Do-lists

For many years now I’ve been a maker and user of do-lists, and I think they’re great, especially when I’m working on a complex show or on more than one show at the same time. A professor in grad school introduced me to them, and, after my initial gut-reaction resistance — and thinking that they would take up time to make and that I would be a slave to them — I gave them a try and haven’t looked back since.

A do-list is nothing more than an ongoing reminder of stuff that has to be done. It can be on the back of an envelope or in the computer or smart phone. You can add to it, delete from it, check things off (which feels fantastic), and make a new one whenever needed. You can use it to prioritize and re-prioritize items and even to decide that you don’t need to do “that one item” after all. It’s like the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” You have this huge amount of stuff to do, so you break it down into smaller chunks and deal with it one item at a time. This post is about how I used do-lists to greatly simplify several concurrent projects.

Some years back I was asked to take over the front-of-house operation (box office, marketing, and concessions) at a theatre that presented four large shows a year, plus three chorus concerts and three or four other events, all produced in-house. Each show required a given amount of marketing, promotion, and other work, and, because the schedules overlapped, we were often working on different parts of two or more shows at once. My predecessor had done a good job of keeping track of things, but, even so, tasks often fell between the cracks until the last minute.

Once I realized that each show or event required basically the same tasks, and that each task usually had to be completed so many days or weeks before opening night, I decided to get organized. I started by making a detailed list of everything that had to be done for each show, including collecting cast and team bios, designing the program, sending it to the printer, writing press releases, inviting critics, ordering stuff for the concession stand, and so on and on. The first draft had about forty items.

Then I sorted the list, from the earliest tasks to a couple after the show closed. This took some discussion with other staff members and my predecessor, as well as going back over old records, but eventually the list made sense and I had a good idea of how long before opening each task had to be completed. All this time the list was on paper.

Then I created an Excel spreadsheet consisting of five columns: the tasks themselves (from earliest to closest to opening night), when each was due, who was to do it, a column for checking it off when it was completed, and a column for notes. I don’t remember the exact order or dates, but here’s a sample:

schedule-2

Now came the fun part. I went to the earliest item (say Collect cast/team bios, which happens forty-five days before opening in the sample) and wrote a simple formula for calculating that date: cell B6 (the due date) equals cell D2 (opening night) minus 45 days. In Exel-ese, this formula would be entered in cell B6 as =D2-45. Excel then calculates and inserts the actual date as 30-Apr.

I wanted to keep this as simple as possible, so I resisted the temptation to go any farther with Excel. In any case, by entering a similar formula in each “Due” cell, Excel provided the date:

schedule

Once I had all the due dates down, I printed the spreadsheet. Then, because each due date was “always” so many days before opening, I could use the spreadsheet as a template and simply change the name of the show and the opening date, and Excel would take care of the calculations. I printed the lists for several of the upcoming shows and placed the printouts in a clipboard, where we could review them every day, see what tasks were coming up, check them off when completed, and add any notes.

During the first year under this system, we realized a few dates needed to be adjusted, and we ended up adding a few items, but, once the template worked, we kept using it for the rest of my time there. It saved a ton of time and ensured that tasks for the various shows didn’t fall between the cracks.

Incidentally, another staff member brought up the question of what happens if a date falls on a weekend or holiday: should we change the formula for that date?. Nope. We just took care of the task before the weekend or after it. The list was meant as a reminder, not as a dictator.

And here’s a sneaky little tip: from experience, we knew that actors were often late with their bios. If we said they were due on a given day, some showed up a week later or more, even with friendly reminders. This had created a problem with my predecessor, who was often late sending the program to the printer because of it. So, if my real date to finish the program was, say, the 15th, I would tell the cast that I needed their bios by the 1st. Of course, I didn’t tell them about the two-week period: that was my secret.

Along the same lines, some events, like chorus concerts, did not involve cast/team bios or a few other tasks. I could have deleted those lines before printing the list, but we decided to keep it really simple and either ignore those tasks or just cross them off on the printout.

These lists simplified the process of managing several projects at once, but even a simple handwritten list on plain paper (which is what I’ve used for years) can make a huge difference in everyday work. You can change the list as needed, re-prioritize items, delegate them, decide a task doesn’t need to be done after all, and even crumple it up and make a clean new list anytime you want. And checking tasks off when they’re done… rocks!

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