"I read your book [Note: that would be Taming the Work Week] and a lot of your blog posts on productivity. I need all the advice I can get on being productive and keeping the work hours sane. One thing that I keep seeing are making lists (daily lists... weekly... long-term). Lists do not work for me! I write things down and then I forget where I wrote things down/never get around to actually looking at the lists/priorities change and yesterday's lists become obsolete. Do you have any suggestions for further reading on productivity/project management for people who are list-averse?"
I followed up to ask what problem List-Averse is trying to solve- not making good use of time? Forgetting important things? Something else? Here was the answer, lightly edited to preserve anonymity:
"My goal is to use time wisely. I am somewhat disorganized and I am horrible at strategy. There are all these different things (sometimes from different projects) that have to be done. I end up wasting a huge amount of time because I tend to forget that before starting thing A, I need to prepare B, C and get G. I drive 30 minutes to get G, but forget to ask about X and Y for project Z that I will need to start in two weeks.
I am good at concentrating and working on things that are right in front of me, but anything that requires strategic planning is a challenge... I've tried making lists, but my brain just doesn't seem to be all that compatible with lists. I either forget I made a list (and find it months later), or can't find it, or don't have it with me when I need it.
I can function reasonably well in [my] "as is" state, but I do waste time that I'd rather be spending with the family... or reading... or sleeping. So, I am wondering - is there a method for planning projects and managing time, other than making lists?"
This is a hard question for me to answer, because I love lists! But I'll take a shot at it, and then I encourage my readers- particularly anyone who doesn't care for lists!- to weigh in.
I think List-Averse is off to a good start by recognizing what doesn't work. Too often, we are looking for a sort of one size fits all "trick" that will make this stuff easy. But improving productivity isn't easy. I still work at it, and I've been paying attention to my time use and productivity for years. So don't feel bad if it feels hard. It is hard, but (at least to me) it is worth the effort, because the reward is the feeling that you're spending your time on the things that matter to you.
OK, so what could List-Averse try? Here are my ideas, in no particular order.
Try a more visual list
I've noticed when I work with people on project management that some people who hate Work Breakdown Structures (the list-like "project plans" you often see) and Gantt charts really love card based systems like Trello. Maybe it is something about the visual nature, or the fact that you can organize your cards in multiple ways? I don't know.
I use both Trello and work breakdown structures. To me, one isn't better than the other- they have different strengths and weaknesses, and I use them in different situations. I've yet to find a tool better than a WBS for tracking dependencies, but I love the less-structured format of Trello for capturing my backlog.
(I've also used KanbanFlow, as discussed in this old post. I find, though, that if I'm doing really Kanban-like project management, I prefer a physical board.)
One of the great things about Trello is that there are many ways of using it. The best way is the way that works for you. However, sometimes it is helpful to have a point to start from, so I'll share my current Trello set up. I currently use it only for my work things, and it looks like this:
- I have one "Master" board for the things that I'm working on now or will be working on soon. It has lanes named: Prioritized, This Month, Doing, Parked, and Done.
- I have a board for each area of focus, which right now means: Annorlunda Books, Design (i.e., my Etsy store), Tungsten Hippo, Writing, Consulting, and Overhead.
- Each "focus" board has lanes named: To Do, Prioritized, and Done
- I've set up labels that match the areas of focus. This allows me to "tag" the cards on my Master board so that there is a color code for the area of focus the card relates to.
- When a new idea occurs to me or I decide I should do a new project, I add it to the appropriate board.
- If it is something I'll do "sometime," it goes in the To Do lane on the appropriate focus board
- If it is something I'll do "soon," it either goes in the Prioritized lane of the focus board or the Prioritized lane of the Master board, depending on how soon I think I should do it. This is not an exact thing.
- If it is something I'll do this month, it goes in the This Month lane on the Master board.
- If I'm already doing it, it goes in the Doing lane on the Master board.
- Once a week or so, I open up my Trello board, move things to Done or Parked, and move the other cards around based on my plans. I move things from the focus boards to the Master board as needed, and then add a color coded label. I also think a bit about what I should be doing, either now or in the future, and make cards for those. I consider this time spent on short term strategy.
- Every once and awhile, I move things from Done on the Master board to Done on the appropriate focus board. This serves no real purpose but makes me happy.
- I try to limit the number of things in the Doing lane to 5 or less. That is my personal optimal number of things in flight. I like to have a lot of things in flight. Other people might like to set a smaller work in progress limit. (This is an idea I took from kanban.)
