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Task-Managing Series, Part 2: Optimal Method

20/09/2009 1 comment

Tasks2 copy

It has now been three weeks since I started the task-managing experiment and I have mainly been focusing on when and how to set my tasks. Here are my experiences, so far:

Ongoing List vs. New List Every Day

When I work with an ongoing to-do list, I simply have one list with all the tasks that need to get done and I add tasks and tick tasks off as I go along. If I don’t get a task done today, it will simply still be on the list tomorrow. Similarly, if I have a task I know I need to do in two days time, I simply write it down now, together with all the other tasks.

Stats:
Using an ongoing list and ta-da lists, I completed 17 out of 19 tasks during the course of one week. That is a good ratio, but as you can tell, I didn’t set very many tasks. This is mainly because an ongoing list gets crowded pretty quickly. It’s no real help if you have a list of 20 unsorted tasks in front of you, so with the ongoing list, I only wrote down the most essential tasks. This method required an average of 47 seconds per completed task.

Pros:
This method is very flexible and takes up a minimal amount of time. There is no re-writing of tasks and no scheduling involved. It’s probably the easiest method to follow and the fact that it encourages you to set only a few essential tasks per day can be a blessing.

Cons:
The downside of this method is how chaotic it is. There is no sense of priority and if I set a task today that is meant for a few days later, it will just sit there with all the other tasks for a few days. It makes it difficult to decide what needs to be done first and I rarely got the satisfaction of completing the entire list.

The alternative is to start a new list for each day. Following this method, I re-write any unfinished tasks to carry them over to the next day. I update the list as I go along, when new things come up, but I also set aside a specific time during the day for organizing the tasks and setting new ones. I wanted to test doing this either in the morning or in the evening, but I was useless in the morning. In the evenings, I can think clearly about what needs to be done the following day and make a decent task-list. Early in the mornings, my brain just doesn’t want to do this kind of thinking. I can be productive early in the day, but apparently not the planning kind of productive.

Stats:
Following this method (also with ta-da lists), I completed 32 out of 35 tasks during the course of one week. Again, the ratio is good, but this time, I set and completed way more tasks than with the ongoing list. I spent an average of 44 seconds on each completed task, slightly less than with the ongoing list. While the difference is small, it shows that focusing on what tasks to set once a day is probably more efficient than just adding them as they come up.

Pros:
In short, with this method I got more done in slightly less time (per task). That’s certainly a good thing. I found that it really helps me to take a few minutes in the evening, before I turn off the computer for the night, and plan the important tasks for the next day. Since I start with a clean slate each day, the list never gets too crowded and it’s easier to prioritize, even though I didn’t use a system to set priorities. Another positive aspect is that completing the whole list by the end of the day gives me a nice feeling of accomplishment. Plus, re-writing left-over tasks for the next day is like making a renewed commitment and that can help to complete them.

Cons:
I really didn’t find any major drawbacks for this method.

Preliminary Conclusion

My experiment is still ongoing and I am currently testing out different media for managing my task-lists. So far, I can conclude that making a new list for each day is definitely better than using an ongoing list. An ongoing list is extremely simple, lacking structure, prioritization and scheduling. This might be a good thing if you have the tendency to over-organize and want to categorize every minute detail. An ongoing list could help you focus on just what’s relevant. For any other situation, I recommend taking some time evening to plan the tasks for the next day.

While I set and completed more tasks with a new list each day, keep in mind that not all tasks are created equal. “Take out the trash” and “work out” both count as one task, but one of them is completed in under a minute while the other takes about an hour. Also, not every task is equally relevant. In this early stage of my experiment, I have not yet done anything to prioritize my tasks, but I will be looking into that later on.

The findings of this first part of my experiment aren’t particularly spectacular – I’m aware of that. Stay tuned for my next update, when I will be reporting on the different types of task managing software I have used.

This post is part of a series.
Part 1: Introduction to the Experiment
Part 2: Optimal Method

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The Slump: A Crucial Factor to Building New Habits

18/09/2009 3 comments
Exhausted dog

Photo by emarquetti

Building habits is key to personal progress and success. If you manage to continually build new, positive habits that increase your productivity, your skills or your happiness, then you are obviously on a fast track to a wonderful life. But, as you probably know, it can be very challenging to build a new habit up to the point where it is truly integrated into your life. Think “Motivation” – a theme absolutely pivotal to almost every book, blog, seminar and system concerned with self-improvement. After all, it’s not that we don’t know what’s good for us. We know perfectly well that we should get our asses of the couch and do that workout, finally clean out that messy drawer and finish that project that’s been at the back of our minds for so long.

But somehow, we can’t get ourselves to get up and do it. Somehow, there is just too much inertia and it can seem impossible to overcome. And so, we make an exception and don’t do the workout today. Soon, the exception becomes the norm, the guilt diminishes and what once was an exciting new part of our lives somehow fades and disappears.

