Listmaking: A Path to the Clearing

3186629203_bfcf404f50_mRemember this? It’s a photo I used in last Tuesday’s post, when I wrote about my decision to take responsibility for my over-crowded schedule. I would use my four-week semester break and figure out a way to tackle my to-do list. I chose clearing as my winter keyword–I was beginning to gain a sense of calm as I mapped out a plan for these four weeks.

I even declared a 30-day moratorium on saying yes to any new responsibilities in an effort to get a handle on my schedule. I am ready to embrace a more intentional mode of living, but I am finally getting to know myself as I really am. If there is space in my calendar–or even the illusion of space on my calendar, I’ll get sucked in by every interesting idea that comes along. So the moratorium, along with my winter keyword of clearing is providing just the right focus for my process. I envision three steps that will lead me to the clearing.

  1. Make a list of all the tasks that I need to complete.
  2. Use the available containers of time to assign tasks appropriately.
  3. Follow the schedule.

Making the List

The Master List

The Master List

I won’t lie to you. Making a list that includes all the projects and tasks I have committed myself to is a rather immense task all on its own. Luckily, I had a head start. Over the last few weeks, I’d been working on breaking down big tasks and writing them in my calendar to do on a particular day, even if not at a particular time of that day. So to make the master list, I just gathered up all the calendar pages, along with my notebooks where I’d periodically make running lists to help clear my head of all the stuff swimming around. When I got done, I had the Master List shown here..

It still seemed overwhelming, and it’s not even complete. Many of the projects on that page haven’t been broken down into manageable steps yet. So there was still lots of work to do, but at least I felt as if the enormity of the project was “contained” on that sheet of paper. I could use it to move to the next step, Or so I thought.

Assigning Time Slots

My recent Weekly Calendar pages

My recent Weekly Calendar pages

My approach to time is to arrange tasks and activities into blocks of time (containers). The main point of this approach is to avoid stuffing the container too full. Unfortunately, I seem to have this idea that as long as there is even a tiny pocket of space on the paper, something else can fit there. Somehow, my brain hasn’t mastered the concept that open space on the paper is not the same as available time in the day. The amount of space on the page cannot accurately represent the amount of time in the day. Unless I actually arrange the space on the page in pre-measured time increments. Which leads me to a related problem.

A related problem–as you can see, is that while I pack a mean suitcase, my packing of time slots is not as efficient. I don’t think about time in a linear way. I mean, I get that there are just so many hours in a day. And I really do get that each task takes a certain amount of time, which often can be estimated with some degree of accuracy.

Discoveries on the Path

At this point, in the process, I had two realizations.

First, I need to figure out a better way to “package” time, so that I don’t have so much free-floating time on my planning sheets. I need smaller containers with which to plan. (This concept relates to the fact that I’m better with small suitcases than large ones–the illusion that the larger space is significantly larger in my mind than it is in the physical world.

Second, it is abundantly clear that I have to be realistic about what can be accomplished in this four-week break. I didn’t get to this point overnight, and I’m certainly not going to dig out of it on some kind of magical time schedule. I need to prioritize the projects and tasks to determine where to focus my time and energy. I also need to remember that this IS supposed to be a break and to allow some time for some R&R. I will focus on during the break, and which will have to be scheduled in at a later time. And of course, those scheduled later will be handled at a slower pace, because the semester will be back in full swing.

Following the Schedule

This is where things really fell apart. Actually, this step was destined for disaster from the get go. The tasks that hadn’t been broken down tended to stay on the list undone. Then they got moved to another list, where they still remained undone. Don’t get me wrong, things were getting done, but I was spending too much time moving things from one list to another, time that could be used more productively. For one, tasks needed to be more clearly delineated. For another, I had fallen prey to the mistaken belief that if I worked hard on this plan thing, it would work. I had conveniently forgotten that many things are beyond my control.

Last week, some major challenges threatened to upset my (mostly) well-designed plan. Not one glitch, not two, but several of them came at me in rapid succession. While the clearing keyword makes sense, I found that it was too delicately balanced on the mountain of tasks. I had taken a few deep breaths and began to believe that i had a plan, but it didn’t take much time with the reality of those glitches to throw me into a state of near inertia. Projects that I thought I had handled suddenly became more complex, with problems buried in each step. Something had to give.

