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I noticed that small tasks are eating the large ones, even if the last are more important in a longer run.

Things that have no deadlines and have no clear structure (e.g. learn Spanish, do some physical exercises, read non-academic books) do suffer. Even if they are of high priority they at each point in time are of lower priority than shorter and more urgent tasks (e.g. prepare for the next meeting, fill documents, answer an e-mail).

Is there a workflow dealing with this problem? (Eg. an app or an approach.)

To illustrate the problem, let me show a strip from the PHD Comics - Your "to do" list: You "to do" list

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5 Answers 5

The problem you're struggling with is one of the core issues addressed by David Allen's Getting Things Done.

Consider the to do list items go to bank and work on thesis. Assuming your banking task is fairly straightforward, this is a simple action. The second is a several-year endeavor. When most people look at a list like this their mind is drawn to the one that they know how to accomplish and that has a closer time horizon. Off to the bank!

GTD's advice is to abandon the to do list and replace it with a set of context lists. Most to-do lists contain an amorphous, incomplete list of things on your mind. In contrast, a context list contains actions: small, well-defined tasks that are roughly the same "size" as everything else on the list.

Perhaps more importantly, the items in a context list are defined by the context in which they become actionable. For example:

  • the @home context list doesn't include filling out a work expense report that requires receipts in your office desk
  • the @work list doesn't include a reminder to fold the laundry

So in your case, Learn Spanish is a great project (GTD's name for any long-term goal that will require multiple actions to complete), but it's a crappy action. Action look like:

  • "Research Spanish learning software on the internet", which could then go on an @web context list
  • "See when the next Spanish I class is being offered at Valley Community College".

I find that when I'm struggling with a big "action" it's because it's not really an action but a big-ass project, and that the reason I'm struggling is either that I'm still on the fence about doing it at all or that I haven't put in the thought required to decompose my idea into actionable tasks.

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Stephen Covey has a nice model for this, called the four quadrants. The quadrants are:

  1. Urgent and important tasks
  2. Not urgent, but important
  3. Urgent and not important
  4. Nor urgent and not important

His books cover how to focus more time in quadrant 2. The more you focus on Q2, the less tasks end up in Q1.

As a first step, devide your tasks according to each quadrant. Next, decide to spent x amount of time each day at Q2 tasks, so you move them forward. This model really helps you to devide between important tasks on the short term and on the long run, and allows you to make a conscious decission to move forward tasks that are important to you longterm.

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In addition to the Stephen Covey Approach mentioned above, you should consider:

  • Getting Things Done (GTD) is a popular "to do" management philosophy (Merlin Man has a great article on it here, and you can also peruse his website for more on productivity tricks like inbox zero).
  • Action Method: Very similar to GTD, and there are some pretty cool free tools offered by Behance that work with that method (which is very similar to GTD).

Although in general, if you are anything like me, you probably feel overwhelmed when looked at a big item like "These" on your list. The only way I do it is to break it up in a bunch of small items (even simple stuff like "research similar approaches online and from that create a list of 5 good examples") and then sit down and commit to get at least one of them done. That process helps me break up my pattern of procrastination and ensure I make at least some progress.

Hope this helps!

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I hope people don't get sick of my treating every problem like a nail for my Beeminder hammer, but... OMG, this is exactly why you need Beeminder! :)

To give a highly meta illustration, Beeminder is our full time job but there's constantly a deluge of customer emails and scalability issues and pimping ourselves on productivity fora that can easily eat up 100% of our time. We wanted to make sure we never lost momentum on improving Beeminder itself so we made a Beeminder goal -- http://beeminder.com/meta/uvi -- to force ourselves (we actually have money on the line) to always average one User-Visible Improvement to the site per day. Now the urgent but unimportant stuff (to use the GTD terminology) can't crowd out the important but non-urgent.

We have similar "yellow brick roads" to force ourselves to spend a certain amount of time (typically 40 hours per week) working on Beeminder.

The whole premise of Beeminder is definitely not for everyone. It's basically a StickK.com for data nerds. For some people it's more of a sledgehammer when they just need a chisel but if you're the type who tries a menagerie of chisels only to eventually fall off the wagon -- and, come on, you're hanging out on the productivity stack exchange, so probably you're exactly that type -- then maybe the idea of just breaking out a sledgehammer is appealing...

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Covey's four quadrants are very useful to help analyze this issue - see the answer that refers to them.

In addition, I find it very helpful to block time on the calendar for Q2 (Not urgent but important) tasks. As little as 60-90 minutes a week will add up to noticeable progress pretty quickly. Respect the time you've scheduled as if it were a meeting with your boss, and don't let other things take over that time.

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