Today I want to look at some tips for organizing your work and getting things done on a daily level.
1. Constrain your time or your tasks
Entrepreneur Scott H. Young offers two approaches to daily organization, depending on the type of tasks you’re working on. On the one hand, Young suggests constraining your time. You might plan to work for two hours first thing in the morning, for instance, or move to a café after lunch and plan to work for four hours.
When constraining your time, you can work on any tasks you need to get done within that period. Your tasks, in other words, aren’t constrained at all.
Young says this method works best for tasks that are not well-defined, or not easily broken down into sub-tasks. You can make progress on these kind of tasks by setting a time constraint to work on them.
The biggest advantage of constraining time is that it’s always unambiguous. If you decide to work for three hours and then stop, there’s no confusion there.
If you’re working on writing an article or a book, or planning a new software project, you might not be at the stage where you can break out specific tasks. For big, sprawling projects like these, simply set yourself a time period to work for, and make as much progress as you can.
Young’s other approach is to constrain your tasks . For this approach, rather than setting a specific period of time to work for, you’d set a specific set of tasks to complete, and work for as long as it takes to get them done.
Obviously this method wouldn’t work so well for tasks that aren’t well-defined, as you would have a hard time breaking them down into actionable tasks that are achievable within a work period.
But for tasks that are well-defined, constraining yourself to working until a set of tasks are completed can be a helpful approach. Whereas constraining your time can make it easier to trick yourself into thinking you’re being productive without actually doing meaningful work, working until a specific list of tasks is complete helps you avoid that trap.
I’ve also found time constraints can encourage a sloppier attitude towards work. You might decide to spend all day studying in the library—but without tasks to constrain your productivity, you end up checking your phone or skipping hard problems to work on easier stuff.
Task constraints can be particularly useful for tasks you do often, as the more you repeat something the easier it becomes to predict how much time and effort it will require.
You might use this approach when you have a stack of monthly-repeating tasks to do. Create a to-do list including all your monthly reports and tasks, and simply work through the list until they’re all done, regardless of how long it takes.
2. Make a fixed schedule and stick to it
Productivity expert and author Cal Newport found a technique that helped him stay productive as a graduate student while keeping every evening and weekend free.
Newport calls this approach “fixed-schedule productivity.” The idea is simple, but not easy to implement.
Newport chose a work schedule and stuck to it. He planned his work to fit into this fixed schedule, and was adamant about not working outside these periods. For him, after 5pm on weekdays and all day on weekends feel outside this fixed schedule, so Newport didn’t work then.
While this may sound similar to Young’s time constraints approach, it’s actually a bit different. While you can constrain your time on the fly, deciding after lunch on Monday, for instance, that you’ll do a focused work block of two hours, Newport’s method is to set a schedule for your entire week and repeat it week after week without change.
This approach requires planning ahead, choosing the times you’re able to get meaningful work done throughout your week, and making a regular schedule you can stick to. Within that schedule you might have periods of constrained time or constrained tasks, but the schedule itself remains the framework of when you work throughout the week.
Newport says with this approach you may upset some people, as you won’t be available to chat or reply to their emails immediately, but eventually they’ll get used to it, and in the meantime you’ll be getting more work done.
Here’s a simple truth: to stick to your ideal schedule will require some drastic actions.
Newport also found to make his fixed schedule work he had to cut out inefficient habits, turn down more projects than he would have previously, and build habits for repetitive work so those tasks get done without question at the same time every day or week.
“Here’s a simple truth: to stick to your ideal schedule will require some drastic actions.”
Newport also had to work on fewer projects at once to make his fixed schedule stick. He kept two queues of potential projects: writing projects and anything related to his work as a grad student.
These queues helped Newport keep on top of upcoming work, but he only ever worked on the first project in each queue. Only bouncing between two projects at once made it easier for Newport to stick to his fixed-schedule productivity approach and not let work bleed out beyond the bounds of his schedule.
3. Always be prepared for the next hour
Productivity author Mark Forster gets even more granular in managing his daily work with an approach he calls The Next Hour of Your Life. The Next Hour uses a simple to-do list, but aims to always have enough tasks on the list to roughly fill an hour-long period.
If you have an event coming up, your to-do list carries over to the next hour after your event. And throughout the day you periodically add to the list so it always has roughly an hour’s worth of work on it.
It sounds simple, but Forster points out how powerful this method can be:
If I’d been presented with a list of 49 items long at the beginning of the day I wouldn’t have had a hope of finishing it. But writing a few tasks at a time gradually adds up…
What’s your favorite method for organizing your daily work? Let us know in the comments.