Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting Things Done - Your Task List

A continuation of my series on Personal Organization based on Getting Things Done...

Photo by Darwin Bell

The task list is the hub of a well-organized life. Everything starts here.

Capture Everything in One Place
You need one place where you can capture all the things you are responsible for, all the things you want to do or are in process of doing. The most important thing is to capture everything in one place.

I used to make the mistake of having multiple places where I would keep track of ToDo's. I would have paper lists (in my purse, on my dresser, on the fridge), starred emails, tasks in outlook, and post-it notes scattered around. I would often get a sinking feeling that I was supposed to be doing something *really* important, but just could not remember what it was. Days later, I would come across a note to my self left on my desk, or in my purse.

It is essential that you have just one place where everything is recorded. You can see everything in one view, prioritize them relative to each other, and know that you are always doing the most important thing.

Pick a Tool, any Tool
It really does not matter what tool you use to record your tasks. I really love the free online task list at Toodledo. Another popular, free online tool is Remember the Milk (however, RTM's notes fields are not big enough for me). At work, I use Outlook. For those of you who don't spend most of your day online, a Moleskine Pocket Notebook or a Hipster PDA (a.k.a. index cards) are great options.

The concept of having just one task list is so important, that you should choose the tool that allows you the easiest way of adding tasks. So, if you are drawn to a fancy online list because you think that is what "organized" people have, consider how much time you spend online. When you are out with your kids and you think of something you have to do, will you be able to easily enter it on your online list? Or are you more likely to enter it if you keep a paper list?

There is no tool that will magically make you more organized. It's about the process, not the tool! The important thing is to choose something that works for you and to use it exclusively.

The Big Idea Dump
Once you have decided on a tool, the next step is to collect all your tasks into one place. Gather up all those paper lists, starred emails, and post-it notes. Enter them into your chosen tool.

Until you build the habit of keeping everything on one list, you may find yourself falling into the trap of making side lists again. Just don't. Say to yourself, "If it is not on my task list, it does not exist." And, go enter it on your task list.

If you are not in front of your list, it is OK to temporarily write it down. But make sure that the time between writing it down and entering it on the list is short. If you constantly find yourself with paper lists as a holding bin for tasks that you need to enter, consider that a paper list may be the best option for you.

I am able to email tasks into my Toodledo task list from my blackberry which is always with me. So, I rarely need any holding bins or paper lists.

Photo by JennyHuang

Make Each Task Actionable
Another tenet of GTD is that each task be actionable. What does that mean? It means that the title of each task is actually something that you can *do*.

For example: "Doctor's Appointment" is not something that you can do. However, 'Call to schedule Dr. Appt. @ 555-1212", or "Gather paperwork to bring for Dr. Appt." are both things you can do.

Often times, a task will sit on my list for a long time and I'll keep pushing it off and pushing it off -- even stupid little things. I wonder, why can't I get that done? Then, I take a look at the task more carefully, and realize that I had not made it actionable. Example: "M+J Wedding Present". Why haven't I done this? Because I don't know where they are registered. The task should be, "M+J Wedding Present - email M to ask where registered". After sending the email, the very next day, I have the information, ordered the present online, and am done.

Make it as easy as possible to look at your list and key in on something that is do-able right now. The way to do this is to make all your tasks actionable.

Break Big Projects up Into Next Actions
I often feel so overwhelmed by the enormity of what I need to get done that I get paralyzed. I thrash around and don't make any forward progress on anything.

The key to accomplishing larger projects is to break them up into smaller sub-tasks. An example is "HB Birthday Party" (not an actionable task). Taking a few minutes to think it through, I come up with a few sub tasks:
* talk to husband about budget and size of party
* ask HB about theme and activities
* schedule date
* make invite list
* etc.

Can you see where this is going? Each of these sub tasks is short and concrete - something that can be done in one sitting. Now, the task reads, "HB B-day Party - talk to hubby about budget and size". The other sub tasks are entered in the notes field of the task. When the first sub task is completed, I move it to the end of the notes field beneath the word "Done", and I put the next subtask into the task title. You don't get overwhelmed with the whole project; all you see is the next actionable task.

