The Burner List: an interesting approach to to-do lists

“There are a billion to-do list apps and methods out there, and I think I’ve tried 900 million of them,” Jake Knapp wrote. He then went on to describe his own paper-based process, which he calls the Burner List, using a kitchen stove analogy.

He creates two columns on a piece of printer-size paper. The left column — the front burner — is devoted to his single most important project. He lists that project name (for example, “write book”) and then a series of to-dos related to that project. The to-dos are items that can be done in the next few days. The to-dos will not fill the whole column, and that’s fine.

The top of the right column is the back burner — the second most important project — and its to-dos. The bottom part of that column is the kitchen sink, which is where he captures the miscellaneous things he needs to do that aren’t part of either project. Things like “schedule eye exam” and “buy cat food” go here.

You can read more about Knapp’s process on Ideo’s blog or on Medium. He’s an engaging writer, and it’s a quick read.

Two aspects of Knapp’s approach grabbed my attention. The first was the obvious focus on moving his big projects forward — something that often gets neglected amidst all the kitchen-sink type items we all have. Corinne Purtill wrote an article entitled The to-do list is a tyrant that will keep your life and your goals small, which addressed the problem of “a constant focus on short-term tasks.” With Knapp’s to-do list, any lack of progress on the most important longer-term projects becomes painfully obvious.

I also noted Knapp’s comments on how he re-creates his list as items get done.

The Burner List is also disposable. It gets stale fast as you cross off finished to-dos. I “burn” through my list every few days and then recreate it, over and over. This act of recreation is important, because I always discard some unfinished tasks which no longer matter and I reconsider what belongs on the front burner right now.

Colter Reed wrote an interesting blog post about this idea of removing some unfinished tasks from your to-do list. The whole post is worth a look, but the following captures the core idea:

Tasks expire, just like anything in your fridge. It was relevant once, but not now. You missed the deadline. You don’t have as much free time now. It’s not important to you now. If you’re honest with yourself, it probably never was.

A task on your list is not a permanent commitment. … You can renegotiate the commitment at any time, especially if it’s just with yourself.

If the Burner List doesn’t resonate with you, perhaps one of the many of approaches I’ve written about before will be a better fit. There are also a huge number of apps for managing to-do items, one of which might work well for you. Or maybe you’ll want to create your own way of managing to-do items, just as Knapp did.

Taking a binge approach to organizing projects

Today National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts, 30 days of concentrated writing with the goal of producing a 50,000 word novel. Nearly 20 years old now, the month is a way for writers to set themselves a goal and a deadline, producing 1,667 words a day.

Why does it exist?

  • To provide motivation to writers who may find life getting in the way of writing regularly.
  • To provide a community of support in what is considered a rather solitary process.
  • To shut down the internal editor, the voice that blocks forward motion.
  • To gamify the writing process, giving writers the chance to score wins against the final word count.

I’ve done it a few times, although I only won it once. While in principle I think it’s a great idea, for me it creates too much anxiety and pressure. The binary win/lose option stresses me out and then I can’t actually focus on the writing. Author Chuck Wendig does a great job of taking a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at the pros and cons of working in this way.

For many people, however, it’s the exact motivation they need to finish something. Many popular authors have used the month to kickstart bestseller novels.

Unclutterer is focused on organizing and productivity not writing novels so why discuss it here? Because maybe for you, a binge approach to an organizing project you’ve been putting off may be just the thing you need to get going — and to reach the end.

Let’s break down NaNoWriMo into its component parts and transfer them to a hypothetical organizing project: unclutter and organize the kitchen cupboards.

NaNoWriMo goal: 50,000 words in 30 days
Organizing goal: 18 cupboards and drawers

NaNoWriMo daily goal: 1,667 words
Organizing daily goal: a little more than 1 cupboard or drawer every two days

NaNoWriMo support network: any number of online or local writing support groups and forums (or of course books and workbooks)
Organizing support network: the Unclutterer Forums, friends or family

NaNoWriMo gamification moment: daily concrete opportunity to “win”
Organizing gamification moment: daily concrete opportunity to “win”

NaNoWriMo internal editor silencer moment: with the daily goal and pressure of winning, there’s no time to allow doubt to creep in — it’s a “just do it” moment
Organizing doubt silencer: with a set two-day goal, there’s no opportunity to doubt decision — they simply have to be made

NaNoWriMo positive peer pressure moment: if a daily word count is missed, it can be spread through the rest of the month, or binge-written one day to catch up
Organizing positive peer pressure moment: if a day goes by without organizing a drawer or cupboard, a day with a double “win” can boost your confidence

NaNoWriMo end result: the first draft of a novel, a beginning-to-end piece of fiction
Organizing end result: a streamlined and organized kitchen

This type of organizing, however, is not for everyone. Just as I no longer do NaNoWriMo because it produces too much pressure-related anxiety, the stress of “having to” organize a drawer or cupboard every two days might produce panic or paralysis instead of motivation. It depends entirely on your personality.

