Thursday, October 24, 2013

Thing 3: All those things to do

"The General Problem" from xkcd.com - click through to see the strip and mouseover commentary.
We all have a lot to do, and a lot to keep track of - and technology can definitely help us out. Today's Thing is going to talk about a couple of different approaches, and touch on some of the many tools you can use to help you.

Approaches

Calendar-based: Some people work best by blocking out time for different tasks - for example, you might schedule out some times when you are in class, some for dealing with homework, some for replying to email, and so on.
  • Pros: Ability to plan ahead. Able to see how you're spending your time and adjust.
  • Cons: Not very flexible, especially if you work with or rely on the work of others. Can require lots of rearranging if something takes more or less time than you expected. 
  • Tools: Calendar programs - Google Calendar, iCal, etc.
To-Do list: Another common approach is to put things on a to-do list and check each item off as you do it.
  • Pros: Simple, there are lots of tools to help you out.
  • Cons: Big tasks (write a paper, prepare a project) end up mingled with small tasks (reply to a simple email, get gas for the car.) It can be hard to sort out which ones you can do when or which are most urgent. 
  • Tools: Pen and paper, index cards, a number of software tools including Remember The Milk and Wunderlist. For those using GoogleApps (like UMaine folks do), there's also the Tasks tool.
Getting Things Done: Developed by David Allen, this started out widely popular in the business world, but it works great for academia, too. This system starts by getting things you're worrying over out of your head and onto paper (or the screen) so you can deal with them. After that, it focuses on contexts.

You group things by type of activity (like email, returning a phone call, errands, writing tasks, etc.) If you have 10 minutes, you look at your list of short items, and pick one. When you have longer focused time, you go to that list. There's more to the system than that, but the links below will get you started.
  • Pros: Deals well with different kinds of tasks, and different priorities. Lots of people talking about how they use it makes it easier to find adjustments that work for you.
  • Cons: Takes some time to learn, need regular reviews to keep it working well. As some of the links below point out, it was designed for a time when we didn't always have most tools readily available.
  • Tools: All sorts - check out the links below for some ideas. Basically, you want something that will handle calendar items (meetings) and something that will handle lists, preferably with tagging or another way to identify contexts.

 

Choosing tools:

There are tons of different tools out there - partly because people want different things. I've found that I need a tool that lets me move items around within a list easily, and one that lets me add an email to my task list. You might need something different!

If you're not sure, try out a couple of free tools, and see what you like and don't like. You might also think about whether you want a task management tool that syncs to your phone or another mobile device, or whether you'll always use it on a particular computer.

Besides the tools linked above, a lot of people use Evernote as a task management tool - we'll be talking about Evernote in a future Thing. If you're fond of lists, you might really like Workflowy.

 

Further reading

 

Things to try

1) Spend a few minutes thinking about what you'd like to make easier in your task management life - do you have trouble keeping ahead of appointments? Coming back to email? Tracking projects with many stages?

2) Try out at least one new tool - even if it doesn't do everything for you, it may help with a specific project or part of your life.

3) Leave a comment here talking about which tip in the links you found useful, or a tool you liked exploring.

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