To-Do List Management

In my previous post on setting work priorities, I closed with the point that once you know what’s important, the rest is just getting it done.

Of course it’s not that simple. If it were, editors wouldn’t be asking me how to juggle everything.

Defining the Tasks

The first thing to remember is that there are always more things you could be doing in a given day/week/lifetime than you will actually be able to do, so rid yourself of the idea that you could get it all done if you just tried harder. You (probably) don’t need to work harder. You may need to work more effectively.

Once you know what your priorities are, it is easier to understand what you need to do to accomplish those priorities. If your priority is to learn how to do good editorial work, then you might take an editing class, or go to an editing conference, or interact with your peers to make sure you’re working up to standard.

Once you’ve defined what contributes to the goal of learning how to doing good editorial work, the next step becomes fairly obvious: register for the class, book the conference, join an editors’ group. You may need to do some research to know what class to register for or you may need to save some money to travel to the conference, etc. But the steps will become apparent if you know what the priority is. If you can’t afford the class or the conference, then it becomes clear that your efforts should focus on the editors’ group.

But it is easy for these next steps to multiply. There are endless classes, conferences, and editors’ groups you could join. So you need to set parameters. What is your budget? How much time can you devote to the process? How do you learn best (at your own pace, within the constraints of a specific start and end time, etc.)?

This will help narrow down your choices.

Scheduling the Tasks

No matter how clear you are about your priorities, you’re likely to end up with a to-do list that goes on for pages. It is easy to look at that and become overwhelmed so that you end up doing either the easy tasks (which are often of low value) or procrastinating the whole thing and not tackling any of it.

So, don’t use your to-do list to guide your day-to-day work. Use your schedule to guide your day-to-day work. In other words, choose from your to-do list the most urgent task that will help you to achieve your priority and put it on your schedule. If you need to write a blog post and it will take an hour, then it goes in the 8 am to 9 am time slot on Monday (or whatever works in your schedule). Then take the next most important priority and schedule it. I always do this for the following week on Friday afternoon (in other words, Friday, May 20 is when I schedule my tasks for the week of May 23.

Now, remember what I said earlier about never getting it all done? Even if you’ve curated your to-do list, you’re never going to get it all done. That’s okay! That’s not a problem. Your to-do list is full of things that you think might be useful in pursuing your goals but not all of them matter. In fact, I like to call this my “to think about” list instead of my “to-do list” since not everything is ever going to be important enough for me to actually accomplish.

Assigning the Right Amount of Time to a Task

One of the most important needs when scheduling tasks is to have a clear idea of how long they will take. This is something most editors vastly underestimate, so they think it will take ten hours to do an edit that takes forty. Not only does this screw up their schedule, it probably means they’re undercharging. So you have to keep track of your time in order to schedule (and charge) appropriately.

Another area where people underestimate time is marketing. You may have a letter of introduction (LOI) you want to send to a publisher and you think that will only take five minutes—after all, you’ve already written the LOI! But finding the editorial contact, customizing the letter, and hitting send will probably take a lot more than five minutes.

Once you have a realistic idea of how long various processes will take, it is easier to schedule effectively. In the meantime, it is wise to allot yourself twice as much time as you think it will take and then be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t take so long.

If you don’t get a task done in the time allotted to it, you have to fix your schedule, either by finishing it at another time (which you schedule before moving on!) or postponing something else on the day’s schedule in order to accommodate. Don’t just let things slop over without having a plan.

You may find it helpful to keep checklists of common tasks so you can easily remember the steps and don’t have to get bogged down trying to remember them or figure them out again. For example, I have a checklist for how to add a class to the Club Ed website. Even though I’ve done this dozens of times I don’t do it often enough to remember every finicky detail. So my checklist helps me get this process done quickly and efficiently. I have at least a dozen checklists for common tasks and they all live in the same place on my computer so I can easily find them when I need them.

Dealing with Zombie To-Do List Items

For things that hang around on my to-do list for a long time without my actually doing them, I have a couple of options I choose from:

(1) I often just decide it’s obviously not important since it’s not getting done, so I take it off the list and stop worrying about it.

(2) I dig into the actual steps and list them all out. I do the first one and this will often get me over the hump to do them all.

(3) I find a shortcut and do that instead.

I’m using the example of hanging bathroom curtains because this came up recently in a conversation with another editor. Assuming the bathroom needs curtains, (1) is not an option.

So (2) means figuring out what the first step really is. Do you have the curtains? If not, then measuring the space is Step 1. If yes, then do you have the hardware? If not, then buying/finding the hardware is Step 1. Then you will need to get out a tape measure and mark where the brackets go. You’ll have to get the tools. You’ll have to iron the curtains. Etc. List all of the steps. Then schedule them appropriately. Not all of them need to be done in the same time slot or even on the same day.

Or, try (3). When I needed bathroom curtains for my new place, I bought the curtains, got a tension rod, and stuck them in there. “Hanging” the curtains took five minutes tops. It might possibly look more beautiful to window mount them but the main thing is I am now able to take a shower without putting on a porn show for the neighbors.

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