Jack Cheng  /  Updates

Time on Your Side

December 10, 2008

We all have nagging to-dos — the ones we put off for weeks or months (or even years). When we finally get around to taking action, we realize that we spent more time dreading them or worrying about them than it actually took to do them.

For the past couple months, I’ve been attaching a time estimate to the end of each item on my to-do list. This simple trick has completely changed how I deal with the things on my plate, especially the tasks I’d normally keep putting off. I call it time-tagging:

time-tagged task

Time-tagging helps you filter.

Say you’re a fairly-organized, somewhat-busy individual and you have a list of to-dos, arranged by project like so:

grid of to-dos separated into 3 projects

And you only have 20 minutes before your next meeting starts. In this case, Subconscious Jack would decide it was too much mental work to scan that long list and process those few hundred characters to figure out which one he had time to do. So naturally, I defaulted to reading blogs, checking email incessantly and general slackery (also known as “killing time”).

But if you have the minutes in advance, you skip over a lot of the mental resistance that comes with figuring everything out on the spot. You can glance at this list and just ignore any task longer than 20 minutes:

same grid, now time-tagged

Time-tagging helps you clarify.

Often our to-dos are so vague that we end up thinking they’re bigger and more energy-consuming than they actually are. By going through and consciously considering how long it’d take to complete them, we can break down vague tasks into ones that aren’t quite as daunting:

using time tags to clarify

I follow the 5-60 rule. If it takes less than 5 minutes, it’s a waste of time to even write it down. You should do it on the spot if possible. If it’s longer than an hour, it’s probably too big and needs to be split into smaller tasks. Otherwise, you’re going to skip over that 3-hour to-do every single time.

Time-tagging helps you democratize.

When you think about your tasks in terms of how long it takes to complete them, the volume on what the project is gets dialed down. Important projects you’ve been putting off gain weight on impulsive, less-productive things.

We go through huge chunks of our day on autopilot. When that happens, we let our subconscious minds dictate what we feel like working on (which often leads to a couple hours reading wikipedia or watching youtube videos) instead of what we know we should work on. Seeing things in terms of time give our conscious minds some leverage — that extra little boost we need to overcome the mental hurdles that stand in the way of putting creative energy toward something amazing.

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is a Shanghai-born, Michigan-bred, Brooklyn-based writer. These Days is my first novel.
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