You are a hundred times more likely to do something if you can identify a short, immediately actionable next step toward the final goal. This allows you to get past the "paralyzed" state and into a state of action.

Order and Schedule Tasks
One of the hardest parts of managing a task list is how to order the items on your list. The underlying problem is that certain tasks are time sensitive -- they have to get done by a certain date -- while others are really important, but have no due date. The question is how to balance those time-critical tasks which vie for your immediate attention, yet still make sure that the important things eventually get done.

The most important thing for me is to keep my task list to one page. That way, I can look at everything in one place and make the right decision on a day-to-day basis. On Toodledo with my laptop screen, that means no more than ~75 tasks. When my task list grows beyond this, I know that it is unmanageable. If I don't do something about it, I will end up overwhelmed and paralyzed by my responsibilities. (See below on how I manage to keep a short list.)

For tasks that need to get done by a certain date, you have to schedule them. For simple tasks that are due on a certain date, I schedule them for the day before they are due. If they are more complicated, I think about how much time I need to get them done, and schedule them for that many days in advance. That doesn't mean that you can't work on it earlier than that. In a well-managed task list, you can always look ahead and work on upcoming stuff when you have time. However, if the task remains undone on its scheduled due date, you know you had better get cracking on it, or you will miss the deadline.

For whimsical things that you want to do, but aren't important or time-critical, GTD recommends a someday/maybe folder. It's a side-list that you look at when you have time. You could use a Toodledo "folder" for this. I prefer to use a specific far-off-date, so that these items always remain at the end of my list. Right now, I'm using 1/1/2020 because it's easy to type. In a moleskine, I like to keep my someday/maybe list at the back of the book, and my normal list at the front of the book.

Tasks that are important, but don't have a specific due date are the most difficult ones to manage. Finding a process that allows you to make progress on these kinds of tasks is they key to having a fulfilling life. If spend all your time on less important, yet time-critical things, then your life is out of balance.

For these items, I think about the next time that I will have time to work on them. I schedule them for that date. It is critical that you have already thought about the next actionable subtask. Otherwise, you are likely to see the task, and pass it up because there are more pressing things to be done. Make it as easy as possible to see this action, latch onto it, and do it.

If you find yourself constantly passing up this task, consider why. Is it really not that important to you? If so, then put it on your someday/maybe list or get it off your list altogether. Is there something about the next action that is difficult or uncomfortable? Either address that issue head on, or find some other way to accomplish the task. Is there something else that needs to be done before the subtask is do-able? Then make that the next action. Is the next action too big and overwhelming? Then break it up into yet smaller tasks. Really ask yourself, "what am I waiting for; what is stopping me from doing this right now"? Getting to the bottom of these "roadblocks" is the key to moving on and getting these important tasks done.

Process Your List Daily
A task list is useless if you never look at it. You need to make the habit of regularly looking at and processing your list.

When forming habits, Leo at Zen Habits suggests having a trigger - the thing that will always precede your new habit. What is going to remind you to look at your task list? As soon as the baby goes down for his first nap? At the end of the day once the kids have gone to bed?

When I sit down with my list each day I like to:
* check off things I already completed
* enter any items from my holding bin or side-list
* examine all the things that are past due. Ask myself the critical questions about what the roadblock is. Fix the roadblock and schedule them for another day.
* do anything that can be done quickly right now
* make a plan for today (or the next day if you look at your list in the evening). If your list fits onto one page, it should be relatively easy to see what the most important things are.

Keep a Short List
It is very important for me to keep my task list to a single page. On Toodledo with my laptop screen, that means no more than ~75 tasks.

