In a recent post relating to five ways for overcoming stress, the Police Federation of England and Wales’ first suggestion was to make a list. I acknowledge that this is a great idea, but added that there is more to making a list than just making a list.
For example, imagine this list of a Divisional DC. (I know it doesn’t reflect reality!
- Evans rape allegation.
- Jones GBH allegation.
- Smith harassment investigation.
- R v Kane court case.
- Phipps fraud
Two things I’d say about such a list.
- It’s nice and short. Only 5 items, so the DC has a hold on what he or she is responsible for.
- It’s actually HUUUUGGGGGEEEEEE.
A list that reflects the reality of policing is not, and never could be, short. Each of those five items contains within or behind it a number of calls and tasks – quite a number, in fact. And each of those calls and tasks will likely create more calls and tasks. But (a) no-one is ever formally taught how to make a to-do list so (b) any to-do list they create is rarely anything more than a reminder of just how busy they are. And is therefore utterly, mind-numbingly morale sapping.
Another thing about a ‘simple’ to-do list is that as big as it is on Monday, and as much as you get done all week long, it’s often just as big, if not bigger, by Friday. A to-do list is the very definition of perpetual motion – it just keeps moving: all you get to do is change where you put it. More often than not, in my experience, on a bit of A4 paper whipped out of the photocopier.
All that said, there IS a way to create a more do-able to-do list, or rather to utilise a to-do system.
Promoted by David Allen of Getting Things Done and Graham Alcott, The Productivity Ninja (whose ideas are suspiciously similar…) and paraphrased by me in my own book, Police Time Management where I focus on how a busy police officer can use them, there is a better way.
They propose the idea that one to-do list is useless because it’s usually like my illustration – headings rather then details. Secondly, it is useless because it is not organised around context, in the sense that the tasks require you to be in different places, with different resources, at particular times or with particular people in order to move through them. So a list of tasks that have to be done with a computer when you’re on cell guard, or in Bristol when there are no cars available, or on the phone when you’re in a courtroom, or at home when you’re in work, or at work when you’re off duty – just looks like a confused, and therefore stress-inducing mass of stuff that needs doing, that you can’t do.
Allen et al propose the use of lists that address context. They use the ‘@’ symbol, so you may have @computer, @calls, @home office, @patrol – you decide the context, because you know your working and home needs. You now have a list that says you can do Task A, but don’t worry about Task B because you need to be somewhere else – note it, move back to what you can do.
To be frank, this is an absolutely minimal explanation that they and I provide in our books. (And they perhaps go deeper than officers need today, and a lot deeper that I can provide in about 500 words.)
But organising lists around context – and keeping them in some sort of system like your ‘phone’s listing app, or in a bound notebook – you can de-stress your to-do lists so that they don’t undermine what the PFEW is trying to encourage.
Next time, I’ll add a bit more depth to how you need to be more specific in listing your tasks so the list is effective, but not so big as to terrify you.