Optimizing your action loop

If you want to be radically more effective at doing things, get better
at deciding what to do. Few things are more personal than figuring out
what you’re going to do with your life: at this moment, for this day,
for the next few years. Few decisions are made as frequently. If you
can improve the way you make that decision, you’ll reap the benefits
everywhere.

We’ve all developed some ways of coping. We all have our quirks.
One of mine is that I can’t settle on one way of planning my tasks.
Some days, I’m all strategic and top-down, connecting my life goals
with the tasks I plan to do that day. Other days, I just need to get a
crucial task out of my head so that I don’t forget it while hunting
for my keys. Some days, I block out time to work on my priority
projects. Other days, I have to work around other people’s schedules,
so it’s all about cramming whatever I can into whenever I’ve got.

Now think of all the other geeks out there, and you’ll understand how
to-do list programs might outnumber programmers. Despite the
collective efforts of companies like Microsoft and IBM, despite the
coolness of Web 2.0 services like Remember the Milk, despite the
renaissance of paper-based planners such as the Hipster PDA, I have
never found anything as powerful as a plain text file in terms of
personal productivity: a plain text file with shortcuts that are
form-fitted to the way I work.

Here’s what my workday looks like:

  • I do a _quick_ scan of e-mail to see if any tasks have come in. I copy those into my inbox. I resist the urge to reply right away, as that turns e-mail into a huge timesink.
  • 5-10 minutes are enough to schedule and prioritize my tasks for the day. I see both my calendar and my task list at the same time, and I can estimate my load. I leave plenty of space for things that come up. I feel better when I finish my scheduled tasks and then cross off a few more, than when I don’t finish everything I planned and I have to postpone tasks to the next day.
  • I work on my highest-priority task for the day.
  • _Then_ I respond to e-mail.
  • Then I work through everything else in roughly 45-minute chunks, with some downtime in between to recharge my brain and take care of routine tasks.
  • My computer is set up to encourage me to take 10-second breaks every 5 minutes and 2.5 minute breaks every hour. The numbers are arbitrary, but the result feels good. This works out even better when I work from home: 2.5 minutes is just enough time to clear the sink, or to empty the dishwasher, or to start some tea…

A plain text file keeps me all organized, thanks to the Org module for
the Emacs text editor. The text file shows me what’s on my horizon and
what’s on today’s schedule. The text file helps me deal with
interruptions because it keeps track of what I was working on and what
I need to do.

The text file even helps me learn more about myself and my skills
through detailed time-tracking. Every time I start a task, the clock
starts. Every time I mark a task as waiting or done, the clock stops,
and the elapsed time is stored in the task. This helps me tune my time
estimates and report time at the end of the week.

And it’s just amazing. I don’t feel that I waste a lot of time. I have
a sense of progress. I can see the big picture, and things almost
never fall through the cracks. (When they do, that’s because I hadn’t
gotten around to putting them in my text file yet.) Sure, this still
doesn’t give me enough time to do everything I want to do, but I don’t
feel stressed out about it because I’m working well. From now on, most
of the performance improvement will come from improving my skills and
learning more.

If I can do this much as a new hire with a pretty nifty task
management system, think about what you can do with all your
experience. What _could_ you do if you spent less time fighting with
your memory or with your TODO system, and more time making the
difference you want to make?

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