On Productivity, or: I Like Paper, Part One

You could waste a whole day researching time management and other ways to be more productive. As a writer with my own business, I am solely in charge of my schedule, and no other situation can so quickly lead to wasting time. Late in 2018, but before the holidays, I was feeling adrift and knew I needed to find more discipline; access more structure to get back on track. I reverted to a system I learned years ago, and it has reenergized my days.

Long ago I had a boss who urged me to read the very wonderful “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life”, a mass-market paperback from the 1980s by Alan Lakein. Now it’s out of print, but copies are still available used. The time management process defined in the book begins with exercises to clarify your values before moving on to defining your goals. The process graduates to mapping every task in your life to specific goals. This is a powerful filter for eliminating activity that does not align to what’s important to you.

The book also includes a format for a to-do list which years later I still rely on, with some modifications of my own. (You write your to-do lists on paper! It’s an old book. Besides, I like paper: the physical act of hand-writing crystallizes memory in a way that typing never could. Also, my long-ago boss said the tedium of rewriting the same to-dos when you recast your list is a powerful motivator to get things done.)

To write the to-do list, make three narrow columns A, B, and C; and a wide fourth column for the task description. Make a short horizontal line in only one of columns A-C for each task to indicate how high a priority it is for you. When a task is complete, simply cross through the horizontal line with a short vertical line, and you can see at a glance what you’ve completed. The book stops with those instructions, but I’ve elaborated on the system by numbering “A” priorities to help myself weed through them, moving onto the next when I’ve completed the prior one. Another innovation all my own is to use a tilde (~) to indicate a task has started, and I’m waiting for someone else’s action to get it completed (others’ actions I add to the task description separated with “//”). The illustration will make this clearer.

Alan Lakein, the original author of this technique, advised rewriting the to-do list daily. I think that’s excessive. I rewrite mine when completed items and notes distract me from what I need to do next; roughly, that’s once a week for me. I save the old lists, because they invariably grow to include resources and particulars related to completed tasks. I do find myself going back to these old lists, and it’s a small matter to file them for future reference.

Having the list to provide structure is like being a kid, relying on a parent or teacher to tell you what to do next. You spend a little time in adult mode periodically, thinking about your goals in a strategic way, and what actions are needed to advance each one. The rest of the time, you are relaxed in the knowledge that an external authority (the list) guides your actions. That’s liberating.

The to-do list is always in the first section of my binder. Binder, you ask? I’ll add it to my to-do list to share the binder concept in a subsequent post about productivity.