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Getting Things Done

Most of the writers I know feel completely swamped. Between marketing, networking and a hundred other demands on your schedule (not to mention trying to actually live your life), there’s not a lot of time left to actually write. And it seems that the more ambitious we are, the more things we want to get done, the less we actually do. It’s like some kind of cosmic joke.

I’m a list person. Over the years, I’ve made lists and even lists of lists, cramming my pockets full of scraps of paper until they reach critical mass. Either I throw the whole thing out, or else my pockets will explode in a blast of ink-stained confetti. Useful, right?

Then I upgraded to the yellow sticky-note method. I’m sure you’ve tried this. A note here or there. It’s fun. And then a note about a note. And a few notes about errands and phone calls. And then those notes you wrote while you were out. Pretty soon, it’s like some kind of mutant yellow kudzu has sprouted across your home, and scientists in plastic HazMat suits are hosing you down, trying to contain the outbreak.

So that didn’t work out.

I was going to try an electronic organizer, but I knew that the tools weren’t the problem. It was the method. A new computerized gizmo wouldn’t necessarily help. (And besides, at the rate I was going, I’d end up in a bad made-for-TV kind of scene with scowling guys in blue fatigues yelling into radios: “Cut the red wire! RED WIRE!”)

So I did the only rational thing. I read a book.

And then I read a few more. In all, I’m pretty sure I read twelve books on organizing. It might have been thirteen. And I’ll tell you what, there are a lot of methods out there. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, but here are my three favorite books:

Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern
Organized for Success by Stephanie Winston
Getting Things Done by David Allen

That last book had the most impact on my to-do list. Although it’s a little Office-Space-ish, it’s a very usable tool for getting your schedule organized and, well, getting things done. Here’s my favorite tip: Understand that things on your to-do list are either actions (e.g. Outline warehouse scene) or projects that take several actions (e.g. Finish rough draft).

Actions and projects actually belong on separate lists. That was the hardest lesson for me to learn. Much as I want to finish that rough draft, it’s actually a series of steps: outline the warehouse scene, figure out how to best wrap up Joe’s story arc, etc. If I write “Finish rough draft” on my list right below “Get milk and eggs,” guess which one will get done?

Right. And the whole time I’m standing there in the dairy aisle, kicking myself, wondering: “Why the heck am I not finishing that manuscript?” The answer is that “Finish rough draft” is not an action. It’s a project with a half-dozen (or more) individual actions that all have to be done in order for “Finish rough draft” to get crossed off my list.

Now, had I instead written “Outline warehouse scene” on my list, I’d be standing there in the dairy aisle with a film clip running back and forth through my head, working out who does what and when. So instead of feeling like running to the grocery store was a terrible waste of time and I can never get anything done, I’d feel supercharged, energized, brimming with ideas. Not to mention one step closer to finishing the book. So then, when I got home, ready to write, there would be only one thing I could say to myself:

“Dang. Forgot the eggs.”

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