If you think you’ll enjoy this challenge, check out Erin Rooney Doland’s book Unclutter Your Life in One Week. It has great tips and provides a guide for uncluttering any room in your home.

How do you deal with slips in your projects?

One of the main goals of Unclutterer, apart from helping readers lead a more organized and streamlined life, is to help you create long-lasting change in your routines, habits, and life. Many of our articles revisit similar themes so that you can keep moving forward with your goals, revising what you are doing well, and identify when you need a course correction.

In my case, I am trying to merge my work and home life personalities. At work, I am decisive, productive, proactive, and passionate. At home, I never make decisions, ignore projects, react before thinking, and live with neither ups nor downs.

As regular readers know, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system to transfer my work personality to my home one. And while the system has helped me keep my head above water during a stressful period at work, I’ve let my passivity to life stay in control and have pretty much converted my Bullet Journal into a solely work-related tracking system.

So, something needs to be done, and I think I’ve found the trick: the Moleskine app for my iPad Pro. One of the reasons I’ve let the personal life slide is because the work list was taking up a full page, leaving me with no room to add personal stuff and I refused to have a single day in two different pages in my Moleskine notebook. Sure it’s an excuse, but it was enough to derail me.

However, with the Moleskine app (available for iOS) I can have multiple notebooks and yet have only one item to carry. The app is free if you want the basic notebooks of Weekly Planner, Plain Paper, Lined Paper, and Grid Paper. You can buy other notebooks for Photos, Recipe Tracker, Travel Journal, and Wine Journal, but for now I have no interest in those ones. If you are an avid cook, travel writer, or wine lover, these journals might come in handy for organizing your thoughts.

By using the app, I’ve created five different journals:

  • Weekly Planner: to schedule my days and know what’s coming up. This planner looks into the future and includes both work and home.
  • Work Journal: to organize all my work-related tasks. I love the color and pen thickness options in the app and can keep track of all my tasks and priorities in a vibrant, colorful way.
  • Home Journal: to keep my personal-related actions, desires, and ideas front and center. This journal is copied from my work one and will hopefully, over time, instill my home personality with the more active traits from my work personality.
  • Connection Journal: to remind myself to connect with my social circles. As an introvert, I could easily go through a week only talking with work mates, but friends and family need to be taken care of or they won’t be there when my introverted self decides it wants company.
  • Time Tracker: to make sure I take time for myself each day. I can easily be busy, busy, busy, from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep without taking even 15 minutes to read, write some fiction, or just stare at the ceiling. This journal looks at what has actually happened each day and serves as a good reminder that without personal time, I will burn out completely and start cutting myself off from the rest of the world, which is the exact opposite of my goal.

Wait a second… Five different journals? Isn’t that a lot of work?

Yes, it is, but the changes I want to make in my life are big and doing any less has proved too easy for my (nearly) 50 years of habits to take control and derail my plans.

I love my iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil — it’s the closest I’ve ever seen to a digital notebook, and now that I can use my favorite notebooks in digital format, I couldn’t be happier. Productivity and perseverance thanks to technology.

What changes are you trying to make in your life? Are you aware of any slips? What are you doing to correct them and maintain momentum?

 

Overcoming task paralysis

Recently I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed at work. With the introduction of a new database and several people off on sick leave my to-do list never gets shorter. Fortunately, I am an organized person and manage to move forward even if it’s just a few priority items. But what if being organized is a challenge for you? That feeling of being overwhelmed becomes so all consuming that paralysis sets in.

Let’s imagine a situation that many people face. Let’s call our test subject Gloria. She’s a single mother with two children and has recently decided that she will pursue her dream of working in television full-time, as a freelance writer and producer. When looking one year into the future she clearly pictures having implemented some of her program ideas, having produced the show she wrote, and being able to support her children financially.

The problem is that she’s so overwhelmed by the normal anxieties of life that she can’t see clearly. There seems to be so much stuff that she’s paralyzed by it all. She’s moved her office in-house so that she could work on things 24/7 but that hasn’t worked (which isn’t surprising). Bringing the office into the home often creates more anxieties not fewer. Without a clear separation of work life and home life, the stress and guilt of working or not working 24/7 multiples exponentially. Every moment at work outside of regular hours takes away from family time and every moment with the family is one less moment striving for the work-related dream.

