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Summary:

Are you one of those people who, despite the best intentions, just can’t seem to make a to-do list work? Don’t despair: you’re not alone. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Laura Fitton, of Pistachio Consulting, has been experimenting with a different way to keep herself on track. […]

ScreenshotAre you one of those people who, despite the best intentions, just can’t seem to make a to-do list work? Don’t despair: you’re not alone. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Laura Fitton, of Pistachio Consulting, has been experimenting with a different way to keep herself on track. Rather than concentrate on the myriad little tasks of the week, she’s started envisioning the results. I caught up with her recently for a chat about this technique.

WWD: What’s wrong with traditional to-do lists?

LF: My compliance with traditional to-do lists is patchy. Sometimes great, sometimes awful. It’s at its worst when the to-do list is too tactical, largely because projects and environments shift, and you can’t always predict in advance what the right mix of actions, efforts, conversations and relationships is. Breaking tasks down into manageable pieces is important too, but there’s a balance because the piece that seems important Monday might be irrelevant by Wednesday.

I’ve also noticed that deferring tasks to a to-do list can be its own form of procrastination.

WWD: So what did you come up with as a better way to keep yourself focused on the important things?

LF: Out of the blue one day, I made a note to myself in TextEdit, named it FRIDAY and stuck it on my desktop. The note was a brief description of my Friday afternoon, and referred to a kind of “state of the company” as of mid afternoon on the coming Friday.

I didn’t even really open the file that much that week, but I had written down the goals the way they always say you should – as done deals – and the file sat there in plain view all week.

Even I was amazed on Friday at how much of it got done.

It also cut down on the daily recriminations about to-do list “float” — that raft of items you keep never getting to.

WWD: What benefits are you seeing from keeping a Friday File?

LF: I need to be really attentive to results vs effort. This method helps me. You can do “the right things” all week long and merrily cross them off your task list, but not end up where you and your business need to be.

I don’t do it every single week, but I am definitely more productive in the weeks that I do. This week I am staring down the barrel of a whole lot of urgent and important stuff, and I don’t want to get caught up in the details.

WWD: Has this completely replaced your task list?

LF: Nope, I still use RememberTheMilk, mainly to support processing my inbox, but for big picture strategy and focus I prefer my Friday lists. What the Friday file does for me is pull strategy out of the clouds and put it into my shorter-term working orders. Another relevant distinction is between “goals” and “direction” (for me this comes from Stephen Shapiro’s work on Goal Free Living). It’s important to understand where you want to get in terms that are versatile and flexible enough to take advantage of serendipitous opportunities as they come in. So while some items on my list will be tactics, they are generally supporting a place I want to get to.

That’s an art, and while I don’t claim to have mastered it, my flexibility frequently opens doors I did not even know I should go knock on. That saying “if you don’t know where you’re going, any train will take you there” is double-edged. Being open to other destinations within a general vector/purpose of what you are trying to achieve is important. We no longer kid ourselves that we can taxonomize the world and set everything in stone. We recognize the need to tag and organize collectively in many spheres. I’m getting way off topic now, but there is a need for productivity and tasks and strategy to be a lot more fluid and nonlinear too.

WWD: Can you share any tips about the actual form of the Friday file for you? Narrative style? Bullet lists? Present/past tense? Got a piece to share with readers?

LF: Frankly, I’m not very formal about it. I write it in the present tense, with a positive tone and a combination of bullets and narrative:

FRIDAY:

  • Successful wrapup of [event]
    • {Company] team on board with me as the person to help them bring their tool to market. also, acceleration of this deployment
    • three potential client meetings set
  • Website readiness
    • products/services info turned in to Maria on Thursday morning.
    • logo/color palette work proceeding ahead
  • Business plan is being reviewed by advisors
  • David is collaborating on how to land 1 lead

I’d also like to emphasize: it’s not that I am hitting all these objectives every week, it is that i am tremendously more productive working under this system than when i am clearing out tasks. Maybe it’s the confidence and clarity of knowing what needs to happen, not just what line items to poke at.

WWD: Can you use a Friday file to keep a group focused? Or do you see it as strictly an individual endeavor?

LF: Actually, I think it would be great for a group, because in the next team meeting all can keep their eyes on “net results generated” not devolve into a he said/she said about tasks & tactics. Also, I would think that if the group shared consensus on the result needed, they could be more versatile with adjusting their tactics on the fly. Great idea.

WWD: Any final thoughts?

LF: The things that I get the most “stuck-est” on… it frequently turns out I was not supposed to do. I’m not saying that everything I procrastinate turns out to be for a good reason, but there are a lot of times when I get stuck that I later find an infinitely better, different way to handle…

By focusing on the Friday list, it gets a little easier to cut bait on the stilted tactics and approaches and push through to production and results.

Readers: have you built your own techniques for staying focused on the “big picture”? How do you do it?

Photo credit: stock.xchng user superdecor

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  1. Marcin Grodzicki Monday, September 8, 2008

    Mike, you’re a surprisingly good reporter, for an IT guy ;)

    For me the big picture is weekly review in GTD. Although the concept of drawing the result seems to be a good addition to it.

    The thing that really changed my workflow was NextActions from GTD. However, I noticed (while using RTM) that it’s important to see less NAs rather than more. RTM was not very helpful with that (their tagging feature is very flexible, but not very ergonomic), so I switched to Nozbe lately (disclaimer: I privately now Nozbe’s founder – Michael Sliwinski).

    Bottom line: the biggest improvement for me is having less to do on my plate – it looks easier to bite and helps my focus.

  2. I agree with Marcin. My weekly (sometimes biweekly) review is crucial. My GTD lets me describe my project goals in a description at the top of my task list, so that may be something like your Friday review as I often add to or change it as the project evolves, changes responsibility, timing, priority, etc. My system lets me see my entire GTD at work on my Win machine, at home on my Macs and even on my cell phone. And another app lets me call in tasks to my GTD without any writing or typing, great for those thoughts that hit me while driving. I’ve written about my experiences with GTD in a blog post at http://johnkendrick.wordpress.com/2008/03/27/more-getting-things-done/ John

  3. Will there ever be a best way? I’m not sure but will keep on looking. Right now, I use Tracks hosted on morphexchange.com.

    It is simple and surprisingly easy, although the tasks never are.

    best.
    alain

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