Before having a baby, I’d heard lots of people say that you get more organised when you have kids. “But I’m just not organised,” I said. “You get organised. You have to,” they’d say. They said the same about learning to sleep at any time, anywhere: “You get good at napping. You just have to.”
I don’t think either of these things magically happen when you have kids, or develop as a result of post-pregnancy hormones, or necessarily happen at all. When it came to the power-napping, unsurprisingly, I found that being stressed and chronically sleep-deprived made it harder to sleep effectively; even when I was exhausted I couldn’t just drop off at the drop of a hat, and I still can’t. When it came to organisation, however, it wasn’t so much that it “just happened” as that I realised I was going to have to change the way I got things done (and the way I didn’t get things done) or be even more frustrated and miserable than I was already becoming. Fortunately, time-management feels considerably more within my control than sleep.
It soon became apparent that having a “fussy” baby made it hard to get anything done, including the sort of procrastination that usually gets in the way of getting anything done; I gradually realised that dithering and disorganisation were luxuries I could no longer easily afford, and if I wanted to keep my head above water (let alone do the unnecessary-but-interesting things) I was going to have to be much more ruthless about my to-do list in several ways. Here’s what I learned (all “common sense”, of course, but sometimes you have to be hit around the head with common sense before it really starts to penetrate the brain):
- WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. I used to have written-down lists, but also hold loads of things in my head. The combination of sleep-deprivation, stress, a lack of structure to my days and weeks, and constant interruptions meant that I just couldn’t hold as many things in my head any more. I kept a notepad near me at all times, scrawled things on scraps of paper, emailed myself with typo-riddled one-finger-typed emails, wrote things on my hand… anything to get things downloaded out of unreliable short-term memory. The one thing that really didn’t work for notetaking was the ‘Notes’ application on the iPhone: once a note was made and saved there was nothing to remind me of its existence.
- Don’t put things on the list unless you really want or need to do them. If you only have very limited time, you don’t want to waste it working out which of the things on the to-do list are actually interesting or necessary.
- If you’re not going to do something, whether because you can’t or you don’t want to, say so sooner rather than later. The realisation that the magical period of my life “when I have more time” isn’t actually going to materialise for several years (if ever) has made it easier to give the gift of ‘no’.
- Put tasks on the list, not projects. This is absolutely standard GTD, but when you might only have 5 minutes to do a task, you don’t want to spend that time figuring out what the next task is. (I keep thinking that it would be useful to divide my to-do list into things I can do in 5 minutes, things I can do in 10 minutes, things that need half an hour, or an hour, etc… but in practice I don’t have time to do that kind of fiddling about.)
- When you do something, just do it. I have a tendency to get things mostly-done or even actually-done but then dither about finishing touches, feel nervous about submitting them for publication/evaluation, and so on. This even applies to emails to friends: until recently I had over 50 emails in my ‘postponed’ folder. I soon realised that putting things aside to finish later, or agonise about later, was just like not doing them at all (but with more wasted time & lurking guilt).
These days I joke that I have two to-do lists: things that are due yesterday, and things that I’ll do when baby grows up. It’s not quite that bad, but there are definitely things that simply aren’t going to get done any time soon. That’s OK: I wanted to have a child, another person to talk to and interact with; I’m not just putting my life on hold until she goes away, because she’s part of my life now and I hope she’ll never completely “go away” (though obviously she’ll get more independent as time goes on). She’s quite enough of a project for anyone. The big realisation for me was that when it came to some of the stuff that had been rattling around my to-do list for ages, if I was honest with myself, I wasn’t going to do most of those things anyway. We’re not talking enormous life-changing projects, we’re talking books to read, blog posts to write, things to make… things that could easily been done, or at least started, by setting aside time for them. I hadn’t done them yet because either I didn’t want to do them enough, or I was afraid of starting them and failing. I was holding them in the back of my head as a thing that I could do if I had enough time, because that made me feel as though I was full of potential, when in practice I was just full of lists.
What would you do if you’d done everything on your list? That is, if all your to-do lists were magically cleared of essential or immediate tasks, what projects would you start (or finish)?