This is a guest post by Dee Ann Pizzica.
I struggle with finishing things, with over-committing and with saying no. I find prioritization relatively easy to do but hard to follow through with. I start a million things in a day but then feel like I didn’t make any progress on what I’d meant to do.
To pile onto the guilt I feel about missing daily commitments, every year I sit down and write a thoughtful list of long-term resolutions. I set goals during the planning process, but planning is not the same as executing. Despite my frustrations, I do manage to accomplish a great many things, but if I’m feeling stressed and crazed, I don’t take the time to enjoy what I’ve completed, either.
In looking back at the last several years, I noticed that even at my most productive, I’m not always being deliberate about my choices.
Several months back, a colleague guided me through a goal-setting activity. Based on what I learned from the exercise, I made a small change that is making a big difference.
The chaos I started from
I’ve always been a big fan of to-do lists. I keep them in notebooks, on sticky notes and on dry-erase boards. I keep electronic lists, too. I’ve tried bullet journals for both personal and professional commitments. I’ve tried blocking specific times on my calendar to manage activities. I’ve also attempted using both web-based and physical Kanban boards to keep myself on track.
Each of these tools provides some sense of process, rules and structure. Some are low on “administrative,” but others need more commitment to maintain. What I found with each attempt is that I thought through a relatively heavy process and eventually grew tired of all the work of tracking my work.
Despite all my best efforts, my day would typically start the same way: Wake up to the alarm. Wander out of my room to shuffle kids out of bed. Go in search of coffee, and between all the normal morning tasks of getting everyone else ready for their day, open up Slack and see what I’ve missed since I last checked in at work. (I worked from home even before COVID-19 changed morning routines for people all over the world, so my boundaries between personal and professional life have been blurred for over a decade already.)
Some Slack messages from the night before feel urgent and need responses right away. Other times I’m already steeped in conversations with colleagues in different time zones who started their day hours ahead of me. Sometimes I read through customer support tickets and get concerned about something that has come up. Whatever it is, nearly every morning presents an opportunity to dive right into some new “emergency.” This nurtures a couple of feelings.
One is a need to serve and to be an expert people rely on. Another is a sense of accomplishment or a need to process things as quickly as possible. But when you’re racing to put out fires, you’re not being purposeful about the tasks you take on. After a while this can create unnecessary stress or chaos that may make you feel visible, but it doesn’t improve your performance.
This needed to stop.
Create a daily plan
I implemented a personal daily planning session I call Coffee & Calm. This is the description that is on my calendar every workday from 8:45 to 9:15 a.m.:
Coffee & Calm: Take 10 minutes before work starts to collect and prepare. Write down anything that’s on my mind or hindering me so I can let it go for now (timed, on paper, no devices)
- Personal items go on one list
- Work items go on another list
Deliberate (at my computer)
- Review Slack and make a list of to-dos
- Rank everything on the list in order of importance
- Do everything in order
- If anything is blocked, it moves to the blocked list (in order)
- Do not start any new thing until the current thing is moved off the list (either done or blocked)
The nature of my current role calls for a certain degree of flexibility. Re-evaluating on a daily basis seems to fit where I am right now. There are enough changes in my life, both personal and professional, that if I try to plan a whole week at a time, I’m bound to get side-tracked.
I’m tracking my personal tasks, but I’m also tracking anything I ask of anyone else on the team to ensure that I can follow up in a timely manner. This activity is solely for me and for my personal success. It is about me honestly evaluating where I am and what I need.
Why on paper?
I like paper. The act of writing helps me remember and process information. I also want to minimize distractions. As soon as I’m at a computer or using my phone, I’m more likely to see something that is going to take me off track. I need to avoid anything that will leave me feeling obligated to respond to others and, in turn, sacrifice understanding my needs and goals for the day. It’s like the airplane safety guidelines say: Put your own mask on before assisting others.
In the first few days, I wrote a lot. I took up the whole 10 minutes and still felt like there was no end to the concerns and ideas running around my head. Rather than letting the list consume me so I become exhausted and overwhelmed, I wanted to constrain my energy to the most important things that came to me in a budgeted period of time.
I have found that as I’ve continued this exercise, the amount of time I need most days isn’t as big an issue as it once was. Most days I record my most important thoughts in about five minutes.
The first 10 minutes: Separate personal items from work items
When I start this exercise, I write down anything that’s on my mind. I attempt to not limit or judge the thoughts as they flow. I allow them to be anything from a specific task, like pay this credit card bill, to a larger worry about interpersonal problems within your team.
I make two columns on my page, one for work and one for personal. The ideas often flow in related ways, so once I get going on one list, that snowballs into ideas that are on the same theme. There are always going to be personal things that arise during the workday and work needs that surface after hours. But if you’re going to try to maintain any sense of balance or boundaries, it helps to track these items separately.
This is not the time to attempt to solve the problems. In fact, there are many items that make the list that I don’t feel empowered to solve or even have a need to explore or understand. I have found that it serves me to write these things down even if I will not choose to prioritize them, as an acknowledgment of the burdens I carry in the moment.
