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Getting to the bottom of the to-do list, on plodding

As long as I can remember I’ve been too busy to do all the things I think I should do, despite a lifelong habit of starting my day with a to-do list. As a boy, the demands of a paper route, managing a large N-gauge model railroad, homework and chores kept me from (for example) filing my hockey cards or reading all the Hardy Boys books. Now, in my mid-50s, the demands of this magazine, the farm and family keep me from, (again, for example), participating in more community events, finishing that biography of Churchill that sits on my bedside table, or damn it, just farting around in the workshop.

I call this, “The Problem with To-Do Lists.” A to-do list is a great road map to accomplish maybe five to seven items in a day. But if the list is long enough to include more than a dozen items, it becomes a path to failure. Those smaller items on the list, usually with lower priority, hover at the bottom, never able to rise, never getting done. To cite a few seemingly lower priority things that never get off the bottom of my to-do lists: sort the nuts, bolts and screws that I mistakenly sent through the washing machine; organize the woodshed so I have easy access to gnarly bits that will keep the woodstove hot all night during cold snaps; straighten the wall in a bulging raised garden bed.

Now, no less an authority than the Harvard Business Review has come to the rescue. In an article titled “3 Ways to Make Time for the Little Tasks You Never Make Time For,” author Dorie Clark outlines strategies to deal with what she calls “niggling tasks.”

One of Clark’s suggestions is to (and I’m going to crib both her phrasing and the bold typeface from the article) batch your less important tasks and deal with them all at once. An urbanite, Clark speaks of going to a local café to wrestle with the clutter of an overfull email inbox; but I can see this strategy working just as well by devoting an afternoon to gardening, or tidying the workshop. That way a number of niggling tasks (put tools away, empty water gauge, fix wonky wall on a raised bed) get done at once.

Another strategy is to identify small blocks of time in your schedule and use them to deal with low value tasks. Let’s say you arrive 15 minutes early for a livestock delivery. You could do yet more barn work while waiting for the truck or you could use that time to deal with a bottom-dwelling list item, like mucking out the ashtray, or tossing outdated auto insurance forms that clutter the glovebox.

Procrastinate strategically is Clark’s third strategy. I confess to being a little hazy on this one but I think it means that you prioritize the low-value items on your to do list and, when opportunity rises, deal with one or two. If sending a thank you note to the excavator operator who kindly took time from his Sunday afternoon to bury your horse is on your mind, then make time to deal with it.

As Clark notes, lower-priority tasks will always be with us. But her strategies offer a way to keep the bottom of the list items from never getting done.

On plodding

Still on the subject of time management . . . it took several largely sleepless nights around lambing season this year to make me realize that being tired can lead to a form of focus that being well rested and alert does not. As I’m sure most SFC readers will know too well, there are times in farming when you are so tired you are unable to think straight, let alone multitask or (most importantly) want to multitask.

During lambing this year, there were a few days when I simply plodded from one task to another. When doing these tasks, I didn’t get diverted (as I do when feeling especially rested) but rather trudged through until each was done, methodically, uncreatively, then moved to another. Plod, plod, plod.

I mentioned this to a friend who managed logistics for an aviation company. He felt he was most focused when he was just tired enough to do each task well, but not so rested as to have a “let’s do-everything!” kind of attitude.

Clearly, this idea needs more testing, which I fully anticipate will happen during the coming weeks of seeding, then haying. Who knows, depending on the results maybe it will even get published some day. . .