In our go-go-go world this sense of paralysis is common and it’s something many people suffer from. It happens when you allow your to-do list to get longer and longer which results in panic and paralysis.

Gloria especially feels anxious when she looks at all the day-to-day tasks. That often happens when people keep it all in their heads — it builds and each item seems unrelated to anything else. As well, as I said working on things 24/7, is not the best way to get things done. Time off is important, not just to recharge the batteries, but also to allow ideas and projects to simmer in the back of the brain.

So what should Gloria do?

She needs a plan. She needs to know what she’s working on when. However, she can’t create that plan until she knows exactly what she wants to work on. Yes, in her one-year-in-the-future vision she hints at what she might work on now, but the ideas are still very abstract. They are results, not actions.

When looking into the future, it’s important to focus on actions. Outcomes are great, but they don’t motivate well because they leave a gap between the current state and the future outcome. That gap can only get filled by action. And what actions does Gloria need to focus on? What actions do you need to focus on if you want to achieve your dreams? How can you choose any one thing when the to-do list is longer than a line-up to buy U2 concert tickets?

She might just pick one random item and work on that. Or she might pick the top three things that have reached crisis mode. Or she might take a bit of time to plan out her actions, which first requires some research.

In this case, research doesn’t mean going out and looking up information or talking to others. For this type of research she is going to interview herself. Using a blank piece of paper, Gloria is going to write down the numbers 1 to 100. Next, she will fill in all 100 slots with everything she does during the day, as well as everything she feels she should do and everything that she wants to do, but hasn’t got around to yet.

What will Gloria get out of overwhelming herself even more? How will this exercise help?

Right now Gloria feels overwhelmed by all of her to-dos. These to-dos however are only in her head, which she needs to liberate to allow more focused thought take over. Getting it out on paper does just that. Plus by giving herself a goal of 100 items she’ll likely have a hard time filling in every number, and she’ll realize that she doesn’t actually have as many things to do as she thought, taking off some of the pressure.

So now she has a list of items that she does (or wants to do). How does she take this list of actions and turn them into a plan that works for her, gives her time to relax, and moves her towards her dream? By prioritizing, delegating, and deleting items from the list. And no, it’s not easy. In fact this sort of challenge paralyzes many people.

Gloria will most likely need help. She’ll need the outside objectively of someone who isn’t so intimately connected to the actions, someone who can help her decide priorities and what doesn’t really need to get done after all. That help could come in the form of a friend, a family member, or a professional (like an organizer or a coach).

So, just how short should her list become? That depends on each person. In my case, I can have a very long to-do list without panicking, but others might need short lists, with tasks and projects spread out over stages based on priority.

Finally, Gloria needs to get started. Lists are great tools, but they need to be used. She might decide to use a system like Getting Things Done, or Bullet Journal (as I’ve been doing). But whatever the system, she needs to commit to it and let the lists guide her through the minefield of task-related anxieties.

Time management and requests to “pick your brain”

“May I pick your brain for 15 minutes?” That’s a common request with some important time management implications, especially for those who get a lot of these requests. The following are a few things to consider:

If you are the person receiving the request

I’ve received “pick your brain” requests and I’ve handled them in different ways at different times. There’s no one right way to respond to such requests.

It’s okay to say no.

Given how many articles have been written about turning down these requests, it seems as though saying no is hard for many people. That’s not surprising, since saying no to all sorts of requests for your time can be a challenge, as we’ve addressed before on Unclutterer.

Adrienne Graham is one of those who says no to pick-your-brain requests. As she wrote for Forbes:

I love giving advice. I write blogs, articles and a newsletter. I host a radio show. I tweet, Facebook and share nuggets of advice almost daily. So what is it in all of that, that would make anyone think they can still have the right to “pick my brain”? …

Your knowledge has value. You’ve invested time and money into learning your craft and it’s not fair for people to expect you to give it away for free. Even friends need to understand there are boundaries.

As she points out, you can always choose to be helpful in other ways. You may well have free resources — a newsletter, a blog, etc. — that you can suggest the person consult. You can recommend a good book.

It’s okay to say yes.

If you have the time and you want to help, it’s perfectly fine to say yes. I’ve heard many people say that others helped them when they were getting started, and now they want to give back by helping others.

