Turn jobs into tasks

Last time I wrote about the problem of multitasking.  The fight to stay focused doesn’t always involve balancing your real work with a distraction; it can also be about juggling multiple projects.  Even if you are working exclusively on important items, it’s still best to do one thing at a time because you’ll get more done that way.

Students writing in the library
[Paul Dodds]
The trick here is to divide your jobs into smaller tasks so they don’t become large amorphous blobs that overlap each other all day.  For each ‘to do’ item on your list, divide it until you are left with tasks that can be finished in a finite amount of time.  See the following for an example of the sort of list I might use to organise and follow up on a meeting:

  • Hold meeting about project A
    • Come up with content
      • Review action items from previous meeting
      • Ask people for additional topics
      • Draft agenda
    • Set things up
      • Set a date and time
        • Create and issue poll
        • Decide on an option and announce it
      • Book a room
    • Issue minutes
      • Look over notes and type them up
      • Gather action items
      • E-mail summary to attendees

Once you have divided your work into smaller units, start doing and checking off those tasks that can be accomplished in less than 5 minutes.   After you’ve done those, prioritise those tasks that must be done prior to other tasks (e.g., you have to complete ‘fill the car with gas’ before you start on ‘go on a trip’) and those that have the biggest benefit:time ratio.  This way of working is treated much more elaborately in the approach to working known as “Getting Things Done (GTD)” (Allen 2001).  It tells you to get all of your tasks and plans out of your head and into a structured list.

Don’t just plug away at your list until you pass out; estimate how much time you can spend on completing tasks without becoming fatigued.  Plan your breaks in advance to make sure that you don’t run into a wall.  One way to pace yourself is the “Pomodoro” technique (see, for instance, Gobbo and Vaccari 2008).  It involves working steadily for 25 solid minutes (or whatever you like… that happens to be the time limit on the tomato-shaped kitchen timer from which the technique gets its name).  When the alarm sounds, take a 3-5 minute break, and then start another timer.  After you have done this four times, you will have worked for two hours.  Reward yourself with a longer break (30 minutes?) and repeat.

TL;DR  Break your tasks into manageable chunks and tackle the chunks in an order that makes sense.  Schedule regular but limited breaks.