The only way I know how to accomplish anything in this life is to do it. Doing it means you want it. In my corporate days, I got the reputation of being a Closer. I got stuff done, often by just moving before indecision took hold. Need a proposal response managed? Moving to a new apartment? I’m the person you call to come in and close out all of those niggling tasks that overwhelm you.
One could look at my life now and say, “Oh, she’s a stay-at-home mom and writer, so therefore she lies around all day in pools of time and sucks the jelly out of donuts and waits for her daily massage. She has all the time in the world to get stuff done. What does she know about stress? What does she know about not having any time? What does she know about the day-to-day struggle of the working wo(man)? ”
Bursting the Bubble of More Time
The biggest mistake I made in the first year working in the home was believing I would be as productive as in the corporate office. Somehow time would stretch and bend. I thought I would power through and crank out the screenplays and short stories while my daughter did…what? Hover in a magical cloud of contentment at my very presence?
Priorities in the home are different from those in the office. The number one is Kiddo. She needs my attention, food, guidance, assurance. I can’t put her in front of the television all day and expect to do “my thing”. I can’t expect her to play by herself for hours and say, “Later. Let me finish this <task>.” The message she picks up? I’m not important, interesting, fun enough.
I still struggle with the need to get prodigious amounts of work done each day to justify not bringing in a paycheck, to justify the extra burden on Hubby. But, when I vocalize my inner struggle, he always shakes his head and says, “I can’t help you with that.” It’s not a burden he feels or worries about. The “deserving to” burden is all on me.
I used to try to get the writing, reading, and taking care of myself and the house in a 9-5 window. The result was some sort of multitasking and sense of stagnation. I have said it before, and will say it again, multitasking allows you to do a lot of things half-@$$. And cranky.
Enter the To-Do List
Ah, the to-do list. My favorite way to track productivity and keep myself moving towards my goals. When I was a corporate maven, I kept a spiral-bound notebook that contained my weekly to-do lists. I organized tasks into three sections: a) top priority – 5-alarm fire (do TODAY) , b) med priority – smoldering coals (do This Week), c) low priority – ashes that need sweeping up (do whenever).
The system worked great, but had two hiccups:
- The low priority tasks tended to be someone else’s (perceived) high priority, and they would scream like their hair was on fire until I responded. Remember the squeaky wheel saying? I used to mutter, the squeaky wheel gets ripped off the cart and thrown into the trash. Lack of planning on someone else’s part does not constitute an emergency on mine, right? Sigh.
- Because of hiccup #1, the list could grow and grow.
My solution to both was a little planning:
- Question all meeting invitations and decline unnecessary ones where I was invited as an “audience member” and would have no action items (ask for the bullet points later).
- Schedule meetings I led for the time of the day when my creative energy waned (late morning, early afternoon).
- Complete top priority tasks in my creative window and one at a time. My creative window typically is first thing in the morning with a peak at 10:00 am (give me a cup of coffee and I hit turbo productivity).
- Assess task completion at the end of the day (my lowest time) and set the next day’s priorities, so that I can start the next day knowing exactly what I need to work on.
My Evolved To-Do List
I derived my current to-do list from my old corporate process, except now I ground it on the things that hold value to me: developing my craft, living authentically and in the present, and fostering good health and relationships in my family. And, yes, I need to give myself daily permission to accept that my needs and dreams are important, even if I don’t bring home a fat paycheck (yet).
I am the heart of this family unit. I feed everyone, nurse the sick, teach the young, provision the pantry, keep the house from falling apart, nurture my mate. And I am a human being with dreams and talent that need expression.
Or Mommy gets a little “cra-cra”.
My daily to-do list has no more than 6 items (7, if I’m in a crunch), prioritized from the most important to the least. Why that number? I identified 5 core, non-negotiable activities that keep me sane and healthy:
- Write (the craft)
- Run and weight training (health)
- Cook good food (health)
- Meditate (stress reduction/grounding)
- Read a book/screenplay or watch a movie (supports my craft)
The 1-2 remaining items are other things that pop up or keep the household running (laundry, vacuum, run errands, doctor’s appointment, plant seeds, bake a birthday cake, crafts, plan menu or grocery list, preschool coop day, etc.).
I keep a master list of all the things I need to take care of that week (or month) on the whiteboard in my office . If it is time-sensitive, I list the due date. If it is a complex task (make Christmas cards, plant a new garden bed), I will break down the task into sub-tasks. From that master list, I flesh out my daily list with the remaining 1-2 items. By week’s end that is still 7-14 tasks done. Not too shabby.
I work through the list in order from top to bottom and don’t move on to the next task until I finish. Remember, multitasking is distracted tasking. Plus, I find it stressful. However, sometimes I can get creative with light multitasking, like reading a book or watching a movie while I run on the treadmill (audiobooks come in handy here). Or put a load of laundry in the wash before I move on to the next task. I plan no more than two days at a time. And each evening before I go to bed, I take a peek at the next day’s items to reassess and make any changes based on how the day went.
Where is Kiddo in all of the checklist madness? Usually:
- Asleep (I write between 5 -7 am; meditate at 8 pm)
- Playing with her Dad when he gets home from work (I cook, fold laundry, do simple chores)
- Having quiet/rest time in her room (I read, watch movie, meditate, or prep dinner)
- At preschool (I write for 2 hours)
- Enjoying “sanctioned, allotted” television time (I run/weight train from 7-8 am)
- Playing with me (reading books, doing puzzles/crafts/learning activities, cooking, running errands, folding laundry, cleaning house – Kiddo loves to help me)
Notice that my action items are woven into the fabric of the day around Kiddo and Hubby (and not over them)?
The best part? Crossing off the items on the to-do list! Duh! Yes, I’m very tactile. Kiddo has gotten in on the game and gets excited about erasing the list at the end of the day.
Finally, I should add that flexibility is critical. Unexpected things will come up and I may need to omit or move an item. In fact, today I am driving several hours out of state to a memorial service I found out about yesterday. I rearranged my task list to include what I can do in the car and hotel and what will help me stay balanced/reduce stress from the emotion of the day (write, meditate, read).
Most importantly, I omit or move a low priority task (laundry) before I touch a high priority one (writing or exercise).
Overall, I have found that this system provides structure and direction in my days and has allowed me to make progress on overarching goals (finishing a short story collection, improving my fitness, and building value in my relationships with Kiddo and Hubby and in my home).
What about you? How do you organize your day to keep sane?