A Strategy Primer for Writers: Part III
February 19, 2021
Welcome back to the strategy primer for writers! Your one stop shop for all things related to workflow and productivity.
Whether your aim is to decrease procrastination, break bad habits or build better ones, this series aims to provide you with a myriad of strategies to try so you can find the ones that help you the best.
So far, we’ve covered strategies like Setting the Table, Chunking Down Goals, and the Do, Delegate, Defer and Drop system in Part I, as well as Open Loop Exercises, Hijacking Habits, and the Kolbe A Index in Part II of this series.
Today we’ll be digging into making and managing lists.
Ok. I get it. You know how to make a to-do list. I’m sure you’ve made a few in your day. But — and no offense — just because you can make a list, doesn’t mean you know how to USE one.
In his book "The To-Do List Formula", author Damon Zahariades explains that a to-do list isn’t merely a tool to get things done, “but rather a means to get the ‘right’ things done.”(1) So let’s check out some strategies that are sure to sharpen your list-making and list USING game.
KITCHEN SINK LISTS, TODAY LISTS, & SOMEDAY LISTS
This first strategy for managing your lists is Level 101 territory, but still worth covering. The advice? Separate all of your tasks into two master lists and one time-sensitive list.
The crucial element here is to review your master lists and then make intentional choices for what items to move into your Today List so no to-do gets left behind.
THE FIRST TASK
So, let’s say your Kitchen Sink List is massive and your Today List seems daunting as well. Clarifying every task you need to accomplish in those lists can make one feel a bit overwhelmed, so what is one to do?
Focus on the next step and nothing but the next step.
This is a simple mindset shift that can do wonders for your productivity. Saying "yes" to one thing requires saying "no" to other things. But when we’re trying to multi-task or knock out a complicated to-do list, we’re often saying "yes" to our task at hand, while still mentally thinking about the tasks that will come after.
The solution? Decide what you are not going to do.
Okay, so really I mean, decide what you are not going to do FIRST, because you will eventually get around to those other tasks. But the clarity of negating tasks can be helpful psychologically and that’s the whole point of this strategy.
It’s simple enough to do. Take a look at your Today List and keep cutting out items until you’ve only got one task to focus on. The item you want to tackle FIRST.
As far as you’re concerned, no other task exists except that FIRST task. Once it’s complete, you can repeat this process until you have your next “first” task. And then the next. And so on. By actively deciding what you are NOT going to do, you can trick your subconscious into ignoring the rest of your list until you’ve finished your First task.
If you need a tangible reminder, you can write your First Task on a notecard and carry it with you or prop it up on your laptop. The simplicity here not only helps you stay focused, but if you do find yourself distracted or interrupted, you only have to get back to that ONE task.
THE KANBAN SYSTEM
If focusing on one task at a time isn’t your thing, you may want to tackle your to-do list with a more interactive productivity strategy, like the Kanban system.(2)
The Kanban system asks you to visually diagram all of your to-dos and organize them into three categories: READY (work that needs to be done), DOING (any work in progress), and DONE (completed to-dos).
You can do this digitally using a system like kanbanize.com or you can do this by writing your to-do items on Post-It Notes or notecards and using a white board or cork board to pin and move the to-do items around as you complete them.
An important element of this system is to minimize the items in your DOING column so you can stay as focused as possible. It also gives you the ability to review all of your completed tasks at the end of the day, providing you with an external, visual account of your victories.
And while it’s not part of the Kanban system itself, if you want to assign prizes for certain mile markers or number of tasks completed, well, that’s entirely up to you. And as we’ve seen in Part II of this series, neuroscientist and author Dan Ariely would surely approve.
There are more strategies to come, but until then, happy Listing, First Tasking, and Kanbanning to you all!
Written by: Liz ThompsonLiz Thompson is a screenwriter and freelance development consultant. She has one show currently in development, is featured on The BitchList 2020, and won the 2019 Tracking Board Launch Pad Julian Silver mentorship. In between outlining and pitching she runs The Writer’s ARC group on Facebook, and can be found on Twitter at @howtoliz.