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I always struggle with accomplishing the tasks on my to-do lists.

For example, one or two weeks before I have exams I construct a plan with what I have to do each day.

What almost always happens is that I end up readjusting the plan every day because I was not able to finish certain points of my list on a specified day (hence creating a snow ball effect).

I recently read somewhere that humans overestimate what they can accomplish in a specific time period. Or in other words: we underestimate the size of projects and are really bad in making time based schedules.

I have tried saying, "You are not allowed to sleep before everything on the list is done" but that resulted in tiredness and procrastination on the next day.

I have no clue how I could tackle this problem. I have tried downsizing the workload but somehow there are always tasks I can't seem to finish (Is my mind playing a game on me?).

How can I improve this? How can I make plans that are actually doable?

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As you've discovered, skipping sleep is a bad idea. Sleep should, therefore, be high on your priority list. –  Kramii Feb 6 at 9:25
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Short answer: You have to readjust.

You can't do it all at once so there has to be some time sequencing to it. This time sequencing is determined by your own priorities.

Daily to do lists are vulnerable to being blown apart by surprises. Most tasks are better suited to contextual task lists, for example, things to do @home, @work, @school etc. With an exam coming up however, breaking up your reading into daily chunks is a good strategy.

You'll need to identify the things that are interrupting your reading and handle them accordingly. If it has to be done then it has to be done but a better strategy would be to decline or postpone some of those things until after you've finished reading. You have mentally committed to getting everything done without having the resource of time to do it all.

You can renegotiate with others or with yourself when you'll get that other stuff done.

By keeping those lines of negotiation open you'll alleviate yourself of the guilt that you have to do everything right now. You owe it to yourself and to others to be up front with your priorities. Through open communication you can maintain your integrity without destroying your relationship with yourself or others.

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Remember the Hofstadter's law. I certainly can't do what I plan to do. I learned to constantly fail to achieve all of what I planned to do, and not feel guilty. Do what is important and constantly give up things that turned out to be not that important.

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I didn't know that law. It's really true indeed! Thanks! –  Jean-Paul Feb 4 at 8:05
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Do you just put tasks on a to-do list or do you actually take time to make an estimate how much time is available and how much each task is going to take?

What works:

  • Do those estimates
  • Only assign so many tasks to a list (in a period) as fit in 80% of the available time. This is done in a lot of places, e.g. hospitals will only book their operating theatres to a capacity of 80-90%.

To be even more rigorous, you actually plan the tasks in your calendar: "I will do task T from time xx:xx to yy:yy". If you then e.g. plan from 15:00-16:00 and the task is not finished at 16:00, do not 'just continue'. Either stop and plan a new period for the remainder of the task, or reschedule the task that starts at 16:00.
And plan (around) your rest periods.

Additionally:

When you say you "construct a plan with what I have to do each day", do you set milestones? It helps to plan 'back from the future': In order to accomplish C on day Z, I need to complete B on day Y, and for that I need to complete A on day X.

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Logging time

I think, estimating and logging time is an important point. For realistic planning, you need a realistic estimate of how long it will take to do something. This will not necessarily be true, but you will get better with time.

Logging time is very valuable in my opinion, as it

  • helps you analyze and understand, what you used the past time for
  • helps you estimating better, how long something might take in the future
  • might help you find things that take much longer than it "should" and so helps you find optimization potential

For example, one might find "oh, it took 10 hours to complete this report (and I thought I could write it in 2 hours)" or "it usually takes me 1 hour to read/understand 10 pages in my textbook" etc. ... For the next report, you have the choice: reserve 10 hours for it or try Pareto's law and cut out the last 80% of perfection, which only had a small contribution to the overall result.

I'm using this technique of time logging already a while and I find it really helpful for understanding better, where I spent my working time.

Planning time buffers

Another important point is not planning all the available time, but leaving a buffer of >20% for unforeseen things and delays (ref. Hofstadter's law).

Get enough breaks and rest

Finally, I think it is also very important to take a break regularly and also do something for your recreation. The Pomodoro technique can be a good way to make sure, that you get regular breaks but still get your working ours done.

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I use technology to help me. I would be completely lost without my cell phone. In order for me to get a task done I have to write it on my digital calendar and put down all the specifics!

  • I have to envision where I will be doing the task and put that down.
  • I also need to envision when I will do the task and put that down - day, start time, and end time (include buffer time). Add an alarm to go off at this time.
  • I also need to enter who I will be doing the task with (and send invitations if applicable).

If I don't think about these items and record them for each task, then I pretty much have a snowballs chance in hell of actually doing them. Doing this in a calendar forces you to set reasonable goals. Only do one that at a time! If two tasks overlap on your calendar, then you likely won't be able to do one of them.

Because each item is in digital form, I can adjust them. Being able to adjust your plans is absolutely critical. If there is one constant in the world, its change.

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Don't you mean: if there's one variable in the world, its change? So your lesson is: always account for variable change? –  Jean-Paul Feb 7 at 12:10
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@Jean-Paul: no, I think Aaron wants to say that change is omnipresent, and therefore you have to take into account constantly changing conditions. That's, why he writes (kind of a play on words) about change beeing the most important constant in the world. –  Martin Feb 7 at 13:08
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@AaronKlap: from your post it seems, that you are planning your tasks really in much detail. Considering your last (very wise) statement that there is always change, how can you change and adjust your plans quickly, if you even plan a start and end time for each task? How long are the time chunks (max/min) for tasks, you are planning? –  Martin Feb 7 at 13:10
    
@Martin: You say: ... and therefore you have to take into account constantly changing conditions. That's exactly what I meant by: always account for variable change. –  Jean-Paul Feb 7 at 16:57
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@Jean-Paul: I didn't say, that your statement "always account for variable change" is wrong, I just said that I think AaronKlap chose the term "constant" deliberately for the play on words with the seeming contradiction of "constant" and "change". –  Martin Feb 7 at 17:20
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