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To Organize (Part 1): Finding Balance through Prioritization

  • Posted on July 9, 2010 at 4:20 PM

Being organized is a constant struggle in my life.  It’s not that I’m particularly unorganized, but there are several obstacles that make it more difficult.  The next few posts will be about obstacles and solutions—or how I manage to stay organized and productive.  (People have been asking that question again:  How do you do it?)

Obstacle 1: I have more to do than I can actually get done.

At first glance, this will seem like I take too much work upon myself.  There are those who would argue that’s exactly what this means.  It isn’t so simple.  Work needs to be done.  A lot of this work is simply mine—for example, nobody else can do my writing or my school work.  That’s mine to do.  A lot of the work needs to be done, and I’m just the one who is sure to get it done.  This includes much of the housework and household administrative tasks.  Again, it sounds like this is me taking on more work than I should, but the work I take on each day is only a fraction of the work I could take on each and every day and still leave plenty for the next day.

Being the “big picture” person that I am is a major complicating factor.  I see work on three different levels.  First, there is the work that requires years of daily or weekly effort to accomplish.  Raising my children, continuing my education, writing my books, writing my novels, running my business—these activities involve years’ worth of work.  And I see all this work laid out before me.  I don’t see all the little details that go into these major tasks, but I do see many of the major steps along the way.  This work never ends—at least, not while I am alive.  So, no matter how much I do today, there’s always more.  These are long-term goals that require a long-term commitment.  At this level, organization is primarily used to keep me from being too overwhelmed.

The second level of work is those mid-term goals.  This work includes teaching my children specific skills, completing my current class, planning my current book, writing my current novel, and managing and completing my current business-related projects, assignments, and tasks.  This level of work includes projects and assignments that will provide me with sufficient daily tasks for months to come.  Some projects or goals are longer in scope than others.  All require a significant amount of organization to keep me on task.

The third level of work involves daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.  Household management tasks generally fall into this category—though there certainly are those mid-term and long-term household-related projects that weigh on my mind as well.  Many of these third-tier tasks, whether they are household-related or business-related, are on perpetual repeat.  No matter how many dishes I wash today, there will always be more dishes to wash tomorrow.  No matter how many blogs I visit today, there will always be new posts to read tomorrow.  That sort of thing.  Organization is primarily a prioritization task in this arena.

Solution 1a: Find balance by breaking goals down into tasks.

With three layers of tasks, there is a certain balance required.  I could fill day after day after day with third-tier work.  There are people who live their lives that way, and live them quite contentedly.  I’m not one of those people.  I like progress; I need accomplishments.  I by no means wish to belittled people whose lives are contentedly lived on the third-tier.  There is something admirable about that—and their households certainly run more smoothly than does my own.  But I’m not particularly skilled at the domestic round, nor am I particularly contented with it.  I need to write.  And I need that writing to accumulate into big projects—books, novels, collections of short stories and articles and blog posts.  And, of course, I could fill day after day after day with second-tier or first-tier work, at the exclusion of all else, but then my family life would be chaotic.  I mean, more chaotic than it is.

So, we’re back to balance.  In order to live my life well, I must balance first-tier, second-tier, and third-tier work.  Generally speaking, I regard second-tier work as the highest priority and third-tier work as the most urgent.  First-tier work is accomplished by breaking it down into second- and third-tier work.  In order to write my books, I have to start by writing my first book.  In order to write my first book, today I must work on the outline of my first chapter.  Another example:  In order to help my children achieve independence, I have to build a set of skills.  In order to build that set of skills, I have to work on this with Willy, that with Alex, and the other thing with Ben.  In short, in order to attain balance, I have to break down each tier until I have a lot of third-tier activities.  The difference, of course, is that now many of these third-tier activities will accumulate into the accomplishment of second-tier and first-tier activities. 

By breaking down first-tier and second-tier goals into third-tier activities, I find myself back to having more work to do than I can actually get done.

Solution 1b: Prioritizing tasks to equal accomplishments.

With so much third-tier work to do, I must prioritize the many tasks into categories of importance and urgency.  The hardest thing is not to be so driven by urgency that you neglect important things.  I could easily fill my days with urgent matters.  The problem is that by spending my time solely on urgent matters my tasks would never accumulate to the achievement of my goals.  I could easily fill my days with important matters.  The problem is that eventually the neglected urgent matters would eventual compile into an unimaginable monster that consumes me—or I’d trip over that one toy out of the hundreds on the floor that I couldn’t dodge, fall down the stairs and break my neck.  Either way it’s a “game over” for me.

I don’t want to be consumed by the urgency monster and I don’t want to have to dodge toys all the time.  So, we’re back to balance.  I balance important tasks, urgent tasks, and tasks that just need to be done whenever I have a spare moment (these tasks are often neglected until they become urgent).

To do this, I plan my week and create daily to-do lists.  Daily, color-coded to do lists.  This is where effectively managed OCD becomes a good thing.  Really.  This is also where I become especially grateful for tools like a Franklin Covey planner and Microsoft’s OneNote.

Then, of course, it’s just a matter of getting to work.  Easy, right?  Hm.