There are a few tricks I use to keep my list short.
* Get rid of tasks. It's surprisingly easy to get all your stuff done if your list of stuff is small. You would be amazed at how many things on your task list don't need to be done. Ask yourself, "What would really happen if I didn't do this."
* Get unimportant things off your list and onto the someday/maybe list.
* Collect smaller related tasks into one larger task. "Things to buy" is a good example. You can do all your online research and purchases in one sitting when you have time. Or you can consult this one list on your next trip to the mall. The "next action" should be the next thing that you need to buy by a certain date. For example, see my post on keeping track of baby gear weight/height limits. Kids fun activities is another. Rather than 10 separate tasks to research and plan 10 different activities, have one task and select the next activity that you want to do. Work on that one until it is done, and then start the next.

The idea is to allow yourself to look at a small, simple list and prioritize effectively. Hide groups of tasks under one task with an actionable next step. Use the notes field to record the details.

If you have a long list of tasks, yet never have time to sit down to process them and do them, then your life is just too busy. You will forever be running around managing crisis after crisis - reacting to situations - rather than acting out of purpose and intention. Getting control of your life requires the time and energy to take stock and work on the important things, not just the crises and emergencies. Simplifying your life will allow you the breathing room to work on the things that *actually* matter to you.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Outliers - How to Make Your Kids Successful

Now that I'm a parent, I can't read anything without thinking about how it applies to parenting -- even books which ostensibly have nothing to do with parenting. Sometimes I wish I could just sit down and enjoy a great piece of non-fiction on its merits rather than pondering how I might translate that into a learning opportunity. Thankfully, this one is less of a stretch than the last.

Malcolm Gladwell, has written another amazing book: Outliers: The Story of Success. As with his previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, he totally changes the way we think about the world using vignettes so illustrative and compelling that you never realize that you are reading a scholarly work.

Gladwell studies uber-successful people, finds the commonalities, and then writes a recipe for success that goes something like this:

1) have some natural talent
2) work hard and be prepared
3) be very lucky

Some examples are professional hockey players, Bill Gates, and the most successful lawyers in New York City.

In the "work hard and be prepared" category, Gladwell purports that 10,000 hours is the magic number. You need to acquire 10,000 hours of experience in your field prior to your "big lucky break". Having that 10,000 hours under you belt makes you an expert. If you have it and other don't - at just the time in history when it's required - then you will be catapulted to success. Witness Bill Gates, who had access to a computer in 8th grade at a time when such access wasn't available on most college campuses. Thus, he was able to acquire his 10,000 hours early on in life, and was one of the few people poised to jump on the computer programming opportunities of the early 80's. Steve Jobs was another.

So, what does this all mean for parenting? Gladwell gives only a few hints, so here's my take. 10,000 hours is a lot! It's the kind of time commitment that you can't force on someone who doesn't want to do it (i.e. your kids). It's too many hours to "work" at something. You have to really love what you are doing so much that it becomes "play". Then, you will be compelled to spend more time at it. It's also the kind of time commitment many people will never achieve on any topic because they give up a lot earlier than that. Thus, tenacity is an important characteristic.

So, foster tenacity in your children. Encourage them to stick with things. Don't bail them out too early by giving them hints or the answers outright. Let them struggle with things, and praise them for sticking with it. This is something I could do a lot better.

When talking about successful people, point out all the long hours and hard work that went into getting there. I remember idolizing Mary Lou Retton in the '84 Olympics. My mom noticed my admiration and pointed out to me that Mary Lou Retton practiced gymnastics for several hours day in and day out for years. This idea really stuck with me -- that working hard was an important component of success.

Fostering a long attention span is also important. You can't get to 10,000 hours in 2 minute chunks. Encourage your kids to work on projects and problems that can't be solved in one sitting. You can help by dedicating some space in your home for long term projects.

Give them a love of learning. If they are frustrated over school work, make a game out of it. Have some laughs. Do something silly. Giggling over homework will surely increase the amount of time they are willing to put in.

Show them by example. Let them see you having fun at learning something. Take on something deliberately difficult to show them that you are not afraid to work hard. Talk to them about how hard work is the only way to really learn something completely.

Of course, don't forget the luck component. Not all of this is under your control. But, the skills you are building - tenacity, a strong work ethic, and a love of learning - will serve your kids well even if they aren't the next Bill Gates.

