Using your time series: Looking at what and how

What needs to be done? How do you decide?

This devolves to personal choice. Some people like the Covey Planner. Others swear by GTD. Some people like to-do lists; some write everything on their calendar. Some (fortunate few?) delegate it all to personal assistants. Some just trust that if it’s important enough, they’ll remember what all they need to get done.

Because I’m always juggling more tasks than I have time for, I’ve played with all kinds of systems and ideas, from the A, B, C priorities to the Not To-Do list. (I’ve even written an article on productivity tools.) Most of them have something in common: Write it down. I have a pretty good memory, but especially as I have more and more things to keep track of all the time (kids getting older, in different schools, with activities and friends and paperwork and fundraisers — in addition to all of my own projects, from freelancing to writing to publishing to making Christmas presents to running, plus housework and taxes and paying the bills and remembering when my husband has late meetings at work and on and on and on), I find that getting things down in a concrete form — any form — is the first step.

That’s what — write it down. Look at what you’re doing, what you’re supposed to be doing, what you want to be doing, what you say you want to do but have never made time for. This step is overwhelming, and I almost never actually manage to complete it. Write down all of my writing projects? The ones in progress, the ones that are stalled, the ones that are just ideas? How about all of the books I want to read? All of the things I’d like to think of around the house from floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for my office to a fruit orchard in the backyard? And there’s more.


But — when it’s written down and I can see it, I’m more likely to spend time on it, to make a note on my calendar to follow up on researching an idea, to drop something in my tickler file for pricing fruit trees, to actually do it.

So once you know what you need to do, how do you pick and choose from all the things you have written down? How do you avoid paralysis?

Oddly enough, productivity tools address this, too. Productive Magazine has articles and interviews with all sorts of tips and tricks. David Allen talks about the value of contexts in GTD — but when 90% of my contexts are “sitting in front of the computer,” that doesn’t narrow it down any. The Cult of Done argues that it’s not so important what you’re getting done as that you are doing things — because as you get more things done, you get in the habit of “done” — from the manifesto:

The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done. . . .

Done is the engine of more.

The calendar is where I start. Some things just have to be done at a specific time. Yesterday, the dog had an appointment at 9:30, so I knew that had to be dealt with then. There’s a 5K race coming up in October that I want to do, and I learned about it 9 weeks beforehand — just enough time to start the couch-to-5k running plan up again, which tells me what I need to block out time for 3 days a week. Work comes with deadlines, and time span for specific projects always gets entered into the calendar.

Beyond that? To a certain extent, the Cult of Done has it right. It’s more important that I do something than that I spend hours deciding what I should do.

At this point, I might point out Stephen Covey’s four quadrants — urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent and unimportant, neither urgent nor important. Anything with a real deadline probably falls in the urgent and important quadrant — work projects, taxes, and so forth. So do medical emergencies and car accidents, but you probably don’t need to figure out when those have to be dealt with. Once those are ticked off your list, though, what else do you do? Focus on the important things — Where do you want your career to go? Work on the next novel. Do you want to go back to school?

For me, the important things might include writing projects, planning writing, looking at getting my work into print, or even some time on social networks or writing blog comments to keep in touch with people. I try to pick specific things to work on each week or month (the new story I want to have up for sale, a short story to submit to a favorite market, cover art . . . ). Each evening before I go to bed, I jot a to-do list for the next day. My to-do list includes the simple things that I know will get checked off (make sure girl is up and dressed), appointments and errands, and maybe even what’s for dinner. Then I put in things based on my weekly or monthly plans — work deadlines, stories, cover art, blog posts, whatever. I don’t always get everything on my list done. I spend time in the not urgent and unimportant quadrant (Bejeweled Blitz, a lot). Some of that’s indecision, some of it’s available energy — but there’s less indecision when I have my list of things I want to get done. As for energy, I’ll talk about that next week when I get to barriers and obstacles.

What about you? How do you go about deciding what to do next?

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  1. We used to use a variation on Covey’s quadrants where I worked. It’s the same concept but it uses a four-column grid: task, importance, urgency, priority. I always found it an excellent way to sift out the really important things from the cloud of little everyday stuff.