Dylan Wilbanks wrote a blog post entitled On Being Generous, where he stated:

I am an introvert. Alone time is everything to me. And yet, I make the time to meet those who want to talk.

Wilbanks works in tech, and he’s found that as he helps others he in turn gets better at what he does.

It’s okay to say yes, but.

Erin Loechner suggested carving out an hour or a half-hour per week that’s truly convenient for you and offering that time to those who ask. “Yes, I would love to help, but I am currently only available from 4-4:30am EST on Tuesday.”

Kaarin Vembar does this by offering 8 a.m. Friday Skype calls. As she explains to those who ask for an alternative, “I’m trying to maintain sanity, be available to cool people and pay my bills at the same time. Fridays at 8 a.m. equates to healthy boundaries.”

It’s okay to yes, for a fee.

As Rachel Sklar wrote:

You can say, “Sure! My rate is $450 per hour, plus snacks. I’d love to help you!” It is amazing how considerate people become with your time once they have to pay for it.

Nicole Jordan wrote about using this approach:

This is what I started doing, especially for people that I do not know well: I tell them I am happy to meet, I am flattered they asked, and that because my time is valuable I don’t do these PYB sessions for free.

If you are the person making the request

If you’re asking someone to make time to answer your questions, be sure to respect that person’s time.

Consider alternatives to in-person meetings.

As Erin Greenawald wrote:

Somewhere along the way, asking to “sit down for coffee” became the status quo for requests like this. … When you count the time commuting, ordering coffee, sitting down and making small talk, and actually answering your questions, most coffee dates will take almost an hour. And that’s a lot of time to give!

Instead, ask for something that’s even easier. Suggest a phone call — it’s often more void of small talk than coffee, and your contact can do it from anywhere.

If for some reason you really feel you need a face-to-face meeting, you can offer to come to the person’s office, which will cut down on the time required.

Be prepared, so you make good use of the time.

Do some research before making the request — and before the brain-picking session if you’ve been granted one — so you aren’t asking for basic information you could readily get elsewhere.

Staying on top of tasks: a Bullet Journal update

A couple of months ago, I committed to experimenting with the Bullet Journal process for organizing my time and tasks. I wanted to know several things before deciding if it was a success or not.

Does the system work?

As I’ve said in previous articles about the system, I’m really quite impressed by it. It works because it’s simple. With the amount of work stress I’ve been under the past six weeks, anything that gave me more work would have failed on the second day. I can honestly say that far from creating more work, it has saved me a lot of last minute crisis solving because I got things done before they reached crisis point.

Is it flexible enough to adapt to different situations?

Any system that cannot adapt will never be viable. The Bullet Journal system manages to adapt not only to people’s individual ways of working, but also to the changing needs of the same person.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that in future notebooks, I would get rid of the Future Planning section, put the month-by-month planning first and then add a weekly calendar before my day-to-day lists. The first two items will actually happen, but the weekly calendar is something I need only when I have a lot of appointments. Most of my tasks aren’t tied to specific dates, so I don’t need to plan out my week normally, but when I do, starting with a blank page rather than a pre-designed calendar, I can create a weekly plan only when I need to.

Can it carry me through very stressful times?

September is always a crazy time of year work-wise. This year, it was even more so because we are installing a new client database. Being a bit on the distracted/obsessive side, when faced with huge and/or stressful projects, I tend to focus on them and let the rest slide.

In previous years, my staff (who are the front-line workers in our industry) haven’t received the support or materials they need to do their jobs well because I’ve been to busy focused on the administrative side, forgetting that if we don’t deliver the service well, we won’t get clients.

By writing down all my tasks (and rewriting postponed ones the next day), very few things have slipped through the cracks this year, and staff have been more prepared than ever.

Can I use it to maintain a work/life balance?

My slightly obsessive nature often causes me to forget about my home life when work gets busy. This year, however, despite doing ten or twelve hour days in the office, I’ve managed to avoid the unfortunately all-too-true cries of abandonment at home. We like to stay busy, organizing weekends with friends at home or away.

Normally at this time of year, I leave all of that organizing up to my husband and basically take for granted that he will do what needs doing so that I can relax and have fun on the weekend.

Not so this year, for once!

We have really come together as a team, participating and communicating so much more, so much that two weeks ago when I told my husband that yet again the following week I would be doing morning and afternoon shifts, he answered with a simple “okay” rather than any expression of disappointment.

And can I maintain it?

