When your to-do list just isn't working for you
Let me introduce to you the “worry book”. I started mine about 5 months ago and it’s really helping me, both as a productivity tool and an emotional leveler.
How the Worry Book Works
It's very simple.
For me, the process is this: I have a thought. I think "this is going to become a worry if I don't address it". I stop the thought. When I am near my worry book, I write the worry down at the top of the page and leave the rest of the page blank.
What to write down
Write one worry at the top of each page. Big worries, small worries, medium-sized worries.
On the rest of the page, you will be writing down ideas, options, brainstorming and research. Or just further thoughts. Your worry book pages will have to-dos, musings about life, and half-done research to complete.
When you have completed a task on a page, write DONE in big letters near the worry. Do not be in a hurry to tear a DONE page out and throw it away. Leave the page in your book. It still has a job to do. As you flip through your worry book looking for the next problem to address, you will have a constant and repeated message from your DONE pages that you are getting things completed. Squared away. Solved. Your worries are getting addressed, both overall and specifically. You are competent, perhaps even a hero in your own life, without anyone ever seeing or telling you that.
So why not just make a to-do list?
To-do lists require that you know what action to take when you write it down. It's not always that clear what to do, is it? Using a worry book dials back from a traditional to-do list. A page is started with simply having the worry and writing it down. Once you have given the worry more thought, you can write down options and brainstorm.
Let's break this down:
The worry book process is ...
- Have the worry
- Write the worry down
- Think about options. Brainstorm. Talk to friends. Do Internet research.
- Start working the options.
- Continue working the options.
- Complete the task.
The to-do list process:
- Have the worry
- Forget about the worry until it pops up again, this time with a stronger pull.
- Push the worry away until it returns, this time with a vengeance. Put a task on the to-do list without much thought, just the first method that comes to mind. (Note: this is usually when you are at an emotionally low spot or distracted.)
- Start suffering consequences for not addressing the worry. The consequences can be internal or external.
- Write down the item's action to take on another to-do list.
- Complete the task. Or put it off because it looks too complicated right now.
The worry book reminds me that writing something down feels like a breakthrough in procrastination. Procrastination feeds worry. The worry book starves the worry because recording the worry is an action. And that action is so repetitive that I don't have to be skilled or knowledgeable to make progress.
Completion is overrated. Being in the middle of tasks is real life.
Your worry book will have mostly unfinished projects in it. Feelings of futility might set in ... if we let our thirst for completion get the better of us. But being in the middle of every task is ... well, it's real life. And it can be a good place to be.
How do we stay on top of worries? I want to say this again: Do not tear out your completed tasks. Write DONE across the top of the page and leave the page in the worry book. As you flip through your worry book looking for the next task to address, you will be awash in the reassuring pattern of the book’s pages. You will see that everything in the book either gets solved or is in the process of doing that.
Patterns will emerge in your worries. One of my most favored outcomes was that, upon seeing all the pages of my youngest’s “low-grade” health complaints, I saw a need to track down specialists; her quality of life needed improvement. The solutions meant a specialist in October, a procedure in November and ongoing chiropractic visits. She is doing much better now. I don’t think I would have seen the bigger picture without my worry book.
Leave your worry book in one place.
I never take my worry book out of the house. Part of this is the practicality of not wanting to lose it. But the metaphoric part is that I don’t take my worries with me everywhere.
How often to use the worry book
For me, these questions of when and how often get answered a bit organically, since this is an emotional exercise first and a productivity exercise second. Really, the answer is "whatever works for you".
While I record my worries in my worry book almost every other day, I tend to the problem-solving parts less frequently than that. I estimate I work in problem-solving and brainstorming twice a week in highly productive cycles and once every two weeks on a slower cycles. If you let your worry book sit idle for a month or more, you may want to reconsider whether this method works for you, or if it has become another source of procrastination and emotional burden for you.
Worry management is the centerpiece here.
My worry book approach is probably similar to a lot of productivity habits out there. I think the only difference is that mine has worry management as the centerpiece. Plus I believe it has some advantages over other methods. But your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.
The worries we have can lead us to better timing on our tasks, with improved motivations for getting it done. It's a more organic and holistic way of accessing our priorities than some of the "head-based" organizational tricks out there. With my worry book, my small worries of today are pointing to tasks that I have been postponing for years. When scheduling with our heads, we might just be fueling the fires of procrastination. Think of it in terms of your alarm clock's snooze button. We all know that the problem of excessive snooze button use is not laziness but inadequate sleep; you get enough sleep by 5am and the snooze button problem goes away on its own. In the same way, addressing the worry means starting on tasks earlier and with fresher motivations.
Small worries over time can do as much damage as big worries.
The worry book treats all worries with the same weight. Small worries deserve a page right next to the biggies. Some of my smaller worries have been things like figuring out what company is our energy provider or remembering the best way I developed for scanning family photos.
Bigger worries have run the gamut from family's overall health, debt, every kind of insurance, employment, retirement. These "supersized" projects usually hide behind smaller tasks. For instance, I started wondering where my signed copy of the will is. I wound up finding it after calling our lawyer and having a chat. So in addressing the smaller issue of paperwork, I wound up nibbling away at the bigger worries of end-of-life planning without realizing it.
A casual flip-through
I pull out my worry book as part of sorting mail. I flip through all the pages to see what I want to work on. I don’t have to finish the whole project that day; I just have to take the next step and write that down. ... That’s a good part about devoting a whole page to each worry. Each step can be something as simple as making a call or filling out a form. Or I’ll group everything that requires an errand and do those together. This is called task-batching and is a completely borrowed idea ... I got this advice from another blogger, probably James Clear.
Here is an example: While batching all my mail inbox tasks that required calls, I had my worry book open to a page worrying about all the annual medical appointments my family needed. So I took 20 minutes and scheduled all of them for two days in a row in May. Since I was on a roll on the phone, I flipped through my worry book and found a page that worried about preparing my youngest for prom so I scheduled an appointment at a dress shop recommended by a friend. Without my worry book, I would have never thought to sweep up these little crumbs in life ...
Use silence to gather up your worries.
A final thought: When you are still and silent, you can usually uncover clusters of worries at once. If you want your worry book to be as thorough as possible in representing your worry life, give yourself 10 minutes here and there of solid think time..