3 steps to getting things done and staying sane

timeFliessmYup, I used to be a bad planner and learned the hard way that to avoid insanity (and stress), I really needed to plan my work well.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. While I haven’t conquered this demon completely, at least I stay sane (most of the time).

If you’re continually running late on projects and can’t seem to dig your way out of your to-do list, it’s time to make some changes!

Here are the 3 steps to getting things done I learned on the way to sanity.

  1. First, plan like a pro – break things down into small, tangible tasks with realistic (not idealistic) time estimates
  2. Make the planning visual – schedule your tasks as appointments in your calendar
  3. Get to work – what to do when your motivation is low

1. First, plan like a pro

Planning like a pro requires only two simple (!) steps. Although this information in readily available anywhere, the trick is to put it into practice.  Even if you think you don’t have time to plan, remember that a stitch in time saves nine – a little effort today can save a lot of time in the long run.

Break the project down into smaller tasks

legoI heard this advice for yeeeeears but it took me a long time to fully incorporate it into my routine. Yet, we do this daily without even realizing it! If I want to paint my living room, I know that this project involves multiple steps: buy the paint and supplies, move the furniture around, tape the edges of doors and windows, apply primer and paint, and allow it to dry in between.

You can apply this same approach to any project – break it down into small, tangible chunks and write them down. Include any dependencies. A bit obvious perhaps, but I’ve found this is much easier to do if you’ve done a similar task in the past. I try to put myself back in that state of mind, and brainstorm the steps I’d take to accomplish the Big Task. The process is a bit iterative – first the broad strokes, then at each iteration I try to make concrete tasks from each item. But it doesn’t end there….

“I know I’ll get it done faster this time,” or realistically estimating how long a task will take

Easier said than done, as explained by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky*: every project usually succumbs to the Planning Fallacy – we routinely underestimate how long a task will take and overestimate our ability to perform in the current situation, despite prior evidence.


The Sydney Opera House, built 10 years late and cost 14 times more than original budget

I now make time estimates based on past experience – if it took me 60 hours to write a paper before, I know it will take at least 60 hours this time, even if it means I’ll miss the submission deadline, even if I really really think I can get that paper out the door in only 20 hours. With realistic planning, I can take appropriate steps to avoid stress by shifting other tasks or submitting elsewhere. I haven’t perfected this step yet, but I’m getting better at it (by facing the evidence from my work log).

If I know it took a week to paint the living room, I’ll know I can’t start painting the kitchen two days before the guests arrive, even though I want to. That would lead to insanity! (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt).

Estimate the duration of the task based on how long a similar activity took in the past, not on an idealistic notion of how long you’d like it to take.

If you don’t believe me, listen to Freakonomics’s podcast Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late — and What to Do About It. Among their conclusions – from interviewee Dr. Yael Grushka-Cockayne – track your performance and use that data for future estimates (also, document what happens in real life, so (a) you can see how miserably off your initial estimates were and hopefully (b) you improve your future estimation abilities!).

2. Make the planning visible

You can make all the planning in the world, but if you don’t look at it, you can’t follow it. That’s why I put my tasks as appointments in my calendar. It sounds obsessive, but it works.

In the past I manually created task appointments in my calendar, but since everything always took longer than planned or priorities would change, each day I’d end up manually shifting uncompleted tasks to other days. It was all super frustrating, until I found Taskline. I cannot rave enough about this tool!!

Taskline exampleWith Taskline, you create your tasks in Outlook and add your time estimates in the Taskline plugin. You then click “Schedule” and Voila! All your tasks are scheduled as appointments.

If something takes longer than planned, you just update the estimate and everything shifts accordingly. It even schedules around real appointments. Constraints, hard due dates, scheduling order – it’s all configurable. Taskline also keeps a record of your work, so you know exactly how long something took in reality.

Unfortunately it only works with Outlook. Someone really needs to create an open source version for Thunderbird or other mail applications (hint, hint).

Use whatever works for you – just make your planning visible and look at it daily. If you put things in a Gantt chart, then look at the Gantt chart regularly.

Keep track of how long it takes you to get things done, and use that as an estimate the next time you have to plan a task.

3. Get to work

Now for the hard part – actually getting the work done. What if you don’t feel like it?

Some really like the Pomodoro Technique, but it wasn’t for me.

My biggest problem is just getting started

For this problem, I found the Tinkering approach very effective. The main idea is instead of working on a Big Daunting Task in The Project, you play around with a Very Small Part of The Project for a few minutes.


If I really don’t feel like working on my paper now, I’ll just tinker with it for a few minutes – maybe write down a small outline or an idea, or organize some data… by the time that Very Small thing is finished, I’ve gotten so absorbed in the work that I’ve totally forgotten I didn’t want to work on The Project! Even if I don’t keep working on it at that moment, eventually the results of the tinkering sessions add up.

Another trick is to start a very small portion of the next task before you stop for the day. This way, there’s less overhead in getting into your work the next day because you continue with (instead of starting) the task.

If you’re having trouble concentrating, maybe you’re just hungry or need to move around. Our brain are organic things and may require more fuel when doing difficult thinking.

Acquiring good habits is like building muscle – it can be tiring

When lack of motivation leads to excessive procrastination, you might need help strengthening your executive function to overcome the Instant Gratification Monkey. But constantly exerting willpower to get things done can be taxing, so take it slow and take care of yourself.


You can also try the path of least resistance and read the Don’t Delay blog. And if you’re working on your PhD, check out The Thesis Whisperer.

What tools do you use to plan and manage your time? How do you overcome the Instant Gratification Monkey? Let us know in the comments!

* I strongly recommend Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by the Nobel-prize winning Kahneman for an excellent read on how your brain tricks you.

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