How To Get Your Sh*t Together & Throw Away Your To Do List
I’m five Years into running my digital company and a couple of years before that playing at it, at home. I believed I had to spend every spare minute working on my business, not waste any time, and learn stuff every minute of the day. but I just didn’t know how to get things done.
That sounds like a sure recipe for burnout but honestly. when I wasn’t working I felt restless and uneasy. worrying that I’d forgotten something, or feeling ‘behind’ or like I should be doing something else..
When I had days off, they often were so racked with indecisiveness I would end up doing nothing, and feeling terrible about it.
I’m a bit ADHD
Last year i was diagnosed with ADHD and level 1 autism. I would describe the autism as the kind where you don’t really need any support, but i it can be like someone has stirred your brain with a wooden spoon.
I knew i had ADHD ten years ago when i was teaching. I struggled with so many of the every day mundane tasks. But i was great at all the creative stuff.
When i began working for myself abut seven years ago, I found it a lot easier because i had less to juggle.but as i got busier and had more clients to deal with, I began to struggle again.
I remember when I rented an office and started working out of the house and with others. I never got anything done in the office and I was obsessed with apps to try and help.
I think i tried every project management app there is. Basecamp 2, Asana, Write, DaPulse, float, making lists, Jira, Trelllo, Wunderlist, ToDoIst, Post it notes. And none of it ever stuck.
After coaching and lots of soul searching I’ve finally stumbled on a really simple method involving pen, paper and a calendar that works pretty damn well.
The idea behind the calendar method
That said, I have ADHD and honestly, it’s still a challenge and I need a backup, but for 2 weeks out of four this works great and that’s good enough for me.
The whole purpose of this is to free up your brain from mental clutter, worrying about what you need to get done and allow you to enjoy your downtime. That’s why we deal with downtime first.
In fact I want you to start getting used to scheduling that on your calendar before you even think about scheduling work. That’s right, add in your Netflix binges, your video gaming or whatever secret indulgences you have. Allow them.
It’s pretty common problem to feel like you don’t have enough time. or that you aren’t spending it wisely. Or even worse, you’re busy like its a competition. But if you have stuff niggling you in the back of your mind and there’s a goal you just aren’t getting to.
It’s common to feel resentment because you are in a permanent state of “behind” and you don’t have time for yourself.
Getting Shit Done. How I Do It..
I’m going to throw out a couple of strategies and the things that work for me. Because i have ADHD i had to adapt and i had to try this way of working a few times before accepted that it worked. The first time i did it for a few weeks and it was great and then everything tailed off. And I told myself it just didn’t work for me because i don’t like doing things when they are in the calendar.
Basically at this point, i had a lot of new thoughts to learn. Which i will come to later, but it took me a good six months to pick it up again.
Step 1: Brain Dump
I learned this from a method called monday hour 1 by Brooke Castillo, life coach. As the name suggests, you do this first thing every Monday. But you have to find what works for you.
Pick a time, once a week. The best time for me is the start of the week. For you it might be Sunday night, or the end of the week. But if you’ve got this off to a tee, then Monday morning is probably a good time because you will have boxed your previous week off already and won’t have anything floating round in your mind.
The first thing to do is literally empty your brain. Of Everything. Every last thing that’s floating around in your head. Everything you need to do, From the phone call you keep putting off, important projects that might be filling you with dread or that picture you’ve been meaning to hang for a year. the car that needs cleaning, that stuff you keep meaning to sell on eBay. Everything.
If you have an ‘ongoing ‘ to do list, I see you back there – put that stuff on it too, you won’t need it after this. Future, long term, whatever is in your head.
Don’t hold back. The first time you do this it can take quite a bit of time., thats ok, it takes practice and once you’ve put everything in there, its never as big after that.
Step 2: Breathe It All In
Look at that list. How do you feel? Overwhelmed? Resistant? Relieved?
Often, Just the act of getting stuff on paper is cathartic. Our brains aren’t designed to store all the long term stuff in our working memory. Its exhausting. So hopefully doing this will make you feel better.
The next thing to do is look at the obstacles to getting things done. And by this it could be that a specific task needs you to hire a person, or it requires you to make the time. Or you need to speak to someone or plan it. Maybe you need to book travel, or look for accommodation. All those things can be obstacles that prevent us just doing the thing. So break those down too.
Step 3: Make A Choice
This next step might sound a bit woo, but the next thing to do is look at that list and really know that everything on it is 100% your choice. You literally don’t have to do any of it. you don’t have to go to work, you don’t have to pay your taxes. You don’t. Have to feed your kids, or exercise. Plenty of people don’t. You can literally do nothing.
So I’m not suggesting anyone starve their kids or evade tax. But its a really subtle shift in thinking, that can make a big difference. You are choosing to do this stuff. On purpose.
