Dream Small? Accomplishing the Little Things You Never Seem to Get Around To

hands2 by msburrows on Flickr!As I’ve mentioned many times before, I start off every day with a pretty full to-do list – usually numbering twenty items or so. On a good day, I’ll accomplish most of them – write a few posts for The Simple Dollar, answer email, check the comments, handle some correspondence, work on another writing project, read a few chapters in a book, do some household tasks, and so on.

Inevitably, though, my list at the end of the day has a few things left on it – the things left undone. Quite often, these things are the low priority tasks that I’d like to accomplish during a given day.

The obvious question is why are there things on my to-do list that I regularly don’t accomplish? Obviously, I’m overstocking my to-do list each day – something that a lot of people do. When I put things on that list, I genuinely want to accomplish all of the things on the list, but I simply run out of time to get all of those things done.

Those things left behind eventually dig at me. I want to accomplish them, but I sometimes seem to never get around to them. What kind of things? I want to make another batch of homemade beer, followed by a batch of homemade wine. I want to write more short stories. I want to devote more time to reading for my own enjoyment. I want to rearrange the furniture in my office. I want to add a bunch of shelving to the garage. The list goes on and on.

This probably sounds familiar to you. I know it sounds familiar to a lot of the people I spent Christmas vacation with. I brought up this situation in various forms to different people, and almost to a tee, they all identified with it. Even my nine year old nephew did to a degree – he mentioned a book that he’s wanted to read for a while, but never opened.

Here’s the catch, though. In a few months, I will have done most of these things.

Sure, on a day to day basis, I do leave things undone, and those things do bother me. However, instead of just leaving those little things undone, I use several tactics to actually make sure that I do get around to them.

Here’s the game plan for getting around to those little things you’d like to find time to do.

Make one of them a priority today. The biggest reason that things on your list get left there is because you view other things as having a higher priority.

On my to-do list, there are usually a few things that are of the highest priority for the day. For me, that’s usually keeping up with my required writing – I need to stay ahead with my written words, after all. I usually build my day around those tasks and fill in the gaps with other tasks of less importance, but still need to get done – like reading email.

My solution? I take one of those tasks I’ve been neglecting and make it a top priority for the day. So, for example, today my “suddenly high priority” task is cleaning up my office – along with my writing, I’ll consider today a successful day if I get my office arranged the way I want it.

Do one of the tasks first thing in the morning. Another approach that works well for me is to do this low-priority task first thing in the morning, just as I start my day. This works well because of the flexibility of my schedule, since I can take on personal tasks at the start of my “work day,” but it also works in many office environments particularly if the task is related to your job.

Put off those big “essential” tasks that you start your day with (for me, I usually start off with writing whatever I think will be the most difficult article of the day) and start your day with that simple task. Don’t check your email. Don’t get started on the task of the moment. Instead, get that little thing that you’ve wanted to do out of the way. Write that little bit of code that needs to be written. Read a chapter of that book you’ve been intending to read. Get that office clean. Get that sticky correspondence out of the way.

Re-evaluate your use of time. If you’re consistently bothered by the things left undone, it might indicate that some of your life priorities are out of order at the moment.

Start by taking a serious look at the things you spend your time on during the day, from the minute you wake up until the minute you go to sleep. What things are you doing during that time that you would describe as very low priority? What things are you doing that seem redundant, pointless, or a waste of your time? What things are you doing that could easily be bridged with other things?

For example, let’s say the thing you’ve always wanted to do is start reading some classic literature, but you can’t find time for it. You don’t watch television, your job is jam packed, and so on. But, when you look at your daily schedule, you notice that you’re burning twenty minutes or so during your daily commute, and you’re usually just listening to talk radio. Why not turn off Glenn Beck and turn on an audiobook of For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Typical places to look for extra time include time devoted to entertainment (like that evening television block), time devoted to commuting, time devoted to gaming, time devoted to … avoiding work by surfing the ‘net, and so on. Just replace these things with some of the things you wish you had time for and suddenly you may find yourself getting things done.

Eliminate a few of your responsibilities. For some, though, the above tactics won’t help – they really are jammed to the brim and they’re leaving things on the table that they should be addressing.

If you’re in this situation, your schedule is overstuffed. You’re walking a tightrope and eventually you’re going to trip, fall, and drop something important.

This means that it’s time to start looking at eliminating a few of your responsibilities. It may be time to step back from some of your volunteer responsibilities – perhaps you can resign from a board you serve on or can step down at the end of a sports season when you coach. It might even be time to have a discussion with your work supervisor about the things on your plate in the workplace.

Every schedule needs some breathing room – without it, you’re begging for disaster. Now’s the time to start making some space in your own schedule.

Ask for help. One effective strategy for clearing out an overburdened schedule is to simply ask for help. Are there not items on your daily to-do list that couldn’t be easily handled with the aid of others? Here are three options for getting some assistance with your to-dos – so you have time to take care of all the things you want to do.

