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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Making lists


Such comfort one can take from striking items off a long list of to-dos. It gives you a keen sense of satisfaction, the feeling that you have been productive, that things have been accomplished, that you can get on with life having set it in some sort of order....

So on my refrigerator is a magnet-backed notepad and on my desk is a colorful post-it pad, and next to my telephone is a set of one-side used paper caught into a pad with a giant butterfly clip. And the assortment of pens to go along with these bits of stationery must be seen to be believed. Pencils ranging in length from an inch to 8, ballpoint pens in varying degrees of dryness, gel pens with their refills missing and caps thrown away, markers that don't mark, crayons waxed over with disuse, fountain pens that have stopped flowing many moons ago...so you get the picture!

But let's set the tools aside for a moment and focus on the lists themselves. Long lists and short lists, today's must-dos and weekly goals, and better still, year-long resolutions that hopefully will be forgotten and trashed by the time the next one comes along. What makes us make lists? What makes it easy for us to so easily strike some items off, count them as accomplished, and others as un-accomplishable?

My friend Sarika swears by her lists. And I take much comfort from them, being as I am so scatterbrained and likely to continuously re-prioritize and therefore forget. She starts each workday morning with a glance down her current list and then looks up at the whiteboard in our office to see what lists she has made for our graphics team. What's going to be finished today? And what has to be started? With determined swipes of her marker, she removes items deemed to be completed before adding others (unlike me, who keeps adding and sadly enough finds little to strike off). It's a good ten minutes before she deigns to look up at the rest of us and pronounce her verdict on the upcoming hours. Are we going to be caught in a tizzy of finishing up so she can strike things off the list? Or are we going to settle into a thinking mode as we begin some new tasks? The mood of the office often depends on Sarika's sense of how well she has progressed down her list!

So I then quietly sidle into my cabin, daunted by my inability to strike things off. But it puzzles me. I seem to be busy, working, handing over papers that have been handed to me, sending off emails in response to others sent to me (with attachments duly tracked and renamed). So why is it that my lists never grow any shorter? Or make that impressive array of red checks against the numbered items? Am I like the basketball player who runs all over the court, sweating and shouting, but never scores?

I'm pretty sure I am not that unproductive. Maybe I do run in different directions and am often out of breath without having gotten very far, but I must get some things done!

So I've come to the conclusion that it's not about making lists, really, but making realistic lists, lists that are full of things one can get done. My problem, I've discovered, is that my lists end up being more like wish lists. Large, long term projects that depend on at least two other people and a flow of information that is often interrupted before it rounds the first bend. Sarika, on the other hand, operates on the wisdom of the pragmatist. She puts down small, doable items that are important to achieve in the way to achieving larger goals. So each day, she can look forward to going home with a list made considerably shorter.

My lists are full of large goals, and I am overwhelmed the moment I look at the list each morning. Two weeks later, a month later, I find I have been busy doing things that are not on the list but the items on there have received no attention. They are too big even to begin thinking about. I seem to have not paid enough attention in the classes on goal setting and planning. Yes, I do know all about SMART goals but when it comes to organizing my day, I seem to forget that bit of the lecture. I can’t seem to draw back from the big picture to focus on the details, and it’s the details, I have learned from my friends, that make the list move.

Now I find that the Web is full of handy tips on list making, with several sites devoted to “the art” of making lists. Diaries and calendars offer spaces to create one’s hourly schedules and prioritize them. eHow.com, for instance, tells you how to do “just about anything” with sage advice to “spend a little time each day in planning”, while the “Ta Da List” (www.tadlist.com) claims to be simpler than writing on paper. And of course, rememberthemilk, iGoogle’s task manager, and umpteen others. There are tools for grocery lists and time-bound lists, with scheduled prompts built in.

I wonder, though, if these tools will accommodate the grand nature of my own day-to-day plans, each item designed to change the world of my workplace. What I need is a tool that will take these individual grand plans and break them down into small, baby steps that I can just maybe begin ticking off.

I already have a set of markers, in three different colours, to code that list. And a pad of nice yellow sticky notes that is waiting on my desk.

1 comment:

sarika said...

One of Saloni's childhood books was this cute story about Miss Mala, who lives by the clock. One day the clock slows down and the resultant confusion turns her whole world upside down!

I had a real laugh reading this Usha!I can picture myself as a cartoon character, busily flitting about, stirring up things....maybe NOT to the liking of everyone else who have already settled in to the morning comfort of Lotus Notes! Now every time I check the whiteboard I will remember your mayanotes!