Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Prioritized Productivity

In my beloved Betsy-Tacy books, Betsy's father, Mr. Ray, likes to say of February, "When the days begin to lengthen, then the cold begins to strengthen." That is proving true here in Greencastle. It is also true that "As the to-do-list begins to lengthen, the stress begins to strengthen." Betsy's family comes up with various strategies for defeating February, from hosting a thimble bee to trying to catch bluejays by putting molasses on the end of a stick. I have a new strategy for defeating to-do-list-triggered stress. I'm calling it "prioritized productivity."

It goes like this. I have my long, long list of things I have to do. I have a sense of what counts as a reasonable amount of work to expect from myself in a day. I know which projects are most urgent (need to be done soonest) and most important (matter most).

Each day I pick from my list a few things to do. Because I like to do things in multiples of five, I usually pick five. I make sure the list includes at least one or two of the top-priority tasks. Then I do them.

That's it.

That's really the whole thing.

Yesterday my five things were: 1) teach my children's lit class; 2) teach my Rousseau class; 3) shop for the snacks for the Prindle Institute reading group that I'm leading on Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters; 4) lead the book group; 5) read an eighty-page manuscript from one of the writers I'm mentoring through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators mentoring program.

Today my five things are: 1) eat breakfast with a job candidate for our Schanen Scholar position; 2) attend the candidate's job talk; 3) type up all my extensive comments for my mentee (generated from yesterday's reading); 4) write my monthly blog post for the Smack Dab in the Middle authors' blog; and 5) lead the discussion at the Janeites book group tonight, a delicious collection of essays on the pleasures of reading called Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.

I did all five yesterday. I'm going to do all five today. I was proud and happy yesterday. I'm going to be proud and happy today.

Note that my list includes things that I was already definitely going to do, list or no list, like teaching my classes. That's okay. I love giving myself credit for doing things I was going to do anyway. The lists for these particular two days don't include any writing on my own creative projects. That's okay, too.  Right now I am waiting on editorial comments on not one, not two, but THREE books, with no other project hanging over my head. If I did have writing to do, that would be the highest priority task of all. Pretty soon coming up with a new project will be the highest priority task of all. But that's not on my list for today.

The beauty of my system is that I do my five things, and I'm done, and I know the rest of my life will be fine, because my five things include a couple of the most important things for me to do right now. If I do five things every day on this system, everything I need to do will get done. Anything that is left undone is something of lower priority, anyway.

Here's the most crucial part: After I do my five things, I do NOT say, "But oh, my God, my to-do list is still endless! I still have a zillion things on it! I will never get them done! There aren't enough hours in a day! How will I get it all accomplished?!!!" Instead, I say, "Look how productive I was today. Look how I now have five things crossed off my list.And I can cross off five tomorrow, and five the next day, and five the day after that."

Prioritized productivity is defeating stress for me. Now maybe I'll find a stick and put some molasses on it....


  1. I love you concept of prioritized productivity...I'll have to try this.

  2. This is very helpful. Practical, and encouraging. Thank you.

  3. I wish I could be as sane as you!