Do you feel like you do alot with little to show for it? I did too. Here’s how I turned that around.

Last year, I was discouraged: I was doing a lot with little to show for it. I would frequently be up until midnight doing chores and trying to stay on top of things and I was exhausted. Despite all that effort, I could not tell you what I had accomplished and I wasn’t getting any feedback telling me either. I decided I had to change that, and to change that, I did two major things: I started using a spreadsheet and I started using Workflowy. Let me explain how these two tools made a difference for me.

First, I started using a spreadsheet to track everything I did. Before I would write my todolists on a piece of paper, do it, then throw the list away. With the spreadsheet,  I put all my todos in there. Initially it had two columns: a todo column and a status column. Each todo had an associated status: Pending (i.e., I hadn’t started the task), WIP (work in progress, meaning I had started the task but hadn’t completed it) or Complete. As I did each todo, I changed the status from Pending to WIP (Work in progress) to Complete. I would try to only tackle tasks that were in the spreadsheet. If I did something that wasn’t in there, I started adding it there. (That last thing of capturing all todos in the spreadsheet was important.)

Very soon, I could see from the spreadsheet that I was doing a lot. In fact, the todolist expanded greatly. So I added a new column: priority. Each todo has a priority: 1-4. Once or twice a week, I reviewed my todos to see if they had the right priority. Then I ignored anything that wasn’t a 1 until the next review period. Prioritization helped me to focus.

Despite that, I still had many many todos, and still too many todos with a number 1 priority. I added additional columns over the year and this helped me manage what I had to get done. Even when my todo list had over 500 items on it, I could quickly filter out all but the 3 or 4 items I needed to focus on for a day. I added a column to help me separate Work todos from Home (not work related) todos. Then I subcategorized the Todos: there are todos related to my kids, todos concerning Money, my Home, even Me!

Of all the colums in the todo list, I found this last column of subcategories to be the most important in terms of getting a sense of accomplishment. Here’s why. At the end of each month, I took the completed todos and sorted them by subcategory. I could see from this where I was (and wasn’t) spending my time. For example, I might see that I was spending a lot of my time dealing with House issues and not enough of my time with the Kids. Having this in front of me allowed me to better focus my time in the near future. (Note: you don’t have to wait until the end of the month to do this, and when I find I am really busy, I will do weekly or biweekly reviews to see how the month is shaping up).

At the end of the month, I create a new worksheet for the new month by making a copy of the existing todo list. That way, I can focus just on the todos for that month.

After a few months of this, it was easy to do. You might think it is a lot of effort, but with the spreadsheet I have, I found it easy to add to and sort the todos. Most days I spend less than a few minutes reviewing it.

Occasionally I do things that aren’t on the list. It doesn’t matter much: most todos end up in there. The main thing is I get to see that I am getting things done and I can see where my effort is going.

That’s the spreadsheet. At first, it was all I wanted. I could see what I was getting done each month, and that felt great. I was getting a sense of accomplishment every month. But it wasn’t enough. The problem with just using the spreadsheet was that it is very granular. I could see I was doing a lot of tasks, but was that good or bad? Also, sometimes a bunch of smaller tasks add up to a bigger task that should be highlighted, but the spreadsheet couldn’t do that for me. I needed a different approach. I needed a different tool.  After thinking about this, I started using Workflowy (workflowy.com).

At the start of the month, I create a list of major activities I want to accomplish that month. (Workflowy is really  great if you like lists: that’s why I picked it.) Then I make sure my todos for that month are in line with those major activities. At the end of the month, I roll up the tasks that I did and put them in workflowy according to the major activities. Additionally, I might look and see I accomplished a number of things in the month that I didn’t expect to at the start of the month. I will add them to Workflowy, too, creating a new major activity to describe them.

What I liked about this is that month after month I could now see I was accomplishing a lot. I wasn’t just doing just a lot of little things: I was getting bigger things done. I could also see what I wasn’t accomplishing (e.g. running) and then correct that (or at least accept it in light of the other things I was accomplishing).

The other thing I realized is that if you have a lot on your plate, then it is difficult to make a lot of achievements in one month, but over many months, you start to see you have accomplished a lot. You miss that as your review your day to day activities because you are juggling a lot. Even looking back over a month, you think: wow, I barely made a dent in things. But as you look back over 3 or 6 months, you can say: wow, I made big improvements in 3 or 6 or even a dozen areas.

There are lots of improvements that can be made on this system, depending on who you are.  You may have the advantage of being able to focus in one or two areas. If so, you could use a simpler approach. If you have many major responsibilities and you want to make improvements in your own life, this approach may work for you. It works for me.

A template of my spreadsheet is here. It’s an XLS file.

As for the list I have each month in workflowy, I start with a template like this:

In Month X I plan to achieve the following

  • Concerning family and friends
  • With regards to personal finances
  • On the home front
  • With regards to staying organized
  • For special project X (whatever X is at the time)
  • Personally, I plan to do more regarding….
    • Writing/reading
    • Fitness
    • Develop personal skills
      • Develop my technical skills
      • Develop other skills
    • Explore new things

If you have read to this point: thank you! I appreciate you taking the time to do this. If you try this approach and it gives you some benefit, please let me know. Good luck! Accomplish great things!

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