College Prep: Task Master

How do you keep track of all of the tasks you need to do – today, this week, and within the month? Do you have daily habits you’re trying to create or continue? Do you find yourself ready to move on to the next task, and then struggle to decide which to do? My goal for this post is to help you organize your tasks and habits and to help you more quickly move to the next task when you’re ready.

Brain dump

The first thing to do is to take a few quiet minutes and a blank sheet of paper (or digital document) and record every thing you want/need to do. EVERYTHING. This includes the small things (spend 10 minutes reading, take out the trash), the big things (decide which class to take, set a budget), and everything in between.

What motivates you?

Do you love the moment when you literally check a box to indicate that you’ve completed a task? Is it important to you that you not only check the box, but get additional positive feedback? Is knowing you completed the task sufficient? Only you know how to best motivate yourself.

If all you need is a place to keep your brain-dump…

I recommend SimpleNote. It’s free, cloud-based, and can be used in your browser, on your phone, or as an app on your desktop. You can keep multiple lists, and share individual lists. My husband and I have a shared SimpleNote list for groceries – either of us can add items, either of us can delete items. This makes divide-and-conquer supermarket trips easy. We also use SimpleNote sharing to keep track of nearby restaurants that we like (or want to try) so that picking a place to eat when we’re hungry and out of groceries doesn’t have to involve an epic Yelp search. I also use SimpleNote lists to keep track of contact information for my in-person tutoring students, ideas for classes I’m teaching, interesting links for my weekly link posts, and all of my “rewards numbers”. It’s a great place to keep information that you need access to in a variety of circumstances, but it’s not fabulous as a true to-do list.

Wunderlist is a step up in terms of features. It’s more focused on to-dos (you get to check things off!), and has both a free and paid version. Similar to SimpleNote, Wunderlist has web, computer, and phone apps. They also have the ability to share items. I haven’t used Wunderlist in a few years (I found that I wasn’t using it well, so better to let it go), so I can’t tell you about all of the capabilities.

My favorite task/habit app is Habitica.

Habitica is a free web-app (also available as a phone app) that helps you form habits and get your to-dos done via gamification. There are three categories of item to play with: Habits, Dailies, and To-Dos. You can use them as you wish, but the general idea is that Habits are the things you want to encourage yourself to do regularly, but not on a schedule (drink a glass of water, respond to an email, put your dishes away, don’t hit snooze). Dailies are habits you want to make sure you complete on a daily schedule (meditate, floss, take vitamin, read for 10 minutes). To-Dos are one-off tasks. Each task can be broken into sub-tasks (Task: Write anthropology paper; Subtasks: Pick topic, research topic, create outline, write intro, write body, write conclusion, update bibliography, final review). You can set dailies to happen every day, only on weekdays, only on Fridays, or whatever weekly repeating days you like.

In Habitica, each time you complete a task your character gets experience points, “gold,” as well as randomly created eggs, hatching potions, and food for your hatched pets. Your character’s level goes up as you collect experience points, and you can use the gold to purchase equipment for your character. At the end of each day any Dailies left uncompleted will cost your character health points. You can join friends (or strangers) in a party, and go on quests together – every task you complete hurts the monster, every uncompleted task allows the monster to damage the party.

My Habitica party
My Habitica party

It might sound a little silly, but if Habitica works for you, it works amazingly well. This is how after years of trying I finally got into the habit of flossing my teeth. How I’ve managed to meditate regularly. How I’ve gotten into the habit of working out five days each week. I very much recommend that you try it if you’re at all curious.

How do I decide what task is next?

You’re chugging along on a task and complete it. Go check it off on Habitica, and then you’re ready to start the next task. The problem is figuring out what to do next. If you don’t have a clear list of options there’s a decent chance that you’ll be distracted by something shiny and end up procrastinating. Or, you know what you should do next, don’t want to do it, and so procrastinate. As a master procrastinator, I understand this well. Luckily, I stumbled across a solution while (procrastinating) reading Quora. (Unfortunately I can’t find the entry that had this idea now.)

The Quora answerer said that his method of getting things done was to create a 1-3-9 list. You pick one thing that is most important for you to do; that’s your 1. Then the three next most important things on your to-do list, your 3. Finally pick nine other things that you need to get done, your 9. If it’s time to move to the next task and you aren’t inspired to work on your 1, pick something from your 3, or your 9. As items get crossed off, re-work your 1-3-9 list, promoting tasks as the bigger ones get done.

I made a template of my 1-3-9 list; feel free to make your own copy and use it!

I know what to do, but how do I focus?

Of course, knowing what you need to do, and knowing what you want to work on, only gets you so far. At some point you actually need to get things done. Here are some recommendations:

  • No Distractions:
    • Turn off music (except, perhaps, quiet instrumental music), TV, podcasts, radio, etcetera.
    • Put your phone into Do-Not-Disturb or Airplane Mode.
    • Close or disable any program or browser tab that will demand your attention (email program alerts, Facebook alerts, Slack alerts, etc).
    • Remember – no one multi-tasks as well at they think they do.
  • Set a Limit:
    • No one can work steadily and productively for hours on end; don’t expect yourself to do that.
    • Try the Pomodoro Technique: Set a timer for 25 minutes. Concentrate fully on the task at hand until the timer goes off, then give yourself a 5 minute break. Repeat. Make sure to take a longer break every 4 Pomodoros. If 25 minutes is too long, start with shorter Pomodoros.
  • Reward Yourself:
    • You did a thing! Maybe your reward is a stroll around the block. Or a handful of almonds. Or a peek (set a timer) at Facebook. Or a chat with a friend. Or a good, full-body stretch.

What do you think? Are you going to try out any of the ideas you read about above? I’d love to know! Please leave a comment below, and please share this post if you know someone who will find it useful!


All posts in the College Prep series will appear at this link (as soon as they’re published).

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