The next 5 minutes: Evaluate needs from external sources
When the 10 minutes are up I move on to the next section. I go through Slack and note any channel or conversation that I feel the need to follow up on. After that, I tackle email. Unless it is appropriate to respond with a couple of quick words or an emoji, I make a note to come back to it.
Then I review my list. I start with the personal list and see if there is anything that must be done right away. If not, I file it away for after work. Then I move to my work list.
The last 5 minutes: Prioritize
I take everything that is actionable and important for the day and put them in priority order. This is a gut-level assessment of balancing what is the most urgent with what would be the quickest wins to knock off my list. I tend to favor small, quick tasks while I’m still waking up, saving more intellectual pursuits until I’m fully caffeinated. You know your schedule best, so adapt to fit your most productive use of time.
Because I love lists, I actually move high-priority tasks to a notes app on my computer where I compile weekly objectives. This makes it easier for me to share my goals with my team or my boss.
Now it’s action time! Tackle the first thing on the list and get it done.
Stay on track
Break up big items
Just like with agile user stories, some of the things on my list end up being big and amorphous. These are the kinds of tasks that are bound to get you stuck, because items that are too vague or carry too much emotional weight are easy to procrastinate on. You need to break them into reasonable sub-tasks.
The sub-tasks may not all go in the same order. For example, if the most important item on your list is one of these large, unwieldy tasks that is bound to take you days or weeks, then it’s probably not reasonable to stop everything else on your list to get that thing done. So you need to pick a place to start and figure out where to make incremental progress in between all of the other things you’re responsible for.
The largest and most complicated task might even get the very meta response of making a to-do item to break up that task later. Once again, this isn’t the time to solve everything; it’s the time to decide what is worth solving today.
I keep a section in my list for blockers. Anything that I can’t work on for any reason gets put on that list in the same order it appeared on the main list. Sometimes I’m blocked on a task because I’m waiting on feedback or work from another team member. Some tasks get blocked because I need absolute quiet to record something, and the dog is snoring in my office. There are any number of reasons I might shift something to the blocked list. The key is, once a task is blocked, you move on to the next one.
Weigh new tasks deliberately
New tasks are bound to fly at you all day long. If you’re going to change gears, make sure you’re stopping to consider the new task you are taking on, along with the priority of the other actions on your list. Only take on the new task if it is more important than any of the items you knew of when you began your day.
This can be really challenging. You need to:
- Understand any new task well enough to assess its importance, urgency, and complexity
- Ask when it’s needed by
- Ensure that other items really can move farther down the list to be replaced by this one
Most of these decisions we make automatically without a whole lot of reflection. We take on new things because we’re already bored with what we were doing, we want to help others, or we aren’t good at limiting our focus. Ultimately, it’s powerful to make a purposeful decision about the work that we decide to do.
Enable time to focus
There are any number of ways you can explicitly limit the number of distractions you allow to pull you away from your work. You could block out time on the calendar, post “do not disturb” messages in Slack, put your phone in a desk drawer, mute notifications or close your email.
If you know you need a few hours without interruption, be sure to tell people on your team. When you communicate about your focused time, you relieve the pressure on yourself to respond right away. This in turn can foster trust and reiterate for your colleagues that it is important to take some time to go heads-down on a task.
Be honest with yourself
Pick tasks you can, want, and need to do. Don’t prioritize tasks you don’t actually care about.
If you’re putting items on the list because you have a vague idea that it’s something important you want to do eventually, be honest about whether “eventually” means today. You can’t possibly do all the things you want to do every day of the week, even on your most productive days, so be clear about what you’re taking on and why.
Understand how long you can work and maintain focus. For many thoughtful tasks it may not be reasonable to expect your attention to last more than 30, 45 or 60 minutes without some kind of break. Be mindful of your limits. If you know that you need to get up and walk around every half an hour, or you will need to check your email at a certain time, that’s OK. While you’re trying to change your habits, you shouldn’t try to deny who you are and how you work.
The big goal
When you find yourself constantly scrambling because you’re jumping into each day unprepared, consider the possible benefits of shifting to a personal plan:
- By explicitly choosing your day’s goals, you set yourself up for accomplishing the tasks that are most impactful
- You can choose to share your goals and communicate to your colleagues how you’re contributing to the team and when you need focused time
- You can make clear decisions when distractions and new requests come your way because you’ll feel confident in your day’s commitments
It doesn’t take much time to start your day with a plan. And once this is a habit, you can take the framework further and use it to incorporate steps toward long-term goals into your daily plan, too. Good luck, and happy planning!
Dee Ann is a passionate and curious software tester. She has over 15 years of experience in support of small and enterprise-scale custom mobile and web applications with highly complex business logic for clients across a wide variety of industries. Dee Ann is currently working as the Director of Engineering at BRD where she collaborates with a talented team on a cryptocurrency wallet app for iOS & Android.