To-do List Terror

It’s time to get organized.

Like lots of people, I’m leading a busy life and have limited free time. I divide my attention between three things – my children, my part-time MA in Modern History and my job as deputy editor of two hyper-local magazines. To this I also add my blog here – which has been hugely neglected of late due to seminar readings, essay deadlines and paid work, as well as my own doubts about how much people really need to spend time reading me writing about myself all the time – but which is actually important to me. It might not have quite the priority that the first three things do, but I still want to do it and need to schedule time for it.

How do I balance all these things? The short answer is, not very well. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings I have three hours of pre-school delivered time in which to work. I go home to my laptop with my head full of about twenty things I need to do; things like reading books, writing articles, organising my daughter’s birthday party, tidying the house, shopping for food, writing a blog post…there are so many conflicting demands, I’ve no idea which to tackle first. Too often, I make coffee, eat toast, load or unload the dishwasher, put laundry away, answer an email or two and return to the pre-school pick-up line with a disatisfactory sense of having squandered my time.

It might sound like I’m putting the ‘real’ tasks off because I don’t enjoy them. This isn’t actually true. I love being involved with the magazines I work on, and really enjoy meeting people, finding out about what they’re doing and then finding ways to write about them and their place in the community. I’m fascinated by the reading I have to do for my Masters course, especially now I’m getting into greater depth and detail on the changing role of women in the twentieth century. What I’ve come to realise is, it’s not the work itself I’m dreading; it’s the organisation and prioritisation of it. Put simply; I just don’t like planning.

I’ve always read about the importance of the to-do list. I’ve heard other women talking about how they live by their lists, and I’ve thought, yes, I must do that too. I can only imagine the satisfactory sense of efficiency that must be gained as each task gets ticked off. The trouble is that when I sit down to write a list like this of my own, I  get overwhelmed. Sometimes my mind goes blank, and I just can’t think of anything to put on the list, even though I know there are lots of things because I wake up at 4am and can’t sleep for thinking of them. Sometimes I go into micro-detail; make dinner, load dishwasher, fold laundry, cut my nails, buy cat food. Other times I’m too expansively vague. Write novel, build a website, get an MA, be like the Alexandra Shulman of local magazine publishing. Mostly the list is never written, because just the thought of everything I want to do or have to do or maybe it would be nice to do gives me such a racing sense of anxious, can’t breathe panic that putting it onto paper is impossible.

This is the substance of my confession here; I can’t write lists. I can’t and I don’t. I love the idea of them, but instead I rely on keeping the revolving themes of my life in my head. This means I walk around, or wake in the night, with random headings of varying priority popping into my head like titles on a screen – at the moment they are things like ‘maths tutor’, ‘birthday party’, ‘presentation reading’, ‘proof-reading’ and ‘copy deadline’. This kind of works okay. Things get done and I pretty much get by. Except when I don’t. For example, there was that time I missed sports day, and the many times I realise too late I don’t have some vital breakfast ingredient for the next day. And there is also the constant sense of anxiety I feel, as though I’m always about to drop something, which clearly isn’t ideal.

Last Sunday I watched this video on youtube and it gave me hope. Amy Schmittauer says the to-do list is too messy and vast in itself to use to plan your time. She recommends breaking it down into four categories – ‘Important and urgent’, ‘Important not urgent’, ‘urgent not important’ and ‘not urgent and not important’, and then using this schedule of priorities to put the tasks into your calendar for the week. Obviously, this still involves having a list, and prioritising it, which I’m not going to like. It will be time consuming. The main thing I took from this method, however, is the use of scheduling things on a calendar*. This is pretty basic and perhaps should have been obvious, but nevertheless, I wasn’t doing it. Up until two weeks ago, I didn’t have a diary. Even when I have had a diary in the past, I’ve never used it properly. I’ve put appointments in it, but I’ve never mapped out all of my time – when the children are with me, when they’re not, when I’ll read this chapter in that book, and when I’ll write that article for the magazine. It seems to me that if I did, the sense of panic might leave me, because instead of reading the book while thinking about all the other things that might be more important for me to be doing at that moment, I’d be reading the book thinking this is the right priority now, and I’ve written down in my diary when I’m going to do all the other things.

It sounds so good, doesn’t it? I’ve been thinking about it all week, and I really think this method is going to work. I’ve not actually done it yet, no, possibly because it does involve listing in the first instance and, you know, there’s the racing panic again. I’ve been looking for on-line calendars that might enable me to really go with this method of organisation – the one on my laptop doesn’t seem quite right. A new pop-up heading has begun to go round my mind; ‘find perfect calendar for planning my entire life’. Obviously, I’m going wrong again. I already have a diary. In fact, I made a special detour to Lambs’ Conduit Street to buy it. All I have to do is write everything in it, as it occurs to me. I don’t need a ‘master list’ because that’s not how I work. When things pop into my mind, from now on, I’m going to mentally prioritise it and if it’s important or urgent or both then it can go in the diary. If it’s not important, then I can stop worrying about it, or delegate it. That’s the theory, anyway. As to the practice, I’ll let you know. Just as soon as I’ve scheduled ‘Write weekly blog post’ into my diary.

*The other thing I got from this video is that I want Amy’s hair. Now how would I prioritise ‘haircut’ for inclusion in my diary…that is the question.



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