A boss of mine once called me a “ruthless prioritiser”. Despite the disconcerting idea of being a to-do list psychopath murdering tasks on my relentless path to workplace efficiency, I suppose she had a point. I have always been obsessed with getting things done. I am a natural completer-finisher: I get more pleasure from finishing an expensive bottle of bubble bath than I do from starting a new one.
Don’t do too much
For me the secret of getting things done is not doing too much. Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney wrote a brief history of the to-do list in their book Willpower. They quote an unnamed female General in the US Army whose approach was “First I make a list of priorities one, two, three and so on. Then I cross out everything from three on down.” To help me focus on my priorities I organise my task list on post notes. Every day I pull off a fresh yellow square of opportunity, jot down the few priorities for the day, and work my way through them. Here is yesterday’s work list:
When I can’t fit everything on the three inch square I know it’s time to write a long list, which I do every month or two. I write, sometimes type, a list of everything I need to complete. Then I file it away. It won’t help me prioritise. This process is more about getting the list out of my head where it distracts my attention and causes me to worry about the million things I need to do.
Do what matters most
The Important-Urgent Matrix is a way of prioritising work tasks. By allocating tasks to the different sections of the matrix it becomes clear which are the priority, it also offers tactics for approaching and scheduling the less important and less urgent tasks.
But writing a novel or a poem would rarely fall into the important-urgent corner. It might be important to you, but where does it fit alongside all the other things calling for your time and attention?
Writers have developed lots of tactics for making their work both important and urgent, for example by being part of a writing group with regular deadlines, or sending work off to competitions or for submission deadlines. Professional writers have agents and editors chasing them. I remember Christopher Wakling saying he writes otherwise his children starve – you can’t get more urgent than that!
But don’t worry about justifying why writing is important to you, or adding it to a list, accept it is and get on with it.
Do it first
A third of writers write first thing in the morning and I find this approach works best for me. It means I have to get up earlier than I’d like, but by 8 o’clock when the dog is begging me for food, I’ve already achieved something. And I’ve achieved the thing that matters most to me.
Writing is not a task that sits on a to-do list. It might not be the most urgent or the most important thing you have to do. But if it is important to you, you need to prioritise it. Don’t feel you have to justify it to yourself or others, instead just write.
Now, please excuse me while I attend to the important task of giving the dog her breakfast.