Presentism

Have a quick look around the producto-blogosphere on the subject of motivation. You can find countless posts on how to make motivation a breeze – if there’s one thing there isn’t a shortage of on the internet, it’s X-point lists on how to take all the effort out of self-motivation. I am not going to contribute to that collection in this post, because while I have one piece of very valuable advice when it comes to motivation, I can’t say it’s easy to follow.

The root of the motivational problem lies in psychological presentism. Presentism is caused by the fact that whatever we think about, we always use our present situation as a starting point. All our thoughts, be they of the future or the past, of things close or far away, are always distinctly influenced by what’s here, now. This is why it’s difficult to think of what you would like to eat when you are full. How does presentism apply to motivation? Let’s take exercise as an example. Let’s say you read an inspiring article or a book about all the benefits of exercise and you decide to get started with a regular workout routine. In the beginning, you’ll no doubt be very excited and enthusiastic about it, reading up on tips for your workout, perhaps buying new running shoes, some dumbbells or a heart rate monitor. The first few workouts go very well and you feel fantastic afterwards. You picture how much better your life will be from now on and how great it will be to lose some weight, become more athletic and attractive etc, etc. In this state of enthusiasm, it’s very difficult to imagine that you’ll ever be unmotivated.

But then it happens: One morning, you wake up feeling pretty squashed and you just can’t get yourself to go for that run or to lift those weights. You’re having a terrible day and there’s just too much work to do to squeeze in a visit to the gym. Your muscles are sore, there’s that weird pain in your shoulder and your motivation reaches an all-time low. In this new emotional state, it’s difficult to imagine why you would be excited or enthusiastic about the prospect of working out several times a week. Isn’t it all just futile effort? After all, you’ve hardly lost any weight and looking in the mirror, you still don’t resemble anything you’d expect to see on the cover of a glossy magazine.
This is the point where many conclude that they have somehow “lost it”, that they have failed or that the whole thing was a bad idea to begin with. Sometime later you come to regret that you stopped, you see regular exercise in a positive light again and, perhaps, the whole process starts over.

Know The Slump

Here’s the thing: This will always happen. You will always lose your initial momentum, you will always find yourself unmotivated, you will always experience this slump, when you start something new. Whether it’s exercising regularly, launching a community project, writing a blog or starting a new business, the slump is all but unavoidable. No matter what you do, there will always be a tendency for everything to return to the way it was before (this is known as homeostasis).

So, what can you do about this? As I have already stated, I can’t offer you an easy solution. Here are two things that can help anyway (they help me immensely):

1. Anticipate it.
Know that there will be times when you won’t feel like sticking to your plan at all. Expect to be unmotivated at some point in the future. This way, it will not take you by surprise and you will not feel like this is the end of everything. Instead it’s just part of building the new habit and it you knew it would happen. This can be likened to knowing that you’ll get a jab when you visit your doctor. It will still hurt, but you knew it would happen and you realize it’s part of the process of getting healthy again.

2. Grit your teeth.
This is where discipline comes in. Sometimes, it’s not about getting yourself motivated, sometimes it’s just about gritting your teeth and doing it, despite not being motivated. Find a personal mantra that helps you override your emotional response and reminds you of your discipline. My mantra for such situations is “my discipline is my freedom”, but I guess I’ll have to explain the background to this in another post. Remind yourself that you made the decision to stick with this new habit when you were feeling good and had thought clearly about it. Now, in your negative emotional state, it is not the time to make new decisions because those decisions would be greatly compromised by your mood.

Good News

As you have probably guessed by now, I myself have gone through the cycle of starting a new habit, experiencing the slump, quitting, regretting it and starting again, many, many times. I’ve also seen my friends go through this cycle countless times and from my work as a martial arts instructor, I know that virtually every new student experiences the slump within the first six months after they start.

The good news is that the slump is very predictable and that it’s usually nonrecurring. It’s predictable because it almost always strikes within a few months of beginning something new. Depending on factors such as social and monetary commitment (if you pay for it, and told all your friends, you’ll last a bit longer) and frequency (something you do daily will lead to the slump more quickly than something you do once a week), the slump can occur sooner or later, but if I had to narrow it down, I’d say you’ll experience the slump at some point between the 10th and 20th time you repeat the new behaviour. And if you get through it, sticking to your new habit, that will have been the worst of it. I’ve never experienced a second slump as bad as the first one and the longer I continue with a new habit, the further apart the following “mini-slumps” are.

Getting back to the example of regular exercise, you can rest assured that if you keep going and drag yourself through that slump, then after just a few workouts fuelled by discipline alone, you’ll see a light at the end of the tunnel, your motivation will return and you will be much, much closer to having acquired a new habit.

By all means, learn about all the possibilities you have to get yourself more motivated, but never forget to anticipate the inevitable slump and when all self-motivation fails, remember: This is part of the progress, you can fight this thing with your willpower and you will come out the other side a stronger and happier person.