Too much time, too much to do.
August 10, 2009 8:54 AM   Subscribe

TemporalFilterRedux: I've got about two weeks (starting today) before my graduate classes kick back up. I have a bunch of things I need to take care of between now and then, in no particular order. I've always had a problem with time management (as previous questions of mine demonstrate), so I'm looking for advice on how to deal with this two week block, and how to make sure that I get everything, and don't just sit around, watching TV.

There are errands, things around the house, and prep for school that all needs to get done. Unfortunately, I work best on a schedule that is imposed by others - whenever I make my own deadlines, I feel no problem just breaking them.

I'm looking for general advice on how to parse up this amorphous blob of time and get my things done - if my track record is any indication, I'll come up with grand plans and lists, and then never quite figure out an order, so I'll sit around and play "Turtles in Time" on my SNES emulator.

Some example things I need to take care of: deposit checks, clean kitchen, pick up something at the mall (20 minutes away), book a hotel for next weekend, go up to campus (30 minutes away), spend a few hours there doing a menial task for my instrument (making reeds), call my bank, etc etc.

I have (most) of these things out of my head. I just can't organize them into a way I feel that is "most efficient," so I just don't do any of them. My brain works in very screwed up and mysterious ways sometimes.

I've been working on time management issues I posed in a previous question, but this is different for me - it's the combination of having a bunch of little (and some big) things to do, but without any sort of constraints on them.

Any advice on how to deal with this? The reason that this is pressing is not so much that everything I need to do in the next few weeks is mission critical, but that I'll be starting my masters thesis in the fall, and that is sort of the definition of a large project with lots of steps over an amorphous period of time. And I'd like to have this worked on by then...

Thanks in advance, HiveMind.
posted by SNWidget to Human Relations (24 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I tend to lean towards procrastination myself and here are some strategies I use when I really need to get things done:

* Save your most-hated task for last (this is a highly controversial bit of advice, but it works for me). I'm not a huge fan of housecleaning and have noticed that trying to prioritize that first keeps me from doing everything. If that's the case for you, give yourself permission to save that for last so you can knock out everything else on your list. (That advice is for anything that you hate doing and keeps you from doing everything else because you think you should do that hated thing first.)

* The inclination is to be efficient, and then when the most efficient way to do things isn't apparent, nothing gets done. So what I do to just start and get into the groove is the easiest things first. So from your list, I would classify easiest as things you can do from your home. That means, start with booking a hotel and then calling your bank. Once you do those things, you have permission to hang out and watch TV or read Metafilter for the rest of the day.

* Another day, do all your out of the house errands in one go on a different day. So go to the mall and pick your thing up and then go to campus. etc. Then treat yourself to something fun that you can anticipate while you whittle away at your errands.

* Once you get all those other things done, then work on getting the rest done. If it helps, do one task and then do something fun as a reward, then do another task and do something else as a reward.

* Focus on what a relief it will be to actually get things done than to spend all the energy procrastinating and avoiding what you need to get done. Bonus points if you just knock everything out during the first few days of the next two weeks. Then you can enjoy the rest of your time off guilt-free! It's worth it.

Good luck!!
posted by Kimberly at 9:06 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

d'oh. "Another day, do all your out of the house errands in one go. on a different day."
posted by Kimberly at 9:08 AM on August 10, 2009

For all the tasks where it is appropriate, call a friend and have them join you while you do it. It is much harder to blow off "shopping with a friend" than it is to blow off "running errands by myself."
posted by ocherdraco at 9:09 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: I have (most) of these things out of my head. I just can't organize them into a way I feel that is "most efficient,"

Drop the perfectionistic efficient-or-nothing attitude and just get 'er done.

I'm in a similar position where I have to pack up and consolidate what seems like an insurmountable amount of stuff to move from one city to another, and my tactic is to tackle one thing per day. Yesterday it was the tools that are strewn about the apartment, in various boxes and locations, and putting them all in one box. Planning and anticipating the whole process will save the back-breaking panic that I usually get while moving.

