My to-do list isn’t much of a list. It’s more of a collection. Brief notes to myself on index cards, the backs of envelopes, on my phone or sometimes emailed to myself. It’s cloud storage, but without any organization to it whatsoever — it’s just “out there.” More like fog storage. Occasionally this gets overwhelming, and I spend an hour or two pulling it all together into one place.
I did this the other day, and even after discarding the things that just didn’t make sense to do anymore, I still had 17 items on the list. Less overwhelming, because it was all there in one place, but still overwhelming. Paralyzed by not knowing where to start, I took a walk to the coffee machine. On the way, I thought of two more things to add to the list.
There are several strategies for dealing with a situation like this. My natural style is to attack things in chronological order — FIFO/LILO. This works brilliantly for the 0.4% of the times when things find their way to me in perfect order of importance. The other 99.6% of the time, my natural approach is a bit less effective.
Some of us will look for quick wins — checking off the items that are the easiest to accomplish. There’s some benefit to that, as quick wins build momentum. But “little” things always come up, and we get stuck in the loop of always working on the quick wins and never focusing on the overall battle that’s waging.
Others will attend to the squeaky wheels first — whichever item is being asked for loudest by the most obnoxious stakeholder gets worked on. Two problems with this approach: 1. You’re training people to be obnoxious squeaky wheels when they want something from you, and 2. You’re always working on other people’s priorities rather than your own.
I transitioned jobs within my company recently, and have been getting my replacement up to speed on the status of everything she’s inheriting. I’ve found myself starting lots of sentences with “The first thing I’d do is…” or “The best thing to do here would be…” or similar phrases. The truth hit me. What those phrases really mean is “What I’ve been meaning to do for the last several weeks (months?) but haven’t gotten around to because I keep letting all of these other less important things get in the way is…”
In my new job, I’m trying something new — asking myself a question. What would I tell my replacement to work on first? Whatever that thing is, it’s what I should be tackling.
Yes, I occasionally still check something off the list simply because it’s been on there the longest, even if it isn’t what I probably ought to be doing. I still put a little oil on the squeaky wheel now and then, just because I need the squeaking to stop. But more often, this simple question is helping me work on checking the big deals off of my list. My list. Not someone else’s. That feels pretty good.