Whether you’re used to working from home or not, the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) shelter-in-place directives present new challenges for most of us to feel as productive as we normally do. If you are struggling to keep on top of your to-do lists or otherwise defeat feelings of overwhelm, I’ve listed a few tricks that might help.
Productivity Trick #1: Write out a simple daily log of your day.This is such a simple yet surprisingly powerful trick to help you manage an unstructured or loosely scheduled day. An Australian woman whose name I’ve since forgotten taught me this trick several years ago when most of my days were unstructured. I was running a women’s magazine and tasked fully with the responsibility of generating sales for the publication while directing staff members with myriad editing, writing and layout responsibilities. Needless to say, I didn’t lack for things to do and was often stymied by feelings of overwhelm, uncertain on any given day where to place my focus. When I expressed this to the Australian woman, she asked me what time I started my day and when I ended it. I told her, “I start at 8am and finish around 6pm.” She then took out a piece of paper and wrote out:
She then instructed me to do this every day as I started my day over breakfast and write just a few words to indicate what I might do with each hour. In those days, it looked like this:
8 breakfast / file paperwork and tidy workspace
9 check in with editors / write
10 sales calls
11 sales calls
12 lunch / walk
2 check in with graphic designer / proof copy
3 sales calls
I found this to be an immensely powerful tool for organizing my days and calming my fear that my to-do list exceeded my capacity. I often start this process with a “brain dump,” which I’ll talk more about in the next section.
Productivity Trick #2: The Brain Dump
This is actually a tried-and-true trick of business coaches to help people assuage their feelings of overwhelm. I like to start with a large piece of paper and just write down all of the tasks – personal and professional – that are weighing on me. From trivial to monumental and everywhere in between, I jot down all of the things I have to do. For me, there seems to be a certain solace on committing my thoughts (and worries) to paper. If I write it out, I can deal with, address it, have a little more control over it.
It can range from the immediate (“Feed the cat”) to the long-term (“Finish my website”). Don’t concern yourself with dividing the household responsibilities from the work-related to-do list items. They all affect one another (even when we don’t work from home). Once I’m finished with my brain dump, I usually have a messy bunch of scribbles that I’ve brainstormed and invariably a glorious feeling of relief from overwhelm. Yes, I’m not directly confronted with all of the things I have yet to accomplish, but the brain dump gives me the opportunity to direct my energy towards completing my tasks.
After you’ve completed the brain dump, you can direct your list into ProductivityTrick #3: Covey’s Time Management Grid.
Productivity Trick # 3: Covey’s Time Management Grid
Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, pioneered the use of this four-quadrant grid to help people prioritize their to-do lists.
If you complete a brain dump as I recommended in Productivity Tip #2, you can start to sort your tasks in this grid. Any to-do list will do, though. Sort them as follows:
Quadrant I (Urgent, Important)is for immediate, deadline-driven tasks. These are the nagging, most vexing items on our list that need our attention as soon as possible.
Quadrant II (Not Urgent, Important) is for long-term visioning and strategizing and for items you know deserve attention but are easy to put off (like scheduling a doctor’s appointment or organizing your receipts). These are projects that are deserve prioritization but either need more time to contemplate and complete or don’t feel as deadline-driven. Quadrant III (Urgent, Not Important) is for time-pressured responsibilities. They possibly are not as important as items in Quadrants I and II, but someone else wants it now. (Or maybe you would just feel better crossing it off your list.)
Quadrant IV (Not Urgent, Not Important)is for those activities that yield little value but nevertheless require our attention at some point. These are great items to complete when you need to take a break from stressful, deadline-driven activities.
When I scribble this in my notebook, I’ll usually just make a grid with a cross and initials (UI = Urgent, Important, i.e.) to indicate the quadrant:
Below I’ve filled out a sample grid, just to give you an example of how you might assign tasks. In this example I’ve mixed the personal with the professional, but if you find it more helpful to divide the two, try it both ways and see which approach works better.
When my brain dump feels like it covers a time frame that far exceeds the next two weeks, I just will clumsily call the Six-Piece To-Do List Pie Chartuntil I can think of a better name. I will explain this in more detail in the next section.
Productivity Trick #4: The Six-Piece To-Do List Mandala
When I complete a brain dump (see Productivity Trick #2), I have a habit of writing short- and long-term goals down, since I usually have some larger projects simmering in my brain, even if I haven’t talked about them much or lifted a single finger to initiate them. To help me sort through the mess of my brain dump, I have started to sketch out a pie chart figure like the one below to sort the time frame in which my tasks need to live.
Next, I start to assign the tasks from my brain dump into the sections on the pie chart:
To be honest, I don’t tend to write things upside down, but I suspect that you take my point. I like to write things down on paper, but if you are fully committed to paperless work habit, you could make a six-column table in Excel to record your tasks.
You could start with the pie chart sketch and use it to create an Excel spreadsheet if you ping-pong between paper and digital organizational tools. Trello, Mindmeister and Cardsmith are all digital tools that could easily accommodate a to-do list planning tool like this, too, and provide opportunities to assign specific dates and even (in the case of Trello) reminders that could pop up and “ding” on your phone, tablet computer or laptop.
If you like these suggestions, feel free to modify them to your taste. We all have such different brains and ways to keep ourselves on-task. These are just a few tools that have worked for me. If you are a bullet journal enthusiast, these tools all mesh well with that approach as well. Happy planning!