If you have trouble planning, then don't trust that you'll just magically happen to do them all. Put them into concrete terms where you can easily judge whether or not you're staying on-task. Make a schedule, mark things that are (perhaps geographically close?) to be done on such and such day, and DO them. Then you will have earned your TMNT time, and can relax.
posted by tybeet at 9:09 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Make a list of everything you need to get done and sort them so that you have groups that involve maybe 2 hours of work (or however much you feel like spending on work during your time off) that all occur in the same area (home, mall, downtown, etc..). Assign each group to a specific day. Make sure you assign each group to a logical day: home-related things are probably best on a Sunday, making appointments for a weekday.
Then, it's just a matter of getting up in the morning, getting ready, and doing the tasks in your day's group before you do anything else.

This whole organization business should not take you more then an hour. Do it now, and then all you have to worry about is to work up just enough will-power each morning to work through your little list.

This kind of planning scales up for your Master's thesis. Keep a list of your projects with all the specific tasks that you have to accomplish. Once a week, sit down for half an hour or so and decide what is most important, and when you're going to do it. Put it some flexible time each day to account for messed-up experiments/slacking/writer's block, and you're good to go.
posted by snoogles at 9:10 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Starting tomorrow, at 9am, wake and treat it as work. As important as your grad classes. Every day there's an exam, and the exam is 'you.'

Get whatever crap out of the way first thing.
Tomorrow: checks, pick up something at the mall (20 minutes away),
Wends: clean kitchen,
Thurs: go up to campus (30 minutes away), spend a few hours there doing a menial task for my instrument (making reeds),
Friday: clean kitchen,call my bank, etc etc.

Do it all in the morning, and then, goof off all afternoon having given yourself the permission to goof off.

Don't 'have fun' in the mornings - the act of getting things done will make you feel good. If you're an internet surfer, set a timer for 10 min...and do it over and over again. - it'll help you be 'aware' of time passing.
posted by filmgeek at 9:14 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: I just can't organize them into a way I feel that is "most efficient," so I just don't do any of them.

I'm not sure it is as different as you think, judging by this sentence. theloupgarou's comment still seems quite pertinent, in fact.

Efficiency of miscellaneous tasks and chores doesn't really matter in the end, as long as they get done. What I've found works best is the very inefficient but actually quite relaxing method of not combining them at all (except for cases of accidental geographical convergence) -- just do one a day or so. (Unless there are >14, in which case you might have to double up a bit). It doesn't even matter which, really, just pick randomly. Make inefficiency your goal!
posted by advil at 9:18 AM on August 10, 2009

Just to be a little less flippant, what I really mean by inefficiency is even distribution of work over time, regardless of how much you get done in any single instance. This will help for your graduate work too.
posted by advil at 9:21 AM on August 10, 2009

Unfortunately, I work best on a schedule that is imposed by others - whenever I make my own deadlines, I feel no problem just breaking them.

SNWidget meet, meet SNWidget. Read their about page for peer reviewed papers and many testimonials. The toughest part of this kind of process is finding a referee (not required, but much more motivating), but if you have any friends that are slightly dickish - they work great. To say it works, would be an understatement. You are welcome.
posted by bigmusic at 9:23 AM on August 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the advice so far.

Many folks have suggested making lists, which is something that I'm trying to do more often. My main issue with lists, however, is similar to the efficiency issue - I never think the lists are complete, so I freeze up, and get nervous that I'm missing something. If I ever manage to get a complete list of "everything I have to do in my life ever from now until I think of the next thing," the minute it becomes inaccurate, I lose my trust in it, and I feel the same way.

I know that the best answer is going to be "Shut it, sit down, and do something," and that I'm just derailing myself by all of the hand-wringing I'm doing.

I just want to see how other people have conquered this (from what I can tell) pretty common problem.

Thanks guys.
posted by SNWidget at 9:28 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: I often find myself getting overwhelmed with little tasks like this, or needing to do a bunch of little things and worrying that I'm going to forget something. So I usually write myself a to-do list on a scrap of paper (usually I keep it going on my desk while I'm at work, as I think of things I need to do, and then take it home with me at the end of the day). That way I don't worry about forgetting something as it pops into my head. And of course I get the satisfaction of crossing things off as I go, and throwing the whole list away when everything is completed.

