“For every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned” Benjamin Franklin

I have completely changed my life in the past three weeks.  That’s right.  Completely changed my life.  The people are the same – my husband and kids, my family and friends.  My work is the same.  I’m still building my business and active in leadership at my synagogue.  Yet, it feels completely different.  The difference is that I started using an organizational tool that transformed what am I doing, how much I’m doing and how I’m thinking about what I’m doing.  I can’t believe how easy it is.  I can’t believe how different I feel.

It all started a few weeks ago when I was working on my business plan.  I had just finished reading Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner and was really energized by the role I do and can play in bringing positive psychology principals to people and organizations reach their potential.  I set a goal of increasing my positive psychology knowledge and brainstormed about who’s work is critical to read to have the fundamentals.  Martin Seligman, widely acknowledged as the founder of positive psychology, was at the top of my list.  I put his latest book, Flourish on hold at the library and happily felt like I was well on my way to achieving my goal (yup, that’s all it really takes to make me happy a lot of the time).

Well, you would have thought that Flourish was a compelling whodunit by the way that I couldn’t put it down.  It enriched my knowledge.  It helped me understand how much my strengths align with positive psychology principals.  It inspired me to learn more and do more.  This led me to visit the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center website.  I followed the link under the Opportunities tab to participate in research and then clicked through to participate in a two-week Positive Intervention Study for Increasing Well-being.   I completed the 10-minute well-being assessment and then was given the organizational task to complete daily for 14 days.  The instructions were simple (my paraphrased version): each morning, create a list of what you would like to do during the day.  At the end of the day, review the list and mark whether you completed the items or not.  If you didn’t complete the items, indicate why you didn’t.  Try to do this activity every day.  If you miss a day, don’t fuss about it, start again the next day.

Before I tell you about how and why this changed my life, I think it’s important to understand my history with list making. I like lists.  Right from reading about the Slam Books in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, I have been inspired to make lists.  Lists of what I want to do.  What I want to be. What I want to read (and have read).  I spent a drunken afternoon in Peel Pub at university making a list with two good friends of all the people we kissed.  I have lists of things to do for my business, for my family, for my self-development…you get the idea.  When I was coached three years ago, I shared with my coach that I regularly put items on my to do list that I have already completed for the joy of crossing them out.  He pointedly suggested that I could find joy in many other ways and encouraged me to rethink my lists entirely.   I did.   That was also transformative.  I started thinking more about what I really wanted to do each day vs. what I had to do.  Doing what I wanted to do gave me much more joy than crossing items off the list.  It helped me understand that my deep satisfaction comes from what I am doing, rather than feeling like a success or failure based on how many items I have crossed off my list.

So, back to the present.  Or to three weeks ago.

I set up my list in a spreadsheet, making my four columns: Date; Task; Status; If not, why not.  I listed out eight tasks for the day that ranged from business oriented tasks like designing a workshop to family oriented tasks like grocery shopping.  At the end of the day, I reviewed the list and noted that I hadn’t completed the workshop design task.  Instead of doing it, I used that time to have lunch with my husband.  It had been really nice time together, away from the distraction of the kids and the fatigue that the end of the day often brings.  I didn’t feel less successful for not completing the task.  I understood that it had been a trade of one thing that I valued for another.  The days continued like that.  I planned.  I saw what I chronically wasn’t completing and developed strategies to get to those tasks (like working on the activity first thing in the morning that I have the most resistance to doing).  I found myself completing tasks that had been sitting on various lists for months and months.  I redeemed my Groupon for hot yoga.  I drafted an online survey.  I made doctor appointments.  I filed my online HST return.  By the second week, I had increased the amount of work I was doing by over 60%.  I started waking up an hour earlier so I get more done.  I started getting more sleep so I could focus better during the day.  I ordered the book Creating Your Best Life The Ultimate List Guide by Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP and Dr. Micahel B. Frisch, so I could gain more motivation through list making.  Motivation is the key.  I felt and continue to feel so motivated.  I am thinking about myself and what it is that I am doing in a grounded and really excited way.  At the same time.  You can see why I’ve been needing sleep!

I believe there are three components to this tool being so powerful for positive change:

  • The tool focuses me in today. The daily task encourages me to think in the confines of what is possible today.  I can have larger goals that extend beyond today – but this tool grounds me in today specifically, giving me a sense of both the large possibilities of a day and the limitations of waking hours.
  • It is aspirational and practical at the same time. On a daily basis, I am contemplating what I want and what I need to do to get there.
  • I am collecting a lot of data that can help inform my thinking and planning going forward. I can use the data to understand my capabilities and potential.  I can see what I am chronically not getting to and evaluate why.   It also gives me perspective of my whole body of work instead of hour by hour or day by day.  Sometimes I get discouraged by how little I’ve accomplished.  When I can see how much I’ve accomplished over the entire week, or even over two or three days, I feel better (and more motivated).

So, let this blog post double as a gratitude letter to Martin Seligman and the fantastic researchers at The Positive Psychology Center.  Thank you for your commitment to evidenced-based positive psychology – it is helping to transform my life and the lives of the people I touch.  Please sign me up for more research studies.