As a follow-up to the last post, which was devoted primarily to prioritizing the good things that are happening to me, I thought I might write about how I approach prioritizing. I am intrigued by the many different approaches to time management, and while I always advocate the learning of this skill to my students I realize that it is not possible to impose time management methods upon anyone. We're all just too different.
I am a list-maker. I became a list-maker thanks to my sister, who is the master of all makers of lists. She's been doing it forever, and is incidentally one of the most organized people I know. So she's doing something right, right there. Her list-making style pre-dates the life-hack software programs and apps that now proliferate. She approached lists the old-fashioned way: get a pad of paper, make a list of everything that needs to get done, and cross items off as they are completed - don't get rid of that list until everything has been crossed off. My adaptation of her style was a little more compulsive; when I still made lists on paper, I would keep them in a notebook that I carried with me, and every day the first thing I would do was re-write and re-order my list (when I was in college I actually had this down to a perverse science - I not only made lists, but I had a 24 hour grid which determined when I would do what, including partying with my friends and how much recovery time that would require. But that's another story). When I was working a corporate job the lists always became insanely long and I could never properly manage the prioritization of them. What was crucial at 10am had fallen to the bottom of the priorities by 4pm. And there were items that just sat on my list day after day, being added again to prevent me from forgetting them, but never with that cathartic sense of completion since they never got crossed off. In the early PDA days I tried to use Palm's software for this, but since you could only identify priorities 1-5 it quickly became impossible (I could never limit myself to five items in a day).
At some point during grad school, I discovered the benefits of personal organization software. Now I could list to my heart's content, create sub-lists and forecast long-range activities that wouldn't come to fruition for months or years (such as my dissertation and job search activities) but that had milestones to be met along the way. While there was no longer the haptic satisfaction of crossing something off a piece of paper, the almost equally satisfying ticking of boxes and moving things into a completion log worked for me. The introduction of the Apple App Store with the iPhone reinforced this. By syncing between my Mac and my iPhone, I could keep track of what I was getting done throughout the day. After test-driving a few apps, I settled on Cultured Code's Things, which offers a robust interface and lots of room for personalization. It also has a distinct iPhone and iPad interface. It's expensive, but worth it.
I've got everything here: the date-ranges for when I will be marking student assignments this term, reminders to give my dog her heartworm and flea/tick medicine every month, the deadline to sign up for a conference, writing goals ... even when I need to vacuum and clean the apartment. It works beautifully, for the most part. But as I have become busier with school and research activities, the challenge has become how I effectively manage my schedule without it overwhelming me. There are days (like this morning) where I fire up Things and it tells me I have 22 items to complete today. Twenty-two. That is just impossible. I've discovered that at most I can complete around ten items in a day and walk away with a sense of accomplishment. The irony is that in reprioritizing and pushing certain things back, the act of being organized actually creates a form of procrastination. Can I hold off until Tuesday to edit that paper? What happens if I don't send that email until tomorrow? And what happens if my computer crashes or my database becomes corrupt - or I change apps? What do I do then??
I've been thinking about this recently because I'm a beta-tester for Things' new version. I'm running two versions of Things on the computer, but really only maintaining the beta version for my day-to-day organization. And the beta version does not yet have an iPhone or iPad connection. So I find myself having to keep the items that have top priority in my head when I'm away from my computer (unlike Dropbox, Things does not currently have a web interface that can be accessed from any computer). Let's hope my short-term memory holds out until the beta test extends to my mobile computing devices!
What a way to spend a Sunday morning.