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I am a student in an engineering program. My schedule consists of:

  • Lectures and Labs: Fixed schedule and last for 1 to 2 hours
  • Research/Project Work: Flexible timings, usually in between classes when there is more than an hour available. I work as part of a team and there are multiple teams in the lab. So, we end up asking/helping each other as we/they need it.
  • Assignments: I usually do these after college when I have a large block of time available.
  • Self-study Sessions: These may be for college or personal interests. Again, usually done after college and in minimum of 30 minute sessions.

The system I have been trying to adopt was to follow (25*n) + (5*n) Pomodoros with n being variable depending on my current state. For example, I try not to break away from a state of flow and hence end up doing 2 or 3 continuous 25 minute pomodoros in one go.

However, many times I end up not following the system altogether due to the overall variations in the types of tasks to do.

These are the things I am currently using and would like to see if the way I use them can be optimised:

  • A physical Trello-like board in my room updated weekly. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. here again, I would like to develop some form of consistency.
  • A Pomodoro timer app on my phone.
  • Evernote to track daily or sub-week objectives. I use this inconsistently and sometimes not at all.

So, questions:

  • What can I do to better use these tools?
  • What can I incorporate from the point of view of using these tools to make the system smoother and incorporate it into my schedule?
  • What can I do to make myself use the established system more?
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1 Answer

I'll try to answer this question and also include some of the questions you asked in your other question.

First of all: I'm a geek and I like the idea of automating things, and tracking stuff (bonus points if its beautiful graphs). Sometimes I set up a complicated system and don't use it that often. I did not like paper but ended up using it.

What should my system do for me?

This are the things a system should do:

  1. define high level goals/projects
  2. collect all tasks so that none is lost (forgotten)
  3. prioritize tasks
  4. help with doing/motivation

Maybe this sounds like a no-brainer, but IMO its useful to keep in mind what we want to do instead of focussing on specific tools.

So what tools/workflows do I use? How do I do it consistently?

Task collection

Something that I took from GTD is to use one tool to collect tasks. I also wanted a tool that I can use everywhere. So no web app without offline mode, no Kanban or trello style board at home. I personally don't use Evernote anymore, but IMO its decent for note taking and task collection because it's simple: if a tool is too complicated, you are less likely to use it. IMO another contender is a notebook. My personal favorite is a A5 size (210mm by 148mm) notebook with pre numbered pages. I use it like this:

  • write down tasks, one per line
  • strike through tasks when done
  • when the page becomes cluttered/runs out of space transfer not done tasks to new page, cross out old page, move bookmark to new page.
  • if I have to take notes I just use a blank page. date on top of page. important notes get one of those colored adhesive page markers

The result is something that is in chronological order and easy to use.

Priorities

Again, keep it simple. The most basic system would be to just emphasize important task. You can do that by making them bold in your Evernote task list or put an "!" next to it in your notebook. I personally use a system with priorities A, B, C that I jot down in my paper notebook. When to give priorities? During review, more on that later.

Staying focussed/motivated

Pomodoros are good at two things: to get you started and to make you stay at your desk. I like them also because they are simple. In your other question you asked wether you can use them during lectures: No, but a lecture has a defined start and end, so there is really no need to get started. Just show up on time and follow the content. This alone should make you stay focussed.

You asked also about the tracking of pomodoros: IMO this is not necessary, better define the things you want to do during your time as tasks ("read chapter 4 in textbook", "do exercises 1-3") and mark them as done. If you need a kickstart, use pomodoros (IMO there is no need for a special formula like you currently use). If you are in "the flow", just move on and forget about pomodoros or their tracking. You don't work to increase some number of your pomodoro tracking system, but get things done!

Workflow: Review and planning

Create a routine, where you take time plan every day. If you have difficulties create a calendar event on your smartphone. About 15 minutes are enough, I promise!

During that time, go over your task list. What have you done today? What went well, where should you do things differently? If you use a paper notebook, this may be a good time to transfer the not done tasks to a new page. Then: What new task came up during the day that you did not write down yet? Write them down.

Now you have the list of tasks for the next few days. Time to give priorities! I like to pick the top two or three tasks on my list and mark them as important (or "A"). Then I look for "nice to have" tasks and mark them as "not really important" (or "C" in my system). The rest are normal tasks ("B").

So what about the high level goals / the big picture

Unfortunately I don't do this consistently, but when I do it it's somewhat similar to a normal evening review with a few differences: I plan it once a week (for me: Sunday evening). It takes a little bit more time. During that time I think about how the week went, and what the general idea of the next week is. Oftentimes when I think about a high level goal ("improve my knowledge of python") the result will also be a number of low level tasks ("read chapter 1 of python book").

I hope my answer helps a little bit. It certainly helped me personally to remind myself that I should pick up again the habit of weekly reviews.

Another note: I oftentimes mention that tools/workflows have to be simple. This is not because people are dumb, but because you can be stuck easily in a meta-procrastination game where you spend a lot of time making plans, setting up tools but never get to actually doing tasks. Simple tools help avoiding that trap.

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