So with that in mind, go through that list and ask yourself are you choosing to do it or do you choose not to? Give yourself permission not to do stuff. And strike it off forever. If you have a ton of stuff you have been meaning to put on eBay for three years, ask yourself. Do you want to? If not, give yourself permission to drive it to the charity bin and forget about it forever.
Ask if it aligns with your goals. You can find your list has a lot of clutter and stuff thats just preventing you from getting to the deep stuff. The stuff where you are in your creative zone. It’s really easy to keep yourself busy, and being busy is a great excuse for never getting the important stuff done.
When i did this exercise I deleted about 50 kindle books i had paid for, but were sat there in my reading list, niggling my brain. I did the same with goodreads, i had 160 ‘must reads’ – i trimmed it to about six. I had over 40 Udemy courses to do. This might not bother everyone but for me it’s always in the back of my mind, stuff i have to get through, so getting through that mental clutter really helped me.
Are you ever really going to invite those people.. or do that car boot sale. And what about the 30k emails you have to get through? Ill come to that later.
Step 4: Priorities
The next thing is to prioritise that list, check out Eisenhower’s matrix, but what’s urgent? What’s important? Can you delegate it,
If you are always working on stuff when its urgent, then you are constantly putting out fires, its never a good place to be. Working this way helps you get to stuff before its urgent.
Step 5: Allocate Time
Decide how long you want to spend on each task. Have you heard of Parkinson’s law?
Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available. What does this mean? Lets say we give ourselves three hours to write a piece of content. – we naturally find a way to make. It take three hours. Give yourself two and it will take two.
Step 6: Start With You
So, the next step is to actually put everything in your calendar. Preferably a digital one. Because for me, I may move things around during the day.
Start with yourself. What do you want to do? Put in your own time first. This is one where many of us resist. we never schedule downtime, we just hope for the best. its actually great to see all the stuff you like doing prioritised first. Gym? Time with friends? Time slobbing out? Whatever you like doing, get it in there.
Step 7: Add Everything Else
The next step is to put everything else on that calendar. Every piece of work get it all on there. And then….
Step 8: Ditch The List!
And then … Bin The List!!!
Now since you’ve put all the stuff you want to do on there first, you really won’t want to cut Into your me time, so the only way to do that is to get your stuff done. its never a good feeling if you think youre working and you wish you were doing sometning else. its usually a lack of good planning.
so i know this throws up a lot of questions and i can imagine theres a few of you who will be asking the same ones. so im going to cover a few common ones now – ones i asked too.
When I explain this method to people, they usually have a few questions. So I’ve summarised them below.
What about last minute stuff that comes up?
There should be no last minute stuff. Anything new that needs doing can go straight into an available slot on your calendar. – to be clear, when i do this and put all my tasks on the calendar, i don’t fill it up in order from Monday. I leave myself space. I have an email system which i will bring up later and a system for stuff that comes in between brain dumps. But as new stuff comes in, for the most part, get it straight on the calendar.
What If I don’t know how long it will take me?
This is one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves. Honestly. The usual reason is you aren’t taking enough responsibility for how long something is going to take. if you really really think hard, how often do you have no idea how long something will take? And why leave it for the universe to decide?
Don’t just accept I don’t know from your brain,. Because thats all it will learn to give you.
I could spend six hours a day cleaning but i don’t want to. Some people spend that much time. Hold yourself accountable. Remember Parkinson’s Law.
This step did meet with the most resistance from me, because i work with code. And sometimes code has bugs, and you go down a rabbit hole. but what it forced me to think was if ive promised a client a solution that I’m billing a day for and it take me 3 days, then I have planned poorly and i need to either find a better solution or i need to charge more.
What If I’ve never done it before?
again, how long do you want to spend on it? If its a new task break it down into steps. It’s only new once. Do your best.
A couple of tips here would be to give yourself wiggle room. Some people leave 15 min gaps between each block. I never cram my calendar and i give myself a good amount of time to finish things
Be realistic here though. Don’t be over generous. There’s a sweet spot. You want to give yourself enough time so that you do that task, but also so that you need to do it without getting distracted. Most of us know how long that is.
Giving yourself a realistic amount of time means you are way more likely to focus and not allow for distractions. If you have an hour to do a task, and you are committed to yourself, then you aren’t going to check your email in that hour. It really gets momentum going.
What If I just don’t want to do it?
You have to learn to trust yourself to follow through on your calendar.
Understand something really important.
You are very unlikely to want to do the thing.. .
And that’s ok. Our brains are like toddlers. If anyone here has young kids, Im sure you know that they would rather stay up all night, eat only sugar and never wash. if you’re homeschooling, you will know that they would mostly rather do anything else than learn. – but we don’t take that from our kids. Because we know better. Stop taking it from your brain.
‘Ok brain, I know we don’t want to do this, but lets just get it done’
When i mentioned earlier that i had a lot of new thoughts to learn this one was a game changer. You don’t always want to. So what? We can still do it. I have learned to talk to my brain a lot more than I listen to it. And that makes a lot of difference
Isn’t planning just wasting time you could be doing?
