Apps or systems for structuring a day
March 10, 2023 7:30 AM   Subscribe

I procrastinate by throwing myself into immediate tasks without thinking about the longer-term or more strategic ways to use my time. I see there are some apps for "structuring your day" and similar. Has anyone had luck with an app or system?

Basically, if I have 5 longer-term and more difficult things to do (like long term planning or big projects that require a lot of steps), and 2 more pressing and simpler tasks, I will avoid the long-term work in favor of throwing myself into something more immediate and less complicated - like working hard on one immediate thing that is due soon. The day gets filled with the immediate things, I feel like I am working hard, but I never get around to the bigger picture stuff that is more important. It's not laziness per se - I'm working hard on a thing! -- but it is avoidant of bigger picture/more complicated projects, which basically terrify me. If I do not have immediately pressing tasks, I tend to spin my wheels and waste time.

Have you had success with an app or other system for planning out a day so that you force yourself to spend time on the longer-term more challenging stuff?
posted by Mid to Work & Money (7 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure this is an app but it is kind of a system... Since I also prefer doing smaller tasks, I break my larger (dread-inducing) projects into smaller tasks. In fact, my first small task for a recent larger project was: "Break project into smaller tasks". YMMV. Good luck!
posted by gofordays at 8:23 AM on March 10 [3 favorites]

At the end of every work day, I write a schedule out, by hand, for my *next* work day. This includes tasks, meetings, meeting prep, etc. and the estimated time it will take for example:

- Read Emails & Messages (0.5h)
- Prep for Boss Mtg (0.25h)
- Work on Code for XYZ Project (1.5h)
- Boss Mtg (0.5h)
- Follow-Up (0.25h)
- Plan Presentation for ABC Conference (1h)

I don't stress too much about the actual time I spend on each item -- the timing is more for guidance so I don't lose myself in MeFi or the rest of the internet and to keep me on track for the general stuff I want to get done for the day. I also have a separate list of outstanding tasks to pick from if something goes faster than expected.

This has the bonus of being a ritual at the end of the day, which helps me transition away from work and to my home life. All the more needed since I WFH.

I sometimes do a similar thing on the weekend if there are a few things I need to get down, as I am apt to lose time easily otherwise.
posted by chiefthe at 5:09 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]

I like the basic Pomodoro method- if I tell myself I only need to work on the thing I want to avoid for 25 minutes, it's a lot easier to get started (and focus).
posted by pinochiette at 6:19 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]

Yes to all of the above, also: think about putting in a chunk of time towards the longer-term project as paying yourself first. When people are budgeting money, one technique is to work out your fixed costs (e.g. rent, car rego), put away the amount you want to save, then whatever is left will just have to do to cover your variable costs (e.g. haircuts, petrol/gas).

If we map that to time, your fixed costs are things like sleeping, eating, showering, etc. Your variable costs are the small, seemingly urgent things that need to be done immediately, and your savings are the larger, more difficult things which will benefit you in the future. At the moment you're letting your variable costs of small pressing things take up all of your time. If you block in some time to put towards your larger goals, they'll eventually actually get done and you'll get the long-term benefits. You may not get to all the small things, and that's probably ok. They tend to multiply to fill 24 hours if you let them, so there's definitely some you could skip.

And when you do put in time towards the big stuff, make sure you reward yourself afterwards with a fun little drink or treat.
posted by harriet vane at 8:18 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]

I have the same problem. Sometimes writing out a schedule (like chiefthe) and using Pomodoro with it (like pinochiette) helps, because after each Pomodoro I check my schedule to see what is next. Otherwise I tend to get lost and forget about the things I wanted to work on. It's crucial to break things down into manageable tasks for this tactic to work.

I also tried setting a basic weekly schedule. Eg. I had 3 long-term things and a bunch of short-term tasks. I told myself I have to work on Thing 1 on Mondays and Wednesdays, Thing 2 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Thing 3 on Fridays. "Work" meant spending at least 1 Pomodoro doing something - maybe just thinking about the thing, or writing down what needs to be done, or writing out deadlines, or breaking things down into smaller tasks (that could actually be done within a couple of Pomodoros...) It was a way of tricking my brain into getting familiar with the thing and not running away, terrified, whenever I thought about it.

Also, I've been meaning to check out Complice for a long time, because it sounds like it might help.
posted by gakiko at 10:45 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

It's so satisfying to cross things off a To Do list, esp. when they are the smaller/simpler and urgent things. But then getting to the end of the day and not making progress on the big/complicated stuff is so frustrating and depressing. I get it.

You can approach this with a "tackle the most urgent things" mentality, and eventually your big/complicated project will move to the top of that list, but by then you won't have the time to do it justice and you will freak out (speaking from experience).

As alluring as the small/simple tasks are, make that work to your advantage and turn the big/complicated project into similar sizes:

Step 1: Look at the big/complicated projects and for each one break them down into small steps
(ex/ Write a Novel: 1) get a title, 2) create a main character, 3) give her a problem, 4) determine the setting, 5) establish word count goal, 6) establish deadline, 7) calculate words per writing day needed to reach word count goal by deadline, 8) schedule the writing days & word count goals, 9) write first chapter, etc.)

Step 2: Look at your calendar. Schedule those steps.
They should now be smaller/simpler and urgent.

Step 3. At the beginning of your day (before you get swamped with a slew of additional urgent tasks), dedicate 30 minutes to doing the next step of your big/complicated project.

Step 4: Reward yourself by knocking out those smaller/simpler things.

Oh, so satisfying.

To take this up a level, consider alternating 30 minute periods during the day between big/complicated project tasks and the smaller/simpler tasks. I've been experimenting with it, and so far I'm getting a lot more done with considerably less stress.
posted by sazanka at 1:06 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

Nthing the suggestions above to break things down (and in fact I wrote a comment last year about breaking big projects down into tasks that take no more than 5 minutes) -


Make a promise to yourself that, for two weeks, your very first task of the day will be to make a list of tasks on Big Project 1 that take no more than 5 minutes each - ideally even 2-3 minutes each; and your second task of the day will be to do one of those short Big Project 1 tasks.

After that, you can go back and forth between the more immediate tasks and the longer-term tasks ... but make sure you're spending at least 1/3 of the day on the big projects.
posted by kristi at 6:54 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

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