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Work Avoided Through Extensive List-Making

FORT WAYNE, IN–Julie Smalley, a 43-year-old Fort Wayne-area office manager, avoided completing any work whatsoever Monday, when she spent a majority of the day composing to-do lists.

Listmaker Julie Smalley.

"I've got a stack of mail up to here, I need to get the new schedule out by Wednesday, and department supervisors are breaking down my door for my signature," said Smalley, sitting at her desk at One World, a mail-order retailer of maps and other travel-related goods. "That's why I knew I had to lock myself in my office today, put my nose to the grindstone, and draw up a detailed list of all the things I need to do."

Upon arriving at the office at 8 a.m., Smalley got right to avoiding work, drawing up an extensive list of everything that needed to be accomplished. Among the pressing tasks she itemized: scheduling a meeting with One World promotions director Terry Connell, processing the stack of employee-reimbursement requests, and locating previous to-do lists and transferring any still-uncompleted items to the new list.

"I was supposed to get together with [coworker] John [Tribley] to finalize some prices for the new catalog, but I canceled because I have so much to do," Smalley said. "That went straight to the top of my list: 'Re-schedule meeting with John T. re: catalog prices.'"

Smalley's list was meticulously arranged, its more detailed tasks subdivided into numerous line items. Instead of simply writing a reminder to speak to the company's three department supervisors about hiring new employees, Smalley listed separately, "Talk to Sarah W. re: hiring," "Talk to Roger M. re: hiring," and "Talk to Howard B. re: hiring."

"I have my own little notation system to help me make sense of everything," Smalley continued. "I add an exclamation point next to especially important items, a question mark next to things I'm only considering doing, and a star next to things I should do as soon as possible. Next to some of the starred items, I also write ASAP. Or, if it's a phone call I need to make, I sometimes draw a little phone. But, if there are too many phone calls, I make a separate 'Phone calls to make' list."

A recent Smalley to-do list.

Several of the list's items were cross-referenced to other lists. One such list detailed 32 tasks for planning the company's summer picnic, including number 16, "Look up different caterers in phone book," number 17, "Decide which caterer to use," and number 18, "Call caterer (see list 5B)."

After completing her extensive list, Smalley went to the employee lounge, where she discussed the chaotic state of the office with coworkers.

"They gave me great suggestions for things that needed to be done," Smalley said. "I went back to my office and worked them into a list called 'Long-Term Company Goals.' I plan to turn that into an animated PowerPoint slide presentation we can show at our next organizational meeting, time permitting."

Smalley then did more near-work, sending e-mails to various coworkers promising she would send longer, more detailed responses to their previous e-mails when she had time. She also addressed envelopes for several letters she needs to write.

"Figuring out everything that needs to be done in the office made me realize we really have to step up the level of productivity here at One World," Smalley said. "I was so concerned about that, I spent the rest of the afternoon online, checking out the different incentives that successful companies use to motivate employees."

Besides her main list, Smalley has a Day Runner filled with everything from grocery lists to lists of possible birthday presents for her husband to lists of hair colors she is considering the next time she goes to the beautician. She also has a bulletin board covered with notes reminding her to call her parents, buy a teal purse for her niece's wedding, and send thank-you cards for Easter cards she'd received, as well as such personal-improvement notes as "Get more sun" and "Drink eight glasses of water a day."

Smalley insisted that not all of her work-avoidance tactics were of her own invention.

"I've gone to several management-skills seminars over the years," Smalley said. "They taught me the need to set goals, make projections, and use graphs and charts to strategize. In fact, in June, I'm taking a week off to go to another seminar in Indianapolis."

"Which reminds me," Smalley added, "I should really get a packing list started."

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