I’m an organized person. I set big-picture goals and break the big plan down into small achievable pieces. I’ve always made a daily to-do list and I get great satisfaction from ticking them off – done!
But I also put my obligations to others waaaay ahead of my own wants and needs, especially creatively. Even when I “schedule” creative time, or add “finish chapter 5” to my to-do list, you can be sure that it’s the one item on that list that doesn’t get done.
New strategy needed
The pandemic gave me a gift this year. Unused commuting time. So, I gave myself another gift: I cleared the deck of a number of outside obligations, told people “no” for a change and decided to make my own health and creativity more important in my life.
At first, predictably, my creativity intentions became the same undone items on the daily to-do list. I needed a new approach, a whole new rethink. It took time, some trial and error, but I found a new strategy for giving creativity a more meaningful—and attainable—place in my life. I developed what I call my “Butterflies, frogs and tadpoles” approach.
Ditch the daily to-do list
I’ve stopped making a daily to-do list!
Yes, that’s right. No more daily chances to feel like I’ve failed. No more only crossing off the obligations and neglecting the things I want to do. No more setting myself up for guilt, and disappointment at myself and the world. No more dwelling on the negative.
My new approach involves a master list each for butterflies, frogs and tadpoles – in that order!
Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles?
BUTTERFLIES are the things I WANT to do: creative things, personal things, social things, family things, hobbies, relationships and anything else that will feed my soul, make my life pleasant or feed into the achieving of my chosen personal goals. And while it may not be intuitive to goal setting in any way, I include things that are not necessarily “good for me” like eating a chocolate bar, or a third cup of coffee or a Netflix binge.
Okay okay! I hear you. That’s all very well, but what about all the stuff that HAS to get done. Be patient Young Grasshopper. I’m coming to that.
A FROG is something that MUST be done because it has a time restraint on it. The term comes from the “eat that frog” concept originated by Mark Twain who once said that if you start the day by eating a frog (your biggest and most important task) you will have the satisfaction of knowing that this was probably the worst thing you had to do that day.
But for me, there is a difference. My frogs are not necessarily my biggest or most important tasks. They are not necessarily things I don’t want to do. They are simply tasks governed by time deadlines. A frog can be as simple as reordering my prescription or calling Aunt Mable about the food for next weekend or as big and complicated as filing my taxes or meeting a client deadline.
I also often take big frogs and break them into smaller frogs. For instance, “filing my taxes” could be broken down into finding my paperwork, sorting receipts, compiling my mileage log; printing off my online charitable receipts etc etc. I prefer this approach, because it makes the frogs less intimidating, and I get to “complete” more things along the way. I can see and feel the progress.
A TADPOLE is an item that SHOULD be tackled soon because it will become a frog in the near future. Like frogs, tadpoles can be obligations or not, big or small. Tadpoles might be things like cleaning out my clothes closet, buying new boots or Christmas shopping, updating my website, getting the propane tanks refilled, filling out that grant application, finishing chapter 5, or submitting to a contest.
Some tadpoles can remain tadpoles for a very long time, but I know in my heart of hearts that if I don’t turn them into frogs at some point, I will regret it. So, yes, I may miss moving the writing contest entry to the frog list, but I know that if I don’t do it and the deadline passes, I will be upset with myself. And that if I continue to let those tadpoles die, my chosen goals will not be realized. I also recognize that many psychological reasons probably exist for my resistance, and so I cut myself some slack on tadpoles.
As I said earlier, I run a master list each for butterflies, frogs (with deadlines) and tadpoles – in that order!
I add to those lists whenever I think of something I want, must or should do. Remember these are master lists, not “to-do” lists, so I no longer get overwhelmed by how long they are.
When I started this, my Frogs list ran to several pages, my tadpoles were plentiful, but I could only come up with a scant list of butterflies.
I realized that I was so used to gearing my actions to what I “should” do that I was out of touch with what I really wanted to do. Over time, I’ve asked myself questions like: What makes me happy? What would a perfect day look like? If I died tomorrow, what would I regret not having done?
Each month, I pick from the master lists for my monthly tasks and activities. Note, I work by month, not by day. I have 3 sections in my day book for each of the categories: Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles.
I begin with a Butterfly choice. That’s right, put what’s important to you first! That goes on my monthly list of Butterflies. Then I pick a Frog or Tadpole and put them on my monthly Frog and Tadpole lists. I repeat the process until I have three lists that will fill my month with time left over for unexpected happenings that always arise.
Admittedly, the number of Frogs on the Frog list is often governed by deadlines. If it is a formidable list, I consider the old Ditch, Delegate or Defer approach to make it more manageable. But whatever I do, I make sure to have as many butterflies on my list as I have frogs and tadpoles combined.
Once a week I grab a highlighter and decide which Frogs need to be done by the end of the week. With the same colour highlighter, I highlight an equal number of Butterflies. Those are the ones I concentrate on that week. I forget about the others on the list. The next week I use a different colour highlighter and do the same thing. Spreading my expectations of myself over a week instead of a day means six less opportunities to feel like I failed, time to make up for a slow day and a better sense of achievement over time.
I always start my day with a Butterfly. This sounds counter-productive if there are Frog deadlines looming, but it isn’t. I’ve found that I procrastinate far less and I don’t fill my time with pointless activity because I’m getting my wants up front and not feeling overwhelmed by musts. Today for example, I had this blog to write, a report to finish and email around to colleagues and an editing assignment due tomorrow. Those three things I knew would eat up a big piece of my day, so I chose butterflies that would not take a big time grab but would leave me feeling fulfilled: A 20 minute yoga session at the lake; a video call to my brother overseas and time to read a poetry collection I have just bought. Tomorrow I have only one Frog deadline, so I will choose a large butterfly, like working for a full morning on my poetry, before I tackle that one frog.
While this may not work for everyone, it’s working for me. Slowly my mind is learning to put what’s important to me at the forefront of what I do. I feel less frustrated with tasks I have to do because I’m balancing them with things I want to do rather than trying to fit my wants in or neglecting them altogether.