How I decide what to do (pre-Habitica)

People seem to be interested in my weird, complicated systems for deciding what to do, so I thought I would write about what I’m doing right now. My main tools are Beeminder and Google Calendar. In this post, I’m assuming readers are familiar with Beeminder and pomodoros. Also, I wrote most of this before I started using Habitica again. I might write a follow-up post about how Habitica fits into all of this once that’s a little more settled.

Collecting Tasks

Whenever I think of some task I want to do, I put it on my calendar as an all-day event on a day that would make sense to do it on. I have three categories of tasks that I handle in different ways:

  • Relatively short tasks that have a specific due date go on the calendar a day or two before they are due. For example, if I have to write a quiz for Wednesday, I might put it on the calendar for Tuesday.
  • Relatively short tasks with no fixed due date go on the next day with fewer than three tasks already on it. For example, if it’s Wednesday and I want to write a blog post but it doesn’t really matter when, and I already have three tasks on the calendar for Thursday but only two for Friday, I’ll schedule writing a blog post for Friday.
  • Longer tasks with a specific due date get split up into chunks that I can manage in a day and each chunk gets put on a different day. For example, if I have to read a 300-page book for a bookclub that’s happening in three days, I’ll put reading pages 1-100 on the calendar for tomorrow, 101-200 for the next day, and 201-300 for the day before the bookclub.

There’s an obvious fourth category of tasks which is missing from the above list — long-term tasks with no due date. I handle these through Beeminder. I have Beeminder goals set up for all of the important things I want to do on a regular basis — working on research, reading math papers, working on teaching stuff, and a few other things. These goals are all set up with $0 pledge caps, so I don’t have to worry about derailing (I paid a while ago for a lifetime premium subscription so that I could do this, and it has definitely been worth it).

My Tasks Goal

I do have one Beeminder goal that I will let go to a non-zero pledge, and that’s my tasks goal. The way this goal works is that I list m things to do each day, and then I get 1/m points for doing each of those things. I need to get six points per week, so there’s some room for me to decide I don’t really want to do a particular task.

To put together my task list, I first list all the tasks I put on my calendar to do that day. Then I look at my other Beeminder goals. For each goal that has an emergency day today, I’ll add a task to do twice as much of that goal as I would do if I were just trying not to derail. For example, if my research goal needs 0.53 hours of work to not derail today, it would take 2 pomodoros to meet that, so I will add a task to do 4 pomodoros of research.

If I still have fewer than three tasks (which is rare), I’ll also add tasks for whichever Beeminder goals are closest to derailing until I have three. If I have seven or nine tasks, I’ll do the same to bring me up to eight or ten tasks (because otherwise I would have to enter 1/7  or 1/9 as a decimal for my Beeminder points, which is a pain.)

Actually Working

So, with all that set up, here’s how my day actually goes. While I’m eating breakfast, I set up my task list for the day and enter it as a comment to a 0 data point on my Beeminder goal. I also enter a 0 data point with a comment listing any tasks that are still left to do along with their point values — anything that was on my task list for yesterday that I didn’t get to, and anything that was on my still-to-do-list from yesterday that I didn’t get to.

Then I start working! I always start with today’s task list and then move on to tasks left undone from previous days. If the next task on my list is not something I can do at that particular moment, I skip it and move on to the next one. I take an internet break whenever I finish a pomodoro of something.

Eventually I feel like I need a longer break. This is usually around lunchtime. On a good day, I will use this break to exercise, take a shower, run errands, and do other things that are mildly productive but don’t involve sitting at a desk.

Then at some point I go back to working, and work on things until I run out of tasks or I feel like being done for the day.