You say you don't have any constraints on these tasks, but you do. For example, you need a hotel for next weekend. So I think you have a deadline of Thursday or Friday at the latest. Likewise, maybe the thing you need to pick up at the mall is something you need to have by a certain date. Your trip to campus probably needs to be made by the time some paperwork is due, or before classes start. You need to make new reeds before you run out of your current reeds. You need to deposit checks before your bank account empties out. You need to clean your kitchen before it's overrun with bugs, or before your friends come over and think you're a huge slob. Everything has a deadline.

You might also be overwhelmed with the number of things you need to do. Keep in mind that this stuff probably won't take as long as you think it will. The phone calls you need to make will take a couple minutes (maybe longer if you have to wait on hold - use that time to start cleaning up the kitchen!). The trips you need to make will be an hour or less, round-trip. I bet you could knock out at least half that stuff in a day if you buckled down.

So I'll start my advice this time the same way I did last time: Turn off the computer. Don't get distracted by playing games or surfing the internet, use that as a reward when your tasks for the day are finished. (Maybe even make yourself a rule - you won't turn the computer on until 5 PM, or until you've done a certain number of things.) Write yourself a list of everything you have to do, so you don't forget anything. Doesn't have to be elaborate, just jot them down. Then arrange your list in the order things need to be done (for example, the hotel has to be called this week. Maybe the reeds can wait until next week.) Don't be paralyzed by your list phobia. The great thing about writing it on paper is that you can always add something to the list. Stick it in between two other items even, it doesn't matter what it looks like because the list is just for you and you'll throw it away afterward.
posted by LolaGeek at 9:39 AM on August 10, 2009

Two quick things:

1) Something that sometimes works for me is starting with the things that are so absurdly small that you just can't rationalize putting them off. Like "call the bank." There is the phone -- staring at you. Google the number. Enter it into the phone. Do it NOW. and then cross it off your list.

2) I get some success from the strategy I think I read on 43folders that was to just say you'll do something for 20 minutes, not til it's done. for me, that sort of provides some separation from the emotional pressure to come to grips with doing the task perfectly.

But other than that, I think emotionally, it's a little like jumping off the high dive -- you have to utter a mental "yeeeaahhh" and leap in.
posted by mercredi at 9:43 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I never think the lists are complete, so I freeze up, and get nervous that I'm missing something.

Keep your list on something small, that you can carry around. Carry it, with a pen. I used to be a fanatical index-card user till I got an iPhone; now I use Things. But index cards still work well.

Build your initial list. Get to work on it. Doesnt' matter that it's missing some things; you'll be fine. Because as you go through your day, you will remember what you need to add to it. Trust me. You'll be in a groove, hammering through phone calls and errands, and think oh right, I also need to buy eggs. So you toss eggs onto the list. While getting the eggs you remember that you need milk.

The important thing is to establish good flow - except inasmuch as driving from points A to B to C may have an ideal order to minimize transport time, it is very rare that random life errands actually have any real optimal order.

Depending on what you have to do, it can also be very helpful to get out of the house. As in, leave first, then start doing things - make phone calls from a coffee shop or in a parking lot on your way to the next errand. My most productive days usually involve getting myself away from my do-nothing environment (eg, my apartment) and into the do-stuff environment (the rest of the world.)
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:01 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Step one: Get Off The Internet
Step two: make a list
Step three: EXECUTE the list
(Step four would be, of course: profit!)

Seriously, though, the answer isn't here. If you are on line asking this question you are not doing your tasks. It's really that simple. We can't organize you. You can only organize yourself.
posted by nax at 10:06 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Here is the method I've developed as a hardcore procrastinator (to wit: it is the 10th and I still need to send my rent in):
  1. Write down all of the tasks you can think of. Don't be afraid to add to it later. Carry a pen.
  2. Do all of the tasks in any order.
The price of procrastination is time, since the entire procrastination mechanism is essentially to borrow time from the future, so sometimes it takes longer to get things done under procrastination constraints. I've had afternoons where I've wasted tons of gas driving all over the place to get X at Target and Y at Home Depot and oh, I forgot to get Z at Target too, so I'll go back there. Doesn't matter. At our level it's not about "Just Do It," it's about "Just Do Something." It takes actual will (which you have since you're in graduate school), and nothing is going to get done unless you start somewhere.

