How to manage my time management system?
March 13, 2010 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting to exercise some control over my time. Help me make this work.

I have problems with attention, maintaining focus, procrastination, perfectionism, and so on. Considering I am a graduate student with other self-directed pursuits, you can see why this is an issue. I am in the process of getting formally checked out for ADHD, but I've started using a system that seems to help me get a reasonable amount done without changing underlying brain chemistry — and I'm hoping to get suggestions on how best to use this system.

Previous AskMe threads have helped get me to this point, particularly the REBT approach linked in this comment.

So far the system consists of a small notebook and a timer. Either the night before or in the morning I will set the time during which I want to work on tasks that day, and list specific tasks with associated number of blocks of time (by default 15 minutes) to spend on them. These include recurrent and one-off tasks. I try to keep the total amount of time for these tasks realistic, e.g. not more than maybe half of the available time. The proportion of these blocks that is checked off is my measure of productivity. I also keep track of unlisted tasks I do, in that if I realize I'm about to do something, I will deem it a task and devote a block of time to it. Overtime for the assigned tasks also goes in this category. I use short blocks for generic internet, and record this too (more to keep me aware than anything else). As often suggested, for all these tasks I start the timer when I start the block, and when it's down to zero or I'm done I am free to do anything else.

The barrier is low for starting to work on a task, but the limit to how many time blocks count is an incentive for not taking longer than needed.

So, hive mind, I'm looking for suggestions for how I can improve this approach and make it something I can stick with for the long term. What are good ways to keep track of what I should be assigning myself for the day? Should I automatically carry over undone tasks from one day to the next? What are good ways to record all this, e.g. what's an easy shorthand for 8, 15, and 30 minute blocks that can be crossed off when completed? Are there ways to minimize the times I neglect or put off starting to use this system for the day? Most importantly, how do I ensure that I own the system, instead of it becoming something I feel to be unpleasant and end up trying to avoid?
posted by parudox to Human Relations (6 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Pomodoro Technique

"The basic unit of work in the Pomodoro Technique™ can be split in five simple steps:

Choose a task to be accomplished
Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)
Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break"
posted by angermanagement at 5:54 PM on March 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just discovered teux deux today, and it would be perfect for this kind of scheduling. The interface is super clean and easy to use, and you can just make it your homepage so that it's easily accessible.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 6:04 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll pass on the suggestions that I got from this thread for keeping track of a lot of long-term projects in grad school. The Big Picture has been awesome for me (been using it for around two weeks now) because I can see how my schedule is working to accomplish many things at once, and how much time I need to spend on a particular task in order to make sure that I meet all of my deadlines.

I do some day-by-day adjusting of my schedule, but I've found that having a non-arbitrary set of tasks for the day helps me to stay focused, so I'm usually done ahead of schedule. The interface is so easy to use that it really doesn't feel unnatural or unpleasant to refer back to it. It's also a lot easier than keeping track of tasks on paper--no erasing or losing track of the page that you had a list/ important information to keep track of.

Definitely enjoying getting to bed at a decent hour every night for once. I don't normally gush over this sort of thing, but this website has been fantastic.
posted by _cave at 7:00 PM on March 13, 2010

That is a really complicated system. You shouldn't have to bother with crossing off time blocks. I would just use a piece of paper and write down everything you want to do today. Circle the two or three things that are the most important (and let's face it, it's always just a couple of things), and do those early in the day when you'll have the most energy.

Also, after trying out a gazillion complicated productivity systems, you know what I say... fuck productivity systems. They are too strict and they break easily. No system outside of you can tell you what to do and when like your brain inside your head can. I simply keep a bunch of no-frills txt files to keep track of projects, goals, to-dos, plans, ideas, etc. (But use a good app like AkelPad to edit them if you're on Windows, instead of Notepad.)

The only good productivity system book I've ever read is "How to Work the Competition into the Ground," which is bad-ass. And also check out the Study Hacks blog, especially two of my favorite posts:
posted by Theloupgarou at 12:15 PM on March 14, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. I'll take a look at TeuxDeux, The Big Picture, and the suggestions in the Study Hacks blog to see if they can help with medium-term goals.

The problem with using simple lists is that I have trouble forcing myself to do tasks, so yes, I do need a system with structure. I'm just hoping to optimize mine so it continues to work and doesn't become a burden.
posted by parudox at 10:23 PM on March 14, 2010

Response by poster: Before the thread closes I should give an update to anyone interested. First, I do actually still use the system! I've also since read The Now Habit (that perennial MeFi recommendation), and it has given me a better perspective on procrastination and a realization that judicious use of the timer approach allows for guilt-free short-term play.

For my purposes, Google Tasks seems to be just fine for now. I keep track of things I need to get done there in some semblance of short- to long-term priority. When I put together the list of tasks for a day I'll often refer to remaining tasks from the previous day and also see if I can fit in anything from the Google Tasks list.

I'd say that most of the time I do feel ownership of the notebook/timer system. My associations with it are positive -- probably because I feel that it helps me get more of my tasks done, makes it clearer how much I've done, and does it without being a burden. That said, I don't use it every day.

I find it's very good practice to write the day's list the night before. That way I don't procrastinate as much on starting the day. I haven't been using a set start and end time for the day, but am contemplating reinstating the end time to encourage more sleep. Instead of trying to avoid filled-up parts of the day for this system, I've just been putting scheduled events in as tasks -- which has the benefit of making it clear that I haven't been slacking off. For that matter, tasks are very inclusive and include scheduled meetings, mundane chores, work on projects, leisure, etc. Anything that I need reminding about or sanctioning for.

The current format I use is a bunch of "to do" rows like "|||| task", which would indicate that I want to do four 15-minute blocks of the task. If I end up deciding to do more than that, I add full or half bars on the right side. Unplanned things get filled up below as "task |". Of course, bars get crossed off for every 15 minute block.

Basically, it seems like this is a reasonably sustainable approach that feels more descriptive than prescriptive but nevertheless serves to focus my efforts.

I just crossed off the second of two bars for writing this update and am putting a check mark once I hit submit.
posted by parudox at 10:40 PM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

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