Remaining Productive with Things: The Pandemic Edition

Back in March I wrote about how I managed my time using the task manager app, ‘Things’. The gist of that post was that rather than struggling to remember or stay on top of all of the various activities you want to complete (no matter how small) – you chuck them all into Things, and free up the mental energy that would otherwise be expended in tracking them.

For a while, this approach worked really well, but over time I found that I was confronted every day with a huge list of tasks that needed completed, and there wasn’t any kind of tangible satisfaction in completing them, as I knew at midnight the next day’s tasks would appear on cue. Rather than helping to alleviate stress, Things began to contribute to the overwhelming pressure of everyday life, which had come sharply into focus thanks to national COVID lockdowns and varying restrictions. Things I was ment to enjoy (like making music) were reduced to yet another tickbox to be churned through.

What made the above worse was that there were recurring tasks that I wanted to complete, but often failed to find time for. I didn’t want to take them off my daily list, but I didn’t want them to have the same mental load as other tasks.

Taking inspiration from this blog post, I followed Andrea’s lead, and changed the way I approach task management with Things. Rather than having one large daily list of jobs to get through, I now have them separated into their respective categories. The tasks that I definitely want to complete that day come in at the top, under ‘Daily Tasks’, and I try to keep this to a manageable load, so that I can always clear them out. Other things that I want to get done, but don’t necessarily have to get done that specific day are then available for me to work through, based on how I feel/what energy I have that day.

How my Things to do list is organised now.

This new approach has made a huge difference to my relationship with the daily to do list. Rather than feeling like I am endlessly fighting a losing battle to keep ticking off checkboxes, I can now see at a glance exactly what tasks need to be done that day. By keeping those separate, deliberately chosen, and manageable, I no longer feel like the other bits and pieces that I want to do are a chore. If something isn’t in the Daily Tasks list – it can be done another day… and ironically, since adopting this method, I’ve gotten even more done than usual, because I don’t feel the same pressure to complete everything.

Pomodoro

One other thing that I have adopted which is worth mentioning is the Pomodoro technique. The general idea here is that you split up your time into chunks of about 20 minutes, and deliberately focus on a particular task for that period of time, before taking a break and either moving on to something else, or committing to another 20 minute period of focus.

This notion isn’t anything new. I am sure I’m not the only one who sat in maths and thought ‘Okay just get through the next five minutes and then it’ll be another five minutes after that’. Plenty of people have written about this extensively elsewhere… but it’s not an approach that I’ve ever really come to use in any disciplined way. Breaking up my tasks at work was always too difficult, and concentrating for 20 minutes to then have a break and return to the same tasks felt too artificially scheduled for my liking.

However… since I switched up my approach in Things, I’ve had success using the Pomodoro model for my own personal projects – particularly those that I want to get done but struggle to get the motivation to start. For example, I am currently learning Japanese, but sometimes (often) the prospect of firing up the flashcard app for an indeterminate amount of time seems like too much of a chore, and I put it off. Before I know it, I haven’t done it in days.

Now, I sit down and say – okay, I’ll just do it for 20 minutes just now, and then go off and do something else. Knowing that it’s such a short amount of time means I can focus much more than I normally would, and I have been rattling through tasks like never before. This also helps me work out just how much time I actually spend or need to spend on certain activities to complete them, and it can be much less than I expected.

We’ll see how this mutates and modifies as time goes on, but for now… this is the approach.

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