Monday, November 22, 2004

Organizing the To-Do List

I don’t know who originally thought up the idea of the to-do list. I have no doubt, however, that as soon the first to-do list grew to more than about 5 items, the question arose, “How do I know which one to do right now?”
Every one of us certainly can generate a list of obligations that we have that far exceeds what can be accomplished by the end of the day. Having some way to organize a laundry list if tasks into a doable “game plan” is the challenge.

First, look at what you have written and see if any of you your to-dos are really goals which will take a number of steps to complete. If you find the later, decide what will be the first step towards completing that goal. You will find that when you look at your to-do list and see two items—a hard one and an easy one—you are probably going to choose the easy one. “Buy shoestrings” is going to win out over “Solve world hunger” every time because you know exactly how to go about buying shoestrings. Solving world hunger, like so many other goals we may have, is like a big, undefined blob. We really don’t know where to start. What types of undefined blobs do you see on your list? Can you define a first step on each one of those? That is the stuff of which your to-do list should be made!
Secondly, “batch” your to-dos. Find similar items and do a “batch” of them at one time. Here are some same categories:
  1. Calls—List all of the phone calls you need to make together on your list. That way, when you pick up a phone, you can crank through the whole list. You will spend less time on each class when you know you have 5 more to make right after it.
  2. Errands—Do you find yourself running halfway across town to pick up an item and then the very next day going to the store right next door to it to pick up something else? Decide what day is a good one for you to run errands. Maybe its after-school on Friday, or maybe Saturday morning. Pick a day and keep a running list of errands on the to-do list for that day. Then, run all of them at one time. Your time on the road will be greatly reduced!
  3. Home—List the things you can do at home together.
  4. Classroom—List together those things you need to get done in your classroom
  5. Building—Some things you can only do outside of school hours or during your planning time. Keep those items listed together, so that when that time arrives you can take action swiftly.
Finally, follow the advice of Stephen Covey when he says to “plan weekly” and “adjust daily.” Take some time on the weekend not to simply plan for Monday, but to spread out your to-dos for the whole week. Pick a day for your errands and group them all there. Choose a day for all of those not-so-urgent phone calls and knock them all out in one session. At the end of the day, spend a few minutes looking over the items on the to-do list that did not get done and re-write them on a future day. Look carefully at the right-hand page to see what to-dos you have inherited through phone calls and other interactions during the day.
Frank Buck
The master thinker knows that ideas are elusive and often quickly forgotten, so he traps them with notebook and pencil. He heeds the Chinese proverb: “The strongest mind is weaker than the palest ink.”
—Wilferd A. Peterson in Adventures in the Art of Living

Monday, October 25, 2004

An Easy System for Documentation

Habits take about a month to form. The habit of writing things down as soon as they arrive is the single biggest time management and organizational technique, as well as a great stress reliever. Going one step further is the question of WHERE to write it. For those familiar with the Day-Timer, I want to focus on the right-hand page, the page called “Diary and Work Record.” Franklin-Covey has a similar page.

This page is meant to take the place of the memo pad by the phone, the grocery list by the refrigerator, the back of an envelope you grab to jot a phone number, and the Post-It notes that decorate your desk. Here are some examples of what you might find on that right-hand page:
  1. You get a call from a friend inviting you to a party. While he tells you the particulars of the day, time, what to bring, and directions on how to get there, you jot it all in one place—today’s right-hand page. When the call is over, you can close the book and resume doing whatever it was you were doing, trusting that all of the information has been captured in your planner.
  2. You order some materials over the phone. The right-hand page is where you jot down the name of the person you spoke with, his/her extension, the order confirmation number, any discount you will receive, and other information you might need later.
  3. You normally go to the grocery store on Saturday afternoon, so Saturday’s right-hand page is the place to make the grocery list. Every time you think of something you need, flip to Saturday, jot it on the right-hand page, and close the book.
  4. You have a conference scheduled with a parent. Every time you think of something you want to discuss, open the book to the day of that conference and enter it on the right-hand page. You are building an agenda as you go. During the conference, take notes on the right-hand page.

