Advice from an award-winning journalist and bestselling author on how to effectively manage that unreasonable to-do list.
I have 103 items on my to-do list this week. 32 of them are new, 71 I carried over from last week. I’ve been in this cycle for a while now, carrying over to-do list items from one week to the next and I can guarantee that this insanely long list will be even longer next week because I won’t have gotten to everything this week.
My to-do list is unreasonable. I know and you know that there is no way I can do 103 things (no matter how thinly I slice them) in the 25 hours a week I have available to work.
So what am I going to do?
Well, first I’m going to blog about it. (Check!) But then I’m going to take the following steps and if you, like me, are suffering from a to-do list that refuses to cooperate and threatens to strip away your sanity, I suggest you give them a try, too.
1. Add up your to-do list by time
For each item on your list, make a note of how much time it will take you to complete that item. Add it all up. Is your to-do list asking you to work 70 hours? Can you realistically fit everything on your list into your week? If not, it shouldn’t be on there.
If you struggle with an overflowing to-do list, I recommend that for the next few weeks, every time you make it, you add up the hours and make sure that something is on the list only if you can realistically fit it into your week. (Read this if you want to learn how to I found five additional hours in my work week.)
2. Have a catch-all “neverending to-do list”
This is where you throw on everything that needs to be done this week, this month, this year. That ensures that you’re not keeping things in your head, but have a place where it all sits and you know it needs to be done at some point.
I even include personal items on there and I also understand that this list will always be crammed full of stuff but that’s okay because it is called the Neverending to-do list, after all. Each Sunday, before the start of your work week, just pick the items from that list that need to be done over the next week and then stick to them.
3. Schedule things
Do you always accept the deadlines editors give you, no matter what? You shouldn’t. Deadlines, like everything else, are negotiable and need to fit into your schedule.
If you’re over-committed for the month of April and the editor gives you a deadline of April 15, just tell her you’re fully booked that month and could she work with a May deadline instead. After all, the editor wants a well-written piece that you thought about, not a sloppily thrown together something that you couldn’t find the time to fit into your day.
These days, I schedule one deadline a week, two if I’m feeling especially productive. What I don’t do is cram everything into a single week and then pull three all-nighters in a row. Been there, done that, never again. All that does is make you unproductive going forward into the next week and so, why not balance it out? Easier said than done and I realize how hard it is to push work further away especially if you need the money, but asking for a longer deadline is any day better than missing one. Or losing your mind in the process.
So remember that and schedule your time effectively.
4. Create actionable tasks
Every item on your to-do list should be something you can actually do. “Blog entry” is not an actionable item. “Write blog post,” is. And while we’re on the subject, learn to divide each project into tasks and small goals.
For instance, sticking with the blog entry example, I never consider writing and posting a blog entry one actionable item because it isn’t. First, I have to write the blog entry. Then, I have to post and schedule it. This includes finding an image, thinking about SEO, and creating social media snippets. Finally, once the entry is live, I want to post links to my Facebook page and Twitter feed. So for each post you see on this blog, I actually have three actionable items: write blog entry, post blog entry, and promote blog entry.
If I only put “blog entry” on my to-do list, it seems like a big mountain that I have to conquer, something that will take me three hours to do, and I’m much more likely to put it off. Writing a blog post? I could do that in 30-60 minutes.
This helps me organize each article on my to-do list and helps me make steady progress on it without making it a big fat ugly whole. What this does is create targets that are small enough to get done easily without intimidating you.
5. Don’t put items on the list that intimidate you
Because you’ll never get to them. Either break down a task into such minute slices so that it stops being a big beast that you have to tackle like I suggested above or word them differently. “Start new novel” is not a good list item, but “Brainstorm new novel ideas” is.
6. Schedule everything that takes time
Let’s say you’re trying to build a Twitter following (or engage with your existing one) and posting ten times a day for regularity. Well, firstly, automate it, people! And secondly, schedule it into your to-do list. It seems weird and counter-intuitive to chalk Twitter into your work time, but if you’re using it for work and it’s important enough for you to spend your working hours on, then it needs to go on the list. I’d say the same for other forms of networking and marketing. Anything that happens in your work hours needs to go on the list.
7. Be aware of the work week you’re creating
For a long time, I used my to-do list as a catch-all, throwing everything that I “needed to get done” on there, but I’m more thoughtful about it now. What do I feel in the mood for this week? If my deadlines permit it, would I rather work on a new e-course or send out some pitches? Make a mental note of which projects you continue to schedule into your day week after week and which you keep pushing back and that will also give you an idea of where your interests and real passions lie.
8. Mark items that are top priority
Not too many, but say, the deadline for that article that’s due this Friday. That sort of thing. You don’t have to do them first thing Monday morning, but flag them up so you know not to miss them. (Read this post for the seven habits of highly productive writers.)
9. Mix it up
Include tasks that will take you half an hour or twenty minutes, but also include those that will take five or two. On my list are tasks such as “write essay” but also smaller ones such as “E-mail V to say thanks.” If I’m struggling on a certain day and need to do something quick and easy that I can cross off my list (and I looove crossing things off my list) then a small and simple task like that can give me a mental boost.
There will be days when you sit and stare at your list thinking you should do something but not being able to decide which task to pick (they all sound horrible). I use random.org for situations like this. I have a numbered list, so I basically plug in the number of items on my list into random.org and let it spit out a random number. That’s the thing I need to do first. (If it’s already crossed off, random.org gets to pick again.)
How to Pitch: Pitching guidelines for 200+ publications
We know that finding markets to pitch your story ideas, understanding what they’re looking for, and making sure they pay an amount you’re comfortable with can be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the job. So we’ve tried to make it easier for you.
Here’s a list of publications, organized by subject and with a note of their pay rates, each with a link to their guidelines.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
Sign up for The Wordling
Writing trends, advice, and industry news. Delivered with a cheeky twist to your Inbox weekly, for free.