I tend to take on a lot of different projects. This means that I need to be able to manage my time well. If I don’t, I will forever jump from one thing to another and not give enough attention to the thing I need to do at the moment. I know, because I used to have that problem.
That’s why I started using Todoist in 2015. Before that I had written lists of things I needed to do and looked at my outlook calendar daily but moving from that to a comprehensive to-do list application freaking changed my life. I am quite sure that move played a very important role in my ability to finish my PhD successfully.
While I now use Todoist more than ever, I have started to feel that it is just not enough anymore. Even if I just look at my work at the ministry, I have several different projects with their own tasks and sub-tasks going on at any given time. To keep these projects moving they need to be focused on for lengths of time. The problem is finding these lengths of time.
I think this issue is relevant for many people working in offices. You plan to concentrate on something but an e-mail or a call comes in or something else needs focus. This makes working on several big tasks difficult. One tends to try to do everything at once, prioritizing the most important thing at this very moment. No focus is given to the big picture and days tend to be messes of things that come up.
A to-do list is not the right tool to solve this. It gives you a good overview of the little things that you need to do but it is hard to make it work towards a bigger picture. It doesn’t work if the thing you are working on can’t just be checked off.
To counter this, I decided to try time blocking – the process of planning EVERY hour of your work time with things you need to do. Instead of putting only meetings into the calendar, blocks of time are created for the specific tasks that need to be worked on that day.
This is how I have set things up:
When I arrive at work, I look at my mailbox to see if any new tasks have popped up. Based on this, I will put together my to-do list for the day in Todoist. I look at the different things I need to do, how they need to be prioritized and how they relate to each other.
After the to-do list is updated, I head to the whiteboard I installed in my office. I write the most important things in red ink, followed by “nice to finish” tasks in green. I limit myself to 3-5 of the main things I want to get done by the end of the day. I also sometimes add something that I should be mindful of throughout the day in blue.
The difference between the whiteboard and the to-do list is granularity. The to-do list is broken down into small sub-tasks and things that are easily checked off and sometimes moved between days. The whiteboard is for my main goals for the day – what I want to achieve.
With the whiteboard filled, I finally get to time blocking. For this I simply use Google Calendar, as I don’t use it for anything else at the moment.
I amalgamate the to-do list, the whiteboard and whatever meetings I have and block out chunks of time in a way that seems logical. Throughout the day, my phone will send me a notification 5 minutes before the new block starts, so I am reminded of what I planned to do.
Following the blocks is not mandatory. They just serve as framework for the day. If something more time-sensitive comes up, I will do that. But it gives me peace of mind – I don’t have to think about what I am going to do. Everything has already been thought of.
Is it worth it?
I know time management can easily become a hassle and take more time than it is worth but at least for now, my current system gives me more value than it takes away. If I do things right, all of the planning will only take 15-20 minutes and I have a bit of time left over to go get myself a cup of tea before I start working.
I have thought a lot about creating habits and routines these past few months. Time blocking is the first thing I have gotten to stick but I will definitely write more about organizing my time in the future.