Minimalist Monday: Actionable "To Do" Lists

Posted by:Lindsay S. Nixon Category: Minimalist

Scott's been a GTD'er for a long time and it's finally starting to rub off on me (I even bought the book to read on my trip!). GTD stands for Getting Things Done a popular work model and time management system created by David Allen. 

Anyway, the one practice Scott has been trying to get me to adopt is having anactionable to do list.The idea is to break the goal down into smaller, actionable bits, so it seems less daunting and more approachable and realistic. (We take this approach with our 60 days to Herbie Happiness newsletter  -- you get bite-sized pieces of information each day that you can quickly read and then easily digest, rather than unloading on you all at once). 

Initially, I hated this idea because it made my to do list substantially longer (which caused me to panic and feel even more overwhelmed).

My solution was not to write out ALL the steps, but the first actionable step.Allow me to demonstrate: Instead of putting "bake a cake" on my to do list, I'd put "buy flour" or instead of "make recipe videos for publisher" I put "look for potential videographers." 

While I was experimenting with this approach in my own life, a Herbie emailed me for 'help' and I realized I could test this out on her, too. (I'm sneaky like that!)

Stefani emailed [edited]:

"Hi Lindsay, I am a long time fan of yours.  I love your cookbooks...but I especially love how you write. I read your "How To Start A Business" post and you mentioned someone could email you if they have questions. I don't have a question, persay.... I need some motivation. I need someone to say I can do it or I should do it."

My immediate response was "YOU CAN DO IT!" but I also talked to Stefani about her idea and where she was with her business. Stefani had been teaching cooking classes for some time in her home but wanted to start teaching them in a studio space her friend was opening. Stefani knew what she needed to do to make it happen: buy an oven for the studio, chairs, tables, plates, etc. for her students to use, but thinking about all of it was making her head spin. There was just so much to do. 

First I pointed out what Stefani had already accomplished -- she already had a website created and she'd found a space for her business. These are huge accomplishments she should focus on when she feels overwhelmed. By taking a moment to recognize your progress, the stress and anxiety about the undone fades slightly -- giving you a little breathing room.

Next, I told Stefani to make an actionable to do list. I gave her the example about the cake and videographer (above) and wrote "yours could be something like, "check newspaper for listings of old ovens" or "mark out local garage sales to look for chairs" or "call restaurant supply store for quotes on dishes." 

Stefani's Old List:
-buy table and chairs
-buy oven
-buy plates and cooking equipment

Stefani's New List:
-Check newspaper for used ovens
-Check newspaper for used table and chairs
-Call restaurant supplier for quote re: dishes and silverware
-Make flyers 
(advertising her class)
- Leave flyers at local businesses

Finally I told Stefani I expected an email from her on Friday (4 days later) telling me she's done these items on her new list -- noting that she asked me to hold her accountable ;)

On Friday Stefani emailed that she'd done exactly as I said and the results were outstanding. Not only had Stefani found a used oven on Craigslist, she'd priced dishes and silverware from several suppliers and found an affordable set. She'd also found a table, hired someone to fix a minor problem with it, and installed some lighting in the studio that she hadn't even mentioned needing to be done in her previous email. She'd also spoken with a few other people about promoting her classes at their businesses and set the dates for her first classes. AND she did all of this while working her full-time corporate day job and taking care of her family. 

When Stefani emailed me, her to do list was fairly vague and not actionable. She didn't know where to start so she wasn't starting. Once we broke it down for her in little actionable steps, and she started checking things off,she found the momentum to keep going. and going. It made all the difference for Stefani -- her head was no-longer spinning. Stefani was a woman with an actionable plan.

As for me, I can say the same. Instead of saying "Pack for Ireland" I wrote down "Find passport." Once I found my passport I wrote "Find power adaptor." Once I found that I wrote "Find winter jacket." and so on. 

My to do list with work shows the best example: It had said "write blog posts" which I changed to "write part 2 of tahoe post" and "write blog post on minimalist living" and "write blog post about halloween food ideas." That's actionable. It gives me something to do directly. There's nothing vague about what I need to do.With "write blog posts" there is no clear starting point or end.It's so vague.It's overwhelming without parameters which is why listing the specific post was so much better for me. 

This 'GTD' approach is working so well for me -- I'm getting a lot more done. Give it a try and see if you get a little more productive!

For me, being a minimalist is about being efficient and feeling zen --- and getting things done gives me that.Getting my work done faster also means more time for play and doing things I really want to do!

Related post: Minimalist Monday: Minimalist Schedule for Maximum Productivity. 


UPDATE: 10/23/2012 - Stefani emailed this in after the blog post ran:

Hi Lindsay,

  I feel honored you used me in your blog today.  Thank you. :) You really did help me a lot the other week when I was overwhelmed.  I honestly don't know where I would be had you not given me those 'little' things to do.  Actually today, when I read your post, I was out delivering large envelopes with flyers and letters customized to different doctors around town about my cooking classes.  I included my recipe for 'Black Bean and Pumpkin Chili' that I created years ago that is one of the recipes I will be using.  I included it so the recipients could see what kind of recipes/ingredients I'll be using.  The letter briefly described my mission, my background in fitness and nutrition and asked to work with them to help patients achieve better health.  Anyway...I was glad to have a plan...thanks to you! The oven is bought and installed, dishware, silverware, napkins, pots, pans, knives, etc is all stocked and ready to go.  My tables should be done in a week.  All that's left is to find chairs and patch a piece of tile. Yeah!  It's almost done...thanks to your help. Again, thanks for using me as an example.  I hope it benefits many others! :)


UPDATE: 11/12/12 from Stefani
"Last Thursday I held my first cooking class.  It was sold out.  It went wonderfully!  I found my new love. And it was thanks to you and your helping me get my butt in gear.  THANK YOU."

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