Self-employment (for the unorganised): To-Do ‘Lists’
11th June 2021
Recently I was reminded of the importance of routine and planning when being self-employed and/or running a business. A contact pointed out that disorganised businesses do not run as well as they could, and if a business owner lacks organisational skills, their work can soon creep into (and possibly take over) their personal life.
This coincided with some nifty ways of working that Aspiedent has found for itself.
Poor organisational skills can be an issue in autism, and other neurodiverse conditions. One thing I and Dr Elizabeth Guest, Aspiedent’s Director, share is poor organisational skills. We complement each other in many ways when it comes to skills and aptitudes needed for business, but we are both quite spectacularly poor at organising ourselves.
Since I am on the theme of autism and self-employment for this months’ blogs, I thought it worth writing about how we have found unique and nifty ways of managing our days/weeks/months. The hope is that it might benefit others who find their organisational skills leave somewhat to be desired.
In particular, the infamous ‘To do list’
Most people have to develop their own ways of keeping track of their tasks and priorities. It is common knowledge that most people keep a to-do ‘list’ and find that it often just keeps getting longer and longer or they have to keep transferring it over to the next week.
But what if there were other ways of having a To-Do list that did not include a ‘list’?!
What if traditional lists did not work as well for you because of a visual style of thinking.
Or what if you need to keep better track of what you have done, what needs doing, and how each job connects to each other or a bigger ‘chunk’ of work?
How about if you are so detail-orientated that your to-do lists end up miles long with all the little details about what needs doing, meaning you spend a lot of time rewriting or rearranging it when it gets too unwieldy?
Then what if you start to feel highly anxious just in case you ‘missed’ copying something over and, because your memory lets you down, you are likely to let it slip and forget to do it! Then it turns into obsessive list-making and checking. I could probably go on.
Sadly, the two issues above are what Elizabeth and I each have some of!
Thankfully, there are ways and means around these issues which help keep us on track and manage our tasks, help keep us away from ‘dropping balls’, and away from feeling overwhelmed by all the tasks we have to do.
We have tried using Trello in the past, which is free software that helps you manage projects. We would recommend it. But it was not quite right for us.
So here are two different systems of keeping organised in a (self-employed) world where you are everything from the Finance Director, HR Assistant, IT Director, to lead ‘Innovator’.
These systems can work for anyone regardless of employment status or diagnosed ‘neurodiversity’.
I can see these systems working for anyone regardless of whether they are employed, self-employed, or just have a busy retirement.
System 1 - A visual To-Do list
If you find that you take in information easier when it is in diagram format, the below might be very enlightening for you. (If you are much more word/list orientated, skip to system 2 below).
We know that Elizabeth is extremely visual. She will often draw diagrams when trying to explain ideas, theories, or processes. She often requires diagrams to understand things, too.
Therefore, her new method of keeping a to-do list is just that - in diagram format. She uses software called Scapple. Essentially, she has a set of separate boxes which have her overarching tasks inside (e.g. ‘[write] Book’, ‘SPCR’ (connected to getting our autism profiling tool online), ‘New Website’ and ‘other’).
Much like a spider diagram, from these boxes, she then draws lines that connect to boxes that contain small tasks associated with the overarching task. For example, under ‘Book’ she has things like ‘find publishers’, ‘gather [existing] materials together’, and ‘make a plan’.
The beauty about doing her to-do list this way is that she can then connect different tasks so she can visually see both what she is doing and how it fits together. For example, there are items which connect ‘SPCR’ and ‘New Website’, as these jobs will complement each other/feed into each other. She also has ‘Other’ linking to ‘Book’ via ‘New Software’ because we are currently exploring various software that might help her overcome the hurdles to getting the information in her head, which is multidimensional, to the linear format of writing.
Even better, if she decides that something belongs in another category, she can add or change the links.
Also, she knows that her to-do list is secure and safe - she does not have to keep going back through her notes to find something she has written. She will not lose her notes, and it is also not possible for her to misplace her notes resulting in them getting into the wrong hands (thus mitigating against data protection concerns).
