teaching professional people english
Not so long ago I posted a rant about admin which included a vague promise to make helpful suggestions. This post is the first in a series. I can’t guarantee to be helpful, but I always have suggestions. I’ll start with some general pointers before sharing some free digital downloadables which might make admin a bit more fun. They did for me. If you are already organized, and feel the first part is insulting your intelligence, fell free to skip to the bit about the free stuff!
The first step towards success for the organizationally challenged professional is to decide what is actually required. What do you need to do? This usually takes the form of a list, and may develop into an experiment with sticky notes (more motivating because you can throw them away rather than scribble things out…? ) but unless you actually know how to ‘do’ the initial bit – define the tasks – no list will get you anywhere. I know. My unproductive past is strewn with lists of all kinds which ultimately bore no relation to what I actually did with my time. I should also add that I am aware of techniques such as ‘just 3 things’ and ‘GTD’. I just don’t think that they fall into the remit of this article. If you have positive experiences of that sort of method please feel free to share.
So what is the problem?
I have a theory that 95% of all my ‘to do’ lists failed to cause me to act for two reasons. The first I shall call ‘vagueness paralysis’, and the second ‘temporal disconnection’. (You’re right. I loved Star Trek) Vagueness paralysis occurs when what is written on the list is less of a task and more of an aspiration. For example, if I wrote ‘sort out paperwork (for course X)’ I might as well have been writing ‘meet tall dark handsome stranger (but not too strange)’. The general direction of travel is one which no-one would argue with, but there was still so much thinking to be done that I was not yet in a position to act on my intentions. There was no way of knowing how long ‘it’ would take, and I had yet to decide where to start. Not surprisingly I would reach the end of the day/week/month without having begun.
The moral of the story of vagueness paralysis is that you need to be specific, to provide yourself with a bite-sized thing to do, preferably with all the relevant information in one place. ‘Paperwork for course X’? Break it down. I’ll need the pro-forma. That means picking them up from the office or getting them e-mailed to me. Which is it to be? Once I have the documents, I need to look at the lesson notes. Where are they? Are they up to date? There are 20 individual reports to be written. Do I expect to tackle them at one sitting? Then in how many? How will I return them to the office? Will any printing be required ? (in which case the cartridge will almost certainly need to be changed in the middle of it)….. Do I have a spare cartridge?
Break the project down into the tiniest possible bits, to a point where no further decision needs to be taken. That is your to-do list.
We can now move on to phase 2. Solving the ‘Temporal disconnection’ problem. At the stage where your ‘to do’ was vague there was no way that you could have any idea how long it would take. Now that you have bite-sized chunks you stand some chance of making an educated guess. That is the beginning. Now you need to decide when you should go about actually doing it. Just writing ‘today’ will usually get you nowhere. Why? Because today has stuff of its own going on. Food to cook, appointments to keep, jobs to go to… and don’t fall in to the trap of panicking and deciding that it’s ‘now or never’. You are quite capable of doing what needs to be done in a timely manner. I know you are, even if you don’t. Look honestly at your calendar. How much time do you have over the next week? Be realistic. If you’re staggering in at eight at night exhausted on Thursday, then I doubt that you will be in any state to tackle correspondance or admin. I’m just being realistic. Find time slots in the week which are workable. You may need to get up earlier. You may need to review the way you make appointments.
Ultimately, you’re always better off putting a task off to a time when you will actually be able to do it properly. A good job on Friday is preferable to a botched one today. If that means keeping someone waiting for routine admin, tell them that you can’t tackle the job until Friday, and that you’ll have it in their desk on Monday morning first thing. Then do what you say. If you’ve done the other bits and pieces on your list first, then you’ll be ready to roll when the time comes. One last thing. If you plan to do task x,y, or z on friday, then for heaven’s sake write that in your diary, on your calendar, or wherever. Trust me.
‘That’s nice’ I hear you say, ‘but I always lose my lists, and they’re messy and I hate them’. That’s where the shiny new toys come in. By the miracle of information technology, you can have a ‘to do’ list which is always neat and tidy, doesn’t get lost, and will remind you to do things. All by itself. All you have to do is set it up.
Solution 1; Remember the Milk
Of the ‘to do’ apps I’m suggesting, this is the simplest. You can get it from here. Because RTM has a reminder service and stores your list online you need to give it an e-mail address. I used my google account which streamlines the whole process. If you so desire, RTM will text you on your mobile at an interval of your choosing to remind you of something you need to do (get up, leave the house, make that call…). personally, I’m leery of giving google my mobile number but I have suggested it in all seriousness to my teenaged son…
Tasks can be grouped in folders, and if you set up the reminder service, you can opt for a single e-mail first thing in the morning. Definitely preferable to one for each task..
RTM is a good, basic solution which I used contentedly for some time. It has no particular flaws, but it is limited. After a while my efficient new self found it to be too limited and so I moved on….
Solution 2; Producteev
While still free, producteev is rather more sophisticated and flexible. In addition to lists of things to do it has calendar functions and a colour-coded interface which is more attractive and business-like than RTM. You can get it here and try it for yourself. Again, an e-mail address is required. You have the option of reminders, but I have found that they tend to arrive individually which I find irritating. There is probably some way to avoid this which I have been too lazy to discover.
It took me longer to acclimatise to producteev than to RTM, but it was worth it. It offers a choice between a list presentation, and a calendar which can be viewed by month (not great if you have more than one thing listed per day) or by week. This is brilliant because it can be clicked ahead, even to next year, and also taken back in time, where you can view past tasks. This ability to review the past is something which is completely absent as far as I can tell from RTM – the free version, at least.
Both RTM and producteev offer online sharing options. For these you would have to subscribe to the paying versions, but for many professionals this will be money well spent. In the case of producteev there is the option of adding comments on tasks, which definitely would be a great collaborative tool. In the case of RTM, I’m afraid that I found it difficult to imagine sharing the sort of lists it seems to be designed to manage, but maybe that’s just me.
Solution 2; doit
Doit can be downloaded from here. It is a cross between the previous two suggestions. The interface is clean and attractive, and it seems to offer pretty much the same options. I have not used it in a sustained way because shortly after installing it to try, I discovered producteev and adopted that instead. Truth be told, my failure with doit is really due to my habit of improvising rather than taking the time to use tutorials. Doit was the less intuitive option for me. It has had good reviews elsewhere in the bloggosphere. I add it to my list, and it may be just right for you.
There are plenty of alternative tools out there, either not as good for organizing work or way more sophisticated. I shall certainly make suggestions about some of them in later posts. However, for the time being I shall sign out and wish you all the best with your organizing!