Time management: how to get things done (if lists doesn't help you)

Although this blog is supposed to be mostly about programming, I decided to post one "self-improvement" tip which was useful for me.

Standard approach

Everyone(or most people know) know that normal way to deal with tons of things you should do today is to make a "to do" list for every day. In ideal case you should have several lists - list of long-term goals (lifetime), mid-term goals (several years), short-term goals(several months) and list of things that should be done right now (today, during this week, etc). Every day your to do list should contain several items from each list (or items that will bring you closer to reaching goal from each list), that should be written down according to their priority. I.e. if your mid-term goal is to learn new language, and immediate goal is to buy food, your daily to-do list should have one item for each of those goals. This looks neat, easy enough, however as I found out, there will be several problems.


Typically with standard to-do list, following problems arise:

  • One item from the list takes too much time or even all your time.
  • You don't really want to do that right now.
  • One of the items on the list looks like it will take too much time today, so you decide to do it tomorrow. Tomorrow, same things happens again. As a result task is not being completed within weeks or months.
  • You have too many long-term goals, and can finish anything, because they all take too much time, and can't be finished during one day.

Part of those problems arise from natural laziness - your consciousness (or subconsciousness) will invent various excuses to prevent you from doing anything useful. It is hard to understand why your own mind is against you, but this thing happens. Another part of problems will happen when you will incorrectly estimate time required to finish the task. Also, life is full of surprises, and it is quite possible that something will get in your way and you won't be able to finish some important task today because of external events.


There is a very easy solution for those problems (I haven't seen it written anywhere, which is why I've decided to post this thing here): when you make your daily "to-do" list, for each task write down how much time you will spend on it today. For example, if you are learning new language, (to my opinion) you will learn a lot if you will exercise for 30 minutes every day.
When you start your day, for each task spend as much time as you wrote down in your to do list (Unless you finish the task faster than you expected). Of course, this time you should seriously work on the problem without fooling around, without being distracted, etc. If you won't finish task in time, proceed to the next task, and put unfinished task on tomorrow's "to do" list (you might want to adjust time according to today's experience). If you have a lot of tasks for today, you can spend 30 minutes for each. 30 minutes isn't much, but you still can do a lot during this time.
This approach is incredibly useful for a very long goals (write a large program, learn language, study something huge, etc). At least it works for me, so I think it will be useful for someone else.

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