I recently saw an Instagram post by craftsperson @anneofalltrades. In the post Anne expressed her worries about things not getting done, and ongoing difficulties with task completion. Many of her issues are common to anyone running a business, especially one where your labor is an integral part of production. These same issues can affect designers or hobbyists trying to build a serious project but simply stymied by everything else in their lives.
I have been self employed for twenty-two years, and running Tools for Working Wood for just over nineteen, so I commented on Anne’s post with the methods I use of getting things done. These are practical techniques that make me more productive, and I actually enjoy most of my day. There is just too much work in it, and these methods help me cope.
First off, realize there are twenty four hours in a day. Doing nothing but working, eating and sleeping isn’t sustainable for any sane person – even if one enjoys their job. We all have other needs and commitments, whether it’s family, friends, or just chilling. The guilt we feel about “wasting time” when we aren’t working is real, but misplaced.
Anne touches on how not fulfilling your (self-imposed) obligations can lead to feelings of helplessness, depression, and (totally unjustifiably), failure.
My solution is to keep two lists.
My Main List consists of everything I need to get done. The list has big projects on it like “Produce some new tools,” but overall I try to be pretty atomic in tasks: “Contact the guy in order 123456 and find out the problem.” As I get closer to tackling the tasks, I start to break things down.
I also try to add enough detail on the list so I don’t waste time puzzling over what I mean. This last bit is especially important because putting something on the list isn’t the same as getting it done, and some items stay on the list for years. This list contains several hundred tasks, and I refer to the more current parts of it on a daily basis.
When I get something done on the list I cross it off. But this list doesn’t get me out of my hole. It just defines the hole.
Every day I make a Second List, a short list of what I actually think I can accomplish in a reasonable day. I try to make this list realistic, and my daily goal is to clear it. If I do, I can relax and do other stuff for fun. If I don’t, I know I am overcommitted. Over the years I’ve realized this list needs to be pretty short, because during the day I will inevitably spend time chatting with customers, vendors, colleagues and or spend time on critical events.
Meetings go on the list too. The list is very atomic. After I cross stuff out, I have a real feeling of accomplishment; the day’s work is done. When I don’t finish my list, I start wondering about how to lower my deliverables through postponement, delegation, and any other strategy I can think of.
It’s not a perfect system, but it has enabled me to relax without guilt, and focus on tasks that need to be done.
The Merits of Lists
The worst thing you can do is not write down a list. Relying on your memory is not only iffy, it’s real work. Who wants the stress of wondering if something important was forgotten? Without a list there is also just a formless, unending, overwhelming sense of falling behind.
By the way, for long-term tasks I useand for the daily list I usually use a Post-It at my desk. I go through a lot of Post-Its.
Suppose you want to build a desk or another complex project. If you go into your shop thinking “What’s next? I gotta build a desk!” it is easy to be overwhelmed. But if you go into your shop with a list saying, “I have an hour only. I will mill the wood for the drawers,” you can actually get stuff done. You feel encouraged by what you’re accomplishing, not discouraged having only one hour to spend. I have found written procedures for pacing a project very, very helpful. Less stressful and more productive.
So that’s my two cents. All I can say is that it works for me. It takes some discipline and sometimes I slack off. When I slack off I find my stress level increases. Less and less gets done and I complain more.
The picture above is a corner of my desk on April 24, 2018. It’s not pretty. Cleaning it up is on my main list, but it’s not anywhere near the top of my list. I do find that a clean desk helps me work faster, but I just don’t know where to put half the stuff. It’s a work in progress, and like the rest of us, I am still learning.
This article was provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.