Nothing makes my life feel more unmanageable than the sight of our family’s overflowing laundry basket. I just want to drop everything I’m doing to fix the problem.
The same is true of my to-do-list. On a daily basis, it’s bursting at the seams and left unattended, it also has the power to overwhelm. But like my laundry basket, I know that I can’t possibly crack the whole thing in one day.
And so I got to thinking about what I could learn from the way I manage my laundry basket when it comes to keeping my to-do-list in check.
Here are my seven rules:
1. Items must be in one place to be part of the cycle
If dirty clothes are to have a hope of getting washed and returned to their rightful place in the wardrobe, they must be in the laundry basket. This is where the cycle starts. Not on the floor next to the bed, or at the bottom of the kids’ school bags. Dirty clothes all need to be in one place.
To-do-lists are much the same. There’s no point having a hundred lists all over the place, or a multitude of colourful sticky notes on the wall that seem to drift away and find shelter behind bookshelves and in bins. They have to live in one safe place. This is why I like Trello. I get to have all my task boards neatly confined to a tab on my computer screen, accessible from my phone and other devices when I’m not at my desk.
2. Items must be grouped for clarity
Clothes need to be sorted before they get washed. Dark and light colours shouldn’t be washed together; some clothes must be washed at lower temperatures; others need the delicate cycle. The same is true of to-do-lists and tasks. Work tasks are not the same as the things I need to do at home.
Being a work-from-home mom, I’m often guilty of blurring the lines between home and work, but if I categorise my lists accordingly, it goes some way to keeping the boundaries intact. I’m either working on a work to-do-list or my at-home one, never both at the same time – it’s confusing. And when it comes to laundry, I wouldn’t want the colours to run…
3. There must be a clear meaning of ‘done’ for each item
From laundry basket to wardrobe, there is a clear cycle of events. Clothes get sorted, washed, hung out to dry, folded or ironed and packed away. When I stick something onto my to-do-list, I need to think about its life cycle too. It’s a way for me to consider what it will take to complete that task. If I don’t get clear about what ‘done’ means for this task, it could lurk on my list forever, cluttering the space, threatening overflow and that inevitable feeling of overwhelm that accompanies it.
4. Part of the sorting process requires prioritisation
Usually, if there are so many darks in the basket that they won’t all fit in the washing machine at once, I have to choose what will go in first. So I must think about what needs to be washed as a priority. Can these jeans wait another day or will I need to wear them again this week? And also, do my son’s worn-once pyjamas really need to be washed again?
Seriously, these are the kinds of questions I ask about my laundry – I need to have the same dogged focus with my tasks. Some tasks shouldn’t even be there – they’re not important today, maybe ever. Do I really need to go grocery shopping today since I have a work deadline? Actually, that brings me to my next rule, often harder to achieve than any of the others …
5. It’s okay to delegate
With two children, a husband, a home and a steady stream of publishing clients, I have a lot to do. So here’s the thing: I have help. I have a cleaner who comes twice a week to clean my house AND help with the laundry. It’s a necessary part of my work-from-home lifestyle, otherwise I would spend most of my precious time while the kids are at school distracted by the housework, and then have to claw back the hours late at night when the kids are in bed. It’s a very bleak alternative.
Very slowly, I’m learning to apply the same rule to other tasks on my to-do-list and asking for help more often. It’s hard to let go of the controls and accept that I can’t do it all, but over the years I’ve come to realise that I’m only one person and there are only so many balls I can juggle without dropping a few.
6. Don’t ignore it. Just keep going
Because I have help with the laundry, it doesn’t mean I don’t have to worry about it on the five days that our cleaner isn’t here. As the days go by and clothes get worn and towels get wet, the laundry pile gets higher. If just one day goes by and a laundry load hasn’t been done, things can get horribly out of hand. Laundry waits for no one. And this is true of my to-do-list too. Every day I have to tackle some of my tasks. With one done, I can move on to the next. I have to just keep going, one task at a time.
7. Have a limit
Though I have an outdoor washline and a clothes horse for hanging laundry indoors, I have only so much space to hang washing. There is also only so much time I can devote to laundry on any given day. That’s why I’ve set a daily laundry limit for myself, especially when it’s just me on the job. One load. That’s my limit. With my to-do-list, a limit means that I allocate no more than three major tasks and three minor ones for the day and once I’ve completed those, I stop, I do a little something for me, spend time with my family and just connect with my life, the real reason why I do all this stuff in the first place.
So tomorrow when I sort the laundry, I’ll give a thought to my day’s to-do-list. I’ll remind myself that just as I might only ever get a fleeting glimpse of the bottom of our laundry basket, my work as a mom will never be done; there will always be something on the to-do list still to do. And that if a job hasn’t been earmarked for today’s load… well, there’s always tomorrow’s.
Written by Melissa Fagan, freelance non-fiction editor
I help non-fiction publishers deliver award-winning content using a creative and flawless approach to editing. Internationally qualified non-fiction editor with 11 years’ publishing experience.
Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
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