The very early stages of starting a business for the first time are marked by incredibly hard things such as failing fast, hiring the right people, long hours and strategic decisions. While many talk about this, fewer speak about the internal struggle, the anxiety and decision fatigue that comes with building your own business. Here’s how I dealt with this.
Two years ago I was working as a Media Manager in a busy advertising production house when they introduced efficiency management software intended to help staff organise their tasks and reduce time spent doing admin. Not only did it not improve the efficiency of the organisation, but it actually added an hour a day to my admin. It made everyone miserable, even the people who had signed off on it in the first place. That’s when I thought: There has got to be a better way.
So, my partner and I decided to start an app company solving admin in daily life; from booking appointments to growing a garden.
I quit my job. I started an app company. Easy, right? Not quite.
Of course, there are all the things you typically read about running a business: crazy long hours, no sleep, repeated failure, constant networking. I was prepared for these things. I wasn’t afraid of hard work or exhaustion. I just wanted to be doing it for me.
Except that this is not what happened.
I had spent my entire life being told where to be at what time, from school to university to my working life and all of a sudden, there was no such structure. There was nobody and nothing that told me I had to do something.
For the first time in my life, I had to figure out what worked best for me and what happened is that I lost all sense of time and space and found myself incapable of getting anything done. I sank into Netflix for a week. I rose for a few days and made lists. I made lists on computers, on post-its, in notebooks, on whiteboards. I made lists of lists and sank again into moving images for a day, five, nine. I rose to clean the house, spent six hours on my hands and knees, sank, again.
The result? You know it already. Guilt, fear, doubt, pain. Quick! Hide! Here, under the duvet, where it’s safe and warm. You can make lists in bed. You can work in bed. You’re allowed to work in bed. Later. Later. One more episode.
Obviously, this could not go on.
I needed a way to stop the downward spiral, and I needed it fast. Alas, fast it was not. Over the course of a year, tons of research and much trial and error, I developed a method for getting things done.
My hope is that this article will help you adopt this method faster than I did and that it makes your own journey a little smoother than mine.
The Infinite List: Yet Another Way to Get Things Done
We all make lists - even if it is mentally. We all walk through the house thinking: Need to get those door-knobs fixed, holes filled, pictures hung. While we’re driving: Must get the bank account sorted, send that email, write that document. In the shower: Great story idea, get that blog started, cook supper, plan smoothie diet, plant herbs.
The best way to deal with a lingering task is to do it immediately. However, when I tried to follow this principle, I found myself using ‘fun but necessary’ tasks like weeding my garden to avoid doing the things I really needed to do like calling potential clients. This increasing list of important work things I didn’t do started feeding into the procrastination and anxiety I was feeling towards my business.
Step 1: Write everything down
I have found that the next best thing to actually doing the task is to commit to doing the task. I do this by writing it down and putting it somewhere I can see it. This allows my brain to say: “OK, rad, she’s got it. It’ll get done!” It also helps me to make room in my head.
I call this list of tasks my Infinite List. I use it as a way to acknowledge every little thing that I wish I could fit into my life, no matter how small, weird or insignificant. It is not intended to ever be comprehensive or complete, but serves as a guide when I’m feeling overwhelmed or simply don’t know what to do next.
This is how to get started:
Grab a pen and paper and start writing your Infinite List down. Let your imagination take over. Include fixing those doorknobs, learning to play a musical instrument and checking in with your team. Include the things you want to do every day, big life goals, and all the little tasks that have been backing up on your to do list.
You will likely not be able to get it all down at once, but you can do it in short, concentrated sessions of 15 to 30 minutes over a few days. When you’ve written down everything you can remember, take your pen and paper and move around your environment, writing down whatever additional tasks are triggered by your observations.
Step 2: Make sense of your infinite list
Once you’ve done this a few times, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll have likely covered your pages in mad scientist scribbles. But even if you’ve written each element in perfect print, you now need to turn them into a logical formula. This will allow you to understand the whole picture and move easily between priorities without getting bogged down in the volume of individual tasks.
Begin by identifying all main areas of your life. I like to use words that illustrate concepts like Create, Move, Grow and Work. If you’re a more pragmatic type, you may find it helpful to stick with the more obvious such as Business, Home and Garden. The words are not important, as long as each of them encompasses a clear area in your life.
