I must confess that I enjoy crossing off items on a list. Attacking each day with my ‘to-do’ list in hand and having the sweet satisfaction of putting a line through these jobs as I they are done is pure joy. Determining my plan is for each day at its start helps me to stay focused and not waste time. I know how most of my days will unfold, yet sometimes I do allow for a random change in plans that might even become an adventure (as long as I know ahead of time).
Mark Twain once wrote, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
(Source/Notes: As quoted in: Morally We Roll Along, Gay MacLaren, Little, Brown, 1938, p. 66, “I Meet Mark Twain” https://izquotes.com/quote/187974)
I am a big believer in the ‘swallow the frog’ philosophy. I usually try to attack my biggest frog first – my biggest priority whether it’s the chore I hate to do most, or the errand I’d rather not run, or the phone call I’d prefer someone else would make. So when I write out my Priority List for the day – the first few items are my need to get done tasks. Then, I draw a line under the last item that must be accomplished and the rest of the list contains the remaining tasks I hope to finish as the day wears on. Everything below the line is what I consider a bonus. I must give credit to the original developer of the ‘priority list’ – my wonderful husband. Here’s how it all started…
I wasn’t always a priority list maker, and in the past I was easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of daunting tasks. In my early thirties I found myself a single mom of two small children. It was not the plan I had in mind for myself, but in my attempt to move forward I decided to go back to school and become an elementary school teacher, so that my future schedule would be similar to that of my children’s. After eighteen months of classes I had my Bachelor of Science in Education (already having a Bachelor’s in English was a huge head start).
Shortly after gradation, my academic advisor recommended me for an interview for teaching position. I had already reconciled myself to possibly being a substitute teacher for a while after graduation – because teaching jobs were scarce and the school district that had the job opening was truly outstanding. I was sure they would not hire a young single mom with zero teaching experience. I went into the job interview with a sense of calm because a job offer wasn’t something I was counting on at all, and I was doing a favor for my advisor who recommended me. I was being interviewed by the school principal and a fourth grade teacher; the conversation was very relaxed because whether I was hired or not, I was perfectly fine with either outcome, and fully expecting not to be hired.
Friends, do you know what happened? That position was offered to me and I accepted. And do you know why I was hired? I found out much later that among other reasons was the fact that I wasn’t nervous and portrayed a sense of confidence by being relaxed and calm during the interview. I simply could not believe it – my lack of nerves helped me land a coveted teaching position that I was positive I was never going to be offered.
About a week after getting the news I was in my home office, and in front of me I had all my teacher editions and materials that I needed to start planning my school year. I literally started freaking out.
I became so overwhelmed with the magnitude of being a teacher for the first time and having to plan what I wanted to teach that I became paralyzed with fear and trepidation. I burst into tears and seriously began thinking about declining the position. I began rehearsing what I would say when I called the principal back to tell him I was a fraud.
I was fretting and whimpering in my home office for close to an hour unable to move past the wave of anxiety that swallowed me when my new boyfriend (now my husband) came over and found me melted into a pool of tears and anxiety. I explained to him that the school district hired an imposter, and that I needed to tell them to find a real teacher because I fooled them during the job interview. They needed to know it was all a big mistake.
After stifling a laugh, this awesome guy told me, “Listen, this really is overwhelming if you think you actually need to plan the whole school year. You just need to plan the first day. That’s all. Just plan what you need to accomplish on day one. Make a priority list of only the things you have to do to get through the first day.”
I wiped my tears away and said, “I think I can do that.” And after I planned the first day, the anxiety and fear started to melt away and I was able to sketch out the second and third day, too. Thank goodness it was only a three day week to start the school year!
I went on to plan a week at a time until I was able to look at a whole teaching unit without getting an anxiety attack. I finished my entire first year as a teacher and survived! And I even went on to teach for nine more years. Apparently my academic advisor and the principal saw something in me, and thanks to the priority list I was able to bring my teaching skills to the classroom where I put them into action. Oh, and you remember that fourth grade teacher who was at the interview? She became one of my dearest friends and the matron of honor at my wedding.
That afternoon in my home office when my future husband offered that simple advice was a watershed moment for me, my “Eureka!” I was able to get past the need to think I had to have everything in life completely planned out in an instant, and learned to manage my expectations with the “priority list,” my new favorite organizational tool and anxiety reducer. It became my way of coping with anxiety about the unknown future and the complexity of daunting tasks. After that experience, breaking tasks down into manageable parts has always been the first thing I do when approaching my day, a project, or anything I want to tackle.
Each day I devote a page of a notebook I keep with a list of tasks I hope to accomplish, and I love looking back on previous pages to see what I’ve completed, but also thinking ahead at what’s next to get done.
It has helped with planning family gatherings, buying Christmas gifts, meal planning, doing home improvement projects, and planning our vegetable garden. Making my priority list has even helped me get through the difficult transition of the ’empty nest syndrome’ that nobody warned me about when those small children of mine had the nerve to grow up and become capable adults in their own right. But that will be a blog post for another day – just let me write that down on tomorrow’s priority list…