Several months ago, I hit a wall. I realized that I had more projects planned than I could handle on my own. With good intentions, I had placed tasks throughout my Google Calendar for all of the projects, plus my timely work-related tasks, plus personal tasks, as well any meetings or appointments or reminders I needed. I had notes and lists and files full of information to get everything I thought I needed to get done, done. Needless to say, I found myself overwhelmed and unproductive.
I know that I’m not the only person who does it — puts dozens of meaningful-seeming tasks on your calendar, only to move them along since they don’t take priority, only to realize that nothing got done toward your idea or project. I also know that I’m not the only one who feels like they are spinning their wheels day after day because they have a ton of ideas of things to do and no time to do them.
How did I remedy this issue?One night, while I was desperately trying to get some sleep, a stream of thoughts came to me. It started with acknowledging that my lack of productive work has been a serious problem in my work life. Then it made me think about the last time I felt truly productive.
I thought about how, when we are young and learning to communicate, we create bright, colorful, simple notes and lists. We hang them up for everyone to see. When we get a little older, we use notes to exert our wants and needs — signs like “Stay Out!” or “3 days until Disney!” Our notes still excite us and were reminders for things that mattered.
In our teen years, our notes turn more clandestine. They stay hidden and are passed in secret, and are less about things that make us happy or excite us, and more about our private thoughts and feelings.
The older we get, the more utilitarian our notes get. In school, we take notes to remember things that we will be tested on later. In business, we take notes for certain files. These notes only emerge as a touch-point to move us from A to B. They’re not flashy. They’re not colorful. They’re not fun or visual or something we put up to keep front of mind.
And this is where we, as adults, have it wrong. Notes should not be ideas and thoughts that are buried in Word documents and accordion files. They should be visual reminders of our goals. They should be in front of us as movable tasks that we can shift — ideas that can be pulled up when time allows to help us move forward.
After a couple hours of these thoughts, I wrote them down. The next day, I wrote everything that seemed important on my calendar onto a post-it note. I dug into my Evernote files and wrote down long forgotten ideas. I sorted through my physical files and pulled out any tasks that were bumped from my to-do list. And then I cleared my calendar of everything movable. I called it my Clean Slate Project.
What did this do for me and my productivity?The last time I felt truly productive in my work life was nearly a decade ago. I had been consulting startups for a few years and had an opportunity to become more involved in one. I understood how many hats employees of a startup had to wear, but I never expected to be tackling the tasks of four different positions at one time. I remember feeling overwhelmed and wondering how I could shift from Purchasing to Marketing to Design to Project Management and still get enough work done.
The way I handled the various tasks of each position became clear to me — I had to make it visual and it had to be color-coordinated. I didn’t have space or the budget to have a white board for each position, so I had to make do with what I had: post it notes. I assigned each position a color and used coordinating post it colors for each. Every time I had a task arise, I added it to the post it for that position. I designated an area on my desk to my post it storage. Each morning, I would organize the post its in order of importance, pulling one as a single focus. If I had time, I’d pull the next. If I didn’t, then each night, I’d color-coordinate my post its and leave for the day.
This did more for me than I realized. It allowed me to delegate my workload for the day depending on what was important. It allowed me to keep important tasks and duties in front of my face instead of tucked in a binder on a shelf. It allowed me to use my available down time to work on creative projects and ideas because I had to plan at my fingertips. Despite the extreme differences in my titles, I felt balanced about the work I did. When I went home at night, I felt relaxed knowing that I had my plan for the next day. When I came in to work in the morning, I felt motivated to clear through the post it notes.
Fast-forward back to present day — I decided to use that method again. Now that I own two of my own businesses, run various workshops and trainings, and have several side-projects, I needed that same sort of visual reminder of what I needed to do. I needed the flexibility to move tasks based on importance. I also wanted things to be in front of my face so that I didn’t forget about them.
By taking everything off of my calendar and putting them on post its, I was able to more than double my productivity in just a couple weeks. Every day, I can see exactly what I want to get done. By pulling a single post it and putting it next to my keyboard, I can focus on just one thing at a time. Then, when I have time between clients, I can pull another task and work on it. If I don’t finish it, I can put the note back with the others to pick back up when time allows. And even better, when I complete a task, I can physically tear up or throw away my reminder so that I can move on.
This method is not for everyone, but having bright, colorful, visual reminders works great for me and my multitasking career. The psychological benefits from having creative tasks and ideas side by side with my day-to-day duties helps me to feel excited about my workload, rather than feel dragged down by having to stick to a time table on my calendar. Plus, when you get to actually purge a completed task, it somehow feels like more of a relief.
What one method have you found that keeps you on task?