Adjusting the Plan

Lovely Beans, a coffee shop just around the corner from our apartment

Lovely Beans, a llocal coffee shop

On Thursday, I was still struggling to find some momentum. I needed a change of scenery to regroup. I needed to make some adjustments to the plan. The local coffee shop seemed to be the perfect solution. I grabbed a secret weapon that has proved useful in the past–index cards!

The time at Lovely Beans didn’t solve all my problems, but it allowed me to see things from a different perspective. I am now experimenting with a way of using the index cards to help me prioritize the tasks and build a more realistic path to that clearing. More details will follow.

In the meantime, we are headed to a wedding this week. It’s not THAT far away, but we decided to include an overnight as part of it and have a little R&R. Next week, I’ll post the dates of my upcoming do-it-myself quilting retreat.

The Joy of Index Cards

Ελληνικά: Δελτία για αποδελτίωση και δελτιοθήκη

Ελληνικά: Δελτία για αποδελτίωση και δελτιοθήκη (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Index cards are a special kind of container. There are a limited number of sizes, but an unlimited number of ways to use them. Besides, I just have a thing for index cards. I can’t go into an office supply store without checking out the index cards and attending paraphernalia. I like them lined and unlined; white, pastel, bold, and florescent. I like 4 x 6 and 5 x 7, but I will always have a special affection for the 3 x 5 size. Then there are file boxes in colors and patterns, as well as open containers for filing the little treasures.

As I move into a series of posts about the organization of time, space, and activities, I will be sharing some of the ways I use index cards. But for today, I thought I’d share just a few of the many excuses I have for stocking up on these little gems. And you won’t be surprised when I mention index cards as I go through my organizing and containerizing stories. For example, I use them for:

Hipster PDA. Photo by John Arundel, September ...

Hipster PDA. Photo by John Arundel, September 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Note-taking. All purpose note cards for any purpose that comes up throughout the day. I try to always carry a few index cards in my purse or my bag for whenever I need to take notes or give information to others.

2. Daily to-do lists. Using an index card for the list keeps it more manageable (hence my preference for 3 x 5’s).

3. Weekly to-do lists. This challenges me to really focus on what’s important for the week within the space limitation of the card. It contains my activity somewhat. Keeps me from getting too carried away. In theory, anyway.

4. Menu planning. There was a period of time when I used index cards to plan a week’s menu. Each week I created a plan for that week. And after several weeks, I was able to start recycling a card here and there, until I eventually had quite a repertoire to choose from. Saved a lot of headache when thinking about what should we have for dinner. Saved and recycled the shopping lists as well.

5. Shopping lists. The cards work well for companion lists for the meal plans. Also good for other shopping lists. Or errands in general.

6. Project ideas. I like to keep track of ideas for creative projects on cards. One idea to a card allows me to add notes about the project to the card. After the ideas outgrow the index card, the project can be moved to its own file or incubation box. This provides not only incubation time, but provides a source of ideas when I’m not quite sure what I want to do next. It’s fun just to go through the ideas.

7. Research topics. Similar to project ideas, I can keep track of the different ideas I have for research, recording notes about ideas for exploring each one.

8. Organizing Book Chapters. In my current project, there are lots of ideas that have to be determined in terms of layout and which activities are going to be included. By putting the ideas for each section on index cards, I can shuffle things around and consider the most effective arrangement. (Works for organizing notes for research papers as well.)

9. Lesson plans. I like to plan out my syllabus on index cards, one week per card. Topics, assignments, group activities. Then they can be arranged by week, shuffled around, adding notes and details as I go. On the backs of the cards, I can write notes about what worked, what adjustments can be made.

10. Concise journaling. A quick and easy way to keep at least minimal notes about the thoughts and events of the day. Not as a replacement for other journaling practice, but as a helpful way to keep things going when time is short, or when all I have is the stash of note cards.

Watch for more index card fun in the weeks ahead.