This is the one thing I’m not sure about. I’ve already pretty much abandoned the system on weekends. But I’m all right with that. Weekends are when I can disconnect and I believe that if I kept up the Bullet Journal on weekends as well, it would turn into a chore and I’d be quicker to abandon it during the work week just out of resentment. Fortunately, however, none of my system breakdown fears has come true.

In my next Bullet Journal experiment update (once my work life has settled into its normal routines) I’ll let you know how well I’ve managed to maintain the system.

Procrastination and deadlines

Do any of the following words sound familiar to you?

  • Me every time: “Should I spend ten minutes completing this task now or stress about it for four days first? The latter seems good.” — Kelly Ellis
  • My most reliable hobby is spending an hour putting off a task that will take two minutes to complete. — Josh Gondelman
  • An hour is amateur. I’ve gone months. Years. — Helen Rosner, replying to Gondelman

I just cleaned my cat fountain, a task that just takes a few minutes but which I’ve been putting off for weeks. I finally did it because I knew I was writing this blog post.

For me, the most useful way to avoid procrastination on tasks of all sizes is to have a deadline or make a public declaration of intent. Last week I wrote about figuring out which of my keys are the ones I need, so this week I finally went to The UPS Store and determined which one opened the store’s front door. I’m in a book club, which gives me a deadline for reading at least 12 books per year. I just volunteered to host the next book club meeting, so I will definitely give the house a good cleaning before then.

Tim Urban did a TED talk on procrastination where he says that even though he’s a master procrastinator, things work out for him. As deadlines approach, his “panic monster” shows up, frightens off the “instant gratification monkey” in his brain, and he meets those deadlines. It’s not a pretty system, but it works. The problem comes with things that don’t have deadlines, so the panic monster never appears.

I wondered if maybe that panic monster can be activated for good even when there’s not a deadline. Those of us in earthquake territory, watching the news about the horrible hurricanes lately, might get inspired to begin creating or updating our stash of emergency supplies since we have no idea when the next major quake will strike.

Eric Jaffe, writing for Co.Design, says that some studies indicate that self-imposed deadlines don’t work to overcome procrastination, and this matches the thinking of scholars in the subject.

Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, one of the leading scholars of procrastination, isn’t surprised that self-imposed deadlines don’t resolve undesirable delays. Procrastinators may need the tension of a looming deadline to get motivated, but when that deadline is self-imposed its authority is corrupted and the motivation never materializes. “The deadline isn’t real, and self-deception is a big part of procrastination,” he tells Co.Design.

Jaffe goes on to say that Pyschyl and other researchers think procrastination isn’t actually a time management issue. Rather, the problem is the following: “Procrastinators delay a task because they’re not in the mood to do it and deceive themselves into thinking they will be later on.”

I’m not sure that’s why I procrastinate, but I do know that private self-imposed deadlines frequently don’t work for me. If I find I’m procrastinating on something important that has no hard deadline, I might need to create one by making that commitment known to someone else.

Celebrating success: a Bullet Journal experiment update

It’s not the prettiest Journal, but it works.

The first two weeks of September are always the busiest in my day job and usually I get to launch day exhausted, facing a hundred little crises, and with a knot in my stomach because I have not had time to complete some really important tasks.

This year, however, everything has gone as smooth as silk and I have to attribute the success to my use of my Bullet Journal. Of course, every year, I make to-do lists, but always in a haphazard manner on a variety of different pieces of paper and/or computer files and emails.

I also managed to be productive in my personal life as well. Remember how I made the decision to be purposeful about my choices in life? Well, that has extended into this crazy period of the year, and despite ten and twelve hour days at work, I’ve been in better and more meaningful touch with my husband and friends than I’ve been in years.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why the Bullet Journal has produced different results, but I do have a few ideas.

  • Part of it is because I knew I was using it as an experiment here on Unclutterer, so I never let a day pass without updating the Journal.
  • By giving work and personal life tasks and thoughts equal priority, one never took over the other. And success in one area motivated me and encouraged success in the other.
  • I hate rigid rules and the rebellious teenager in me always wants to break them, so having been told right from the start that “rules” for Bullet Journaling are meant to be broken, my inner-teen never needed to rebel.

The system isn’t perfect, of course. Now that I write everything down, if it’s not in the Journal, it doesn’t happen. For example, in preparing to go down to our apartment in La Rioja last Friday, I reminded myself to take the house keys off their hook and leave them out where I could see them, but I didn’t write it down. Did I forget my set of keys? You bet I did!

The index is useless for me. I know I am never going to go back to review things. My lists and thoughts are “in the moment” things. Once completed, I move on. In my next Journal, the index will disappear.

