While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published January 14, 2014.
Despite my annual resolution not to make New Year’s resolutions, I can’t help myself, so like the Lord High Executioner in the Mikado, I have a little list – not of people to behead, but of things to do. It seems endless, not just with new tasks, like renovate my website, learn how to tweet, and dig an asparagus bed, but also with the repetitive ones of groceries, finances and laundry.
But the Big Projects are repetitive too: write, exercise, be kind and generous. In fact, I could probably use the same list year after year, but I don’t. I think there’s some value to recommitting to the Big Ideals, like productivity and health. When it comes to writing my daily list of things to do, however, I limit myself to three.
To give credit where credit is due, I learned this technique from the therapist I saw in my twenties, the one who helped me come to terms with being a writer. In those days, I’d write lists that started with Wake up, and included tasks like Shower, Brush teeth, Dress. In my own defense, putting these tasks on the list did give me the satisfaction of crossing them off, boosting my sense of accomplishment before I even left my apartment to teach. But it was also like paying attention to static, and never getting past the Activities of Daily Life. So I tried the Rule of Three, and it worked so well, I’ve used it ever since, especially when I allow my To Do List to become overpopulated with tasks that I’ll do as a matter of course, whether I write them down or not.
I use the Rule of Three to clarify each day. Today, for instance, my three tasks are: write my post, work on Ellen, and follow up on business tasks. I will have the first task completed before eight; I’ll spend the bulk of the day working on the novel, where I’m nearly finished creating a list of new scenes that have to be written, as I continue to increase the story’s complications and bring the minor characters to life. In between bouts at my desk, I’ll come in to my office and call my producer at the radio station and the client who hasn’t yet returned the contract for a teaching gig that’s fast approaching.
Of course, I have more to do than “just work” – like meal preparation, errands, exercise and such. Whether it’s because I’m absent-minded or middle-aged, I have to write things down in order to remember them, and mapping out these other activities in my planner helps me be efficient. For instance, I attend a yoga class every Tuesday afternoon. This is on the schedule but not the To Do List. While this may seem like splitting hairs, it works for me, especially since if I’m struck fluent and find myself in a writing groove at 4 pm, I can choose not to go. I have to write; achieving a full-lotus is optional.
Because attending yoga requires a car trip past a bank and a grocery , I build those errands in to my exercise. But if I don’t go to yoga – the groceries can wait. In fact, everything can wait – until I’ve finished the three items on my To Do List for the day.
In many ways, this method of listing mimics my own writing process: I generate a rough draft that’s messy and inclusive, and then I hone it down. By allowing myself only three tasks a day, I’m forced to prioritize and I’m able to stay focused. Rather than being obsessed by crossing tasks off the list, I’m encouraged by how much I actually get done.
I’m curious to know how others use lists to boost creativity. And if anyone tries this Rule of Three, please let me know how it goes.
Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist, and editor currently accepting select clients developing projects in prose. Her novel Into the Wilderness won the Independent Publishers’ Gold Medal for Regional Fiction. She lives in southern Vermont.
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