Success at Work Challenge Week 3: Make success possible

5459043426_2b62562f33_mI’m trying to achieve success at work, and you can too! For the next 5 weeks, I’ll be running a #SuccessAtWork challenge on this blog. Each week’s challenge will follow one of the 7 disciplines I highlight in my new ebook, What the Most Successful People Do at Work. If you’re participating, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.

Anandi (who blogs at House of Peanut, and comments here as ARC) worked for years at Microsoft. When her husband landed his dream job recently, though, she decided it was time to become the primary parent at home with their two young girls.

The trouble? Switching to life as a quasi SAHM (she plans to consult a few hours a week) presented some challenges in terms of mindset. At Microsoft, projects had progress metrics and timelines. Three-year-olds and babies don’t work that way. Likewise, since Anandi doesn’t consider herself retired — she’s keeping a hand in, and will go back to work at some point — she was trying to figure out how best to use the down time she had well. “Wrangling 2 kids for 10+ hours a day makes me want to just vegetate in front of the computer when they’re napping or asleep, and then I feel guilty for wasting all that time when I could be finding work, maintaining my network, updating LinkedIn,etc.”

Then there was that other temptation of being at home: housework. “I also need to figure out (and timebox) stuff like laundry and dishes, or I find that I’m doing bits and pieces of them all day, when really I don’t need to. It’s just that they’re THERE and so visible and obvious, that it seems like a natural thing to do.”

So she asked me what I thought. She sent me her time log, which showed a few things. First, she’d figured out one of the big secrets of not going crazy at home with the kids, namely scheduling “Big Outings” a few times a week. She was also getting a fair amount of time to do crafty stuff (check out her Etsy store!). Indeed, the only thing that seemed to be contributing to her statement that “the transition to staying at home has actually been harder than I expected” was the mismatch between her expectations and reality — a mismatch hardly unique to Anandi, or to stay-at-home parenthood, for that matter.

In Anandi’s case, I suggested taking things week by week, and making a (short!) weekly list of activities beyond life maintenance that she wanted to accomplish. An example of a week’s list could be a few scrapbook pages or another craft project, updating LinkedIn, having coffee with a former colleague, and doing a major stock-up grocery trip. That’s it. She could look at what time she had available — while the kids were sleeping, in school, or with her husband — and block those activities in, with a back-up slot. She could do them at the appointed time (if possible), and then surf the web completely guilt free at all other points. Then the next week, she could make another similar list. Then she could repeat. There’s only so much you’re going to get done if you’re taking care of small kids. Even if they sleep a lot, you only have so much energy. But if you do a few things each week, you will feel like you’re getting stuff done. It’s all about progress.

That’s the crux of the third discipline in What the Most Successful People Do at Work. Years ago, when I first started writing about time management, I sort of assumed that people who accomplished a lot had really long to-do lists. Then I started interviewing such people, and realized that many actually aimed to make their lists as short as possible. Chalene Johnson, the Turbo Jam fitness personality I profile in my ebook, puts 6 things on her list per day. Three of those items are steps toward a big, year-long goal, and the others are things that have to get done that day. That’s it. But she holds herself accountable for all 6 things. And if you do 6 things that matter, without fail, eventually it starts to add up. Six things per day is 30 per week. That’s 1500 in a 50-week work year. That’s a lot! Or in Anandi’s case, 5 things a week is 250 in a year. That’s a lot of professional seeds planted and projects done.

When you put a million things on your list — whether you’re in a regular job, or caregiving — you simply can’t finish them all. That makes your to-do list problematic. It becomes a source of frustration and failure in your life. And beyond that, you start to think of everything on the list as negotiable. After all, if you can’t get a million things done, then the list is meaningless. You’re still picking and choosing. You may as well surf the web. Then you feel bad.

A short list, on the other hand, can become more like a contract with yourself. You choose what goes on it carefully. And when it all gets done, you feel like you’re making progress. Progress is actually the key to happiness at work, as Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer discovered in their study of 12,000 work diary entries (which they wrote about in The Progress Principle). It’s also the key to happiness at home. 

So what did Anandi think? “I love the idea of a weekly list,” she wrote me. “Setting up a daily one has been a bit overwhelming, so I’m focusing now on just the one thing I need to do that day.” One thing is doable. And when something’s doable, it gets done. And then you move on, facing each day feeling victorious, rather than inadequate.

This week’s challenge: Limit your to-do list. For each day, set a limited number of objectives (let’s say fewer than 10), and commit to doing them all. How does it feel when you succeed?

You can keep a running pseudo-to-do list for things that occur to you, but that you aren’t committing to do that day. Devotees of David Allen call this the “someday/maybe” list. I have my “soon pile” and my “idea pile.” Keep your daily list separate from these. The daily list is a contract. The “someday” pile is not.