Delegate. If you’re in a position where you have the ability to move some of your most mundane tasks to another worker, take advantage of that. Delegate some of your busywork to an administrative assistant or to a lower-ranking employee. In some situations (I found myself in this situation, once upon a time), if your work load is full of mundane tasks that are keeping you from excelling in the “big” tasks of your job, you can ask for an assistant to help you with these mundane things – freeing you to achieve the things you’ve been aching to accomplish.

Ask. If you need help with the activities in your life, just ask for help from those around you. Ask your spouse to help out more with household tasks. Ask your friends for a break from some of your engagements with them so you have time to recharge your batteries. Ask your family members to help out with some of the personal responsibilities you’ve taken on helping with a sick family member. Just ask – if you’re a giving person, those around you will often step up to help you.

Trade. If there are tasks in your life that you struggle with, perhaps you might be able to clear up some time by trading skills with someone. For example, if you’re struggling with a computer that doesn’t work well – the crashes keep you from getting work done – offer to trade the skills you do have to a person who can tune up your computer. If you have kids, offer to swap babysitting nights with the parents of a couple of your child’s friends – that way, you’ll have a couple free evenings a month that won’t cost you anything in exchange for one night of focused babysitting.

Often, the little things in life are the ones we are most proud to accomplish. Don’t let some of the difficulties of life get in your way.

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  1. Trevor - 14 Year Old Money Blogger says:

    Don’t feel overwhelmed by making huge huge goals. Slowly move up and solve all of the problems.

    Great post!

  2. That picture is freaky. The hands look huge!

    Someday I’ll manage some people and have to delegate. That’s going to be the toughest thing for me. I’m a “if you want it done right do it yourself” kind of guy.

  3. CPA Kevin says:

    Great post Trent, I feel like it was directed at me. There are a couple things at work I’ve been putting off, but I’m going to try my best to check them off the to-do list today. Thanks.

  4. I used to be great at managing my to-do list, but in the last year, I started to feel overwhelmed by the tasks on it. I was also bored and uninspired, so eventually a lot of the “little” yet important tasks weren’t getting done.

    December tends to be a slow time for me at work, so I used that month to define my priorities. Delegating tasks to our department assistant at work made the list. I found that delegating assignments to her, with clear instructions, due dates and expectations, freed me up to focus on other tasks I wanted and needed to complete.

    I’m a month into this new way of working, and so far, so good. She’s doing a great job, work is getting done and I’m no longer feeling overwhelmed or uninspired.

  5. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    This is definitely true of me. I am always saving the smallest things for a “day off.” Those days off rarely come.

  6. Saver Queen says:

    I just moved into a new city where I don’t know anyone, and I’m trying to do the work at home thing. It’s not going well. I think a goal list would be a good place to start!

  7. I often find that those “little things” may seem important at one point in time, but then I put them off and eventually realize that I don’t need (or want) to do them at all. I guess this is more of a 4-Hour Workweek approach than a GTD approach to productivity, but it often works for me.

  8. Jackie says:

    One of the items that has slipped on my to-do list is sorting through my email inbox– I like to keep the number below fifteen, and right now there are 72! I have about twelve folders in my inbox, and I like to sort messages into them as I have replied or dealt with them. Keeping the number low for me represents keeping my tasks straight and making sure that correspondence is being answered and filed. So thanks for the nudge– I’m making sorting my inbox a priority today!

  9. Dawn says:

    Another way to get those tasks down is to break them in smaller pieces so they more easily fit in your day. For example, break your shelves in the garage task down to 1) buy shelves 2) assemble one set of shelves 3) assemble the other set 4) figure out where they are going to go and clear space for them 5) organize items on them – and so on. You get the idea. I have a HUGE stack of ideas for my company website on my desk. Each day I had on my list “Go through ideas and get them implemented.” It was too big. Now I have “Implement one idea.” each day – and slowly I am getting through the pile. It really helps.

  10. Studenomics says:

    You have written many great articles on time management and I can honestly say I have applied a lot of your advice to my own life. In fact I’m at the point now where my schedule is completefully full. I attend school full time, work full time, hang out with my girlfriend, read pf blogs, and even run my own pf blog. I manage to squeeze in 6-8 hours of sleep in there somehow.

    When I tell my friends about how much reading I do they try telling me that I have no life. My comeback to this is what kind of life do you have watching tv all the time? I still go out on the weekends and live the same life I normally would live. The only difference is that Monday to Friday I watch maybe 2-3 hours of tv.

  11. Michael says:

    I learned to handle most things once. If I think about re-arranging the room, or I receive a confusing letter from my insurance agent, or I see some old food in the fridge, I take care of it then. Like D. Allen’s two minute rule except it can range up to 20-30 minutes. I have found over time that I have fewer small things to do, I build better habits and I don’t need to keep track of a long to-do list.

  12. PF says:

    I think Michael’s comment (#10) is really onto something. Procrastinating these items is my general mode of operation and I end up with a cluttered brain of everything that I need to do. If I just go with the flow and do the task staring me in the face instead of over analyzing it, life works better. I think the d-allen 2 minute rule is too short. I tend to go with a 5-minute rule, but maybe that needs revisiting as well. Thanks Michael.

