The first parts of this series were about getting more done while at work as well as making it easier to switch from work into leisure mode. Both have a rather bottom-up feeling to them. In contrast, this post will be top-down: investigating my scheduling habits and trying to get them to a point where they actually protect myself from over-scheduling too much work.
My Scheduling Habits thus far
After years or trying different todo and task applications, I’ve settled upon a rather simplistic approach: simple markdown todo lists versioned through git. Mostly I use this for reminders, things that I need to do for work and, leisure activities such as reminding me to go do some yoga.
For example this would be a simple task (that I am waiting for) and multiple tasks that I can do as soon as the “simple task” is done:
I regularly move finished tasks into a separate archive file so that I get a sense of progress.
This seems to work rather well except when the amount of tasks which I am waiting for (and that prevent other tasks from being finished) becomes too large. This happened this August when my todo file spiraled out of control: there were approx. 100 todos in it, most of them blocked by other tasks that I was waiting for. This situation actually did the opposite of what it was supposed to do and totally stressed me out.
How to Improve This
I do believe that the basic idea of my todo system is good, but that there is room for improvement. Instead of using it to remind me of work-to-be-done, it should also protect me from over-committing time to work projects. In addition, it should not stress me out as it did last August.
After some thinking around, I believe that this should be possible: I will keep my markdown-based approach but will slightly adopt it. To better focus my work, I will add a theme for each month in advance. This should sharpen my mental focus upon the one big-picture thing that is important for this month. Examples of this could include
November: finish security paper or
December: do project X for customer. This should also reduce multitasking, i.e., inefficient jumping between too many projects.
In addition, I need to add more slack into my schedule. In my line of work (security pen-testing), there are currently more projects than you can take care of. There will always be “one more project” that you could do this month. Alas, security projects often need a lot of work after the originally project has been done: teaching devs how to improve, doing retests, etc. In addition, often you will need to wait for customer approval before you can actually do the work. Both aspects guarantee that there will me a lot of “waiting-for” tasks on my task list.
To improve this, I will try to schedule a single work project (which typically takes a week, i.e., 5 days) each month. This is a new customer project, which (if everything works out perfectly) should be finished after that week. Realistically, this will not happen and there will be some few tasks (rather hours not days) that need to be done for that project after the week. While not very time intensive, those tasks take a high poll on my mental capacity, so it’s important to schedule and limit them.
In addition, I will reserve another week to finish “old” projects. This should help me getting my backlog under control. And as mentioned, there are always potential projects popping up all the time. This week should allow me to accept some of the more interesting ones of those. Overall those three steps should help my scheduling to become more resilient: better suited if scheduling goes wrong (what it will) as well as open for unexpected but interesting work opportunities that might arise.
This should limit my “work” work to two weeks a month, which should be good enough (remember that I am also studying). The rest of my “work” time will be spent at university or doing certifications (of which I have a couple on my todo list..).
Also this should make it easier for me to say “I have done enough work for this month”. As mentioned, there are always more project that one can accept, so this is quite important to me. Without this rough guideline, I tend to say “I could work another week and would gain a nice amount of money”.. leading to myself getting no leisure, just senselessly chasing more and more money.
Example of a new task list
So how would a new todo list of mine look like?
It’s actually not shorter than before, but more focused (at least it allows me to focus easier). The whole “theme plus one big project/month” idea helps me to space out potential work-projects. It makes it easier for me to tell a customer “I can do this project, but only in February” (as I easily can see when the next 5day-slot is available or when a month does not have a theme yet).
As with all the other productivity and lifestyle experiments: this is just an experiment. Let’s see for a couple of months if it improves my scheduling and keep those parts that actually help. If it stressed me out, I will not continue this.. as mentioned the main reason for doing all of this is to try to get rather less stressed (;
I mentioned that I am using the same task list for reminding me to do leisure activities such as meeting friends or doing yoga. Sadly, esp. the latter activities have not become habits for me (yet) so I need to remind myself to do them.
I am currently trying out myclubs (invitation link for reduced fee) instead of using of putting them on my task list. The idea behind myclubs is simple: you pay myclubs a monthly fee and are allowed a given amount of “free entrances” into bouldering gyms, yoga studios, etc. I’ve taken a smaller package that roughly allows me to go to a yoga studio once a week. If I don’t do four activities a month, the unused activities will be forfeited at the end of the month. Together with their mobile application that is good enough for me to remind me to put in some fitness hours. I see the “open entry counter” in the app and, if motivation sparks, can immediately search for potential classes on the same day.
As I put the app directly on my phone’s home screen, this is hopefully good enough the get myself some health activities without having to schedule them through my task list.