management method. You can read an overview of the FC philosophy around prioritizing here.
posted by dottiechang at 1:25 PM on May 21, 2013

I have a note that takes up the last screen on my phone. Onto it, I write the little things I need to do in no particular order, ie: make dentist appointment, call Grandma, send birthday card to Anne, clean out fridge, take back library books, etc. Whenever I think of something, I add it. Whenever I do something I take it off. This won't solve your problems, but it's definitely more manageable than a separate note for each thing and it's easily accessible-- I don't have to open up an app when I want to see it or add something to it and I always have my phone with me so it's easy to add stuff. I just have a revolving list of a dozen things I need to do.

For everything else, I carry with me one diary sized notebook and into it I write everything: notes for work, goals for the month, schedules for my weekend. I like to have a physical copy of this stuff and I like to just carry one notebook with me everywhere I go so I can randomly write lists and keep it all organized-- so I'll have one page that is goals, one page that is a budget, one page that is notes for a project, etc. It's kind of disorganized, but it works for me and I like having it physically.

Basically, I try to keep everything in one of those two places. It works for me, YMMV.

I also do a lot of the scheduling-out-my-day stuff that people are talking about, ie: Saturday, get up at 9, exercise 9-10, clean and laundry 10-11, 11-12 grocery shopping, 12-2 cook for potluck, 2-4 hike with friend, etc. I find if I take the time to plan it out I can keep it from swimming around in my head all day and I get a more realistic idea of what I can get done.
posted by geegollygosh at 1:34 PM on May 21, 2013

Covey Square.

It's a four block square. The tops are labeled 'urgent' and 'not urgent' the left side is labeled 'important' and 'not important.'

So if an item is urgent and important, do it now. If an item is not urgent and not important, consider skipping it.

The good news is you get to decide importance! Urgency has some flexibility.

The ideal covey square eventually has very few urgent things because you took care of them before they got super close to deadline.
posted by bilabial at 1:57 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh. And breaking large ominous tasks into smaller chunks, perhaps putting your Next Action in the 'urgent, important' square, and the other is 'not urgent, important' one.

It's easier to learn a language when ts broken down into
  • check out Rosetta Stone from library
  • read children's book in language
  • write groceryisy in language
  • find Skype pal in language
  • visit country where language is spoken (chunk appropriately)
I also keep a word document in my dropbox account of stuff around town I want to do or see, which gets it out of my brain.
posted by bilabial at 2:06 PM on May 21, 2013

I really love Wunderlist: it's essentially just a to-do list app/website, but it's been incredibly motivational and helpful (and I love that I can check it on my phone!) You can assign deadlines, create various categories, split up tasks into subtasks, & share tasks with friends.

I also really like HabitRPG for the more mundane day-to-day stuff, & you might enjoy it if you're into gamification in general.
posted by littlegreen at 2:27 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Biased, but I wrote a (free) ebook that may have a helpful tip or two.
posted by mark7570 at 2:32 PM on May 21, 2013

The stuff you absolutely have to get done goes on whatever kind of to-do list works for you - paper postit, reminder app, whatever.

Habits you'd like to work on - pick one or two, break them down, figure out your first steps. For cleaning on a schedule that might be "wipe down the sink after brushing teeth in the morning." Tinyhabits is good for learning to create newhabits. Healthmonth is good for following through on them.

Maintenance and appointments - put this stuff on your phone calendar and set a reminder to go off a day ahead of time. The reminder should be for the next step, like "call dentist, make appointment," or "buy supplies for oil change."

Have a long list of "random things" and add to it whenever you like. Every month, pick one and and make a plan for doing it, and add it to your calendar.

The big goal and project stuff - break them down into smaller pieces. Something like a project plan ... and see what makes sense for you to commit to.

Drexen posted this this spreadsheet a while back. It is the most awesome thing ever, and you could add a second sheet for planning/goals as well. (I adapted it at one point by putting my "to dos" and ideas in the undated lower rows).
posted by bunderful at 5:38 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Read Getting Things Done, as that sounds like a perfect fit for what you are trying to do. It's all about getting things out of your head and organized in a way where you don't have to worry about keeping track of stuff, you just focus on getting things done.
posted by markblasco at 10:54 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just attempted to address this very issue today. I also would appreciate any advice to improve the method.

Title: Using Excel to Turn Panic into Manageable Projects

1. Brainstorm the panic
2. Label the panic and put into groups
3. Organize into priorities in two ways, by group and within group.

1. First step was done frantically on a piece of paper, writing everything that I was freaking out about and needed to get done. It looked something like: change cat litter, get into PhD program, send Grandma letter, learn how to stop mentally freezing, make friends, learn new RTPCR program at work, wash socks, figure out how the heck to pay back student loans, etc.

2. Then I typed all that crap in no order in an Excel spreadsheet. It was a very long list.

Taking advantage of the "Sort A-Z" function, I went down the list and typed in a letter before each thing, e.g., H=home related, S=School related, W=work related, $=money related, F=friend/social related.

Highlighted and sorted A-Z. Yay! I now had every thing I was worried about in categories. Then I physically dragged each thing into its own separate category.

3. Next, I put a number in front of both the main categories, like work, home, and also a number in front of each individual item and hit sort.

Now I had main subject priorities, priority 1= school, 2= work 3= home, 4=$, 5=social/friends
(that tells you why I don't have many friends, it's my last priority)

Inside each main subject, the individual things were listed by priority number too like this:

Priority 1 School

1 schedule GRE study time into your already over scheduled day
1 study 1 hour each day
1 take GRE exam
2 update online resume
2 join some professional groups like linkedin to pretend to be awesome
3 write statement of interest
4 apply to PhD programs
5 either celebrate or cry depending on results

Hooray for Excel to help organize my life!

Who knows if I'll actually do it, but it does help to see the panic organized instead of just having random floating panic, I guess.
posted by Arachnophile at 11:09 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

1. Break big tasks into smaller tasks, then do the smaller tasks one at a time. You don't need to clean the kitchen, you just need to do the dishes or clean the fridge or mop the floor. You don't need clean the bathroom, you just need to clean the toilet or clean the sink or clean the shower. You don't need to write a paper, you just need to write a paragraph on this, a paragraph on that, etc. (use an outline). You don't need to create a show's worth of art, you just need to create one good piece.

2. Never jump from one task directly to another. Give yourself a break and a reward after you complete each task.

3. Track long-term goals on wall charts to keep your eyes on progress and goals. If you're working on personal finances, get graph paper and put up a nice big line chart on your wall showing your savings account balance, your credit card balance, etc., in bold color. If you're dieting, do the same for your weight.
posted by pracowity at 2:13 AM on May 22, 2013

a friend just wrote about this here.
posted by garlic at 7:16 AM on May 22, 2013

I use OmniFocus and a GTD-esque approach. It works almost perfectly for helping me to hold, track and prioritize All The Things.

Thing is, you must be a "power user" for it to be very effective. When I used it before as a place to store projects broken down into individual steps (important!), it just became an overgrown list. When I came back to it and really learned all it had to offer, particularly by reading other people's tips on how they use it, it completely changed for me. In particular, making custom perspectives and using start dates as ticklers, together with doing a daily and weekly review, make it a very powerful tool for me.

Beyond that, I have a calendar with a schedule, and certain days and times of the day to take care of certain types of things.
posted by moira at 1:22 PM on May 22, 2013

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