An old Chinese proverb says:
Plan each day at dawn; each year, at New Year.
This is good advice, and the essence of long-term versus short-term goals. As far as long-term goals are concerned, everyone has their own, of course. I’ve learned that simple is better. Writers who are pitching a movie script know that they have to be able to capture the essence of the movie in a couple of sentences. If they can’t, then they don’t have a clear focus in the script. It’s the same with long-term goals. If you can’t express what they are in five to ten seconds, then you probably don’t have a good handle on them. It’s a New Year; time to think about it.
There are a few things that are, or should be, invariant. Health is the most important thing. Without health, the other stuff doesn’t mean a damn thing. Not far behind is relationships, including family and friends, and hunting-gathering (work, duh). After that, we create the world with our diversity of goals.
Once those pesky New Year’s plans are in place though, it’s the day-to-day action that makes the difference. It’s important to spend five to fifteen minutes every morning to plan the day. It doesn’t take any longer than that, and the difference it makes is phenomenal. It helps keep you in focus and on track. It moves the day along in the direction that’s most important to you, rather than reacting to the constant external forces. Naturally, there will be surprises. That’s part of the play of life. When confronted with those ugly barriers, bend like a young bamboo in the wind and you won’t break.
My favorite day planning tool of all time is ToodleDo. It has a couple of features that work just perfectly for me. The three things that make this tool indispensible are the priority, the star and the mobility
The ToodleDo list can be taken with you. There are mobile applications for Android, iPhone and Blackberry. Personally, I’ve found ToodleDo’s own “slim” web application sufficient for my purposes. I used to have two different apps on my cell phone, but dumped them in favor of the the web slim version. The basic service is free, and that’s all I use.
Although they have many options, including folders and contexts, I’ve discovered that simple is better. Keeping it simple means spending less time on organizing and more time getting it done. I don’t use categories or folders. I only use these features: Star, Priority and Due Date. All the tasks have a description and notes if you need it.
I set the priority according to these rules:
- Top – I reserve this priority for a task that, if I fail to do it, and especially by the due date, it will cost me money. An example would be filing my income tax. As you can imagine, there are only a few of these.
- High – This is also for tasks that will cost money if I don’t do them, but the outcome and the cost are not specific. An example might be painting the wood outside deck. If I don’t paint the deck at some point, I won’t be fined but eventually the unprotected wood will rot and cost me more money because I’ll have to replace it.
- Medium – This is just about everything else. Medium tasks have to be done to keep everything in order, but probably won’t have any bad effects if I don’t do them. Cleaning the inside of the car is typical example. (Cleaning the outside is high priority because failure to do that eventually ruins the paint and the body. It won’t have a due date though.)
- Low – I reserve low for projects that I would like to do, but won’t miss if I fail. They are more of an upgrade type of project.
- Negative – Yes, ToodleDo has a negative priority. I like to put new ideas and dreams here so I don’t forget them.
The very best feature of ToodleDo is the Star. Each morning I peruse my tasks in order of Importance. (On the ToodleDo Main view, there is a Sort button on the toolbar where I can enable the Importance sort.) I set the star for, at most, three tasks. Those are the tasks that I’ll try to do today. Then I select the Starred tasks view. During the day, and on my cell phone, I only look at the Starred tasks.
It’s a very important point here: a maximum of only three tasks should have a star. As a practical matter, I’ve found it highly unlikely that I’ll accomplish more than that considering I also work and go to the gym. (That would be the health and hunter-gatherer goals.) Looking at the entire list to remind me what I need to do creates a huge amount of stress that seems to be proportional to the size of the list (which, at times, has approached 100 items). Setting three stars, keeps the stress down. It fools me into thinking I only have a few things to do.
Of course, if you’re so quick that you check off three tasks early, you can always go back to the list and star another one. On the other hand, three checks? It’s Miller time.