The Future Planning portion makes no sense to me. I prefer to have a section with the whole year divided into months so that the planning can go there (one side of the page with the days of the month and the other with notes).

I also have added a section. This Monday, I created a weekly calendar that went before this week’s lists. It helped me organize my time in such a way that I didn’t forget a single appointment and I managed to squeeze in free-time and relaxation before the week’s craziness took over.

The organized teacher: three teachers offer advice

As we approach the new school year, organizing gets imperative, not just for families (books, clothes, schedules, and extracurricular activities) but also for teachers. When I was a child, I never once thought about all the work that goes into being ready for September and the start of school. Teachers had two months off, just like I did and they came back to class the same day I did.

But we all know that’s not at all true. As with any project, being well organized before starting can mean the difference between success and disaster and it’s the same for teachers starting a new school year.

How do teachers organize themselves? Is it any different from any other job?

I interviewed three different head teachers, one from Canada, one from the U.K. and one from the U.S.A. And no, being an organized teacher is no different than working in any other service industry.

From what these three teachers told me, there are three areas of organization that teachers need to consider:

  • Use of space – the classroom, paper storage, seating plans, and so on.
  • Personal preparedness – finding the right balance of planning but not over-planning, of learning new things but not obsessing, of using planners versus “winging it”.
  • The needs of students – who they are, what mix of personalities, genders, ages, and abilities they have, how the students did the previous year, and what needs to be reviewed or re-taught.

Use of space

Before starting the school year, our U.K. teacher suggests that together the teachers at a school should:

check and clear the school of any accrued mess to ensure the school feels tidy and organised before we open the door – if the school is tidy, the children are likely to keep it tidy.

The Canadian teacher reminds teachers to:

Throw things out! Teachers cling to paper and stuff! Purge! Keep a file on the computer and get rid of everything else.

Finally, the U.K. teacher also reminds us that daily maintenance keeps papers from overwhelming us:

Tidy each day! Tidy the classroom so it’s prepped for the next day. File away paper and keep your mind tidy and on the job at hand.

Personal preparedness

For all three teachers, planning is imperative, but they all also insist that over-planning is paralyzing and counter-productive.

Our U.S. teacher has this new school year routine:

I like to take a glimpse at the curriculum for the year and see the material that will be covered. Based on the level, I like to prepare a short review at the beginning of the school year, based on the previous material covered to help them ease into the new school year.

The Canadian does something similar:

Depending on what I’m teaching I generally plan out the course, first the big stuff, then break that down. If its a course I’ve taught before, I think about what worked well, what worked OK, and what didn’t work at all. I also like to to change things up (so I don’t get bored) If I have read/learned something new, I think of ways to incorporate it.

An the U.K. teacher suggests getting others involved:

My advice is to prioritise what needs to be done and park desirables until you have a clear plan. Use the human resources around you. People generally want to be involved and including them in the thinking and the journey will help in organisation. They might even come up with a better idea. Talking is the key!

When it comes to over-planning, the Canadian teacher believe that teachers should be careful not to waste too much time. “Sometimes things go off course so be prepared for that. Also lots of teachers waste time with detailed busy work, creating forms, binders, labels, etc. that make more work for no reason.”

The U.K. teachers reminds us as well that all too often “teachers spend too much time prepping, planning before they really know the class. It’s great to be prepared but there’s no point teaching children what they already know. Plan the first few lessons and then asses what’s needed.”

The Canadian teacher offers a good list of basic planning activities:

  • Familiarize yourself with the course outlines, expectations, and assessments.
  • Use a calendar for unit plans and due dates.
  • Colour code courses (it helps to visualize).
  • Make a note of important due dates like when report card marks are due (you would be surprised how many people are caught off guard).
  • Don’t take on too many things too fast. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The needs of students

Our U.S. teacher really focused on this area, as did the U.K. teacher. They both insist on getting to know the students and working with the rest of the school’s staff to set individual learning targets where possible before diving into too much organizing. The U.S. teacher will even “go over class lists and see what my classes look like: student numbers, total class size, and gender. This helps me for organizing the class and seating charts.”

She also talks about the need to establish rules the first day of class.

Do not assume they just know how to act. All teachers are different and have different levels of what they will tolerate so communication between teacher and students is important.

Finally, she makes what I believe is the most important point that teachers need to remember:

What is important is to establish is an atmosphere of mutual respect where students feel comfortable in expressing themselves in class amongst their peers and with the educator. Teachers need to remember we are not there to make friends; we are there to educate and help in the students’ growth in the content and be good citizens as well.

