July 20, 2012

Discovering yourself through to-do lists - blog #amwriting

We all have favorite self-evaluation tools. Some people love the Myers Briggs MBTI type. Some tell me they're a "red" or I'm a "blue" or something. I don't really get that one. Then of course there are various Zodiac assessments. Personally, I enjoy the Gallup Strengths Finder program.

Many of us use these and other methods to determine who we'll date, what we'll eat, or what career path we'll follow.

Several years ago, I discovered a different way to focus my career path. I call it the To-Do List Method.™

Early in my career, I became a jack of all trades. I ran a tech pubs group, programmed, ran a tech support group. I found things to like and things to loathe about every job I had. But I was at an inflection point in my career--to progress for real, I'd need to turn myself in one direction and go for it. Marketing? Writing? Programming?

At the time, I happened to be director of marketing at a company that made embedded system software for routers. (Not everyone can successfully market embedded router software, you know. Check out my portfolio; you'll find some articles I authored for technical journals during that time.) But as with all startups, and with every job I've had since, my daily to-do list was longer than the available time. Every day I'd start with, say, 25 tasks, but I had time for only 20 of them. Some of course were mandatory, and those always got done.

Over a few months, I paid attention. Rather than chastise myself for not getting everything done, I studied those items and realized that nearly all those leftover tasks had a few things in common. Most of them involved the telephone. A lot of them involved salesy activity. Nearly none of them involved creative output--design, writing, or problem-solving. And other things.

I also found that this method highlighted my strengths. Communication, creativity, storytelling were among them. I always thought I was bad at those things because I hate hate HATE talking on the phone. With anyone. Ever. But that's just the phone. I was a whiz at tasks that used those skills in writing. Press releases? Mine were really good. Support collateral for the sales team? Awesome. Brand development? Check.

My career has developed in directions I never planned or predicted since then, but I've helped it along by knowing what tasks will fall off the list at the end of a busy day. I avoid jobs that have a lot of them because if you have 25 tasks you enjoy, doing 20 is easy. But if you have 25 tasks you hate, doing 20 will make you miserable.

This came up recently online when someone opined on whether writers are born or made. Someone said, "People who love writing will find time for it." NaNoWriMo winners often joke about leaving the laundry and dishes unwashed for weeks at a time to get the word count. So yeah, I agree. If you have talked about writing for five years and haven't actually done it, you might do a little to-do list analysis of your own. Stop being miserable about wanting to write and focus on the things you do love. And if it feels like 100% of your daily tasks are mandatory obligations for someone else, then you need to reprioritize your life, not just your tasks.

For me, writing is one of those things I find time for most days, most weeks. Even if I don't write, I'm thinking about my stories, spending my downtime in writing mode. And I'm a happier person when I can do that.

Look at your to-do lists for the last few months. What things do you consistently leave undone? Don't be afraid of or embarrassed by them. Treasure them, because they are the buoys that mark your safe channel. Thank them, because they tell you what jobs and activities to avoid in the future. And if you care to share, let me know what they are in the comments.

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