Oh, and another thing, "I work best on a schedule that is imposed by others" is a cop-out that will lead to much difficulty in the future. Think of your to-do list as "others." It just so happens that the "others" who are imposing your schedule here is actually your procrastinating self.
posted by rhizome at 10:52 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have days like that...lots of them lately. A couple of things help me. One is that, when I am having trouble prioritizing the to-do list, I remind myself that it is better to do something than nothing, and just pick something without worrying about its priority. It might be something quick to get me going, but as long as it's something.

I also use a timer a lot, and I will take a minute and write a "next actions" list that includes times for some things. I just did this for the next chunk of my day, and it looks like this:

1. load dishwasher
2. Move laundry to dryer
3. Give parrots fresh water
4. fold laundery 10 mins
5. work on unpacking last bags from weekend trip 10 mins
6. update checkbook
7. break 10 minutes
8. wash pots 10 minutes
9. finish folding laundry <1> 10. finish last unpacking <1> 11. balance checkbook
12. shower
13. pop popcorn, read novel

I have three kids at home, so there will be interruptions, but I just keep moving on to the next thing. This looks like a really long list but experience tells me I'll be through it in a little over an hour, with most of the stuff on today's list done.

Getting off computer now, moving along.
posted by not that girl at 10:58 AM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly, I think you have a bigger problem here (albeit a really common one) than just finding the right hack to avoid wasting time. What you're getting stuck on is being unable to push through uncomfortable feelings to get something done, without giving up and distracting yourself with something that makes the uncomfortable feelings go away.

I am familiar with this problem. Looking back, occhiblu had the 100% right answer that I was unable to appreciate at the time:

That is to say, it sounds like you're not just avoiding the work that's making you anxious, you're actually trying to avoid the feeling that arises when you look at the work. The key to accepting that you have to do the work rather than procrastinating is accepting that you have the feeling rather than trying to procrastinate on feeling it.

It's true that the answer here really is as simple as "Shut it, sit down, and do something"--but what was ultimately helpful for me was to recognize that I needed to learn to do the things that needed to get done even if they made me nervous, anxious, or stressed (and not try to first find a solution that would allow me to get rid of the anxiety before even trying to get something done). 99% of the battle was learning to just sit with those feelings and not run for something that would magically make them go away. I started joking around with my boyfriend that I was "practicing to be an adult," and you know, it's kind of true: once I got to the point where I knew I could accomplish the stupid little life-stuff (making dentist appointments, calling up the bank to straighten out a wrong charge, etc) even when it made my stomach hurt or I really really really wanted to just ignore it and turn on the computer, I started feeling like an actual grown-up.

It's a skill that you really only get good at with practice, and picking it up as early as possible will make your life run so much smoother, I promise. Once you get the mindset of "okay, I don't trust my to-do list is perfectly accurate, but I'm going to use it anyway," you'll be so much better off.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:08 AM on August 10, 2009 [8 favorites]

Make a list.

Then, make sure you're always doing something on the list.

If you're not doing something on the list, you're doing it wrong.
posted by stewiethegreat at 11:39 AM on August 10, 2009

1. Take a few minutes and list out everything you think you need to do.
2. Put a star next to the 3 or 4 (no more than 4) most important tasks on the list.
3. Focus on nothing but those 3 or 4 tasks, giving yourself a deadline (whether it's a day or 72 hours, but there needs to be a deadline) until they are all completed.
4. Once those 4 are done star the next 4 and repeat.

It's very easy to get overwhelmed with a big list, but just break it into the really important three or four things. If you get through even two cycles of that and find that you haven't finished everything, at least it is likely to be the least important things that did not get done.
posted by the foreground at 11:41 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

You should try the Getting Things Done system - it really worked for me, and lot of other people. It's actually a simple idea, but don't let that put you off. You can google around to learn the basics, and don't need to buy the book. The key is to have one place to capture all of your actions, and one system to process them. Online services can help - I use toodledo - but some people find a decent to-do list is all thats needed - so long as you have it all in one place, and process it properly. Give it a go!
posted by jamierc at 2:46 PM on August 10, 2009

Make lists. Put the silliest little things to do on it.
Think about (a) how much fun its going to be to scratch them off
(b) how good it will feel when you go to bed with everything for the day scratched off.
posted by xm at 5:42 PM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Lists can actually be kind of frustrating. You write something down and then it's not the way you wanted to say it, and you scratch it out, or you have to add something to an entry and you can't read it, and . . .

