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I am still practicing with productivity methods, so I am not very familiar with terminology and techniques... maybe it's all already written in a technique I have not learned yet. My question is about "backlogs", "pending tasks" and new tasks.

Let me explain my situation by examples: I have some tasks due for next week. I think each of this task could be completed in a day, so I plan to work half day on this, half day in that, and be done for next week. I discover my technical background is not enough for task#1, such that I have to study an half day more than planned (this happens often because I am practicing in my work). Task 2 is apparently simple, but there is something wrong in components installed in my IDE (or subversione of the project, or any other "logistic" problem), so I have to fix that. This happens often too. Today I am asked to complete a new high priority task to be completed tomorrow. I think I am almost done with task 3, but at last I notice a new bug, so I have work another day to fix it. Yesterday I had to phone a person in the morning, but I was occupied by one of the tasks above or already on the phone with someone else, and I can call that person only between 10 am and 11 am, so I can complete this task on the due day. I receive a request for something (example bug fix), I begin working on it if I think it will take only 30 minutes to complete, and I continue working on it if it takes longer (I hope to get at least a COMPLETED task in a day).
I am able to focus on one of the tasks I am working (for example studying to regain technical background, maybe going too much into the details), but doing so I let the other tasks be overdue.

I really don't see my tasks can be divided into subtasks, and I am avoiding to set deadlines because they are not a stimulus to complete tasks in time (unfortunately, deadlines are set by others). Ah, I am already working besides my working hours.

Can I adopt any strategy to avoid asking my boss to remove some of my duties? Should I force myself to respect deadlines (but I don't think my problem is a lack of motivation)? Should I learn to work under my exptectations, just to be able to give some result in the given time?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

So my view is that your major problem appears to be not being able to estimate the amount of time each job will take... is that roughly right?

If so I think it's something that we all struggle with - although if anything, I have the reverse problem, the thing I've been avoiding all week and feeling guilty about often turns out to be only four minutes effort.

You might try blocking out time rather than asks so "I'm going to spend three hours doing nothing but work on project X" rather than "I'm going to complete this aspect of project X"

To address the more general aspect of being better able to estimate time you might try something different. Something I occasionally try when I need to get a bit of control over my task list to to spend an hour working on each item for five minutes only - it's partly useful for getting rid of lots of little items but it's really good for also throwing up all the hidden time sinks that tasks have. So the I might think that 'Merge code branch' is a 30 minute task, but if I flash at it for five minutes I very quickly realise I also have to fix some failed tests before I do that so it will be about a 90 minute task (excellent as well for weeding out all those tasks that you need to email someone about first).

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I have the same scheduling problems. We often think that we know exactly how long something's going to take, which it should under "normal" circumstances - except we forget that what we think of as "normal" circumstances are in fact optimal circumstances.

The truth is that it is normal for at least one in N tasks to unexpectedly take twice the amount of time. What N is for you, and whether the time is twice or something else, differs between people and jobs, but it can be determined experimentally if you just keep track of your time for a while. The important part is to understand that every week you will have some things that won't go according to plan, and schedule for that.

In my last job, I spent a while trying to schedule my days hour-to-hour based on my task priorities, and I ended up determining that I needed to schedule about one hour of "overflow time" in each day, for the minor complications that inevitably come up. In my current job, the ratio is much different - probably about half my time, if not more, is taken up by unexpected work, and I'm still adjusting my scheduling to fit that (luckily the same is the case for pretty much everyone else in the lab, because that seems to be how science works, so nobody minds very much).

Now, of course, the question is what to do about it. I think it's clear that you simply have more tasks than you can do in a week (this may be partially your fault, if you consistently say you can do things faster than you really can) - but if/how to try to discuss that with your boss depends a lot on your boss and the kind of communication you have with them - you might want to get advice from your coworkers first, in case they've encountered similar issues.

A perfect boss would understand the problem as described (I think your explanation is very good already - you give specific, realistic examples, and make it clear that all these things really did need to get done) and tell you what to do: from the company's point of view the better outcome may be for you to be given fewer tasks and get them done right, or to do the same number of tasks with lower quality, or the answer may depend on the task.

Many bosses would just tell you you need to do all your work in the given amount of time and not care about the fact that it's clearly not enough time to do it well - in that case, you have to use your judgment as to which tasks are best done half-assedly, which need to be done well, and which you can just fail the deadlines on in order to get the more important things done. Perhaps the boss will adjust your task-load to something more realistic when they see failed deadlines (or perhaps they'll just get upset with you - it's unfortunately difficult to predict in advance, which is why I recommended talking to your coworkers).

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