For those readers who are teachers, does this advice sound familiar? Is there anything you would add? And for those who aren’t teachers, how might the ideas offered by these teachers apply in your job?

How to remember future to-do tasks

While you may have a system for tracking normal to-do items, how do you remember to-dos that are many years in the future? The following are a few examples:

  • I recently read a FEMA document (PDF) that said smoke alarms should be replaced ten years from the date of manufacture. How do you remember to do that?
  • I just updated my will and trust, ten years after I first created them. How do you remember to review these documents and make updates as necessary?
  • I had hip replacement surgery in May 2016. All’s well, and now I don’t need to see my surgeon again for a follow-up until May 2020. How do I remember to make that appointment?

Sometimes a reminder comes indirectly. When one of the people I had named as an executor of my will moved out of the area, it reminded me that I needed to update my legal documents. While I was removing her name, I found other updates I wanted to make, too.

And in some cases, you’re likely to get a reminder from the related service provider. My lawyer sends me annual reminders to review my legal documents, and my surgeon’s office will remind me I need to schedule an appointment with him. But these follow-up systems are fallible, and I like to have my own reminders in place.

Since I use an online calendar that goes out for many years, my first inclination is always to put critical future events such as the doctor appointment on my calendar as soon as I become aware of the need. I have an item on April 15, 2020 to schedule that appointment for mid-May. When I get the smoke detector down from the ceiling to see when it was made, I’ll add the replacement date to my calendar. I also added a recurring annual item to review my legal documents.

Alternatively, there are all sorts of reminder apps you can use. While people usually add reminders for items in the near future (pick up dry cleaning, etc.) there’s no reason they couldn’t be used for to-dos that are many years out.

If you use a paper planner, you’re probably not going to be able to add something to your calendar for 10 years out. But if you use a binder-style planner such as Day-Timer or Circa you could use a to-do list (or just a blank note page) to capture all these future to-dos and carry that list forward, year after year. At the beginning of each year, you could add any relevant items from that list to the upcoming year’s calendar.

Finally, if you use a tickler file (such as the Smead desk organizer/sorter) you could put reminders for all future-year items in your December file, and then move them to the appropriate months at the start of the next year (or keep them in December if they apply to a future year).

Changing habits painlessly: a Bullet Journal experiment

A couple of weeks ago I stated my intention of using a Bullet Journal to improve not just my work productivity but to keep me on track with all the events I have throughout the year in my personal life.

Thank you to all of you who took the time to comment and to encourage me. The two most common suggestions were to customize and to take care not to get sucked into all the extras, and that advice has been duly noted and absorbed.

Fortunately I am a lazy person and my artistic interests lie in textiles not scrapbooking, so I won’t get drawn into forums or into making my journal pretty. My goal for using the Bullet Journal is to make sure that I use my time productively at work (so as to avoid chaos) and to not get into trouble at home by forgetting to plan special moments in our lives (something that happens quite often given my head-in-the-clouds personality). If at any point I find using a Bullet Journal takes more time than any of my other productivity systems in the past, out the window it will go.

As for customizing the system, I’ve already done that. According to the website, I was “supposed to” set up a Future Planning section where events and tasks for more than the current month and then a Monthly Calendar/To Do List at the beginning of each month.

This didn’t work for me. Given the nature of my job, and the way I tend to leave personal tasks to the last minute, I need to have the Monthly Calendars/To Do Lists laid out from the start. The Future Planning section will likely get ignored or will be used to put general topics only. And maybe next year it will disappear altogether. Time and use will tell.

I can see the benefit of using a Bullet Journal already, and I haven’t even started using the day-to-day lists (I’m waiting until after my vacation to get started on those). As I’ve repeatedly said, I’m horrible at remembering to plan for anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and so on. It’s like they suddenly jump out at me out of nowhere, like October 8th (our wedding anniversary) happens at some random point in the year and I never know exactly when it will show up.

By just setting up the Monthly Calendars and giving myself a full page beside each calendar for the To Do Lists, I’ve already started to think about special events that are going to happen between now and next August and have even started planning them.

For example, in 2018 the Eurovision Song Contest will be happening in Lisbon (and will likely never be so close or so affordable in many years again). This is a very popular event and will not just sell out quickly, but Lisbon itself will fill up and soon there will be no place to stay. Taking past habits into account, my normal mode of acting on this desire to go would be to wait until April 2018 to start organizing everything, or to wait until my husband brought up the topic. However, by marking the date in the Monthly Calendar and in the Future Planning section of the journal, I’ve made myself doubly aware of the need to plan. May 2018 is not really that far away. I added a note in the November section of the Future Planning to say that we need to start organizing the trip by then or it’s not going to happen.

