Jan. 23, 2023

How To (Finally!) Tackle Your To-Do List (Challenge #51)

How To (Finally!) Tackle Your To-Do List (Challenge #51)

So, we’re getting into late January. For those of you like me whose work is based on the educational calendar, the spring semester is in full swing. If you’re doing well, you’re still hanging on to the word of the year you picked after listening to episode 47, However, even if your goals and good intentions are still on your mind, they are slowly but surely being crowded out by the dozens of crises and projects that sprout up like weeds in the second half of January. So in the interest of my word of the year, clarity, we’re going to talk about how you can get clear about what really matters in the heat of the moment.

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This episode was produced by Podcast Boutique .

Transcript

So, we’re getting into late January. For those of you like me whose work is based on the educational calendar, the spring semester is in full swing. If you’re doing well, you’re still hanging on to the word of the year you picked after listening to episode 47, However, even if your goals and good intentions are still on your mind, they are slowly but surely being crowded out by the dozens of crises and projects that sprout up like weeds in the second half of January. So in the interest of my word of the year, clarity, we’re going to talk about how you can get clear about what really matters in the heat of the moment.

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Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge, the podcast that empowers leaders to transform their organizations in ten minutes or less! I’m Dr. Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild, where I use my PhD in Higher ed leadership and nearly 2 decades of experience in academic libraries to coach educational and library leaders like you who want to build a better world without burning out. 

Kind Leaders aren’t perfect, and we don’t need to be. We strive to make tough decisions without becoming jerks. We design systems that enable our teams to make a big impact without overworking. And we know that once we stop controlling and start collaborating, even the most ambitious vision can become effortless. Kind Leadership is pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So if you’re up for a challenge, stick around for the next 10 minutes as I teach you how your school or library can create a resilient, thriving legacy that will strengthen your community long after you’re gone.

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As you’ve probably figured out if you’ve listened to more than an episode or two of this podcast, I’m a bit of a sucker for tools and practices that claim to make us more productive. I started right out of college as a Steven Covey obsessive (and his weekly reviews are still a big part of my Friday afternoons when I’m on the ball). After riding the dotcom boom and bust rollercoaster right after graduation and then running screaming from Corporate America, I discovered David Allen during my MLIS. I promptly started compiling insanely long “context-based” to-do lists of every transient notion that passed through my eager little workaholic brain. Around the time I got the bright idea of earning a PhD while simultaneously working full time as an associate library director and co-founding a podcast about a band that was about to have its 50th anniversary reunion, I was turned onto the bullet journal concept, and morphed it into a slightly idiosyncratic blend of lines, dashes, arrows, and sundry hieroglyphics that I use on and off to this day. And that’s not even getting into all the apps and software solutions that I thought would make me more and better equipped to juggle all the opportunities and burdens life threw at me.

There was only one problem. Me. Or at least at the time I thought it was me. I could stay on top of everything I needed and wanted to do for a few weeks or even a few months, but eventually something would happen and I would fall off one or all of my carefully planned habits.

The problem was not me. the problem was the list. More specifically, the fact that I felt I had to keep a complete list of everything I must do, want to do, or even could do, and complete that complete list, or somehow I was falling short of my potential as a human being.

As you might expect, that impulse led to a cycle of overcompensation, overwork, burnout, self-flagellation, recovery, and a return back to overcompensating, that repeated to varying degrees through my twenties and thirties, until my most epic cycle of overcompensation of all led to the collapse that I talk about in episode zero, and the epiphany that led me to create the kind leadership guild. 

I changed a lot about how I led in 2019 as I crawled out of that hole, and to this day I’m still tweaking and testing how I want to lead and the kind of culture and projects I want to create. And I’ll probably never be “there”—wherever “there” is. But I think one of the most important things I did for my wellbeing was really a side benefit of something I incorporated into my routines as a way to improve at delegation. I put an upper limit on my to-do list. Rather than tracking every conceivable thing I could do, I put a hard upper limit on the number of active tasks on my list at any time. That number fluctuates between about 3 and 5 depending on the nature of the tasks and what else is going on. But it never exceeds more than about 3/4ths of what I think my bandwidth is at any point, partially so I have room for the inevitable surprises, and partially so I just have some room to think and breathe. And anything that doesn’t make that list? I either save it for later or delegate it to someone else. 

Because here’s the simple truth. You can’t depend on anyone else to set or enforce your boundaries. You need to do that for yourself, and you need to model that for your team, so you can manage the risk of the organization you work for overstressing your team and burning you out. And who knows? If you keep your to-do list manageable and start seeing the benefits that brings in creativity and productivity, you may inspire others to take a similar approach. Heck, I suppose that’s what I’m doing with today’s episode. Because although limiting my task list was one of the smaller and more boring tweaks I made in my accidental journey to creating kind leadership—it’s also one of the kindest things I’ve ever done for myself and for the friends, family, and colleagues who have to put up with me.   

So, here’s your challenge: I know from my download stats that quite a few of you listen to me on your Monday morning commute. So when you get to your office, grab that first tea or coffee and boot up your computer to start your day, here’s what I want you to do. Take a look at your list, and ask yourself this: How Few things do I need to do today to still progress toward my goals?  

Challenge: How few things can you get done in a day and still progress toward your goals? What tasks can go to someone else? What can be let go of, or delegated to someone else? Then reassign, postpone, and delete to your heart’s content until you hit your magic number of tasks. Try to get between 3 and 5 if you can, but I totally get it if you don’t quite get there on your first try. And tomorrow? Do it again. Repeat every day until you sustainably are handling a manageable number of tasks. 

And if you try this for a few weeks and truly can’t get down to a manageable number of tasks? Well, you’re going to have to figure out why, and make a plan to shift toward a sustainable workload. But I think we’ll talk about that next week.

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Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. If you found this week’s episode insightful, head to kindleadershipchallenge.com/51 and share that link with a colleague who needs to hear it!  Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.  

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