I cleaned out my toaster the other day. It wasn’t out of boredom – in fact, I had a long list of other things I needed to do. But a rogue scrap of bread had become stuck in the inner metallic grid, which presented a fire hazard. After unplugging the toaster, turning it upside down and unleashing an avalanche of crumbs, I noticed that the outside surface was incredibly grungy. I scrubbed it until it gleamed.
It's amazing how much better it made me feel. Sure, there was chaos all around me, but the toaster was clean. For some reason, completing that one task improved my mood and helped me cope with the rest of my day. This was a win because most of the time, I feel like I’m locked in a constant battle with my ‘to do’ list (and generally running around like a headless chicken).
Are you a slave to your list, too? If so, here are some of the amateur tactics I have tried (and continue to try) in an effort to keep up.
Choose a useful format.
There are many ways to build a list – experiment to find one that works for you. Maybe you like to put tasks in chronological order or distinguish between what is urgent and non-urgent. I keep a “master list” of everything, but I attach an extra sticky note with the day’s must-do items. When I feel overwhelmed, I’ll re-write the main list using sub-categories such as home, school, work, cleaning, sports, and so on. Grouping similar tasks together results in several mini-lists, which appear less intimidating.
Be a double-crosser.
Completing a task and crossing it off, on paper, in ink, is very gratifying for me. I don’t get the same satisfaction from deleting it from a “Notes” list on my phone or rubbing it off a white board. Have you ever finished a task that wasn’t on your list, then added it just so you could strike it off? Yep, me too.
You’ve got to identify the tasks that absolutely have to happen right this minute, now, today. They may have financial implications, such as work or banking. They may be time-sensitive, leading up to a birthday or special event. They may be health-related, if you’re supporting someone who is ill or struggling. They may affect your family’s basic survival needs for food, sleep, shelter and clean clothes. I often ask myself: “What do I need to do to get through today?”
Multi-task at your own risk.
Multi-tasking and motherhood go hand in hand. For example, you start a load of laundry, which churns away in the background while you prepare a meal. This can be effective, unless you’re like me and forget to return to the “background” task. I frequently open the lid of my washer to find abandoned clothes from an earlier multi-tasking session gone awry.
Fight the distractions.
The problem is, I have the attention span of a fruit fly. I will spontaneously start re-organizing a drawer or closet that has no relevance to what I’m supposed to doing. Sometimes I have to treat myself like a kindergartner and insist that I finish one job before I’m allowed to move to the next one. The real issue is this: if a thought crosses my mind (such as “Oh, I need to e-mail so-and-so”), I’m terrified that if I don’t act on it right then, I’ll never remember it later. Still, I know that if I give in to the distraction – even if it seems like a two-minute thing – I’m going to get derailed.
Meet your Kryptonite head-on.
I’ve heard motivational speakers use the expression “Win the morning, win the day.” In my case, it’s more like “Win the dishwasher, win the day.” I can tell how my day has gone just by looking at the dishwasher. On productive days, the dishes get put away first thing and everything flows from there. When I’m overtired or frazzled, the dishwasher remains full or partially emptied, as if to symbolize my haphazard, disorganized life. Even worse, it causes a backlog of dirty dishes on the counter, creating more mess and stress.
Involve the kids.
If one of your list entries is “organize craft supplies” or “clean up playroom,” the kids should be in on it, too. Pull everything out and delegate tasks such as marker tester, pencil crayon sharpener or stray crayon collector. Have them decide which pieces of artwork should stay or be recycled. If all the dolls, figurines, cars and stuffed animals have become mixed together in the same toy bin, that’s also a perfect sorting project for little hands.
The reality is: our ‘to do’ lists will never be done. I am not a time management all-star and never will be. In sharing my story, I’m not trying to imply that your life will improve significantly if your appliances are crumb-free. I do, however, believe that we need to keep working through our lists as best we can and maintain a hopeful outlook. Otherwise, we’re toast.