That’s one habit changed, without any fuss or struggle. Yay me!

I can’t wait to see how else using the Bullet Journal will bring about changes in habits and productivity.

For those of you who do use Bullet Journals, how has the system changed things for you?

How to be a good host: planning for house guests

We love to have people stay with us. In my case, it’s in my blood. My parents ran a B&B for years, not because they needed the money, but because they loved meeting new people and taking care of them (I was going to say “showing them a good time” but it wasn’t that sort of B&B).

However, being a great host requires a lot of planning, thought, and preparation if you and your guests are going to have a good time and not end up stressed out by the end of the visit.

There’s a great article over on The Kitchn about how to be a good host and we do quite a few of the things listed there, but I thought I’d put down exactly what we do to make our friends and family feel that staying with us is like going to a 5-star resort, and yet without exhausting ourselves.

We plan meals in advance

If people have full and satisfied tummies, they are much happier and more relaxed. We always discuss options and give our expected guests a few (but not too many) choices. Eat in or dine out? Any food allergies or preferences? We also know most of our guests well, so can plan around their favourite foods (for example, one friend always has sushi and strawberry mojitos waiting for her when she comes over).

We cook as much as we can before guests arrive

Our menus often center around food that can be prepared days (or at least hours) beforehand, giving us the freedom to be spend time with our guests. And if the food is last-minute only, we take turns playing host while the other busies himself in the kitchen.

A special breakfast is essential

There’s a reason B&Bs and breakfast buffets at hotels are so popular — nothing says vacation like taking time to sit and chat while eating a variety of sweet and savoury dishes and sipping at a cappuccino. As I said above, happy tummies equal happy guests. Unless your day starts with a tight schedule, don’t rush through breakfast. And if you do have to get going without that relaxing café con leche, how about take some previously prepared muffins along for the ride?

We come up with a list of possible excursions

There’s nothing worse than getting a bunch of people together and then saying “so what do you want to do?” No one knows, ever. No one wants to be the pushy one. No one wants to be the one to decide.

When we have guests, we either tell them the plan (so many people on holiday love not having to think), or we give them a list of (limited) options to choose from. By thinking of possible outings before guests arrive, no one ends up sitting on the sofa staring at the ceiling wondering why they came to visit you anyway.

A shower-sergeant is imperative

Early July there were six of us in our one-bathroom apartment in La Rioja. We had a winery visit at noon and we finished our slow-breakfast at 10:30. Six people needed to shower, do their hair and get ready to leave for 11:45. If we hadn’t chivvied them along, we would never have left. It’s quite amusing to see even the most sensitive and anger-prone people jump up and dash into the bathroom without complaint when they hear “Next!” shouted out in our best “parent-voice.”

It’s all about the details

This is something I’ve learned from my husband. Turn your guests’ stay into something luxurious and extraordinary by:

  • Giving each guest a little kit of amenities from those that you’ve collected from your own hotel stays.
  • Having a guestbook where you paste a Polaroid onto the page and get them to write something about their visit.
  • Showing them something special about your town/city that someone unfamiliar with the place would never see.
  • Playing a silly party game like musical chairs or pin the tail on the donkey. Even the most serious adult will unwind and end up fighting for that last chair, believe me.

Let people help

In the past, whenever guests offered a hand, I always used to say no. They were guests and shouldn’t have to raise a finger. And yet, when I’m a guest in a friend’s house, if I don’t help out I feel selfish and uncomfortable. So, I’ve started saying “Yes, of course you can help, thanks!” Whether it’s cutting up some vegetables, helping me make the beds, or handing me clothespins while I hang up the beach towels, it deepens the bond between us and gives our hands something to do while we chat and catch up on each other’s lives.

Give people time to do nothing

This last point is the hardest one for us to have learned. We tend to believe that if our guests are sitting on the sofa playing with their mobiles, more or less in their own little worlds, it’s because we aren’t doing our jobs as hosts. But that’s not true, at all. Everyone needs to disconnect from interacting with each other. It’s exhausting being “on” all the time. And we’ve learned that this time is key for us as well. When we see that people are tuning out, we retire to the bedroom and take a well-needed nap, or slip into the kitchen to prepare a snack or some part of the next meal.

How about you? What do you do to make your guests’ stay memorable? Or what have you liked that someone else has done?