Million things to do at work ... how to keep track?
June 17, 2013 5:35 PM   Subscribe

I have SO many things to do at my new job, and more things get added every day. I'm a pretty organized person in general but I feel like I have no time to even GET organized in this position. My current habits aren't helping, though. There's got to be a better way... Help!

Here are a few things that are making my new job (which I really like) at a nonprofit really stressful and overwhelming:

--This position was open for several months before I was hired, so I have a lot of catching up to do. To make things worse, I've heard a lot from staff/volunteers about how the last two people in the position didn't really get much done.
--There are very few written guidelines/policies/SOPs right now.
--I have my desk in one building and often have to go to another building where I manage some volunteers, and every time I go there, a volunteer gives me a suggestion of something that needs to be done, or I see something that I want to do/be done, and I write it on a random scrap of paper ... This happens a lot, so you can imagine all the scraps I have... Ugh. Even when I'm sitting at my desk, my boss will come over and mention something, so I write THAT down on a random pad or post-it, too. I have a big stack of papers (undated), various written daily to-do lists from previous days, and notes/tasks in my main notebook too (which I rarely use, actually).
--I work part time (and want to keep doing that) but there is certainly enough work to be done to make this a full-time job. Maybe I need to get an intern, or a volunteer that takes on some of my stuff??
--I have trouble prioritizing, especially because there is so much that needs to be done -- writing policies/procedures and putting other paperwork and structure in place, recruiting volunteers, making decisions all the time, making phone calls, marketing, merchandising, managing volunteers, planning, updating manuals... And I often find myself talking with volunteers (mostly about work) or answering their questions.

I currently have a to-do list in Google Docs -- it's a spreadsheet with a tab for each function/area of my job and then each of those is split into three priority levels. This is just overwhelming; I hate even looking at it.

In the past I've never found a to-do method I've been really happy with: I've tried Remember the Milk, ToodleDo, Tedium, and probably more, and I've tried Word lists and handwritten lists as well. I do LOVE crossing things out. I don't like Outlook's tasks feature, and I don't use Outlook calendar or Google calendar very much for work because I don't have many meetings (luckily).

I need help! I've only been on the job for a few months and I feel like I'm drowning already.
posted by trillian to Work & Money (15 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Don't use Outlook calendar for meetings, use it to schedule your own time. Set up alerts, so that this 30 minutes is for X type of work, this hour is for volunteer coordination, etc. Follow this, even if it means that some things get put off for what seems like too long a time. Getting things done means having time to get them done.
posted by xingcat at 5:45 PM on June 17, 2013

ok, so reading your post here are the problems I see

1) you don't have a good way to capture new tasks
2) you don't have a good way to see only relevant tasks (your spreadsheet shows you too much)
3) you don't have a good way to prioritise
4) there is more work available than time to do it in

Do you have a smartphone? Do you know why you don't use your main notebook? For universal capture, you're going to have to develop a habit of carrying one thing and automatically reaching for it every time you need to enter something. I like digital for better sorting/filtering of information later, but I still use a paper notebook for entry a lot - I just transcribe everything at least once a day.

Have you ever tried the productivity style Getting Things Done? The book touches on every aspect here, and I think it could help, especially with the weekly review habits.
posted by jacalata at 5:46 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I started my job (at a startup run by a bunch of disorganized dudes) I was in much the same situation. I came into a role that didn't exist (office manager=the catch-all person who does everything, even accounting and HR, because there are so few people) so there were no procedures in place, everything was a mess, and people just shouted (sometimes literally) their demands at me.

Things that helped immediately to mitigate the disaster:

-Have ONE thing that you write notes in, and take it with you everywhere. For me, this is a cheapo half-size notepad strapped to a clip board. For you it may be a fancy little moleskine or something. Get whatever works. BUT TAKE IT WITH YOU EVERYWHERE. Also make sure you always have a pen.

-Decide what your "every day" tasks are and do them first thing in the morning. These are things like doing the books from the previous day or returning emails or whatever it is that you do repetitively every day without fail. Don't let things interrupt those tasks.

-The not-every-day tasks should be done in chunks. Block out the rest of the day so that you spend one hour doing all of the Type A tasks and nothing else. Then you spend one hour doing all of the Type B tasks and nothing else. And so on.

-Create a folder system in your email program so that the only things ever in your inbox are active items. That way you'll have yourself a rough task list of things you need to address.

-Every Friday, create a checklist of things you need to accomplish the following week, noting any deadlines. Make sure you take care of them.

-If people are telling you things or making suggestions or asking you random questions, say "that's a great idea, can you please email it to me so I don't forget?" or "You know, I don't have the answer off the top of my head, can you please email me so I can look it up when I'm back at my desk?" Put the onus on THEM, not on your myriad post its.

