Managing my to do list and staying focused has often been a challenge. At previous jobs, I used a variety of online tools to manage my tasks. When my work was bug driven, I used the OmniFocus Ruby gems to pull my tasks into OmniFocus, and then every day I triaged my tasks in OmniFocus. When my work was mostly in Trello, I grabbed a card (or was assigned one) and a pair after standup every morning and tried to finish it by evening. Both of those workflows worked well for me.
When I started at Google, I tried to use OmniFocus. But I found myself seeing more and more red (overdue tasks) and forgetting important things. My job at Google is different than past jobs, and one of my biggest struggles is balancing all the different types of work that a Developer Advocate does. In the ideal week, I do some writing and video. I try to spend time learning, coding, and keeping up with new trends. I usually do some conference-related work, either researching events, submitting to CFPs, or preparing talks. And it is also important that I advocate for external developers to the product teams inside Google. I never quite got the hang of balancing these different types of tasks using OmniFocus. One day while I was trying to find a better system I remembered that school, specifically high-school and college, was all about managing several unrelated projects simultaneously. Realizing that I decided to try using the methods and techniques for getting things done that I used back then.
One Day, One Task
The most useful habit I developed in college was writing out a study plan at the beginning of the semester. I don’t mean that I took the syllabus and laid out when I would learn what. What I did was higher level. I looked at when homework and readings were due in each of my 5-6 classes, and each class got one day of the week. Monday might be reading and writing for my poetry class. Tuesday was algorithms homework. Wednesday was capstone project work time, and so on. Each day I only had to attend class and finish homework for one subject. This gave me a lot of flexibility. If there was a party I wanted to attend on Friday night, I would do Friday’s homework on Thursday. If I got stuck on the algorithms homework I had a few days to get help before it was due.
I initially chose to this method after reading about the importance of an uninterrupted work period in Maria Montessori’s writings. Montessori recommended a work period of 3 solid hours even for young children. I tried setting aside a three-hour block every day for homework and it worked well. I focused on one thing the entire time but I didn’t always sit at my desk for the whole three hours. I often changed position or scenery. I’d start at my desk, and then move to the couch, then to the outside couch, and finish sitting in bed. Despite moving around, I was able to get a lot done in those three hours and I both stayed on top of my work and felt like I had more free time available.
Adapting this strategy to life at Google was a bit harder. I rarely get an uninterrupted block of three hours. But I can still look at my ongoing projects and assign each day a single goal. Different days tend to have a different character. For example, Wednesday is my heavy meeting day, so I choose work that is easily fragmented (CFPs, script writing). Mondays I spend a couple of hours doing email. Thursday or Friday I often work from home, so those days are more likely to be coding or talk prep. You get the idea. The big thing is that each day I have one or two things I will get done. Those things are chosen so I have about an 80% chance of completing them. That means tasks that are likely to be blocked by others don’t get scheduled until I have what I need.
It has worked pretty well. As I’ve taken on more responsibilities the general rhythm of the week has had to be more flexible but I’m still trying to stick to one day, one goal. Today’s goal, for example, was “write scripts for three Cloud Minutes.” Right now I’m writing this post instead of working on that but I know I’ll finish before I go home tonight.
This post is titled going analog, and that was one of the key aspects of this system for me. Until recently I tracked my daily task either on a whiteboard or on individual sticky notes on the wall next to my desk. I could track them in OmniFocus, but digital tools made it too easy to pack five goals into a Wednesday. I consistently ended weeks without finishing my main tasks because the small stuff like returning emails and scheduling meetings took over. I need to remember the story of rocks, pebbles, and sand and one goal, one day forces me to prioritize the truly important stuff.
Return of the Paper Planner
Our office got rearranged in December last year, and I lost both my wall and my whiteboard space. I do have a lovely window, but I needed a new way to track my goal of the day.
In high-school, I used a paper planner, so I decided to try that again. I spent several weeks looking at various paper planners to find one that worked for me. I ended up with the Ink & Volt planner, and I’m pretty happy with it. I only use it for work, my personal planning is still a mess, but it has served me well thus far.
There are a couple of reasons I chose this over the many other paper planners that are targeting hipster, millennials like me. The biggest reason is that it doesn’t break each day into 30 or 60-minute increments. I still use either Google (work) and Apple (home) calendars to keep track of appointments, so I don’t need that level of resolution. Instead, the Ink & Volt planner has Morning, [After]Noon, and Evening boxes for each day. I put the task of the day in either morning or noon depending on which block is less fragmented that day.
Each week has a goals page that limits me to 10 goals for the week. These are goals, not tasks. The weekly blog post is always on this list. Other things may be new videos, writing and releasing a code sample, playing with a new product to get a feel for it and find the glaring issues before our customers do. There’s a picture of a typical goals page below. The weekly planning page also has reminders to check my yearly and monthly goals, to move over stuff that got missed last week, and to work on the new habit I’ve chosen for each month. There is also monthly planning where I try to list big events, X blog posts, and Y videos for the month. These type of metrics are important for performance reviews, so I have to track them somewhere.
Has Going Analog Helped?
I feel that going analog has helped. Physically having to write out the week’s goals makes me much less likely to overcommit. And I’m a stationary dork, so writing on beautiful white paper with a gel pen brings me joy.
I haven’t gone entirely analog. I keep my weekly goals in my planner, but a lot of my process is still digital. OmniFocus still acts as a place to store random ideas, much like the Parking Lot from Rands in Repose. My calendar is still online. Most of my small tasks are tracked in gmail, and I manage them by not letting my inbox get beyond 50 messages (read and unread combined). I share my “what I did last week and what I’ll do next week” status with my co-workers electronically. And my entire team tracks our work via an app that one of my co-workers wrote.
I haven’t given up on my electronic methods of task tracking and planning. I just use the analog planner as a forcing function to get me to slow down and think. I take 30 minutes once a week (usually Friday) to figure out what I did, what I want to do in the next week and to make sure all the talks, blog posts, tweets, videos, and so on I’ve worked on during the week are shared with my team. I enjoy that time every week. I drink some tea and focus on slowing down and thinking about what is the right next thing to do for each of my projects. I didn’t expect my solution to managing work would end up being paper and pen, but I’m pretty happy with how things turned out.