So: new ways of making lists. See what inspires you or at least doesn't get in your way. Whiteboard! Tiny scraps of paper on a pushpin board! Write stuff on a skinny horizontally-long piece of paper; fold it up so you can only see three things at a time. Cut skinny pieces of paper and punch a hole near one edge; put the papers on a keyring; enjoy shredding the paper into tiiiiny pieces when you're done with the task you wrote on it. Try making your list and then grouping the tasks together alphabetically: "get envelopes//google 'getting things done' book//go to drycleaners" and then take care of one letter-group per day. Make a piece of paper with room for ONE HUNDRED tasks and write in the number beforehand. (Even at my most overwhelmed times, I don't think I ever had more than 50-some tasks written down!!!) Or get a tiny piece of paper that only has space for three entries. Take care of your three most important tasks and then relax. If crossing off items on the list isn't all that satisfying, really, then draw little boxes by the tasks and color them in when you're done. (For some reason, it's WAY COOLER for me when I do that.)

If you reed a bunch of books on this topic (ZZZZZZZZzzzzzz) you'll notice that many authors recommend you make the lists very specific. "Put 1 load of light/white laundry in the washer this evening" is preferable to "wash all laundry." If you get overwhelmed, keep breaking down the task into small and smaller sub-tasks until they seem stupidly easy. "Clean kitchen" becomes "one step: move those popcans on the counter to the recycle bin. one step: move the papers on the table into one pile. one step: get out the bottle of Windex and set it next to the paper towels."

You might try writing down your motivations next to all the dumb tasks. "clean the kitchen: so I won't be embarrassed when friends come over on Saturday. go make reeds: because this current one sucks and I want my high register to sound better than that." Think, hard, about what's in it for you. You WANT to get all this stuff done!

Yet another way around it: if you hate feeling trapped by a list of blahblahtodo commands . . . write your tasks down on little pieces of paper a la the 'job jar.' Scramble them up, and then pick out TWO. Then you have to do one of the two, but you get to choose which one it is.

To speak from personal experience: I get a lot of list-paralysis the minute I start thinking about being maximally efficient: why, I should come home and start the laundry washing and then take out the trash and set the rice cooker and blah blah blah time it all out so it's like an amazing Thanksgiving dinner where the food's all ready at the exact same time. It's my dream, maybe, but it never works out like that -- so now I don't care if I do something first and start the dishwasher later.

If you try these things but suspect you infact get paralyzed by long dumb lists . . . take a cowabunga day and just DO stuff without writing any list at all; trust in yourself to notice and remember what you have to do. (Like if I write "clean the catbox" on my daily list, it's irritating. But when I spontaneously decide to do it, then somehow it's fine. No, I don't understand it.)

I guess I should say "don't try all these things at once" -- don't get focused on designing the perfect list with the right colors and size of paper. I have used these methods, and mannnny more like them, one by one, over time. Some of them have worked for a few days and then I've needed to change the method. That's OK -- I'm still getting something done.

Set a timer, almost all the time. Listen to motivating music, all the time.
posted by oldtimey at 7:11 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ohyeah, one last thing: I hereby challenge you to post back to this thread on Monday, August 17, and tell us about your progress on everything. ;)
posted by oldtimey at 7:14 PM on August 10, 2009

Response by poster: I came back to check on this thread, as I'm coming up with another set of 3 weeks without anything scheduled, but plenty to do. I then realized that I never came back and checked in about me completing things on August 17th.

I can't remember what I accomplished, but I remember that I did accomplish something. It was tough, though, to get off my ass and accomplish something.

I hope I can remember what I did to help myself get over that hurdle and get some more things done between the New Year and MLK day.
posted by SNWidget at 3:42 PM on December 28, 2009

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