Task lists are really useful for putting things into perspective so long as the lists themselves do not take precedence over the work that needs to be done. I've seen a lot of people over the years invest entire days into organising tasks with priorities, relationships, blockers, and all sorts of other meta information. While useful at times, this can often result in a person leaving no time to actually complete the tasks they're responsible for, resulting in a great deal of stress as that person may go back to sorting lists to re-prioritise for the time lost through the earlier sorting activity … otherwise known as "Program Management on a Corporate Scale".
I generally try and stick to the 5-minute rule where, after five minutes of identifying and sorting the tasks for today and tomorrow, I put the pen down and get to work. The reason I try to plan for the next day as well is mainly to get the mind thinking about how tomorrow's problems might be solved and to have something lined up in the unlikely event I finish today's work faster than expected. Given that the list is rarely the same at the end of a workday as it might be at the beginning, this process seems logical to me. That said, I seem to have problems when the tasks for the next day are generally unknown. I over-think things and perceive a few days of work as a being far more involved than it really will be. This is the problem I faced this morning when, after returning to work from a long-weekend, I expected 60+ hours of work for three very different projects, all with due dates this week.
It's like my mind hates taking time off or is madly infatuated with whatever chemicals are released during times of high stress. Maybe it's a little bit of both … .
By half-past noon today I managed to work out exactly what needed to be accomplished this week in my notepad. A couple of hours later half of the big items were already checked off. Looking at the list now, at the end of the day, I can see there's still a bit of work with due dates in the next three days, but nothing that is impossible to meet. It's really just a matter of perspective.
There's a demo I need to carry out tomorrow which requires a couple hours of prep ahead of time, which will all be complete shortly before the meeting start time. No problem.
There's another demo for a different part of the same system that needs to be prepared for next Monday, too. This shouldn't require more than three hours to complete, and I can get it done on Thursday. No problem.
There's a rather important task that needs some time dedicated to it, but I've not yet been granted access to the system by the people who hold the keys, so why worry about it? A report on the task is due by the end of Friday and, if I still don't have reliable access by then, I can simply report the facts. There's little point stressing out about things I cannot reasonably control without some negative consequences I am unwilling to instigate at this time.
A fourth task is "optional", though it would be really nice to get out the door. I might invest some time into this on Friday if the previous item remains elusive.
Everything else can wait until next Monday, which means that the things I've been feeling stress about since Sunday afternoon are essentially non-issues. Why is it that I feel pressure where none is needed? Given all the other things I should be worried about, it always seems the things I misjudge are the items that get overblown in my head. It's bizarre.
Back when I first started working on the LMS project for the day job I would make a list of things to do every night before leaving for the day. This would let me get ideas down on paper and pre-organise the next day's tasks ahead of time. Every morning I would come in and look at the list, re-arrange items if needed, and get started. This seemed to be pretty effective at reducing the anxieties I felt about developing a relatively large system that would be used across the country by thousands of people who would essentially rely on my understanding of their job to help them accomplish their goals. While I don't know exactly when I stopped doing this, the idea has merit and should be revisited. So starting tonight, I've prepped a new list of tasks for tomorrow and the next day with the goal of reducing stress, planting the seeds of creation in my head, and regaining some perspective of the work to be done.
Let's hope this works … .