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 Joel's Blog

Getting Things Done  


I have been self employed for twenty-two years and running Tools for Working Wood for just over nineteen. I recently saw an Instagram post by a woodworker (among other trade she practices) @anneofalltrades. In the post Anne expressed her worries about all the things that don't get done and how difficult it is get the tasks she wants done get done. So I decided to throw in my two cents and posted a comment. Some of the issues Anne raises involve setting boundaries with other people, but many of her issues are pretty common to just anyone running a business, especially a business where your labor is an integral part of production. The issues also affect hobbyists who are trying to build a serious project but simply are stymied by everything else in their lives.

My comment stemmed from a desire to help out. I certainly wouldn't say my method is the best or the only way of getting work done. But the techniques I describe below are practical. They make me more productive and able to get through the day without wanting to that the first one-way bus to the Bahamas.

The immutable facts of the case:

There are twenty four hours in a day. Doing nothing but work (+ eating and sleeping) isn't sustainable for any sane person - even if one enjoys their job.
We all have or need to have other commitments to spending time with family, friends, and just chilling. The guilt we feel about "wasting time" when we aren't working is real, but misplaced.
In addition and maybe more importantly, Anne touches on this, always feeling that you are not fulfilling your (self imposed) obligations can lead a feeling of helplessness, depression, and the feeling (totally unjustified) of failure.

I actually enjoy most of my day. There is just too much work in it.

My solution:

I keep two lists. My main list consists of everything I need to get done. The list has big projects on it - "Produce some new tools" - but overall I try to be pretty atomic in tasks: "Contact the guy in order 123456 and find out the problem." As I get closer and closer to doing the tasks, I tend to be more basic as I break things down. I also try to put in enough detail on the list so I don't waste time puzzling over what I mean. This last bit is especially important because putting something on the list isn't the same as getting it done, and some items stay on the list for years. This list has several hundred tasks and I refer to at least the more current parts of it on a daily basis.

But that doesn't get me out of my hole. It just defines the hole.

When I get something done on the list I cross it off.

Every day I make a the second list. It's a short list of what I actually think I can accomplish in a reasonable day. Late Friday I will probably make a list for what tasks I need to do for the weekend. I try to make this list realistic. My daily goal is to clear that list. If I do, I know I can relax and do other stuff for fun. If I don't, I know I am overcommitted. Over the years I figured out that the list needs to be pretty short, because during the day I will inevitably spend time chatting with customers, vendors, colleagues and or spend time on critical events. Meetings go on the list too. The list is very atomic. After I cross stuff out, I feel a real feeling of accomplishment and "permission" to have some fun. The day's work is done. When I don't finish my list, I start wondering about how to lower my deliverables through postponement, delegation, and any other strategy I can think of.

It's not a perfect system, but it has enabled me to relax without guilt, and focus on tasks that need to be done.

The worst thing you can do is not write down a list. Relying on your memory is not only iffy, it's real work. Who wants the stress of wondering if something important was forgotten? Without a list there is also just a formless, unending, overwhelming atmosphere sense of falling behind.

By the way, for long-term tasks I use and for the daily list I usually use a post-it at my desk. I go through a lot of post-its.

What does this have to do with woodworking as a hobby? you might ask. Simple: suppose you want to build a desk or another complex project. If you go into your shop thinking "What's next? I gotta build a desk!" it is easy to be overwhelmed. But if you go into your shop with a list saying, "I have an hour only. I will mill the wood for the drawers," you can actually get stuff done. You feel encouraged by what you're accomplishing, not discouraged having only one hour to spend. I have found written procedures for pacing a project very very helpful. Less stressful and more productive.

So that's my two cents. All I can say is that it works for me. It takes some discipline and sometimes I slack off. When I slack off I find my stress level increases. Less and less gets done and I complain more.

The picture above is a corner of my desk on April 24, 2018. It's not pretty. Cleaning it up is on my main list, but it's not anywhere near the top of my list. I do find that a clean desk helps me work faster, but I just don't know where to put half the stuff. It's a work in progress, and like the rest of us, I am still learning.

Comments: 14
04/24/2018Joshua Klein
Interesting... that is my organizational system exactly. My longer term project list is a Word doc on my laptop and my daily (realistic and attainable) to-do list is a scrap of paper I keep in my pocket. I cross items off as I complete them throughout the day.

I've never used a better system.
I have a similar workflow and built a service around creating my daily list: You link Taco with your existing task lists (or flagged/starred emails via IMAP, Gmail, or Exchange), like Basecamp, Trello, or Google Tasks, then use Taco to decide what's actually most important to do next. It's free, operated as what amounts to a public service.

Unfortunately, doesn't have an API so there's no way for other services to interact with it.