Another benefit of doing it this way is that she can code tasks by colour and shape i.e. red for urgent, and a cloud shape for things that are integral to the development of her business. And, if anybody wanted to see a copy of her current ‘business plan’, she could just print it out (a different diagram has been prepared in scapple) and, voila!
Elizabeth needs both the bigger picture and the details to work on things and therefore she actually uses a hybrid approach (described below).
I however really struggle to see the bigger picture and problem solve, and therefore if I tried to do it this way, I would end up with so many lines that it would just become a big mass of lines and colour and I would abandon the whole thing.
Some people like me, get bogged down in the details and therefore to-do lists become unwieldy and too detailed.
So, how do I manage to organise myself and stay on track with my to-do list? Well, I think of it as a ‘megalist’ that never needs rewriting.
System 2 - A detailed list
As mentioned above, I am very detail orientated. I get upset very easily because I cannot see the ‘bigger picture’ and do not have a brilliant memory, and hence rely on many processes and aids to get through life and solve problems.
The above is a weakness, but in place of this, I am particularly good at following detailed processes and procedures.
My to-do list is essentially a horizontal list of larger things which underneath them, contain more lists, and so on. The software I use for this is called Scrivener.
This program is designed as a writing tool. However, I like it as it opens and closes lists at my request so that I can either drill right down into the detail (each little thing I have to do for one bigger thing) by opening them, or just look at the bigger picture of my jobs by closing them so it just shows me the descriptions of each list. An example is below.
As you can see, I have a folder called ‘To Do’ List. This opens up into several smaller folders with titles such as ‘Main Tasks’, ‘Little Jobs’, ‘Sales & Marketing’, and ‘EG Help’ (jobs that I need Elizabeth’s help to complete).
Then, if I click, for example, on ‘Little Jobs’, it opens up another list which details each of the micro-jobs I need to do. E.g., ‘Organise a meeting with A’ and ‘Check Companies House received accounts’.
This makes me feel relaxed because I know that whatever I put in there will stay there (as opposed to getting lost on a piece of paper) and will be (satisfyingly) removed when I have completed it.
It also prevents me from spending too much time on little menial jobs and also to focus on the ‘bigger picture’ and ideas stuff I so struggle with, and which come so naturally to Elizabeth.
This is because I can tell myself to spend so much time a day in certain ‘areas’ of my to-do list. When I used to write my to-do list as just one long list, I used to feel compelled to get all the little jobs out of the way before focusing on the ‘bigger’ stuff. But inevitably, the ‘little jobs’ continue to stream in, so you never finish them and then move on to the ‘big bits’ (i.e. important stuff like business development)!
Finally, I can also highlight what is urgent so I can easily see this when I open up my to-do list. I have developed a process which is working up from the detail to the bigger picture, which is different to Elizabeth's way (she does both detail and bigger picture) but which works really well for me.
System 3 – A Hybrid Approach
As described above, Elizabeth uses Scrapple for her To-do diagram. However, she also has a scrivener which is a bit similar to mine but with less detail.
This scrivener mirrors her to-do diagram. She then stores written or graphic information related to her tasks that she wants to save, in the scrivener. It is very much a Hybrid Approach, as not all of her tasks (large and small) make it into the scrivener.
Therefore, if you like Elizabeth can deal with small details and see the bigger picture at the same time (common in autism), you may find this mixed approach better.
There are far more features and benefits to these processes and the software we use, however it would be too much to explain them here.
The key thing I want to get across is that everybody is different, and what works for one person does not simply work for another. Additionally, to understand what would work for you best (and ultimately make you more organised, less stressed, and ultimately run your business better) you need to understand your ‘profile’ first.
We undertake these profiles on autistic individuals, as they are the ones who often have such extremely different ways of being that they find it more challenging to get on with the often-suggested ways of working.
However, these profiles do apply and can benefit anybody, especially those who have not found their sweet spot when it comes to business routine, planning, and doing.