Good luck!
posted by phunniemee at 5:53 PM on June 17, 2013 [27 favorites]

My all-time favourite 20thC object for eclectic task management was a pen around my neck and a dedicated notebook. It's the pen around my neck that really helps. Have a note to take? Hand reaches automatically for the pen that is always there hanging from its cap. It also made me feel like I looked efficient and no-nonsense.

These days, however, my go to organisation item would be an ipad with evernote installed, including the handwriting app. Carry the ipad when you go to the other building. Need to take a note? Tap open the app and write it with your finger then file it accordingly. All your notes can be synced to whatever main computer you use and you can add alarms for to-do items ot even get them emailed to you.

A others have said, you need to choose one single way to collect, store and retrieve your notes and then use and refine that method as you go.
posted by Kerasia at 6:14 PM on June 17, 2013

I use index cards for this sort of thing. They're slightly more professional than scraps of paper, and they don't stick together like post-it notes. And my other weapon is binder clips of a couple different sizes. Note--I'm a programmer who sits in front of the computer, and I still use index cards.

(I hold them vertically and write on the blank side. You can hold a small stack and write on the top one this way.)

You can sort them, spread them out, stack them by priority, binder clip related stuff that you don't want to look at yet.

Your fallback can become your greatest weapon.
posted by zeek321 at 6:15 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I suggest Kanban. You already use stickies sometimes, so use them all the time. Carry a sticky pad with you and write each new task on it when you're away from your home desk.

Use painter's tape on a wall to mark off deadlines and priorities. Put the stickies on the wall where they go, except for the high priority ones that are due today: put those on your desk and do them.

Take all relevant stickies with you if you go off-site for any significant tasks.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:23 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Think about tasks in terms of urgent/not urgent and important/not important. Things that are urgent and important get done first, then not urgent but important, not important but urgent and not important or not urgent.
posted by kat518 at 6:34 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds like you have both an organization and a prioritization problem. You need to recognize that this organization has existed for a long time with most of these things not getting done, and it will go on existing. It is fine to keep a list somewhere of things that you ought to do, but sorting through it daily will drive you crazy.

I'll echo the suggestion for daily and weekly task time. The first fifteen minutes of the day are for getting your bearings, referring to your todo list from the day before and making a new todo list for that day. Take two minutes to consider if there are any imminent disasters, deadlines or other priorities like that. Then make your normal todo list, trying to put more important tasks first. Take a moment to consider if something that seems urgent is actually important. Sometimes a missed opportunity because you were too slow to respond just means that wasn't the right opportunity.

Then, when you get new suggestions default to putting them in a "parking lot" list. You can refer there in a few months when the day to day is less crazy. If it really does seem more important than whatever you were going to do that day otherwise go ahead and add it to your to do list. But, most of these things can genuinely wait.

It sounds like you have a position where the amount you could do will only expand with the amount you accomplish. So it is up to you to say "No, this is what I'm doing today".
posted by meinvt at 6:51 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trello is a great tool to keep track and prioritize tasks.
posted by clearlydemon at 8:02 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you want an app, Any.Do . It's got you covered if you're an iPhone or Android, there's a Chrome webapp, and you can put tasks in folders, give them due dates, and every day, there's something called Any.Do Moment that pops up and lets you plan your day with all the tasks that are on your docket.

When you get done with a task, you cross it off, then you shake your phone to make all the crossed off ones go away.
posted by deezil at 8:20 PM on June 17, 2013

You cannot beat a legal sized pad, a pen, a rating system (e.g. 1 is top priority, 5 is low priority) and crossing off tasks as you finish them.

If you want fancy, try a different sheet for each project.

I love my tablet and smartphone, but this is still easiest.
posted by bearwife at 9:00 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I totally feel you! I am/have been in a similar situation at work. This is also endemic in nonprofits, where pretty much everyone has more work to do than there is time for.

So, first things first: accept that you will never do everything you want to do, or even everything you think is important. Get as comfortable as you can with that fact.

Once you accept that, time management becomes more doable. It becomes about respecting the limited amount of time you do have, and making the most of it, instead of trying to chip away at an ever-increasing pile of things to do.

On volunteers: first, yes, you should absolutely get a volunteer to help you! You can start by asking them to help you implement the good ideas they have. So for instance, if Brian has a great idea for a new way to set up volunteer sign-up for shifts, you could ask him if he wants to take the first crack at it. If he does well at it, then maybe ask him if he wants to help you manage volunteer shift sign-up in general. Give volunteers significant jobs, see how they do, and if they do well, give them ownership over projects. This is still a time commitment for you because you have to manage them, but it allows you to free up parts of your brain and strengthens your organization by having a deeper level of volunteer leadership.

Second, you don't have to implement every good idea a volunteer (or other staff member, or board member, or even your boss) has. Part of being successful in a nonprofit setting is owning your own area of work and being in charge of it, and that means you're not an order-taker. This is important in all areas, but especially in nonprofits because they have so many stakeholders.