Related Articles:
Other Organized Mommy book reviews
A beautiful review of Outliers (Scribbit)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Organized Mommy's Guide to Getting Things Done

Are important things in your life always slipping through the cracks? Are you always doing things half-baked at the last minute because you didn't have time to properly prepare for them? Do you feel like you are running around managing crisis after crisis - reacting to situations - rather than acting out of purpose and intention? That sounds really stressful!

There are lots of self-help books out there that purport to tell you how to magically gain control of your life. Systems of productivity that promise to make you into a lean-mean-task-doing machine. The problem with many of these systems is that they are not aimed at moms. So it's often difficult to see how to apply these systems, often geared toward corporate workers, to your everyday life.

I've mentioned before that I'm a long time fan of Getting Things Done -- David Allen's system for personal productivity (otherwise known as GTD). I started using this system in 1999, and I would not want to live without it. I find that with a few different tweaks, it works equally well for my fast-paced corporate life as well as my (hopefully) more relaxed family and personal life.

Some things I love about GTD:
* Organize everything from mundane tasks to large sweeping projects within one place.
* Be able to make a plan for today and know that the most important things are getting done.
* Make constant, steady progress on large projects that seem daunting and un-doable.
* Put whimsical someday/maybe tasks on my list and not have them clutter my daily flow, yet actually have a chance of doing them someday.
* Think of something I need to do 1 year from today, and know that it will get done.
* Manage my email inbox so that it rarely grows beyond 1 screen.
* Manage my and my family's calendar so that my husband and I don't both schedule late work meetings so that there is no one to pick up the kids at daycare.

In a series of upcoming posts, I will describe my approach to GTD, and specifically how I apply it to my personal life as a mom. I will also describe how I use free online tools to implement each portion of the GTD method (like Gmail, Gcal, and Toodledo). These are tools that are available to everyone, even those of us who don't have a corporate IT department and MS Outlook.

This is the how-to manual for becoming an Organized Mommy yourself! Are you ready? Great!

But first, some background reading:

I highly recommend that you read the book. But, assuming you don't have the time, then you can read the very good summary of GTD on Wikipedia.

I really like Zen Habits' take on GTD. Here are some articles to get you started:
Zen To Done
A Beginner's Guide to GTD

Finally, you can jump over to Merlin Mann's blog 43folders, which has a great intro article on GTD, but be warned, it's mostly written for tech geeks. (See what I mean about being difficult to apply for moms?)

Here are the topics I will be writing about in the coming weeks:

* GTD your task list (Toodledo)
* GTD your inbox (Gmail)
* GTD your family calendar (Gcal)
* GTD your online blog and news reading (Newsgator or GoogleReader)
* Going mobile. Doing all of this on your mobile phone.
* Using recurring tasks to accomplish vague or long term personal goals
* Simplify your filing system

I don't think there is a magic bullet out there for becoming organized (sorry!). But, the GTD system is the best thing I've found in this arena. I think the system is flexible enough to be customized to suit individual needs, yet it is structured enough to actually work. Most importantly, I know that if I just follow the system, nothing will slip through the cracks. That, to me, is incredibly stress-relieving!

I hope that by showing you how I use GTD, I can make it more real and accessible to you. I would really love to help you on your way to being more organized and less stressed about your life. To live from a place of purpose and intention rather than stress and reaction.

What are your biggest personal organization challenges? Tasks, email, calendar, or something else? What have you tried, and what did or didn't work for you? Have you found a system that works? Please share in the comments!

If you want to get instant updates of the articles in this series, feel free to subscribe below. (It's free!)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Applied Labels on Facebook

Applied Labels is having a promotional offer on Facebook through March 31. Get 10% off and double labels.

We love Applied Labels! I've written about these indestructible washer/dryer/dishwasher-safe labels before. Great for labeling all your kids' stuff. Especially if you take them to daycare.

Labeling Your Kids (and their stuff)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ask Josie - Establishing a Sleep Routine?

