There are times when you get so busy all you want to do is hide from that never-ending to-do list. You’re exhausted from playing whack-a-mole, rushing to hammer down the constant flurry of demands yet never certain you’re “crushing it.” You’re anxious you’ve forgotten something important and worried you’re not making progress on what really matters.
As a life coach, I’ve witnessed how starting a “someday-maybe-later” list can help. Making conscious choices to set aside or postpone tasks helps remove some of the immediate stressors so you can focus. Moreover, with a bit of structure you can gradually turn it into a “master project list,” the kind of tool productivity experts recommend, to prevent future overwhelm.
Confront the Reality of Time
While time management gurus recommend various systems, the common advice is to capture all requests, tasks, and obligations. Throughout his seminal book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen emphasizes the importance of recording "open-loops,” or unfinished work, in order to give the task at hand your full attention. In the first line of his book, he promises, “It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.”
More recently, Cal Newport, the author of several books, including Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, also urged a harried listener of his Deep Questions podcast to “face the productivity dragon.” He noted how “ambiguous obligations … [have] become unfortunately common in our current period of largely remote and persistently frenzied work.”
Like Allen, Newport suggests having a designated place for tracking all obligations so you can remember where to find them. In an email conversation, he described his system: “I have a separate place to keep track of obligations (a task board, actually) for each of my professional roles. Each place maintains a list of things that needs to be clarified and elaborated. That way, if something vague but important comes across my plate, I can immediately capture it without yet having to do the hard work of figuring out what exactly this vague obligation means in practice.”
While this requires the extra effort of capturing tasks as they arise, Newport points to the greater negative impact of the alternative: “If you don't have a record of everything you need to do, then you will forget or be late on many, many items.”
Time management expert Laura Vanderkam also recommends getting a complete and thorough view. But instead of monitoring future obligations, the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think proposes recording everything you did every half hour of the week. In a phone conversation, she explained, “If you don’t know where your time is going now, you don’t have the data to know what you’re working with to make improvements in the future.”
When I mentioned that some might find this exercise daunting, she said, “It’s not about playing ‘Gotcha! You spent too much time on Netflix or Instagram.’ It’s about approaching life with a spirit of curiosity. Once you track your time, you start thinking about how you want to fill your time and learn what you can do that you falsely assumed you couldn’t.”
Find an Easier Way to Start
If you’re thinking, “easier said than done,” you’re not alone. Not surprisingly, my coaching clients balk at new and exhaustive systems when they’re having trouble finding time to eat lunch or use the bathroom.
What helped instead is a more manageable someday-maybe-later list: a simple "parking lot," not only for things you might want to do, as Allen suggests, but also for projects to delay or anything that seems “blobby” or ill-defined. With a clear framework, the act of typing out or writing down tasks to set aside gives you a sense of control and makes you feel stronger. It instills you with the power to prioritize, say no, delegate, and postpone.
While it can be done on paper, starting with a digital outlining tool has added benefits. It can easily expand into a master project list that gives you the ability to be more thorough without any rewrites. Moreover, your list is searchable. With the use of tags, your outline can help you plan more strategically.
To get started, any word processor or text editor is sufficient. For example, if you’re using Apple products, the native Notes app is great, since iCloud will sync your list on all of your devices. If you have Office 365, OneNote is a nice option. You can also use an outliner app, like WorkFlowy, Transno or Dynalyst. I personally love the simplicity of WorkFlowy, as it makes it easy to learn and is distraction-free but also gives you the ability to see your list in different views. The key is to use a tool that will help you easily capture tasks you want to set aside in the moment.
Here are quick steps to set up your someday-maybe-later list:
Create a few overarching and non-overlapping categories. Because you’ll want to capture tasks that occur in every area of your life, I suggest the following four: Pursuits (or Profession), Personal, People, and Possessions.For each of these, create just a few subcategories that are meaningful to you, again being careful that they don’t overlap. For example, under “Pursuits,” you might have “job” and “volunteer work,” and under “Personal” you should have “health,” but you could also have “hobbies” and “spiritual,” if those are important to you. “People” is likely to include “family” and “friends,” while “Possessions” could include “home” and “auto” and “digital.”Most PopularThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of RideGear
Now that you have a skeleton of an outline, here are steps to start using it:
Keep your outline open on your computer or easily accessible as you work or go about your day.Whenever you have a new task or project (anything involving more than one task) that you cannot tackle in the present moment, enter it in your outline under the appropriate category and subcategory. Create new subcategories whenever necessary.If something comes up that requires switching to a different task—say your boss pulls you into an urgent conference call—note what you were working on in your outline before switching tasks. It also helps to tell your boss, “I’ll be right there. I need just a minute to finish my thought.” Not only can no one argue with that, it also helps you be aware of task-switching so you can consciously shift your focus.Any time you add something to your list, consider whether it might be helpful to add a tag. To make these easily searchable, be sure to use only a few tags consistently. You can then deploy David Allen’s “tickler” method, or stage your tasks:#now: current priorities#next: upcoming priorities#waiting: things you can’t tackle because you’re waiting on someone else#weekend: things to focus on over the weekends or when you have free time#yyyy-mm: things to revisit in a particular month in the future
As you add more subcategories and populate them, remember to delete items you complete or that no longer feel relevant. The aim is to have a current list of all “open” or unfinished projects. Another benefit of Workflowy is that you can hide or show “completed” items. While most of the time you’ll want these hidden, it also helps to review what you’ve accomplished.
To make full use of your list, I recommend searching and reviewing your tags once a week and skimming the entire outline once a month.
In reaction to this tool, Laura Vanderkam commented that “the categories help you consider different aspects of your life … having the personal category makes you remember you need to care for your own health. Creating a subcategory sets a claim on your time.”
It’s hard to face the fact that we can’t do everything we want to or sometimes even need to. Using a someday-maybe-later list takes the sting out of trade-offs with your time by helping you focus on what you can do and what is within your control. While you may not be able to tackle something right now, you can choose to do it later … or maybe not at all.
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