A quick review of that right-hand page at the end of the day is vital in keeping the system alive. Look at what you have written throughout the day on today’s right-hand page and ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?” or “When will I need to see this again?”

The first example was an invitation to a party. When you look at those notes at the end of the day, that will be your cue to flip to the appropriate day in your planner and note the party on the appropriate time slot. You also see from your notes that there are a few items you are to bring. You flip to Saturday’s page and jot on the right-hand page a couple of items you need to buy at the grocery store.

On the day of the party, how are you going to remember what to bring? How are you going to remember how to get there? Here is the real magic of that right-hand page—being able to go right back to information exactly when you need it. Let’s say the conversation about the party happened on May 10. As you review your notes at the end of the day, you will not only turn in your planner to the day it is going to occur and write “Party” by the correct time slot, but you will also put out beside it this—(5/10). Anything in parentheses in your planner tells you, “Go to this date for more information.” When its time to get ready to leave for the party, that little note that says (5/10) tells you to look back in your planner to May 10. Now you are right back at the notes you took. You are looking at a list of what to bring and directions on how to get there!

We have talked about taking notes on the right-hand page when placing orders by phone. When the call is over, your documentation is over. At the end of the day, you look at your notes and ask yourself what would be a reasonable amount of time to allow for the order to arrive. You flip ahead in your planner and in the to-do section, you write “Acme (5/10)”. When that date arrives, that entry sends you back in your planner to May 10, the day you placed the order with the Acme company. When you call to check on the order, you have the phone number with extension, the name of the person you talked with, confirmation number, and all of the information you need at your fingertips.

We all know that documentation is important. It’s about time we had a system that was easy enough that we would actually do it!

Frank Buck

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Choosing a Signature Tool

We have all been to workshops where we heard some good ideas and had full intentions of implementing them. When we leave the workshop and step back into our lives where things are coming at us from all directions, so many of those good intentions go by the wayside.

The best minds in the area of professional development keep telling us that for things to "stick," there has to be follow-up and time to practice. That's the whole reason for establishing this blog. This is a place where we can review material from the workshop. It also gives me the opportunity to bring these ideas to people I would never meet face-to-face.

If I could isolate one idea as being the most important from the workshop, it would be that of having a "signature tool" that does your remembering for you. That tool could be a Day-Timer, a legal pad, a notepad in your pocket, or a handheld digital device. Any of them work provided: 1) you have your signature tool with you all the time; and 2) you have formed the habit of writing down that appointment, to-do or idea immediately.

The idea seems simple, yet so many people ignore it and try to simply hope they will remember it all. While we may have gotten by with this approach as late as our college days, it simply doesn’t work in our busy day-to-day lives. We wind up with sleepless nights wondering what we have forgotten, or waking up in the middle of the night remembering what we forgot to do.

Others write things down but do it on any scrap of paper at hand. With pockets full of Post-its and various slips of paper scattered everywhere, putting our hands on the telephone number of the salesman we spoke with last Tuesday is impossible.

What will that “signature tool” be for you? Make a decision on that. Make sure it is something that will hold your calendar items—that is, things that happen at a specific day and time. Make sure you have room for your to-do list. Also, you will need a place to write down ideas or notes from meetings and phone conversations.

Forming a habit takes about a month. So, for the next several weeks having that capture tool handy and using it will be something you will force yourself to do. After that, habit takes over, and you will begin to notice a good deal of the stress in your life will start to vanish.

Monday, August 30, 2004


For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in systems that people had that helped them get their "stuff" done--or what kept them from getting their stuff done. I have been in education for over 20 years, and am currently a school principal. During my career, I have managed to put together some a system and some strategies that I believe not only work for me, but can work for anyone who is interested in being more organized, experiencing less stress, and managing the limited amount of time available to us. Please visit often and enjoy.