I've been obsessed with being organized — or at least the idea of being organized — for as long as I can remember. Literally, I was the type of elementary schooler who obsessed over paper protectors and color-coded spiral notebooks. While keeping everything in line as a student was easy enough, my need for things to be color-coded and alphabetized collided with the messiness of life as an ambitious person working at start ups and side hustles in a world that prioritizes being productive over all.
Because I'm an optimist by nature, I'd put an overwhelming number of projects and appointments and "sure I can do that"s on my to-do list.
I'd load up my day with twelve hours of tasks only to be so stressed out by my list that I'd curl up in a ball and refuse to do any of them. The thing that kept me on track my entire life had started to hurt me. It was time for a change.
The idea came to me from a friend who works at a firm where they track hours in six-minute increments.
My friend had become obsessed with how long tasks take — partially because they were tracking them, but also because they were often asked to estimate how long they were going to take on each project. This tight tracking process didn't just help the firm's clients; my friend was able to estimate most 'real work' down to the minute and to plan their day accordingly.
Inspired (and also slightly scared, because wow, that requires some discipline), I decided to start assigning time requirements to tasks on my to-do list. I gave each line item on my list a time requirement of 30 minutes or more, over-estimating on most tasks if I wasn't sure how much time they'd take to give myself some wiggle room. Then, here's the kicker: I made sure each work day had a maximum of 8 hours of tasks, including meetings — a reasonable amount of deep work for my role and responsibilities. If a task pushed the workday over 8 hours, I'd rethink that day's tasks or push the overflow task to the next day.
Believe it or not, I felt the benefits pretty immediately.
Not only did my list feel more manageable because I could literally see how I was going to get it all done, I also didn't overestimate my abilities. When asked to take something new on, I'd see the eight hours of tasks for the day and know that no matter how optimistic I was, doing more than that in a workday would be tough. Then, I could decide if the task was important enough to extend the day.
Keeping a list with strict time requirements also kept me from procrastinating. If I only had 30 minutes in a regimented day to read and answer my emails, then by-golly it had to get done in 30 minutes. There's no time to procrastinate when you have no one to blame but yourself for your day extending past what you expected.
Obviously, sometimes meetings or emergency tasks come up and time tables must be shifted around. I usually assume that my brute day is going to be longer than my list to account for last-minute meetings, new tasks and, of course, a healthy amount of chit-chatting with my colleagues. But having that bedrock of solid work accounted for feels much less overwhelming than a run-on list. And if you're ever looking for a way to track what you've accomplished — or to prove to your boss you've been putting in heavy-hitting hours on the projects that matter most — this is the way to do it.
Now, if only my Apple notepad were as awe-inspiring as the spiral notebooks of sixth grade...