Updated on 09.22.14

Keep Important Stuff from Slipping Through the Cracks

Trent Hamm

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!

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  1. Brandi says:

    Now if we could just get someone to do all those things on our to-do list we`d be in luck!!

  2. Trent,
    I think you hit the nail on the head when you recognized that “knowing what’s important to you and making sure that it gets done” is the key factor.
    – Tyler

  3. Robert says:

    One thing I look for in my task list is things that will take care of themselves or continue on without me once I set them in motion, like the dishwasher or the washing machine. This also applies to multi-part items that have a process independent of me, such as making a phone call or am email to get something started that will come back to me later after someone else has done their part.
    I also address things that have a deadline, like outgoing mail or online payments that have to post before ‘whatever time’ eastern time, as I’m on the west coast. Then I go on to the next layer.

  4. Dave says:

    A ticket for fishing without a license?

  5. Lisa says:

    “I can live with a dirty floor for another day.” Yup, I do that too and the next thing I know it’s been weeks. Sometimes it has to move to the top of the list.

  6. Ryan McLean says:

    Hm, you made some good points in this article. I too feel like somedays are just overwhelming, but when I make 4 little jobs into one big job, it seems to make things not so bad. Thanks for the tips.

  7. doctor S says:

    This is huge and big weakness of mine. Every week I realize there are certain things I want to get done, I try and prioritize them and plan them out, but I am missing the boat. I need to get more granular and do it on a day by day basis. I will try this out and see how my efficiency changes. Good one again Trent. Thanks!

  8. I prioritize and also break it down from least time consuming to maximum time consuming tasks.
    A Dawn Journal

  9. Susan says:

    Good article! I’m always floundering around with too many things to do and not enough time to do them all, feeling stressed. And I don’t even have kids. But I have a busy freelance business, dogs that need a lot of care, and a house with ongoing unfinished renovations and a huge yard. And working at home leads to being distracted by home for me. I always found that when I practiced Flylady’s habit of taking 15 minutes to sit and think of what needs to be done next, it made a huge difference in how my day went. This reminds me again of how well that works. Good to hear it from another perspective. Thanks!

  10. Nathan says:

    Only in America do you get a ticket for fishing w/o a license…dumb.

    Great stuff! You rock Trent.

  11. Karaof4 says:

    Filling our days with tasks keeps us from the heart. I’ve given up “doing soooo much” and found a ballance that works for me. I always ask “what does my heart need most”. This usually calms me and makes my life’s tasks much more enjoyable. And yes, I do get it all done. I think it’s the universe’s way of saying thanks for paying attention :-)

  12. journeyer says:

    Gosh! Are you sure you didn’t base this article on my life? What you say is so true. A little planning goes a long way. My problem is I tend to get so caught up in doing the things I forget the planning part. I’m getting better though. I’ve been using Todoodlist lately which is working well mostly.

    I totally agree with Lisa about the floors – that’s exactly what happens to mine :-)

    We get tickets for fishing without a license in Australia too :-(

  13. If you keep your to do list on your puter, put it in a spreadsheet not a word processing doc. add 3 columns, ‘urgent’ ‘important’ and ‘trivial’, and as you add tasks, put them in one column only.

    Could help.

    I also keep a ‘permanent to do list’ and a ‘current to do list’. The former contains things that always need doing, all the time – updating auction listings, marketing, sorting paperwork etc. This saves the ‘well, duh’ items from littering up the ‘current’ list.

  14. Kin says:

    I’ve been feeling very overwhelmed with my house this week. Today I finally had time to do something about it and I didn’t know where to start. EVERYTHING needed doing yesterday.

    I ploughed through my day, 3 things at a time. I didn’t bother making a list of what needed doing, I just sat down, looked around the house and thought, what are the next 3 things I can do: throw a load of washing in the machine, empty the dishwasher and clear the table. 5 minutes tops. Sit down again, repeat.

    As the day got on, the tasks got longer: fold a load of washing and put it away, finish typing up stocktake list, do the basket of ironing that’s been taunting me for a week. 30 minutes. I’m now up to 33 things done for the day, and after dinner I’ll continue on like this. When I’ve got 5-6 things that need doing, a list and prioritising are great, when I’ve got 500* it doesn’t work so well :-)

    *probably not much of an exaggeration either.

  15. Carrie says:

    I like to keep the number of things on my “to do” list to a minimum (difficult, I know). I freeze up when I feel overwhelmed. One thing that’s helped a lot is paying bills the day I get them. I don’t know if that’s feasible for everyone, but it does remove a major stressor for me.

  16. In my experience, Getting Things Done really falls short in the prioritization area. Your method of asking what action has the greatest consequence is a really succinct way to prioritize without getting too philosophical about things. Thanks for sharing this.

  17. Adam @ LiveWorkBalance says:

    Maria, you bring up a good point, though I think this basically sums up why GTD’s strength is in it’s flexibility. But it does require this type of forethought when selecting actions.

    I think part of the problem is that people get things on a list and then just frequently start at the top, or choose something without really looking at their options. I’m just as guilty of this as the next person, but it’s something I’m working on.

    Trent, thanks for a great post!

  18. Michael says:

    I am to where to-do lists are only for little things, usually preventative actions. I keep major initiatives in my head to think about them. For example, I just moved and I have a list of address changes, but no list of “things to unpack and organize.” That’s because it is all in front of me and I should have it on my mind (when home) until it is done. However, I do keep a list of small things to buy and add to it as I unpack – again, individually trivial stuff.

  19. I got pulled over by the police and received a warning ticket this past weekend.

    The reason?

    Hubby had been in a hurry and left the new license plate stickers on the registration instead of putting them on the license plate of the car our son uses (which I had borrowed that day).

    Fortunately, the policeman had a sense of humor when he saw them still attached to the registration but he still gave me the warning ticket.

    Now that is getting in a hurry when one forgets to put the new date stickers on.

  20. Carey says:

    Boy do I know this to be true. I just last week had a very big scare due to my lack of prioritizing. Although I consider myself very organized, I’m one of those people who won’t do it unless it’s written down.

    I pay my property taxes and homeowner’s insurance myself, instead of through my mortgage company’s escrow account. I recently got my statement, and put it on “the to-do pile” on my desk, knowing I had plenty of time to get to it. Well, I forgot about it.

    By the time I found it, it stated that my policy would be canceled if payment was not received by October 15th, by 12:01 am. It was 8:34 am… on October 15th.

    Long story short, my insurance company graciously accepted my payment by phone and renewed my policy… but they didn’t have to. That scared me straight!

  21. Mrs. P says:

    Once again I recommend the Flylady approach to getting things done, particularly on the domestic front. She advocates that we use routines. Morning routines to get things done and evening routines and calendars help a lot too. She is not the first one to say you should have just one calendar with EVERYTHING on it. I don’t get it all done either, but with mindfulness, I am getting more accomplished than before.

  22. Olivia says:

    What fantastic advice. And thanks for the link to TaDaLists. I look forward to getting the jumbled to-do thoughts in my mind organized and accomplished.

  23. Chris says:

    Good information about lists making. I don’t use tadalist since it is so so simple. I use http://www.anyinput.com for mine. But anyinput application has too much setup and may be too complex / cumbersome for many. But I make the lists at work. hehe.

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