I agree completely about getting stuff out of your head and on to paper. For most people, I'd also suggest separating ideas from actionable tasks -- basically, trying to avoid "idea debt": It sounds like you're thorough enough at prioritizing to maintain 1 list, but most people aren't. For the majority, a task that's as hard to act on as "Produce some new tools" won't go anywhere, and the first challenge is to get pie-in-the-sky stuff on to its own list (or Pinterest board, or iOS Reading List, or Dropbox folder, or whatever) so that the task list is only actionable stuff.
I do something similar. I use Wunderlist and I put all more or less realistic goals in the Work List. If I want to do them on a date I put a date in and they pop up automatically on the Today List in blue on that date. If I don't do them the date turns to red on the next day and it moves to the top section of the Today List. I have several other lists on there for other purposes, some real "pie in the sky" stuff. Two other advantages is that they can repeat automatically such as check fire extinguishers repeats annually. The other advantage is that it's on my smart phone so that I can check it whenever and wherever. This is a free app.
Thanks for the tips. I need to make more lists and stop trying to accomplish more tasks in a day that is humanly possible. I moved to a paper calendar for the tactile experience and to cut the electronic chord.
04/25/2018Joe M 
I'm lucky, my wife makes my lists....both long term and "to do now" lists. :)
Thanks for sharing. I’ve seen this approach of two (or more) lists in a number of places. One of the suggestions I try to follow is to set aside 10-15 minutes at the END of each day to read the long term list and make up the short list for the next day. This way you don’t spend the night fretting about what might need to,happen tomorrow. There is another approach that has a master list, a weekly list of key deliverable to others, and then a daily list of what you actually might do that day.

As you said, empty everything from your head onto “paper” so your mind is free to focus only on the here and now - especially if “now”is fun.
Never use a list. Store it all in my head to keep my 59 year old mine as sharp as possible. On the other hand ,my wife is a tax accountant and has a desk full of sticky notes.. I should have stock in 3M....sigh.
04/25/2018Jack Evans 
I'm with you 100% there. I started making lists for the things I need to do at the beginning of this year, and I've been a lot more productive in the workshop. It's also helped me be a lot more realistic about what I can get done in the shop time I have, so I actually cross items off more than I move them to the next day. I also put down non-shop activities that take enough time that I need to remember not to overfill. My wife got a kick out of the fact that I had our regular "date night" on my to-do list for this past weekend. :-)
04/25/2018Daniel Moerman PhD
Wow. That's an ancient IBM keyboard on your desk. Which actually has resistance, and clicks when a key is allthe way down. I had one of those years ago that weighed about 15 pounds. I didn't use it any more, so I set it up in the living room by a window. When the grandchildren came over, they used it for EVERYTHING. It controlled the space ship. It was a cash register for the store (that my granddaughter ran in the living room). It was her system for grading us when she was the Nazi third grade teacher. And my grandson used it for coding. He's currently a junior in college in. . . Computer Science. What a great keyboard!!!!
04/25/2018Brian Moran 
I’m older and recently retired. My working world started when it was ruled by the paper day-timer which I later ran parallel with digital systems. I still use the same skill/habit/method to keep my life running efficiently and smoothly in retirement, including goals and tasks scheduled out for my hobby woodworking. Lists are wonderful. One of the things I did as an engineer was carve out 3, 1 hour windows a week just for “what-if” thinking. I now do that every day for an hour first thing in the morning. It’s quiet, serene, and sitting with a cup of coffee... doodling or sketching, it’s highly rewarding and satisfying “me-time.” It’s a daily “to do” and I strongly recommend it.
I use to make lists all the time and your absolutely my whole way of getting the things done that I need to get done. I just want to thank you with your post my list is coming back tonight.
04/26/2018Richard Prima 
Yes to the lists! I keep a long term one on paper so as I cross them off, I can get a sense of accomplishment. After it gets to a few pages, I start over. My Dr. recently suggested before retiring for the night, to make a "short list" of things you want to accomplish the next day so you don't need to hash through them while trying to clear your mind to get a restful sleep. Of course when I inevitably do a project that is not on the list, I add it then promptly cross it off! (back to that sense of accomplishment...)
04/26/2018Horace Gordon 
Great post Joel. I'd add to it that big picture establishing of roles & goals in your life helps to determine what's most important to you. Then you can get - as you aptly put it - "atomic" in your task creation & execution. This is after all - like most everything in life - a matter of resource allocation.
I highly recommend Stephen Covey's "7-Habits of Highly Effective People", and the corollary book "First Things First".
04/28/2018Bettencourt Rev. Mary F. 
Yeah for lists! I use index cards (cheap ones) and write one item per card. I code them with C-call, V-visit, R-research, T-task, P-purchase, Etc. Then each day I make the to do for the day. If I do not finish, it travels to the next day. Each week, I shuffle the cards in priority order, leaving research and purchase up top in order to complete a task. I run about 20-25 cards at a time that are active, and leave longer term tasks on my desk in a separate pile, also in priority. Works for me. No app program to deal with, card gets tossed when completed, priorities get accomplished more quickly, and I’ve learned to time some basic tasks so I know what I can realistically complete in one day. I never feel bad about relaxing! Thanks for a great post!
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