Would you get in a car and just drive aimlessly till you got somewhere or would you pull up google maps and take those few minutes to input a destination.
Imagine playing aboard game with out reading the instructions, you would just spend the night confused
So when I had this taught to me this is how it was described and it resonated.
Imagine you’re trying to get somewhere and you’re pedalling along. Your’e good at cycling, but its still not the most efficient way to get where you’re going. But I have a better way. I have a car. But you have to stop the bike, get in the car, and plan in your route on the map. But you can’t stop because your’e so busy pedalling right? And youre exhausted but you can’t stop.
But If you just took the time to stop. Get off the bike, and get in the car, you would be there in half the time.
What If I run out of time on the calendar?
Ok. Stuff happens. We have kids. We get stuck in traffic. We get sick Best laid plans go to waste and all that.
Forgive yourself. – shit happens. Recently i gave myself an hour to write up a project and at the end of the hour it was so lame, i couldn’t do anything with it. So it went straight back on the calendar. Give yourself grace but don’t just do this for everything., if you do its just another way of having a list that never gets done.
Like i say I allow wiggle room, so i can usually catch up. I don’t like the expression buy time, and so don’t be inclined to keep moving stuff back. If you buy time you have to pay for it, and you pay for it with your time further down the line.
What if i don’t like planning in that much detail?
Honestly this is where the freedom truly lies. I resisted this for the longest time. But being spontaneous ended up to be a lie. I absolutely thrive on a good plan.
Im not going to lie. Its not the easiest thing to do because the primitive part of our brains just want instant gratification. We seek pleasure and avoid pain. But we have something that makes us different from the animals. The ability to plan ahead. Make decisions ahead of time. And doing this can remove all of your decision fatigue. People like mark zuck who wear the same clothes daily because it gives them more headspace to think.
The hardest thing to do is overcome the toddler brain. Its the loudest. It always wants pleasure, be that food, drink, sex, booze, netflix, drugs whatever. But our primitive brain doesn’t know what’s best for itself.
With this method there’s only really one thing you ever need to do. Its resist the urge to avoid whatever is on your calendar. and that comes with practice.
ANd if like me, So if your’e one of those people who does put things on a list or calendar and then doesn’t do anything about it, you’re generally just training your brain to live in default mode. And you’re training your brain to be ok with not showing up for yourself.
How much detail do i have to go into?
How long does it take to get there? So what time do I need to be leaving. How long do I need to get ready? What will I need to take? food? Are there any steps required in getting the things I need? Do I have to go to the shops?
ALL That stuff goes in my calendar. That way, I know I can be out of the door, on time, with everything I need and I don’t need to give it any more thought. Im time blind so if I didn’t do that the time would show up in my cal and I would have noting ready and wouldn’t go. And then I would be really annoyed.
If my kids have stuff on, I put a note in my calendar leading up to it so they have the stuff they need.
Working like this means you don’t worry about procrastinating or urgency. You have a calm sense of everything being as it should be.
At the point of coming back to this I was about three months behind on recurring client work but I always felt busy. After implementing I had it all done in that month.
It does depend how much is habit. But ideally to get used to working this way, be as detailed as you can.
My Favourite Tools
The tools don’t matter but here’s what I use.
A pen and paper.
Outlook calendar and ical via the ical interface. I have a mix of calendars, a personal one, a family one, one for the kids, that is shares to their iPads, and I also have my husbands so I can see his work away days in advance. I know those days I have less time to work jand have to do more around the family
Its the best feeling ever to go to bed and know you finished everything on your list and you aren’t worried about tomorrow because that’s all in hand too.
So there’s a couple of ways I have adapted this method. Another school of thought is to have various inboxes and from those you create your weekly to do list.
Its impossible for me to wait a week to write a list and throw it away. – so I have a temporary ‘holding’ note/ – basically a note in an app like bear, where if anything crops up during the week, if anything pops in my head from a conversation, I quickly make a note with it.
If I get sent an email from a client, I have an inbox zero system. I flag/archive/delete.
Delete everything I can.. if its project related, and I’ve not billed or its not been signed off, it just gets archived. if a client sends a request, and its minor, I flag it an archive it immediately.
Every day I have a slot in my calendar to deal with those flagged emails.
Basically my calendar is a living thing. You really have to be sensible and adapt it for your job. If you are employed and not necessarily in full charge of what you get to prioritise, you can still do this, but you may beed to add more contingency and be open with your boss about what tasks you have planned.
If you had the chance to meet with someone you really admire, would you do everything possible and make sure that no matter what you showed up at that meeting as the best version of yourself that you could be?
Calendar based Time manegement is really down to one thing. How much are you willing to show up for yourself? You are that important person. Treat your calendar like a set of important appointments with yourself