Managing Tasks without Pain

managing tasksA young woman who is attending architecture school mentioned a sudden dip in mood that happened the previous evening.  

She told me that this had to do with a day of working very hard to try to get tasks accomplished, and the anger and frustration at the end of the day when she hadn’t done as much as she wanted to, as well as the upset about having spent an entire day indoors without any contact with another person, all (apparently) for nothing when she didn’t get her list of tasks completed…This struck a chord with me and I asked her how she had started the day.  

She said,

Actually, I felt really good in the morning.  I had a full day in front of me and a sense that I would be able to finally get caught up on a number of tasks that had been frustrating me for a couple of weeks.

The scenario sounded all too familiar:The enticing sense of optimism that comes from anticipating a remarkably productive day – imagining the sense of satisfaction to come when that long list of tasks that need to get done is finally completed… the vividness of feeling as though the work is almost done just because of the plan to finish it and the empty day ahead.  

The sense of frustration half way through the day when one realizes that tasks are not getting done as quickly as one had been planned… then the redoubling of commitment to work hard… perhaps skipping lunch… certainly not wasting time getting outside or talking to a friend…

The increasing sense of depletion as the result of working like a robot.

And then the realization at the end of the day that only a small part of the work to be completed got done.

Finally the conclusion that, “next time I will be more efficient…” And the sense of upset with oneself for having been so ineffective.

It is, however, not the lack of efficiency that is the root of the end of day unhappiness. Rather, it is the compelling experience of satisfaction at the beginning of the day that ensures that one will feel so discouraged at the end of the day.  You see, if you really look at the plan for that day you can see that it is not realistic. It was a fantasy. And it brought a momentary sense of power and competence because by planning to get the work done it almost felt as though the work was done.This led me to think back on my own early adulthood and the exact same process that I went through time and time again.  Back then, I did not see the obvious fact that the problem wasn’t a lack of productivity during the day.  (In fact, those days were often very productive days.)  The problem was the exhaulted feeling that came from an extremely over optimistic of how much could be done.

How to avoid this painful cycle?

There was one thing that had been at least somewhat helpful for me:Setting up a to-do manager that allowed me to keep better track the amount of time that different tasks would take and therefore to see when I was assigning myself far too may tasks in a given day. And that also allowed me to “hide” tasks from view if they did not really have to be done that day. 

The one that I use now is called Remember the Milk.

It allows you to set a “due date” for every item.. I use that as the “start date” for each task – before that date it doesn’t show up in my list of tasks, which is the point.

It also (in a somewhat clunky fashion) allows you to assign an amount of time that each task is likely to take and then to create a view of the tasks assigned to each day that will show you if you have assigned more tasks than there are hours in the day…2014-04-19_11-07-03

As you can see from the picture to the right, I have six tasks due today and I estimate that these tasks will take about 3 hours…

I encourage you to be conservative in your estimates of the amount of time a task will take. It is much better to feel pleased that things got done faster than you expected than to have to reschedule a bunch of tasks because you ran out of time.

In the process of using this task manager I have gotten a bit better about my unrealistic expectations for a day to “get things done.” And that has definitely helped me avoid or at least reduce the frequency of those terrible evenings of upset… and my entire family is pleased about that.

Please feel free to Comment on this post with your own tips for managing tasks without pain…