Try lists that cover shorter periods of time
I consider my Trello board to be my "grand plan." I know some people manage their day to day work off of a board, but I don't. I manage my day to day work off of an old school list on paper. I use a small spiral notebook these days, because one of my kids gave me a small spiral notebook as a gift (I can't remember for which occasion- probably my birthday or Mother's day last year), and this was my idea of how to use it. It has worked out really well. I currently work from home on my own projects (i.e., not onsite and a client) on Wednesdays and Fridays. I also generally spend an hour or two on the other days on my own projects. So right now, I make a page for Monday-Tuesday, a page for Wednesday, a page for Thursday (but it is a short list), a page for Friday, and a page for Weekend (this list might be empty or have only "fun" work, like writing blog posts, unless I'm on a crunch time).
I write items on the list for the appropriate day as I decide I should do something on that day. This is also not an exact science. I tend to have items on lists a day or two ahead, and then when I'm sitting down to start work on a given day, I review the items and add to them as needed. Here is today's list, which is mostly completed because it is almost time to stop working:
My daily to do lists don't always get completed, but when they don't, I spend the last little bit of work time that day looking at what didn't get done and moving it to another day's list or consciously deciding not to do it right now.
I have a similar set of lists at my desk onsite with my main client, for the work I do there.
I also write mini-lists on sticky notes to shuttle ideas that occur to me at one place to the place where the list I need exists. I know that electronic lists would solve this, but there is a certain joy I get out of crossing things off on a physical list, so I stick to paper. (I have used Workflowy in the past, though, and it is a good option for people who like online lists. I've also heard good things about Evernote, but haven't used it much myself.)
Consider a schedule
I am painfully aware of the fact that my first two ideas are essentially "make different lists." Like I said at the top, I'm genuinely struggling to come up with other ideas for remembering what you need to do and having a more strategic approach to time use.
One other possibility, though, would be to try to schedule your time. Routines help us remember things, so if it is possible to set it up so that the disparate things you need to do settle into a routine, it might help. A trivial example is, I always do grocery shopping on Sunday, so I don't need to write "buy groceries" on a list for my weekend chores. (I still do, though, because of the joy of crossing things off... but that's my own little weirdness.)
If you can take the same basic idea and expand it to cover more aspects of the things you need to do, you might find that the frazzled feeling calms down, and you're more confident that you aren't forgetting things.
Change your mindset about lists
One theme I noticed in List-Averse's emails was that lists got forgotten or changed... and that was bad. I wonder if the problem with lists is that they seem like a prescription instead of a plan? I change my lists all the time. I scratch things out on my written lists (a line all the way through an item means "I'm not going to do this") and I delete things from Trello or kick something I put in Prioritized back to To Do. My lists are a commitment I make to myself. If I decide that the commitment needs to change, I can change it.
Also, I have gone to the grocery store many times and realize I left my list at home. But I'll shop anyway, and usually I get most things that were on my list. The reason for this is that writing something down helps me remember it. So even if you lose a list you wrote, it might have helped you remember what you needed to do.
Maybe you will feel better about lists if you let go of the idea that there is a "right way" to use them?
I don't know, though... List-Averse, I'm reading a lot between the lines in your emails, and this suggestion may be way off base. Please disregard it if it doesn't ring true to you.
Try different technology
If you lose your written lists, try writing them on a sticky note and sticking them in the appropriate location. I tend to stick lists to my laptop lid a lot.
There are also a gazillion to do list apps these days, and perhaps putting one of those on yoru phone would solve the problem of not having the list when you need it.
Another technological tool that might help is Google Docs. I will sometimes start a document with some free form notes about a project idea. Then, when I'm ready to start the project, I search Google Docs to find the document and use it as a starting point.
Reduce the number of things in flight
I know of some very productive people who do not use to do lists. They say that it is always obvious what they should be working on. This works for them because they have managed to arrange their work life such that they can focus on one or maybe two projects at a time. They do a "deep dive" into their project and so it is always obvious to them what the next priority should be.
Not everyone can set up their work life in this way, but we can all try to mimic it, by limiting our "work in progress." Like I mentioned above, I like to have about five things in flight. That is a fairly high number, but it works for me. Maybe List-Averse is someone whose natural "work in progress limit" is closer to one or two. People who have low "WIP limits" can sometimes mimic the "one project a time" work situation by have a backlog and only pulling allowing one or two things off the backlog at a time.
The backlog is just a to do list, but it is a to do list that you specifically are saying you aren't going to do right now. I think of my deep backlog (the To Do lanes in Trello) like an external memory bank. I store things there so that I can take them out of my working memory. If you can do this and only have one or two things in progress at a time, the backlog might be the only list you need.
Get in the habit of doing a mental check
To tackle the problem of forgetting that you need to do A and B before you start C, try occasionally performing a mental check. Maybe do this first thing in the morning, or before sitting down to start work for the day, or whenever you feel like you are mentally freshest. Think about what needs to get done, and then take a minute to think about anything you need before you start. This is like a mental version of the chef's practice of gathering all your ingredients before you start.
That's all I can come up with, so readers, it is your turn? What ideas do you have for List-Averse?