Ladder 1 Rung 2: Scheduling tasks

Last time: Identifying tasks

For an introduction to the idea I’m trying out, have a look at this blog post. In short, I’m attempting to make my PhD more like a video game by creating short, manageable, but challenging tasks to promote a sense of achievement. Each technique I do will be referred to as a “ladder”, with the individual steps branded as “rungs”.

This is Ladder 1: Identify, schedule and review.  There are 3 rungs to this ladder, with one blog post for each.

In my last post, I talked about how to identify tasks (rung 1). In this post, I’m looking at how to schedule those tasks (rung 2). In the next post, I’ll be reviewing the tasks (rung 3). In between rungs 2 and 3 you actually have to do the tasks. There’s no post for that.

Ready? (Software…)

For rung 2, I’ll be using the task management software Producteev. There are a lot of task management applications out there, but I’ve chosen Producteev for several reasons:

1) It’s usable on anything that accesses the web (via a website) and there are apps for Windows,Mac, iPhone and Android. This means I can use it on my laptop, my phone, and my tablet.

2) It’s free for individual users (you can pay to use it for teams)

3) It has features I like: I can schedule things and view them on a calendar; I can tag tasks with labels; I can email tasks to Producteev; I can capture webpages to Producteev using a neat capture tool.

You can use whatever task manager you like, including a pen and pad of paper. I hear “diaries” are particularly good versions of pads of paper for task management and scheduling.

Let’s go!

From the last blog post, you should have already identified some tasks that need to be done (if you need help with this, look here).

Gathering your information…

The next step is to figure out how much time you have this week to devote to your task list. Look at your diary, or your calendar, or wherever you’ve listed things you have scheduled. And then use that information:

1) What are your “working hours” for these tasks? If they’re Monday to Friday, 9 – 5, then you know that the maximum hours you have are 40. But you can’t work solidly all that time, can you? So take out an hour for lunch each day. That’s 35. Then there are breaks. Factor those in. Everyone works differently. I work in bursts, so the 9-5 thing doesn’t actually work for me. Now you’ve calculate the maximum time you have to spend.

2) What do you already have scheduled? If you have a meeting at 10 on Tuesday morning, what does that mean for the rest of your day? Be realistic…

– Can you do any work before the meeting? Could you arrive early and get some work done first? Could you work at home before you leave? Or is it better just to write off that time?

– When can you start work again? If the meeting lasts an hour, do you want to get going straight away? Do you need to clear your head first? Or eat? If it’s a stressful meeting, maybe it’d be good to do some exercise or have some downtime. You’ll work better afterwards.

3) Look at what you have left, and write down the segments of time where you realistically think you can get work done. Make sure the times listed are actually times you will be in position to work. Not the time your meeting finishes until the time you’re meant to be at the cinema.

You’ll do this again and again when you review your progress and identify your next set of tasks. And you’ll quickly begin to develop an idea of how long it takes you to get stuff done –  an excellent by-product of managing your time this way.

Putting it all together…

By this point, you should have your list of tasks, and a list of times when you can do the tasks. Last time we talked about “dependencies” (i.e. a whether you need to do one task before you can do another). I’m only going to give one task a dependency for this post, to make things as simple as possible. The other headings we used in the last post are more useful for completing and reviewing the tasks.

Here’s an example of tasks and available times…

Tasks:
a) Read <name of paper> on <name of subject area> [b) IS DEPENDENT ON THIS]
b) Write up notes from <paper>, with particular reference to <super relevant part of paper> [DEPENDENT ON a)]
c) Email <name> about <interesting thing>
d) Draft blog post on <something you write about>
e) Write 1000 words on <a concept that’s important to your thesis>
 
Available time:
Monday, 9 – 12
Tuesday, 2-5
Wednesday, 9-12
Thursday, 2-5
Friday, 9-12

Finally, you need to slot the tasks into the available time slots. You can make this as fun as you choose. One option is to write the tasks on post-it notes and write the time slots on bigger pieces of paper. Then put the post-its on the bigger pieces of paper. Another is to write the task list on one side of a piece of paper, and the time slots on the other. Use arrows to connect them.

You’ll end up with something like this:

Monday, 9 – 12 – Read on [TUESDAY TASK IS DEPENDENT ON THIS]
Tuesday, 2-5 – Write up notes from <paper>, with particular reference to <super relevant part of paper> [DEPENDENT ON MONDAY TASK]
Wednesday, 9-12 – Draft blog post on <something you write about>
Thursday, 2-5 – Write 1000 words on <a concept that’s important to your thesis>
Friday, 9-12 – Email <name> about <interesting thing>, review this week and plan next week
Don’t forget to schedule in time to review the week, and to plan the next one.

Then pop those tasks into your diary or calendar. If you use Producteev, you can use their inbuilt calendar, combining the process of creating a to do list and noting the tasks in your diary . You can do something similar with Gmail and Google Tasks. If you use Gmail for your calendar this may be more convenient, but I prefer the feature set of Producteev.

Video game creators can spend lots of time figuring out how easy or difficult to make each task, and that’s a big part of what makes you want to continue playing a game. If the level is wrong, then it’s boring: too easy and the achievements mean nothing, too hard and the achievements are too rare.

So the big challenge to this rung of the ladder is making your achievements challenging but doable.

Every time you review a week, your next plan will be adjusted to take into account how easy or difficult your tasks were. You’ll be learning how much you can ask yourself to do. But that’s for the next post…

Note: This is very much a work in progress. If you have any suggestions for improvement, stories or tips to share, or nice things to say, I’d love to hear about them below. Leave a comment!

Next time: Reviewing tasks

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5 comments

  1. I’m really liking this video game strategy, and I’m going to adapt some of your tips when I revise my strategy for weekly progress reports. I was also guilty of loose goals and measures of success, e.g. “Look into poster size restrictions” = what, exactly?

    My biggest challenge is knowing how much time a task will take me. I almost always underestimate, which leads to disappointment when I can’t finish said task in that allotted time. Which can turn into a sense of futility about scheduling and lead to overly loose/flexible schedules with no sense of urgency. (a bad cycle of unproductivity!).

    I tend to set up my daily schedule each morning (although I’m starting to think I should do this at night to avoid wasting productive morning time), because my tasks (and the amount of time I expect them to take) can change drastically contingent on success/failure/results of another task.

    I use Google Calendar which has alerts when I need to stop and move onto something else. I like to schedule tasks in 1-1.5 hour increments with snack breaks in between to force a sense of urgency with rewards (we’ll not talk about whether food as rewards is healthy or not). However, I’ve started to ignore my calendar beeps, so I’m testing out the Focus Booster app to see if it will help with that urgency. It has an optional ticking noise, which may provide the pressure I need to be “on” during a given pomodoro.

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