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Joel Orr: Dropping Balls


For more time than I care to admit, I was unsuccessful at getting things done. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I had a consistent way of marking down tasks; I had a pocket calendar into which I entered appointments; I should not have been “dropping the ball” at all.

But I did, pretty regularly. Not with appointments; my calendar was my strong guide, and I never ignored it. I’d look at it in the evening to see what was — literally — on the agenda for the next day. I’d look at it in the morning, to be sure I’d be in the right place at the appointed times.

No, it was non-calendar tasks that weren’t getting done. I had them all recorded, on a long list. But I just wasn’t getting to some thing at all.

I tried a number of approaches. My first idea: Since I’m good with a calendar, I would simply schedule everything. First obstacle: My pocket calendar was way too small; I needed a much larger calendar to write down everything. OK, I got a full-size 9″x12″ leather binder and used a page-per-day calendar. It was a pain to carry around, but it seemed like it might work.

But a couple of weeks into my new regime, I was still leaving more stuff on my to-do list. It was growing. I was still dropping balls.

Around that time, I began using Post-It notes to track tasks. I used the 3″-square ones, and I’d write the task in the bottom half-inch of the note. There was then room for more details above it. And I could stick another note on top of the first one, half an inch higher, in such a way that I could remove the bottom note without disturbing the top one. So I could have a sheaf of such notes, with each of them individually accessible.

Physically, it was a great system. But in practice, it had a major flaw: It allowed me to move tasks around without rewriting them. I know that sounds like an advantage, but it wasn’t. It’s what made it possible for me to ignore tasks — to feel as if I was in control, while I wasn’t. So I continued to struggle.

One day, I had a palm-smack-to-the-forehead realization: I need to review my tasks nightly, and realistically pick 3-4 to do the next day. I need to find ways to delegate tasks that are better done by someone else. I need to be willing to say “no” to some tasks. And I need a place to store tasks that are what David Allen calls “Someday/Maybe” tasks — stuff I don’t want to forget forever, but that I don’t want to see every day.

If you’ve read David’s “Getting Things Done” — and if you haven’t, you’d do well to get a copy immediately and read it — you know that you need an “intake” methodology, a “processing” methodology, a “deferring/delegating” methodology,” and an execution methodology. I was great on intake, lousy on processing and deferring/delegating, and consequently spotty on execution.

My big shift was putting in place a daily review, and becoming more realistic about turning requests down and getting others to do some things that I used to think I had to do. That has made it all manageable for me.

It’s still sometimes a struggle, but I get right back up on the horse quickly — now that I have a horse to get back up on.

Start with setting up a good intake system–right after reading “Getting Things Done.” You will feel empowered!

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