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Distinguishing the Essential from the Ersatz

An Organization Process to Lighten Your Load

Check Mark_iStock_000009807801XSmallI am enjoying my new grandson. At four weeks old he has very few needs, and they are all equally essential. But with every week that goes by he will add new needs, and before you know it, prioritization will be in order.

The interesting thing about prioritization is that it must be a conscious act. 

Oh sure, if you’re in the middle of the road about to get hit by a car, your brain (or, more accurately, your autonomic response system) will tell you the most important thing in the world is to get out of the way.

But beyond genuine fight-or-flight situations, your mind pretty much treats buying next year’s Secret Santa gift and completing a promotion-worthy proposal the same way. If either of those ideas happens to pop into your head, they both take up the identical amounts of space. Do you happen to be a worrier? The subconscious mind also has a difficult time distinguishing between the real and the imaginary – which is why your worries feel so real.

In fact, your mind obsesses over every detail it perceives as not-managed. Important meeting with your boss? Check. Pick up milk on the way home? Check. Call an important client? Check. Look for your favorite blue socks? Check. The more details you have in your life, the more crowded your head space becomes. And this is no word cloud, thoughtfully assembled with a puzzle-graphic of harmonious words fitted thoughtfully together. No, it’s all big words, each shouting to be heard over the others.

How do you quiet the noise and clear your headspace? The solution is laughably simple. Write. Everything. Down. If it needs to be done, and you can’t delegate it nor can you do it right away, write it down. Is it a meeting? Put it in your calendar. Is it a task? Put it in your task list. Is it an idea you want to remember for some day? Put it in your idea drawer or folder or box. Is it something you are worrying about or stressing over? Write it down in your task list along with three things you can do to get on the road to resolving it. Write it all down.

Why does this work? Because once you have consciously managed your random concerns and open tasks, your busy busy subconscious mind takes a big sigh of relief, grateful that you have taken conscious control of the situation. This means your subconscious mind can stop rummaging through all your unfinished business, frantically reminding you what needs to be done. Your subconscious mind can turn it’s attention to higher-value and more interesting work, like storing and indexing memories and running your nervous system. In return, you will feel calmer, with more clarity and creativity.

After years of experimentation with every possible version of tasks lists, I have distilled it to this: one spiral notebook. I have tried notebooks for every subject, notebooks for every topic, color-coded notebooks. But ultimately, what works best is one notebook for everything: work, family, personal development, grocery store lists, board and volunteer responsibilities. Spiral, because you want your list to hold together. Only one, because you shouldn’t have to create a management system for your management system.

Don’t make it complicated. Write each distinct task and put an open box at the front of each line. When you have completed each task, put a check mark or an X in the box. A quick visual scan will tell you what still needs to be done.

Can you use an app or computer task list instead? Sure. Just choose one without unnecessary complexity; something you know you will use every single time a random to – do cycles through your brain.

Our world has changed faster than our biology has evolved, leaving us swimming in a sea of demands and details that conspire to put us under.  This simple process (and the understanding behind it) will give your subconscious mind a much-needed break. Yourcreativity and clarity will thank you.

If you found this helpful, you may want to take Andrea Hill’s webinar “The Secrets to Organizing Yourself and Your Staff.” New sessions are scheduled regularly. Watch for all training sessions with Andrea Hill here.

Did you think I could resist showing you a picture of my new grandson? Here he is :) Gunnar11


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3 Responses to Distinguishing the Essential from the Ersatz

  1. Andrea,

    I have been working your system of writing down tasks with the little boxes and ticking or crossing them off when done for over a year and it is life changing. First of all I had to stop beating myself up for actually using a pen and paper to keep track and not doing it online, but the truth is I am a highly visual person and seeing things on a page, seeing the open boxes not completed gives you instant feedback on what is outstanding and what is to be done in the future. Love this system and highly recommend it to others.

  2. Nan says:

    I would love to try this, but I will wind up with pages of tasks and they would be in random order. How do you actually work with this without getting lost flipping through pages and trying to decide which things to work on at any given time?

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