  13. Travis says:

    Shaving is probably my biggest little thing that I hate doing. I put it off as long as possible then it ends up being a more painful experience. I understand they have electric shavers, but I’ve never been a fan of them, and don’t really feel like they get the job done. Those little things that take 5-10 minutes a day annoy me so much.

  14. Rachel says:

    I used to be great at accomplishing things, a real superwoman. A few years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. My life became pain and fatigue. I still work part time, but most of my other time is spent sleeping and resting. I had to learn to take care of myself, and this was hard. Now my family is learning to do for themselves. My sister even hosted 4th of July and Christmas at her home this year. The desire is still there. I want to learn to do more, decorate cakes, knit, sail, but I have to take baby steps. My home is no longer spic n span. Some days are great, I have lots of energy. Some days I can barely get out of bed. But I have learned to be happy about this ailment. Who cares if my kitchen floor is freshly mopped or my car is wahed and waxed? did I do the important things today? Kiss my husband, talk to my teenage son, call to check on my dad? Slow down and really live!

  15. Melissa says:

    Great advice! I know the reason I always have things on my “to do” list is because I am OCD. Seriously. I always feel like I should be doing something more productive. That is why I rarely watch a TV program without also doing something else: email, reading, cleaning, cooking, etc. I’ve recently read that multi-tasking is actually BAD for productivity, but I don’t know how to only do one thing at a time. Ugh!

  16. Jessica says:

    This is definitely one that I can relate to! There are almost always items left on my to do list at the end of the day. If they’ve lingered for a couple days [my lists range from 10-20 items, so shorter than yours] I have to ask myself: WHY is this still here?

    Usually the answer is that it is something that I need to do but am procrastinating, or that it is not important. Not important gets dropped, procrastinating is a signal that I have to highlight it as a “top 3″ priority list for the next day.

    By the way, I don’t know if it was at Simple Dollar that I read about creating a list of the top 3 priorities for the day, but that one has really helped me manage my to do list, so thanks Trent!

  17. Sally says:

    @ Melissa – I know the OCD feeling!

    However, something I have stumbled upon is that it is SOMETIMES OK TO PROCRASTINATE. I have a constant list – and it seems that a lot of what I put off – does seem to magically work out at the right time. So – I have learned to prioritize AND trust that the secret (or power of intention) or whatever you want to call it – somehow works it out for me – when it’s the right time.

  18. Carrie says:

    @Melissa: I have that problem too! For me, though, it’s not OCD. It’s the feeling that I should be more productive than I currently am. Call it time management run amok. I now have a hard time sitting down with a book because I feel like I should be doing something more productive and less self-indulgent. So, I’m Exhibit A when it comes to the dark side of personal development. Take it too far, and you end up feeling like you could always do more when you really can’t or shouldn’t.

  19. kz says:

    Good post, Trent, but I have one quibble: reading books is not inherently the same as listening to them. I have no objection to listening to audiobooks, but it’s a totally different experience from reading. I don’t know about other people, but when I read a book, particularly a work of fiction, I tune out everything around me and am completely absorbed by the story. That’s something that’s not possible nor desirable during an audiobook, unless you’re sitting somewhere with your eyes closed. And, if you’re sitting someplace with your eyes closed, you might as well read the book since your time is obviously free. In my experience, reading a book allows you to both absorb and retain more of the information than listening to that same book.

    Audiobooks have their place, but my guess is that someone with “Read more classical literature” on their list is looking for the experience of reading them. If it’s just to say you know what the story is, you can save a lot more time by reading (or listening to) a summary.

  20. EngineerMom says:

    I love the idea of listening to a book in the car. It may not be quite the same experience as reading it, but it also may whet your appetite enough to encourage you to find the time you need to read.

    Dawn makes a good point about breaking big jobs into small ones. My husband does the dishes after dinner, a chore that takes about 30 to 45 minutes (no dishwasher, everything by hand). I wanted to use that time productively, too, but everything on my list felt like it required an hour or more – put away Christmas decorations and gifts (we traveled over the holidays), clean the bathroom, wash all the rugs (hardwood floors = a lot of rugs!), purge my and my son’s clothing and store/donate what doesn’t fit any more, etc.

    I broke the jobs down into tasks that felt like they could be completed in 15 minutes – purge one drawer of my son’s dresser, purge one of my drawers, clean the toilet and sink, clean the shower, put away the purged clothing I decided to keep, box the purged clothing I decided to donate, etc.

    To my surprise, many of the tasks I thought would take 15 minutes took less than 5. A few took a full half-hour, and some will just have to wait for the weekend (washing and drying rugs just takes at least 2 hours). However, during the time my husband has spent washing dishes each night, I have managed to complete at least two of my “small tasks”, which means that this weekend, maybe we’ll be able to knock of some of the larger ones since we’ve taken care of a good chunk of our household to-do list now!

  21. Why don’t you use David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done)????

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