Hi Zen Organizers,
As the pandemic keeps getting worse, more people are forced to work and study from home, hence this series of articles to help people in this condition stay productive despite the context. So far, we’ve covered time management and motivation.
In this article, I’ll share a few tips to manage your tasks (a.k.a your endless to-do list) and get them done as much as possible.
1. Plan your day
To get through all your tasks, you have to organize and schedule them throughout the day before you start your day.
It’s crucial to plan your day either the night before or first thing in the morning. This way, you know exactly what you have to do and when you have to do it throughout the day. If you don’t plan your day beforehand, you’re more likely to fall into the following traps:
you'll do small and somewhat useless tasks instead of essential and more complicated tasks – smaller tasks give you the impression that you’ve accomplished a lot, so they’re more satisfying to do;
or you won't know where to begin and will end up procrastinating instead.
To plan your day, I suggest you use the energy-level in my Chronotype Workbook to find out which moment of the day is best for different kinds of tasks. You can check this article for more details on how to use the tracker and plan your tasks according to your biological rhythm). I also suggest you use time blocking to schedule your tasks throughout the day and determine the duration of each one (more on that in point 3).
Personally, I prefer to plan my day the night before. Since I have a Bullet Journal, I use my PM reflection to migrate the tasks I haven’t finished that day to the following day (or I migrate them to my monthly or future log). Then I list all the tasks I have to do the next day, deciding the 1-3 priority tasks.
Then I open my Google Calendar and spread out my tasks throughout the day, using the time blocking method.
Don’t overpack your day. You should plan regular short breaks and a few longer ones throughout the day (you can also use the Pomodoro Technique for that). You should also consider planning a buffer, in case something comes up and you have to reorganize your day.
Planning your day ahead might seem like a useless and time-consuming chore, but I assure you the 5-10 minutes (yes, it really doesn’t take more than that) you spend planning your day ahead of time save you precious minutes and hours of unproductive work usually lost because you don’t know what to do next or get lost doing non-essential tasks!
2. Set a maximum of 3 priority tasks per day
As mentioned above, I highly recommend you write down a daily to-do list to know precisely what you have to do on any given day.
However, like most people, your to-do lists probably get veeeeryyyy long and overwhelming. The reason for that is that you list every single thing you should do without giving priority to any one task.
Most days, my to-do list has more than 15 items on it. It’s practically impossible to get them all done in one day. That’s because my daily to-do lists act as my brain backup. I write every single task that comes to my mind on that list, from buying toilet paper to writing my next article to get a doctor's appointment.
However, I always choose one to three tasks that are my top priority for that day from the long list of tasks I have to do eventually. As a result, I don’t see my to-do list as a burden because I focus mostly on these 1-3 priority tasks per day. Of course, if I manage to get other tasks done, I’m super happy at the end of the day. But if I only manage to complete my priority tasks, I’m still very happy because they are the most meaningful and important ones.
Therefore, I suggest you try to determine every day the one to three tasks you really want/have to get done and focus your energy and time on these. I don’t recommend setting more than three priorities because the most important tasks are usually the most time-consuming. So managing to finish three in a single day is already a lot.
Bonus tip: the quickest and non-essential tasks on your list can be tackled during your breaks. For example, you’ve been working on your priority task – let’s say finishing up a report or an essay – for more than an hour now, and you need a break. Well, instead of checking your emails or your social media accounts, you could do laundry, take out the garbage, or do any other task that takes only a few minutes to be completed. Using this strategy will help you go through your to-do list almost effortlessly and without stealing your precious free time.
3. Estimate the time needed for each task – and stick to it
Okay, so now, you know what you have to do today, you know on which tasks you should focus your time and energy on.
At this point, all you have to do is estimate the time it’ll take to complete each task and schedule them throughout the day. And this step is crucial, believe me.
Why is that, will you ask me?
Well, because of Parkinson’s law.
Parkinson’s law basically states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion1." What it means is that if you allocate one hour to complete a task, you’ll probably take one hour to complete it, even though you could have probably done it in less time.
I use this law especially for tasks for which my motivation is low because I tend to procrastinate these tasks way more than tasks I enjoy doing.
You’ve probably experienced it too. When you have to do such tasks, you tend to find everything more interesting than that task. You get distracted by anything. Your mind keeps wandering towards more pleasant thoughts.
As a result, instead of taking 30 minutes to complete it, you spend hours on it – if you even get it done at all!
This law also applies to tasks you enjoy doing. In this case, you might get so focused that time passes by, and you end up wasting more time than needed on the task.
To prevent this from happening, estimate the time the task should objectively take you to complete and try to stick to this duration as much as possible.
The Pomodoro technique and time-blocking are two excellent tools that can help you set a specific duration for a task and stick to it more easily. I discuss them in greater detail in this article.
In the meantime, I wish you a productive and zenly organized life,
1 Parkinson, Cyril Northcote (19 November 1955). "Parkinson's Law". The Economist. London.