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Getting Organized

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he day has barely begun, and you are already overwhelmed and wishing you had 48 hours rather than a mere 24 to attend to everything that needs to be done. In an attempt to quiet your brain and regain some control, you grab a pen and a blank sheet of paper and start assembling a "fresh" to-do list. After transcribing your mental notes-to-self, you begin gathering up the scraps of paper on which you have written other pending tasks and add those to the master list. As the list grows, your hope of ever completing everything on it shrinks. What now?

An actor's to-do list comes in many shapes and sizes: inputted into a PDA or computer program, handwritten on a legal pad or planner page, or even just written on a hand. Some folks maintain several lists at once. A few write and rewrite their lists daily. Most take pleasure in vigorously crossing off completed items. And almost all list-makers have fantasized about that blissful moment when every item has been completed and they are finally caught up and at peace.

I suggest forgetting that fantasy and facing the truth: As a creative, multitalented, ambitious professional with friends and family, you will always have a lengthy to-do list. The key is to learn how to use your list so it can be a helpful tool rather than a heartless tormentor.

As 21st-century Americans, we make to-do lists almost instinctively. The act can be comforting, momentarily slowing down your pace and restoring mental order to your life. However, these lists can also become burdensome reminders of all that you are not accomplishing. You can become enslaved to the beast, rushing to squeeze more into each day and criticizing yourself for not getting everything done. The more out of control you feel, the more frequently you might write and rewrite your lists. Let's break this cycle by examining what a to-do list is meant to do.

A to-do list is a tool to organize and track the individual tasks related to moving your life and your projects forward in the direction you wish to go. In order for the list to provide support for your goals, you must know what your goals are. Having clarity concerning your personal and career goals allows you to make judgments about the items on your list. Maintaining your list is not just about keeping it neat and legible. It is about evaluating (Is this task still important?), selecting (What needs to get done today?), prioritizing (What needs to get done first?), and setting deadlines (What needs to be done before I go out of town next week?).

Avoid becoming subservient to your list. Telling yourself that everything on it is equally important and must get done is unhealthy and untrue. When you no longer have the desire or the time to tend to a particular task, remove it from your list without guilt.

Having tinkered with the structure of my to-do lists many times throughout the years, I can assure you that there is no format that will magically make your life perfectly organized. As always, it is about creating a simple system that meets your needs and then consistently working that system.

I recommend sorting the tasks on your master list either by activity (career, personal, family, household) or by action (calls, emails, errands, notes to write). Sorting by activity enables you to shift your focus to one area of your life at a time. When you have an hour to devote to catching up with personal business, you can get right to work if all of your personal to-dos are easily identifiable and grouped together. Sorting by action enables you to grab the phone and whip through your list of calls all at once. Also, sorting your errands by geographical area can help you maximize trips.

A computer program capable of color-coding and/or automatically arranging your master list into categories is helpful. However, if you prefer handwriting your lists, you can either create a to-do list form with three to five blank columns in which to group your tasks, or use highlighters to color-code similar tasks on your master list (e.g., highlight all calls you need to make in blue).

We need to-do lists because relying on our brains to remember all this information is risky. I carry a digital tape recorder to capture new to-dos and ideas throughout each day. Get in the habit of doing a mind-dump every evening; add new to-dos to your list and delete the completed tasks. Then review your entire list and select four to six items to accomplish the following day. Of those, determine which one is your highest priority. Also, especially if you chronically underestimate time, decide which tasks can be dropped if necessary. The more realistic you are about how much you can handle in a single day, the less stressed you will feel.

Organizational expert and career strategist Kristine Oller can be contacted at www.KristineOller.com.

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