Posted on Tue, Oct. 04, 2011
MARICE COHN BAND / MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Maryann O'Toole, Executive Director, Laboratory Operations, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine
It’s 5 o’clock in the morning, and the house is quiet except for snores. I’m sitting up in bed scribbling a to-do list in the dark on a small notepad. It’s a habit that started a few years ago when I would awake from a sound sleep with tasks streaming through my brain like the stock ticker on CNBC.
Writing to-do lists has become an addiction of sorts. It gives an illusion of order in my chaotic life, a desperate attempt at ensuring I don’t forget something and nothing falls through the cracks. I’ve posted the lists on the refrigerator, the front door, my computer desktop. I’ve carried them around in small notebooks in my purse and read dozens of pointers on how to keep better lists.
I know I’m not alone. Americans are obsessed with their lists. In an age of overwhelm and constant interruption, we find comfort in organizing our complicated lives into tidy columns of tasks. In our mind, if it’s written down, it’s all under control.
But I wonder if to-do lists have gotten out of hand. A friend of mine had a to-do item on her list to make another list. Do these lists really make us more productive?
Maybe no one understands this list-making craziness better than Leo Tonkin, who keeps as many as three dozen lists going at a time. Tonkin, CEO of Distinctions of Boca Raton, is an expert in corporate productivity and an advocate of the brain dump, getting everything out of your head and onto paper. Tonkin’s motto has been: “You can’t manage what you can’t see.”
He keeps lists of “urgent,” “longer term” and “someday” tasks, each with subcategories. A slippery slope, he said, is creating overstuffed lists and becoming paralyzed by overwhelm.
“It becomes easy to say, screw it and revert back to whacking the mole [handling to-do’s as they pop up].” To tame his tasks, Tonkin decides how much time a task will take and slots it on his calendar. “Getting on a list has no value unless you make it happen,” he said.
At work, the biggest benefit to a list is its potential to keep you focused. According to a study published by Cubesmart, we experience on average, one interruption every eight minutes or approximately six to seven per hour. That’s about 60 and 70 interruptions in a 10-hour day.
You’ve got people who can’t face the workday without their list in plain view; it’s a roadmap for what they should be doing when interruptions take them off task. Linda Knudsen keeps her list, often created in the middle of the night, aside her computer, referring back to it after a distraction. “I’ll start on something and then get a phone call and open an email. I’ll forget what I’m supposed to be doing, but if it’s written down and in front of me, then I’m okay.”
Knudsen, corporate director of advertising for Baptist Health South Florida, applies strategy to working through her list. Knudsen calendars time during the day on Outlook — usually about an hour — to work through pending items. “Sometimes I’ll even make up a name of who I have an appointment with so they leave me alone for an hour.”
Products to help
These days, hundreds of to-do pads and productivity systems line the shelves, some geared to business planning, others more targeted to personal interests. In recent years, list-obsessed people have dipped into the digital world to keep their tasks straight. You’ve got smartphones and iPads with list-making apps.
Tamara Bell, founder of Y Gen Out Loud, a nonprofit news organization for Generation Y to discuss national issues, keeps her list on an iPad to curb her fear of forgetting to take care of something important.
“The to-do list will never go away, but it has gone high tech,” Bell said. “By keeping it online, I know where it is and it’s available all the time.” Bell uses the Awesome Note App, electronically checking off tasks and putting them into a completed task folder. “It’s very accomplishment oriented.”
Of course, Bell hit on the motivation behind our to-do lists — they can be a huge confidence booster. I savor the sense of accomplishment from checking off an item on my list. Recently, while moderating a panel, I had a woman confess that getting through her entire to-do list gave her more pleasure than sex.
Josh Yelen, vice chairman for administration for Pathology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, says he manages his entire life by lists and revels in crossing off items. He uses a system that combines old-fashioned list-making and modern technology. His personal to-do’s are handwritten, often broken out geographically, and stuffed into his money clip on weekends. His work tasks are organized on PowerPoint, broken into categories and subtasks.
“Sometimes when I do something that’s not on the list, I write it down and cross it off,” Yelen admits. “There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment that I got something done. “
Some people discover to-do lists become accomplishment lists over time. Maryann O’Toole, executive director of lab operations at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, manages her tasks on an Excel spreadsheet, which allows her to quantify exactly what she has accomplished for self-evaluations. She includes her boss in her list making, ensuring her accomplishments are those with value.
“We will sit down and go over my list once a month and maybe I’ll reprioritize a section,” she says.
If O’Toole delegates an action item on her list, she will cut and paste and prepare a to-do list for her employee. “When you’re trying to multitask and keep an eye on 21 labs, the list keeps me on track and keeps employees on task.”
Of course, not everyone believes in the power of to-do lists. There are those who feel that lists do nothing more than create stress or an oppressive mindset that leaves no room for free thinking.
Jan Yager, author of 365 Daily Affirmations for Time Management, suggests using lists wisely. “Lists can be a tool but people become obsessive when creating it is more important than doing what’s on it. A list is not a substitute for action.”
Just as important, she says, is being flexible. “You might decide you don’t want to do certain tasks, and that’s okay. You could put your entire life on a list, but where’s the room to enjoy living the life?”