Keep Important Stuff from Slipping Through the Cracks

Changed Priorities Ahead by Redvers on Flickr!There are many, many days where I feel completely buried in little tasks. Pay the bills. Help my son draw a picture. Make dinner. Write an article. Write another article. Answer correspondence. Do a phone interview. Vacuum the carpet. Do the dishes. Wash the kitchen floor. Do a load of laundry. And on … and on … and on.

It is very easy to feel overwhelmed with all of these little things. I certainly know there are times when I feel like there is simply too much to do – and there often is. Even if I keep at it all day, I’ll still end my day with things left undone.

And, even worse, sometimes things slip through the cracks. Genuinely important things.

Here’s a case in point: my wife received a ticket for fishing without a license a couple months ago. She got the ticket from the DNR and put it on the stack of bills to pay next week.

Well, next week came around. She pulled out that bill, had a question about it, tried to contact DNR, and couldn’t get ahold of anyone. So she sat it aside – and promptly forgot about it for a while.

Luckily, she stumbled upon it before it was past due and got the bill paid, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was still something that slipped through the cracks – and it’s also proof that those little things can often cost you money.

I know that on those days when I feel buried, it’s not due to the big things – it’s due to dozens of little things. I can deal with two or three important things in a day – but I often feel overwhelmed by the little tasks.

I know a lot of people often find themselves in this boat. I live next door to a single mother with two young children and I can tell from talking to her almost daily that she’s often completely inundated with little tasks – I actually feel some sympathy for her situation. Even my father, who is retired, often has his days loaded up with so many things to do that he can’t possibly get them all done.

The solution seems really easy, doesn’t it? Do the important stuff today and let the rest lag behind. It’s a great principle – in theory. But life often isn’t that easy. We get so caught up in running through our list of things to do that we don’t really think about what’s important or not.

Here’s a great example of this from the last few days in my own life.

We have a big pile of guests coming to visit this weekend, so I made out a long list of things to do to get ready before they come. Pick up the family room and the living room. Vacuum. Go grocery shopping. Clean the junk out of the garage. Get the laundry all caught up. Rearrange the pantry. Clean out the fridge.

Looking at that list, it’s not immediately obvious which one is the most important. The key ones are picking up and going grocery shopping, but what comes next? It’s not immediately clear, so since it’s not clear, I’d probably just dive into this list blindly, choosing one item to do, then another, in no strong and clear pattern.

What’s the solution? Before I jump in, I spend some time planning this out. I figure out which things need to be done and which things are precursors for others. I also determine if some should be done at specific times or not.

What I eventually realize is that I should rearrange the pantry and clean out the fridge before getting the groceries, since I’ll have a better idea of the food on hand and also have a good place to put anything I purchase. I also recognize that picking up the family room and living room and grocery shopping are the two things that need to be done, but they can both best be done closer to everyone’s arrival time. So, what do I focus on today? I rearrange the pantry, clean out the fridge, and then deal with the other remaining tasks – cleaning out the garage, vacuuming, and laundry – in the order that they affect guests (vacuuming would probably come first, then).

That five minutes of prep time spent actually thinking about what I need to do puts my to-do list in a more sensible order. I’ve identified the key things to do now, the key things to do tomorrow, and also determined the order for dealing with the less important things.

This planning keeps me from mistakes like buying redundant things at the grocery store (and jamming them into the pantry), cleaning up the family room too early (before the kids help make it messy again), and cleaning up less important things (like the garage) ahead of more important things (like vacuuming).

This basic principle works all the time. The two or three minutes you might spend making sure you’ve listed everything you need to get done and putting them in a sensible order and schedule (where the less important tasks are the ones that you might not complete, but the most important ones get done) are rewarded over and over again.

I actually do this every single day. As I mentioned a while back, I use TaDaList to manage my to-do list each day, and I also use it for checklists like preparing for guests to arrive.

Each day, not only do I use those lists for keeping me on task, I order the list, putting the things I need to get done today on top and leaving the less important things down below. On multi-day projects, I mark the items with notes if they have to be done at a certain time or on a certain day so I can move those to the top on the key day.

Once that’s done, I can allow myself to be mindless, just cranking through the tasks as they come up on the list and along the way, I can be confident that the right tasks are getting done.

How could my wife have handled the situation with her ticket better? She should have just added it to her to-do list for tomorrow with a high priority. She does it, it’s done, we move on with life.

Another example: how do I filter through that big long list of things to do that I listed at the start? (Pay the bills. Help my son draw a picture. Make dinner. Write an article. Write another article. Answer correspondence. Do a phone interview. Vacuum the carpet. Do the dishes. Wash the kitchen floor. Do a load of laundry.) I just order them in terms of impact – what’s the long-term impact if I don’t do this right now? That orders the list pretty nicely – I put a high priority on paying the bills, whipping them out in a few minutes, then I start dinner. While that’s cooking, I sit down with my son and we draw a picture together because I can always do the laundry later but I’ll never get that time back. The rest? I can live with a dirty floor for another day.

The key to making sure that the truly important stuff doesn’t fall through the cracks is knowing what’s truly important to you and making sure that gets done first. The best way to do that is to stop for a minute and prioritize. Good luck!