How many items are on your to-do list?

Photo courtesy flickr user JogiBaer2. Your to-do list should fit on just one post-it note, not a stack this large.

23 thoughts on “Success at Work Challenge Week 3: Make success possible

  1. This is one of the things I’m loving about the kanban approach that I’ve been trying out- my to do list is long, and it has to be. I need to capture all the things that need to get done eventually, even if they don’t get done today or this week. I need them written down somewhere and not taking up space in my brain. But as you say, a short to do list is hugely powerful. I always had a “master” to do list with everything and shorter term lists, but I didn’t police the length of those shorter term lists enough. The kanban approach directs you to specifically try to limit “work in progress” so now I have a huge “backlog” list but a short “work in progress” list- and from the work in progress list, I make a daily list of 3-6 things to get done. It is working really well, both at work and at home.

    1. Oops, I meant to clarify: the work in progress list is bigger things (like “refinance the house”) and the daily list is specific tasks (like “print out paperwork for refi”). OK, I’ll stop now. I’m a bit of a productivity geek, and I love finding new techniques/approaches that help me….

    2. @Cloud, I’ve got your Kanban post tagged to read when I can really focus on it, because I think it might help me with all the big projects around here too (potential huge remodel, sorting out some financial stuff, building my side businesses, etc.) I’m so stuck in the day to day that I rarely stop and look at the bigger picture and what I could be accomplishing towards those things.

    3. I also started using kanban after Cloud’s post on it. The philosophy behind kanban is similar to your advice of a long to do sometime list and a short, focused daily or weekly list. I like focusing on one or two things at a time as well as seeing progress made.

      Good advice!

      1. @Susan – thanks, and I’m glad you also found Cloud’s post helpful. Acknowledging that things are “in process” but not being actively worked on *right now* is incredibly powerful. It gives the in-process things dignity and acknowledgement without them clouding up immediate priorities.

  2. In your Weekend book, when you talk about planning for the week on Sunday night, you recommend blocking out time for six to nine priorities. At first when I read about Chalene Johnson’s six things per day, I thought of it as maybe frontloading the week with those six to nine weekly priorities, and then moving what isn’t finished to the next day, until maybe you finish the six to nine weekly things and start doing “extra” stuff that wasn’t originally on the weekly plan, towards the end of the week.

    But you’re talking about commitments and contracts for the daily to-do list, so I’m guessing not. I suppose it’s more a matter of figuring out the exact number that works for you, for each person. And perhaps the weekly and daily items aren’t quite equivalent — those six to nine weekly items might be small projects, whereas the six daily items might be discrete tasks?

    1. @Marcy- thanks for reading my work so closely! Yes, the weekly priority list differs from the daily list. I have priorities for the week, but sometimes these can be multi-step items. For instance, writing an article requires some research, identifying and contacting experts, interviewing those people, then writing and editing the piece. If I aimed to do 2 of those things in a day and 2 the next, that would give each day 2 of 6 or so priorities, and the other 4 could be steps toward other goals. But I really do try to do everything on the list, or else I need to have a specific conversation with myself about why it’s coming off the list.

  3. Thanks Laura, for your great advice. It’s been super helpful as I navigate this transition, which I really didn’t think would be as hard as it’s been!

    I used to have a daily list of 3 things I must get done (picked up from ZenHabits) and lost that habit during maternity leave.

    I love the idea of “planting professional seeds” and also looking at the completed items over a week or a year, which is not too shabby even if it’s only 1-2 day.

    Thanks again for your help!

  4. I am interested to hear how others implement this step. Something about explicitly acknowledging that a work-related task with deadline is not important enough for my daily to-do list makes me queasy.

    I really identify with the idea of having a million negotiable items on the list, so I am intrigued.

    1. @WG – one option is to construct a draft of each day’s to-do list. I have weekly priorities (the 6-9 things mentioned in another comment) and then daily to-dos. Something can be on the daily to-do list for Thursday, and on Monday you can see it is there and — barring earth crashing into the sun, in which case your to-do list doesn’t matter — eventually it will be Thursday. So you can relax and focus on Monday, knowing Thursday’s tasks will happen because the tasks always happen. It’s a contract with yourself.

      1. Just curious, where/how do you track these? Everything on paper? In a special notebook you always have handy? Some app on your phone/computer?

        1. Despite having had an iPhone for 4 years, I have zero apps. Everything is on paper! I have a little notebook I write to-do lists (and occasional other random things) in.

  5. I’ve had ups and downs with planning like this. When I worked outside the home and freelanced, I was really good at making a sticky to-do list with a max of 5 things on it. I even prioritized them with A,B,C in case my energy lagged and I couldn’t get the whole thing done. For some reason, that habit stopped when I came home.

    My oldest is out of school at the end of next week, and we’ll be homeschooling from here out. I will definitely need to keep refining my lists and how I plan things!

