‘Things done’: as important as ‘Things to do’

If you’ve got a lot on your plate, it is all too easy to get to the point where you cannot think of the task in hand because five or ten other things nag away at you saying they need to be done Right Now.  This more than just having a lot to do like the Red Queen in Alice who runs as fast as she can and stays in the same place.

Alice and the Red Queen

Alice and the Red Queen

This is the state of confusion, where stuff we haven’t yet got to looms larger and larger.  We get into the state described in the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done … and there is no health in us.

This confusion is about priorities. To give you an example: many years ago when first worked from home, I was only contracted to work 15 hours’ each week. Easy enough, you would think, but I still got into this state of confusion. I was racked with guilt while I worked because I was at home and therefore should be doing housework, but the moment I started on the housework I felt guilty because I should be working. That state of confusion is made much worse when there actually is too much on your plate, of course.

Alice and the cards

Alice and the cards

One way to break the cycle is to give yourself credit for the things you do get done.  At these times I make a things done list as well as a things to do list.  Of course, you should do all the standard time management stuff like differentiating between what’s important and what’s urgent and prioritise accordingly, and turning off your email and your phone.   (Things have to be pre-apocalyptic for me to turn off Instant Messenger).

So here goes.

Last week I:

  • went to the doctor and dentist which had been nagging away for ages because both were important but neither were urgent
  • switched electricity suppliers and bank accounts
  • dealt with a stack of post THIS high, and turned it into a stack of recycling this  high and a stack of filing this ___ high
  • wrote a cheery chatty letter to my family (thank goodness for email, there’s no need to post it)
  • put £4.50 into one of those booths and got myself a photo that the Daily Mail will use if I ever turn out to be a murderer, and posted it off to the driving licence people
  • got a replacement sock for the New Phone of Shininess  (even my phone loses socks)
  • tore down my Geocities accounts


  • decided to ignore the fact that my wireless network needs reconfiguring and trailed a cable through the house instead

Some of it was important some of it was urgent but all of it was getting me down. I thought I was running as fast as I could to get nowhere, but when I looked at this list I realised that actually I had made a lot of progress on all sorts of things.

So that’s Ben’s Top Time Management Tip:  Keep track of what you’ve done because it gives you a sense of forward movement even when your to do list keeps on growing.

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8 responses to “‘Things done’: as important as ‘Things to do’

  1. In some ways, I know little about this. I don’t get around to making To Do Lists as often as an over-busy, multi-tasking, naturally chaotic, bi-polar patient whose STM is fried by a combination of Depakote and Colly Weed really oughta. (Maybe I need to put it on a list?)

    But the thing to remember is…it’s just a list. I had a Project Manager one time who used to get us all together for weekly Plan Reviews. From most PMs, such things are soul sucking blamefests (why are we behind on X, Y, Z…?’). But he would always start with
    “Right, here’s the plan. But remember – it’s only a plan. If it doesn’t work, we can always change it.” And of course…he delivered. Exceptionally.

    Same with lists. Treat them as an ongoing, evolving project. To carry on the evolutionary analogy…don’t get fooled into falling into the trap of evolutionary determinism.

    You know…if something didn’t get crossed off because something else (which you probably added to your list) got in the way…than, as Ben said, the things you actually *did* do were probably the priorities.

    Unless you were just dicking off the whole time…in which case…why did your write the list?

  2. I must blog about this too.

    I’m a med reg at the moment. I am actually quite effective at my job, and one of the things I find difficult is how to coach my juniors (I love saying my juniors) in time management.

    The thing is I can do a ward round, do what it takes to take care of the patients and do the jobs myself. They will spend ages faffing over the jobs. In the end I just do them myself..

    Another skill to do ‘ward work’ ie take of your patients on the wards is to deal with the fact that people are constantly ‘at you’. So everything just has to go on your mental list whilst you do one thing at a time.

  3. How right you are. Always consider what you have achieved aswell as what you’ve got to do. Crikey where’s the time to do either.

  4. Edward, you are bang on the button about To Do lists being aides memoire. I had a boss who was terrified of plans, for just the reason you give: he was worried that we would be reluctant to deviate from our plan if anything un-planned came along. I on the other hand prefer plans, because they keep track of things for me, and that gives me the spare mental capacity to deal flexibly with the unexpected. In the end, I made plans but didn’t show them to him.

    Oh, Steve, the trust issues involved in delegation. There’s a blog post and a half! Of course in your job, the trust issues can be a matter of life and death. In mine it’s whether or not the powerpoints look ok.

    Jasmine, there is NEVER enough time!

    Thanks all for dropping by.

  5. There are days when my “Positive Things I’ve Achieved Today” list consists of the single item “Didn’t kill anyone.”

    They’re rare, though. And, so far, touch wood, I’ve not had a day where the item “Killed someone” appears on the list.

  6. I’m very bad at organising my time, and few strategies work for me in the long term.

    What seems to be working right now however is a weekly plan, where, each Monday, I decide what my top 4 priorities are for the coming week, and I block out my calendar appropriately and generously. All the other crap can fit into the spaces in between.

  7. I might also add that an ex colleague had a strategy of making an elaborate circle next to each task he needed to accomplish. He would then colour each one in as soon as he completed it. Somehow he got a thrill out of it. Given the work environment we were in at the time, this is perfectly understandable…

  8. I’m with you Colm – I work much better in half-day blocks than I do in 10 minute slices. I like the colouring in part too….

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