Welcome to my new series where I answer reader questions...

Q: We are trying to establish a sleep routine for our 5 month old daughter. I'm sorry to say that she had not been on a routine prior to this. The consequence was erratic feeding and sleeping, very short naps, very short wakeful periods, constant night-waking -- and a very fussy little one.

We have read all the books you can imagine (Weissbluth, Ferber, Hogg, etc.) and after much trial and error, we're currently using Tracy Hogg's, The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems, plan to put her on a 4-hour EASY routine. (Pages 36-49 for a baby who has never been on a routine before.)

Hogg is clear that you need to hold your baby pretty strictly to clock times during the retraining period. She doesn't explicitly state this, but she seems to imply that it can take as much as a couple of weeks for a baby's internal clock to get used to the routine. Does this sound right to you?

On day 5 of holding her to this routine, I am having some concerns.

1) It is usually quite hard to keep her awake between naps. Sometimes she'll be giving tired cues as much as an hour before her next scheduled naps.

(2) There is no mention of what to do if she takes a good 1.5 hour nap (rather than the prescribed 2 hours). Say she naps from 9:00-10:30. Well, her next scheduled nap isn't until 1:00, which means she has 2.5 hours (rather than 2 hours) of wakefulness to get through. Does that seem right? Should she be able to handle that at her age once her body adjusts to the routine?

We have had some success in the past couple of days using Hogg's "pick up/put down" method to try to get her to sleep longer. Of course, when this fails, then she has to be awake for epic lengths of time on a tiny amount of sleep to get to the next nap.

Yesterday was a bad day for naps, but we're sticking to our guns and hoping she'll adjust. Any words of wisdom you have would be greatly appreciated. We so hope we are doing the right thing. It is just crushing to see her so tired all the time...

A: First off, congratulations on trying to get your baby on a routine! Getting this predictable routine in place now will pay off immensely later on.

I know it's really tough to establish a routine for the first time. I think the key is not to thrash around. Read up, decide on a course of action, and stick with it consistently for 1-2 weeks. If it isn't working by then, that's a clue that this is not the right routine for your baby, and you should try something else. The key is to not get impatient after 3 days and switch to something else. It sounds like you are being very patient. That's great!

5 months is a tough age because that is right around the transition form the 3 hour to 4 hour schedule. Some babies are ready earlier than others.

It sounds to me like the 4 hour routine might be too long for her. If she is consistently tired earlier, then that might be a clue that she needs a shorter cycle. You could try moving back to a 3.5 hour routine and see if that works better for her.

Once she is on a consistent routine - any routine - then it will be easier to slide her into the 4 hour routine later.

Sometimes, babies who sleep through the night very early on, need to eat more frequently during the day in order to get in all their calories. So, they can sometimes stick with a 3 hour schedule longer than babies who wake up at night to feed.

As far as tying to get her to sleep longer naps. This is tough. When my babies slept for at least an hour and then woke up, I found that it was difficult to get them to go back to sleep. If they slept for less than an hour, they were not fully rested, and I could usually get them to sleep longer by going in and soothing.

I have had limited success with the pick-up-put-down method. It worked a few times for HB, but didn't work at all for AB. I found that with AB, it worked better to soothe him in his crib, but not to pick him up. Pick-up-put-down seemed to make him even more angry, and so it was not conducive to getting him to go to sleep!

I hope this information helps!

Readers, what do you think? How long do you stick with a new routine before deciding it isn't working?

If you have questions you would like to ask, please email me: josie (at)

Related posts:
Essential Organized Mommy - Posts for New Moms
Baby Sleep Routines for 0-1yr

Monday, March 09, 2009

Have an Extra Set of Gear to Save Yourself Time and Hassle

Photo by Tom@HK

I'm a long time fan of Getting Things Done -- David Allen's system for productivity (otherwise known as GTD). While the advice typically applies to work life (tasks, email, etc), I always try to apply the same concepts to mommy tasks too.