    Thanks for the posts, Laura. It’s great to hear how other people are tackling the same issues I’m figuring out.

    1. @Monica – I think it’s a human tendency to treat “work” and “home” as separate spheres, but some things that work for productivity can work in both places. A home renovation needs to be managed just like a work project. Bruce Feiler’s Secrets of Happy Families was all about using management techniques in the home — often to good effect (at least with his kids). Some stuff wouldn’t work, but people are human both places.

      1. I’ve been thinking about that a lot in regards to this book, trying to think how to apply the principles at work, in my writing, and with other personal projects at home. I think I’ll have to tweak the numbers until I figure out what works for me, but do you have any recommendations about how much to limit oneself with the total number on a daily list, when it includes both work and home tasks?

        I’m also thinking one of the reasons there could be variation on this is that different people have a different number of routine tasks that aren’t necessarily put on the daily to-do list, like “give the baby a bath.” Seems like no matter how routine they are I need to track them in some form (helps them actually become routine, at least), but they aren’t quite the same.

  6. I’ve been mulling over the idea of planning & I’m thinking of moving away from the standard “to do” list that I’ve used in some iteration for over the past 20 years. I’ve realized that every task—no matter how mundane & small—takes up the same one line and merits one check on my list. I was noticing a false sense of accomplishment at completing up to 10 things in a day, when most of those things were “order diapers” “submit time away” “call xyz” and not “write introduction” “submit abstract” “plan next project”. I like the idea of 6-9 “goals” for the week, but not sure how to separate the little “to do”s (that I DO have to write down or they will not happen) from the real goal-progressing work. Maybe blocking out the time for big tasks as appointments, rather than check the box tasks? Still working this out, but thank you for bringing up the topic because its making me rethink the way I work!

    1. @Ana, I struggle with this too (and hence got stuck ONLY doing the small stuff lately). I think Laura’s profile of Chalene Johnson and her 6 tasks was super helpful – 3 of hers were just regular to-dos and the other 3 were helping her meet her longer term goals.

      And then I think being brutally honest about whether the small things really need to get done or can be automated – for example, can you put the diapers on an Amazon subscription so they’ll just show up, etc? Or can you put hubby in charge of some of those recurring tasks so you’re both using brainspace for the stuff that’s not that interesting?

  7. Thanks for this post – great timing…I needed to read this. I am in a similar situation as Anandi, being home after my son was just born in January (we also have a 4 year old daughter). I know that a large part of my struggle is my expectation that I would be able to do a lot of organizing, improving, and getting rid of stuff now that I am home full time (we had been doing only the bare minimum over the past 4 years while we had a home-based business).

    I liked your example of a week’s tasks – not life-altering, but things that will help our home be a more enjoyable place to live. I also really needed to read this:

    “There’s only so much you’re going to get done if you’re taking care of small kids. Even if they sleep a lot, you only have so much energy.”

    This seems like a perfectly reasonable statement for someone else – I need to apply it to myself and give myself a break!

    Thank you!

    1. @Christine – you’re welcome! Glad it’s helpful. And yes, we need to match expectations with reality. That’s not an excuse to slack — see today’s post; I do value hard work — but also just the idea of sustainable progress. Score a decent victory today, leave something available so you can fight tomorrow, too.

  8. I am in sales and I don’t know what to do with all the stuff that comes across my desk that I need to do to do the best for my clients or the folks who say well I need this by Friday —

    but I don’t start with a list of 3 things many a day and that is part of the problem.. for working moms it is hard b/c so much of that reflective time that allows you to put down three things with conviction it seems to get lost

    1. @Cara- so the reason to limit yourself to a few things per day is precisely because things come up. A big client needs attention, a new opportunity presents itself, etc. You want to be able to seize those. On the other hand, you also want to make progress toward goals you’ve already identified as important. Limiting the to-do list leaves space for urgent stuff but also makes sure some important stuff is still happening…

  9. My resolution every year was to take up dance again. Every January I would tell myself that I was going to sign up for a dance class that met three times a week. I never seemed to factor in my full-time job, four kids, my writing, and so on. Why did I think my life could suddenly accommodate a three-day-a-week dance class? It just was not a realistic goal for me. Even though three days a week would be ideal, it wasn’t practical, and I had other things at the top of my priority list. I obviously needed to figure out (if I truly wanted to do it) how to fit dance in. So I decided to try once a week, which was much more doable for me, and it worked. I did attend dance class faithfully every week until I was able to add more time. You see, there’s much we may want, but we’ve got to put these desires in perspective and decide what will work for where we are right now. Take it in steps. Most important, set a goal that is for you and only you. Dancing three times a week might have been my desire, but it wasn’t right for me. But a class once a week still gave me the great pleasure of dancing, and it fit my life.

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