    For each task, assign a number from 1 to 5 for imporance: 1 for no one will notice if it never happens to 5 for “the world ends if it doesn’t happen.” Likewise, 1 to 5 for urgency. You get to decide the criteria for both of these. I usually use 5=this week, 4=this month etc. for the urgency, though sometimes at crunch times it winds up 5=today, 4=this week, etc.

    Then multiply the two numbers to get the task’s priority. The bigger the number, the higher the priority.

    Most likely, the 25s you already know about, because those are the big important things with urgent deadlines. If you wind up with a lot of these, you probably need to reasses your priority scale. At work, we often found that when we really looked at who cared about a particular item, it wasn’t as important as we thought. Somebody would continue to whine about what they didn’t get, but it didn’t matter to project success.

    When I use it for personal planning, though, it’s harder to figure. What priority do I give to things only I care about? Am I worrying a lot about things that don’t matter and neglecting important things? The answer to that is usually, “Yes.” I usually find I’ve been working on the little stuff — often things at the 1, 2, 3 level. Sometimes life is like that; nobody notices if small household maintenance tasks don’t get done right away. But they do have to get done eventually. To control those, I’ve had good luck planning a day to just get things done. The “done is good” approach.

    I’m always surprised by the number of things that wind up with scores of 15 to 20, making them fairly important, that I haven’t worked on or thought about because I’ve been so overwhelmed by the little urgent stuff that I’ve neglected the important long-term stuff. Too often writing goals tend to fall into this category.

    I usually do this twice a year; thank you for reminding me that I’ve neglected to pull it all together midyear the way I usually do.

    • Wow, I can totally see myself getting sidetracked creating a method to perfectly gauge the numbers I should assign to everything. Because, you know, then I wouldn’t have to actually start doing something I’d been putting off.

      Good luck with the energy and will to pull it all together.

      • Heh. I find myself doing that with nearly any system. It becomes more fun than the work. So it’s a definite danger. But it’s also far more complicated to explain than it is to actually use.

        • I’m thinking maybe this is why I like to spend time planning new series; it’s more fun than struggling to figure out why what I’m writing now isn’t flowing.

          I can see the inherent simplicity of the system once values are assigned. But that first step is a doozy. 😉

          • The importance and time scales aren’t supposed to be complicated or precise. At work we called it “the QD system,” for “quick and dirty.” You don’t even have to have a scale — you can identify the one that’s due the soonest, call that 5, and number everything else relative to that.

            I suspect that the issues you raise are part of why Covey went with a grid rather than a priority sheet. It’s already got the priority system built in.

  2. I was writing this morning – something I prefer doing first. But then the phone rang…and the dogs started barking…and barking again. Now I’m here in front of the computer. LOL

    • Ah. As a mom, I am familiar with the “Whoever is yelling loudest” priority system. And dogs and phones definitely fall into that category. 🙂

  3. I keep a to do list, using various software programs at different times. I have to review it regularly so it doesn’t get too filled up with stuff I don’t actually have time to do (moving stuff to “Someday” in GTD terms).

    I like the GTD philosophy, but I never use contexts. Also, I do block out time for certain things on my calendar. Especially on weekends, when I block out every little thing I plan on doing. Otherwise I think I can do everything. Seeing it on my calendar makes me realize that I do not have the time to do everything.

    • The only contexts that make sense to me is making phone calls at the same time (and since I usually procrastinate, there’s always a bunch to do when I do it) and errands — as long as I’m going to be out of the house, I might as well get everything done. Other than that? Not so much.

      Which software have you tried? What are some pluses and minuses?

      Blocking out the weekends on your calendar is an interesting approach. I never would have thought of that.

      • I’ve never used GTD. What is a context? Does that just mean putting similar tasks together? I’ve had good luck with doing that with household chores. Block off an afternoon to do all the repairs around the house, for instance, or as you mentioned doing a bunch of telephone calls at the same time.

        • Yes, that’s basically what a context is. He sets contexts for everything from phone to at computer, in office, in car, e-mail (separate from computer tasks). It can get as detailed as you need it — I think he suggests contexts for things like meeting with your boss.

  4. I really don’t do anything elaborate when I figure out what needs to be done. I set a goal for the week, and then do it.

    • Sounds like you have an entirely different mindset than I do. How do decide what goal to set? Do you ever have more than one thing to do at once?

  5. Pingback: Using time, priority planning, and other such issues « Cowgirl in New England

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