One of the big tenets of GTD is to "handle things once". This goes for email, snail mail, paperwork, etc. If you spend at lot of time shuffling stuff around, you end up spending more time handling the paperwork or email than had you just dealt with it right away.

In dealing with kids gear - sports gear and school gear in particular - I find that I end up dealing with the gear multiple times. The gear comes in the house, sits in the entry way for several days, finds its way to the laundry room, gets washed, put away, and then back into the bag the next time its needed. Often, we were hunting around for all the pieces of gear at the last minute when we were tying to run off to school or swim class.

Here's how I apply the GTD "handle things once" policy to my kids' gear.

1) Have 1 bag for each set of gear. The blanket and sheet HB needs for naptime at daycare has its own bag. Her swim gear has one bag. My husband and I each have a gym bag. Etc.

2) Have 1 extra set of gear. This is *key* to being able to implement the "handle it once" policy! I keep all the extra gear in the laundry room. I have a hanging canvas organizer where one cubby is used for one sport or activity.

3) When the bag comes in the house, it is immediately brought into the laundry room, the old dirty gear is put in the hamper, and the extra set of gear is loaded into the bag. Then the bag gets stored in the front-hall closet until it is needed the next time.

4) The gear is laundered normally with the household laundry and goes straight back into the cubbies when it is clean.

That's it. Each bag is handled once, and it is all ready to go for the next time. No hunting around for errant things at the last minute. And there is always a clean set of gear waiting in the cubby.

The absolute key to this process is to have a *complete* extra set of gear, and everything you need to re-stock the bag stored in the cubby. So, for instance, for swimming, HB has two bathing suits and two towels. I also keep the swim diapers in the same cubby. So, her bag can be fully loaded all at once. Actually, my husband does swim class with her. So, I need two bathing suits for him too (stored in the same cubby). You don't need an extra set of items that don't need to be laundered. So, for instance, you only need one set of gym shoes, and my daughter only needs one swim cap. They stay in the bag all the time.

You need to have one week's supply *plus one more set*. (Assuming you do laundry once a week). So, soccer twice a week would mean three sets of soccer clothes.

With her daycare bag, she needs a sheet and blanket for nap time. She brings a clean one in on Mondays and brings the dirty ones home on Fridays. So, we have two sets. On Friday, the bag comes home, gets re-stocked, and stored in the front-hall closet where it is ready to go for Monday morning. The sheet and blanket get washed along with the normal laundry cycle. No more running special loads Sunday night when I realized I had not washed her sheet and blanket from last week.

My husband and I also keep our gym clothes and gym towels in the cubbies. We use the same process for restocking them.

I think the extra expense in buying an extra set of gear is well worth the time you save, avoiding the hassle of forgetting to pack important pieces of gear, and the expense of running special laundry loads because you needed something cleaned at the last minute.

Another added bonus is that we now rarely have bags of dirty gear piling up in the entry way (that we always used to trip over on our way in and out).

What gear are you always hunting around for at the last minute? How can you apply the "handle things once" policy in your household?

Friday, March 06, 2009

March Super Food Challenge - Nuts

Photo by Er.We

Welcome to the third month of the Organized Mommy Super Food Challenge. I hope you are following along with me as we gradually incorporate new healthy foods into our regular diet!

The March super food is nuts.
If you want to dramatically decrease your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, control your weight with no hunger pangs and reduce the visible signs of aging like wrinkles and sagging skin, I recommend that you "go nuts." - Dr. Perricone's 10 Superfoods
I'm going to work nuts into my diet by taking an Altoid tin full of almonds and walnuts to work every day. Actually, I will take 5 Altoid tins full of nuts on Monday, so that I don't have to remember each day. I will eat it around 3pm as my afternoon snack.

I usually get hungry in the afternoon at work, and am always tempted by the not-so-healthy options in the vending machine. The vending machine is free, so there is very little standing between me and a bag of chips. Having a healthy, filling snack ready to go will be a good substitute for this bad habit.

How will you make Nuts part of your regular diet? Please share in the comments!

I will follow up at the end of the month to let you know how I did.