Next, organise all the things you’ve written down into these areas and divide them into those that are repeat-tasks and those you’ll only do once-off. In ‘Create’, I put the weekly blog I want to write, the pictures I want to paint, and the gifts I want to make for Christmas. In ‘Work’, there are research and social media strategy.
Now order your lists loosely by priority and write down any hard deadlines attached to tasks which have them.
Step 3: Make your list visible
Visibility is key to making this method work. A visual display of the whole picture with clearly differentiated areas means you can glance up, grab a task, and do it, without first having to page through a book or open an application. Both of these things take extra time and carry the risk of being side-tracked by all the other tasks you see before you get to the page you need.
I may be building applications to get rid of paper in daily life, but until now, I haven’t found a better way to display my Infinite List than a wall of brightly coloured Post-Its. Each of my life areas gets a different colour and I’m further dividing my tasks into three sections:
- Once-off tasks that I am currently focusing on are divided into ‘Today’ and ‘This Week’: This will be be empty in the initial setup.
- Other once-off tasks are organised in a “cloud-formation”: These are things such as writing this article or fixing a chair. I surround a life area by all its tasks and mark high priorities clearly. You could of course also display your once-offs in columns with priorities at the top. It really depends on what works best for your understanding.
- Repeat-tasks are split into ‘Daily’ and ‘Weekly’: I use the same colours that reflect their life area. These are usually simple home chores, business admin or exercises that I weave into the rest of my day, but they could also include focused creative time if it makes it onto the list that day.
Step 4: Pick three things
You have a list. You can see it. Now the scary part starts: You need to get things done!
To do this, I’ve found it most useful to narrow down my list to the most important, most fundamental areas in my life. It’s natural to want to do everything - and you will - but building a routine involves choosing those areas you must nourish to be able to breathe, without which you would feel ill-fitted in your skin.
Sit back and let your eyes and your mind just take it all in. Look at all that stuff you just committed to do! OMG. It’s never going to happen amicrazy what?!
If this is your first gut reaction, you are not alone. Take a breath and pick three areas that meet the criteria in the above paragraph. I have discovered that if I am healthy and my house is clean, I can focus and work. That’s why my three fundamentals are that I move my body, care for my home, and, of course, work on my business.
Why pick three? Because it’s enough to make me feel like I’ve done something on a day when I’m flat and unproductive, but not too much to handle on a day when the car breaks down, the dog has to go to the vet, and the electricity goes out.
Step 5: Do the things
For me, the hardest thing is keeping track and trying to figure out what I need to do next. Especially if there are too many things to pick from. The hardest thing is not the actual doing, it’s the constant questioning of: do I need to do this, do I want to do this right this moment.
Each week, select the once-off tasks from your task cloud that you would like to tick off in that week and place them into the section for ‘This Week’. Any tasks that are not from your three main life areas can be included as a low priority.
Then each day, choose one thing from each of your main life areas in ‘This Week’ and place them into the ‘Today’ section. As you complete them, move them off the list and replace them with another task from the same area. Move through them until they are all done, then move on to low priorities.
Step 6: Accept that life happens
Cliches are cliches because at their core they are true. ‘Best laid plans go to waste’ is a prime example of this. The Infinite List is an excellent way of keeping anxiety in check, but life doesn’t really care about lists. You wake up, your partner is ill, the car has a flat, and an urgent meeting has been scheduled in the middle of your day. These are things you have no control over.
What you do control is the list and this is what you must remember:
- If something more important comes up, knock something else down on the list. You’re trying to get things done, not get that particular thing done. Shifting your energy doesn’t eliminate the ‘Done’ part of the process.
- The list is not static. It is a living, breathing creation and you should be feeding it by adding to it every time you think of something else you’d like to do.
- The goal is not to tick off everything on the list. It’s an Infinite List. That would be impossible! The goal is forward movement. Each day, take a step, get things done. That is all.
Since I started organising my life this way, I get a lot more done. I know that I’m doing things that feed my soul and the joy spills over into creating spreadsheets. I know that on days when the fear and doubt claw in and I start to sink, there are only ever three things to do.
I know it is always possible to do three things.
Larissa Pienaar is the co-founder and idea sketcher at Element Applications. She’s learning to navigate the swirling waters of business ownership, life, love, and yoga using little more than her wits and the well of knowledge that is the internet.