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Reboot your To-Do List

A new start

I had stalled out on my to-do list.  For the past week, I was staring at the same ten items, making little progress.  I’d tried everything to motivate myself.  For example, I promised myself a tall frozen yogurt at the end of the day if I’d completed them all.  Then I’d revise this yummy reward to completing just half of the items.  Then just three!  But strangly, even though my stomach was all for this incentive, my brain was lagging behind.

If you’d watch me go through my list, I’d be sorting them, touching them with my stylus on the screen, moving them around.

There are a number of apps out there now that do a great job at this, including Wunderlist, Asana, 2Do, and Astrid.

Still, they stared me in the face.  I needed something more than technology to get me going.  It wasn’t about the rewards.  Something else was happening, I needed to get to the bottom of it.

Schedule the surgery

Yes, when the doctor looks up from your chart and says, “We’re going to have to operate,” you know that it’s serious. The same is true of your to-do list.  You can’t just keep writing down the same items time and time again.  At a certain point, you have to schedule the exploratory surgery to find out what’s up.

Uninterrupted and focused

You have to be uninterrupted and focused during this time.  Turn off all distractions; mute your phone; turn off notifications; and move the bag of pretzels to the end of the desk.  The goal is to go through your current list and figure out where you are with each one.  You’ll need an objective eye.

Rank your progress

Instead of refining each to-do item, figure out where you are on each one.  This is very straight-forward.  I use a baseball analogy, with runners on different bases.  So, for each one, place a number that represents which based you’re at each:

Number Base In baseball terms Comments
0 Never started This runner never got to bat, so he’s sitting on the bench still. Maybe you need to decide on a direction or how to do it before beginning.
1 Got to first base Yes, this runner has gotten further, but really only at the very beginning The task may be more complicated than you thought, or required more time
2 Second base You’re about halfway through but stalled out. There’s an obstacle most likely. Or, you just need the time
3 Third Base The runner is waiting to slide into home. All the major work has been done.  Maybe you need a kick in the pants to finish it off.

 

With a scouting report (so to speak), it’s time for the surgery.

Get out your scalpel

Figuring out why you’re on a specific base takes some head-scratching.  But usually it means you have the wrong task on your list, or you need to divide the task into smaller parts.

Base Diagnosis Action
0 You have to decide Identify your decision and put this on your to-do list instead
0 You don’t know where to start Break this into smaller steps; put the first one or two on your list instead
0 It’s a big job, so you haven’t started Break this into smaller steps and put just the first one or two on your list
0 You hate this one OK, maybe you need to figure out if you really want to do it.  Put the decision on your list.
0 You have to do something else first If so, remove it on put it on the Back Burner
1 You’re stuck Identify the obstacle and put it on the list instead.
1 You keep running out of time Schedule it into a time slot, like your favorite episode of Game of Thrones
1 You keep redoing it OK, get on with it.  Go to the next step and see if this helps.
1 It’s too far-fetched. OK, put it on the Back Burner.
2, 3 You can’t make any progress This may of course be an obstacle, so put the obstacle on your list to figure out.  Break it up if you need to.
2, 3 You get refining what you’ve been working on. Again, just get on with it.  Refine it more at the end.
3 It just isn’t right OK, you may need more time.  Schedule more time.
3 Something gets in the way Just push it out, so to speak.

 

Of course, there may be other reasons you’re stalled out.  But this will get you going.

Draw a map

If you aren’t drawing personal maps, get out a stylus or a piece of paper, and sketch out where you want to be.  Then draw the stops in-between.  It really can clear you mind.

 

Identify the obstacles

Sometimes it’s the cost of something that stops us.  For example, you want to learn more about programming in Python, but all of the books you see cost too much.  This may put on the  breaks.  Whatever the obstacle, figure out as precisely as you can, what the issue is.

Obstacle Try…
Costs more than you want to spend Look around for other sources
Don’t have the skills or talent Learn a few things first.  Go on-line for help
Too confusing Get some help deciphering what you need
The task sounds too big to tackle Break it down into smaller tasks.  Decide a bit later if it’s too much
Can’t do it alone Find others to collaborate with.
Don’t know whether you’ll be successful at it Don’t worry about this.  Just try.
Too vague Brainstorm a bit.  See if you can refine the task

Make a short list

We all have tons of things we want to be doing.  But when your to-do list begins to overflow, then it’s time to create a Back Burner where things can simmer.  This separates the items you need to do now with the ones that can really wait.

Keep in mind that you will eventually get to your Back Burner.  Review your Back Burner each week; move items that are ready to your To-Do list.

Start a Back Burner

A Back Burner is a to-do list that can wait.  Seems like a contradiction of terms, but really they are things that you want to get to, but you seem to forget about.  Or, they are items that you simply don’t have time to do now.

Back Burner lists do not need to have as much detail, nor to they need to been ranked.  The key is to review your Back Burner every week.  If this list is on your phone, then put a couple of reminders on your calendar to get you into the habit.

Make deadlines

You may also find that it helps to set deadlines.  Having a deadline can get you to “turbo” into your list.  That is, you just crank through your list without thinking about whether you can do it or not.

The wrong list

Occasionally you find that you have the wrong list of to-do’s.  Things have changed.  What used to be pressing is no longer really needed. You may have given an item a higher priority, now it seems to belong on your Back Burner.

In fact the more items you see on your list that fall into this category, the more you may need a complete reboot.  You may simply be on the wrong track.

Time to reboot

Rebooting yourself takes some prep time and a sense of the new you.  This process goes beyond to-do lists, really, but a good first step is starting your Reboot list.  Yes, things that you need to change or do.  Put them on a separate list for now.  As the list grows in importance, think about rebooting yourself.

Draw a personal map

To-do lists are great.  But after you’ve worked through your list, draw a simple map. This can serve as an overview of where everything is heading.  Draw where you are and where you want to go.  Your revised to-do list should get your there.

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