So, how do you start to own your own work and set priorities? You have to carve out time for it - you just do. Do some brainstorming - think about what you'd like to accomplish in, say, the first quarter of your job. Meet with your boss and get him/her to sign off on that list. S/he may have other ideas, in which case you may need to revise. Ask your boss if there's anyone else who might need to know what these priorities are (which is useful if you have to say no to someone who wants you to do something you don't have time for).

By the way, I think it's really important to start out with priorities that are outcomes, because that's how you can look back and measure how successful you're being. So, for instance, a useful priority is "recruit 5 new volunteers" rather than "place a volunteer ad on Idealist."

Then I suggest taking a few minutes at the beginning of each week to lay out the three top priorities, tasks for each priorities, and due dates for each task. That way, you at least know the most important stuff to get done each day. Again, get you boss's buy-in. I actually do this at the beginning of the week (in a, yikes, google spreadsheet, but a piece of paper or a task app would work too) and then add other tasks to it as the week goes on. It's the ONLY places tasks go. If I'm away from my computer when I get a new task, I either use my phone to add it or do it first thing when I get back to my computer. BUT none of the new tasks get done until my priority tasks for the day/week are done.

OK, I know you already have that scary priority spreadsheet in google that sounds way too scary and complicated to be useful. Really, you shouldn't have more than 4 or 5 priorities for the quarter or three for the week.

This system is far from perfect, but really, the system is less important than finding a way to feel empowered by knowing or deciding what's important and focusing on that.

Good luck!
posted by lunasol at 9:28 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

--This position was open for several months before I was hired, so I have a lot of catching up to do. To make things worse, I've heard a lot from staff/volunteers about how the last two people in the position didn't really get much done.
--There are very few written guidelines/policies/SOPs right now.

This is exactly how I came into my job as a temp, now permanent. The "no guidelines" things can be a blessing, though - people are likely to give you the latitude to set up your own system.

Here's some of my suggestions:

- get a small lined notebook or Post-it pad and use this as your central to-do list. I am an assistant to 3 different programs/people so I also have tons of unrelated tasks. But I VASTLY prefer to have a central list than 3 different ones. I also vastly prefer to have this on paper, but you could use Word or Outlook Tasks or whatever.

The other thing I do is start a new to-do list when my sheet is full and GET RID OF the old sheet... I find it confusing and cluttery to have more than one sheet. This sometimes means I have to rewrite some tasks from Old Sheet onto New Sheet... but I always start a new sheet once one is full. (This also helps me avoid the "random scribbles in the margin" once you run out of lines).

- I don't pretend that there won't still be errant scribbles on post-its, but I DO keep all random post its in a specific pile on my desk. As often as possible, I go through them and put the info onto my central to-do list, then get rid of the post-it.

- zero inbox for your emails. How I personally do it is setting up different folders for each area of work you have. All my emails still come into my main inbox, but at the end of every day, I go through my inbox and assign emails to their various folders. Anything in my inbox that I still haven't answered or taken care of goes onto.. the central to-do list. So at the end of each day, you should have zero emails in your inbox.

- I agree that your Docs spreadsheet sounds overwhelming. Instead, I might keep a central to-do list, and also maybe keep a "daily log" that has bigger tasks in order of priority. For instance, my central to-do list might say "book a room, find out about microphones, order catering", but my daily log could just say "Work on July 1 conference" at the top of my priority list. I wouldn't put more than 5 things a day on your daily log, though. I personally just do mental prioritizing, but you may like a log better. Each day you can look back on the previous day and see what still needs to be worked on.

- I have the "two offices" thing too. Get an inter-office folder. I use an accordion one. You can dump any papers you need from one building into it, and clean it out at the end of the day/week. Stick a small notepad in the folder so you always have one.

- But my biggest advice is the CENTRAL TO DO LIST. Put everything on it, even the tiniest task. Once I got in this habit, it reduced all my "oh god did I remember to call that guy back" type angst. Everything will be there.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:25 AM on June 18, 2013

Response by poster: Wow, thank you all so much. This is all really helpful -- and there are probably too many "best answers" to mark. I desperately needed some tips like this.
posted by trillian at 6:47 AM on June 18, 2013

Here's another way to look at it. In addition to all the great ideas here, consider that there may be an opportunity to be more strategic, and in a year, more valuable! If the job was vacant for a while, and lots of things are randomly in-coming and there's a lack of guidelines/policies/structure ... take a step back and think of how you might be the person destined to improve systems/processes, etc. Pick one small project that might streamline or align processes, communications, etc., and recreate it so it works better for you!

It sounds a little like you can create your role, rather than simply responding to what's going on.
posted by thinkpiece at 10:00 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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