In my opinion, there’s something highly satisfying about crossing a task off a to-do list. I’m sure I’m not alone in this thinking! I love to organise, make lists, and design systems to make my daily life run more smoothly.
Over the years, I have tried many different ways of organising my time, some of which have been more successful than others! In this post, I am going to share these methods with you, in roughly the chronological order in which I used them. If you are a serial organiser like me, you probably already have your own methods, but I hope these might give you some inspiration all the same!
A Reward System
I used to love playing The Sims (and later The Sims 2) when I was a child and teenager. In fact, I was a bit addicted to it! I would play The Sims whenever I got the opportunity, and I would be thinking about it for the rest of the time. Eventually, I started neglecting other tasks and responsibilities, and I began to feel guilty about playing The Sims, even though I was still obsessed with it. I came up with a clever system that would help me to get things done, and allow me to enjoy guilt-free time on The Sims.
I made a list of all the different tasks I would commonly need to do (or that I considered a better way to spend time than playing The Sims). These included tidying my room, homework, revision, laundry, going for walks, and reading. Then, I assigned a number of points I would earn for doing these tasks. For example, I might get 2 points for every 5 minutes I spent revising or 5 points for putting on a load of laundry. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but harder or more unpleasant tasks would earn me more points.
I would count my points by using a system of coloured beads in a jam jar. When I earned points, I would add beads to the jar. A bit like currency, each different coloured bead would represent a number of points. A purple bead would be worth 1 point, blue would be 2, green 5, yellow 10, orange 20 and pink 50. This way I could ‘give myself change’ if needed.
I could then spend these points on playing The Sims! One point equalled one minute of play. I would take note of how long I played for, and remove beads from the jar. If I ran out of beads, I had to stop playing and do some more useful stuff before I let myself play again. This way, I created a balance between doing useful things and playing The Sims. I no longer felt guilty about playing because I knew I’d earned it.
A successful system
I used this system for several months, and I remember it being a really productive time. It was one of the first times of my life that I really organised my time and thought about productivity. Even though this was years ago and I am no longer obsessed with The Sims, I still think it is a great system that would work for anyone who is reward-motivated. As well as providing an incentive to get useful things done, it is also a great way to limit addictive or unproductive behaviours. This is because you have to earn them rather than doing them whenever you want.
I recently dabbled in a more up-to-date version of this points system, by assigning a number of points to the tasks on my to-do list. I considered using beads again, but instead, I just tallied up the points and tried to beat my record each day. However, I didn’t last very long using this system, mainly because I kept forgetting to record my points. Maybe it would have been more successful if I put a reward system in place.
Having a focus for each day
When I was about 18 I came up with a system where each day of the week had a particular theme or focus. From what I can remember, these were the assigned focuses:
- Monday = Health and Beauty
- Tuesday = Financial
- Wednesday = Work (I think this may have referred to schoolwork)
- Thursday = Knowledge
- Friday = Social
- Saturday = Fun and Adventure
- Sunday = Admin and Household
These categories were relevant to me at the time. Nowadays, I would probably use different categories because my life has changed a lot since I was 18!
I don’t think I stuck to this system very well – I ended up just doing what I felt like on each day. I think this system could work if you have 7 different aspects of your life that you want to give equal focus to and if you are good at sticking to one focus for an entire day. However, I’m not sure this system would be ideal for me nowadays. This is because I prefer to spread things throughout the week and do a little work on each thing every day. Also, a lot of those categories link together and roll into one, for example, financial, work and knowledge.
Simple to-do list
For several years I organised my time simply with a long to-do list, in a small notebook. Every time I thought of a task that needed doing, I would add it to my list. Every time I completed a task (or it no longer needed doing) I would cross it off. I worked on the tasks in any order I felt like, and I didn’t plan in advance what tasks I would do each day. When I had completed every task on a leaf of the notebook, I would tear it out and recycle the paper. It was always satisfying to do this and see my list visibly shrink!
There were always some tasks that I wanted to complete every single day. These included things like exercise, meditation and giving my room a basic tidy. Each morning I would re-add to my to-do list any of these daily tasks that I had crossed off the previous day. This way, the list stayed up-to-date with everything I needed to do.
To this day I still use a general to-do list in a notebook, but I have paired it with other organisation methods that I will describe below.
The ‘Task Diary’
I introduced the idea of a ‘task diary’ when I was about 22. I bought an A5 sized diary from WHSmith that had a week spread across 2 pages. To start off my diary, I wrote every task from my to-do list into it, on the day I wanted to complete it by. Therefore each entry acted as a deadline for getting the task done. I would write daily tasks in a different coloured pen, and add them to every single day.
When I completed a task, I would cross it off in my task diary. If I didn’t manage to complete a task by the deadline, I would draw a right-pointing arrow next to it. This would symbolise that the task was being pushed back to a later deadline. Then I would write the task in on the new deadline date.
I used this system for about 18 months but it didn’t work very well. I kept putting off the difficult tasks because I’d forget about them until I got to the ‘deadline day’ they were written in. Then, there ended up being too many tasks written in each day so I wouldn’t even get through those, let alone working on things ahead of their assigned ‘deadlines’. It seemed like an efficient system in theory, but it didn’t work for me.
Daily planning sheets
Next, I abandoned the task diary and went to ‘daily planning sheets’. I created a sheet that included tick boxes for the tasks I wanted to complete every day. It also had larger boxes to fill in with extra tasks for that day. These larger boxes were labelled, ‘Project, Practice, Admin/Prep and Other’ because those were the main categories that my tasks fell into at that time. I would print off a batch of these sheets on scrap paper, and every day I would fill one in to plan my day.
This worked quite well, but it was rather a waste of paper. I later adapted my sheet to fit two days’ worth of plans onto each side. Later still, I made a ‘weekly plan sheet’ which abandoned the boxes and simply had 7 columns, one for each day of the week, which I would fill in. Then I realised that, rather than printing sheets, it would be easier to use a diary for this. So, re-enter the task diary!
The Task Diary, Take Two
I was around 28 when I went back to using a task diary instead of printing out sheets. I have been using it ever since, alongside a longer to-do list which I still keep. At first, I kept my task diary very simple, just making a little to-do list for each day. Since then, I have tried several different variations, and ways of organising my time, which I will describe below.
I had phases where I would make a to-do list for the day, and then number the tasks in the order of priority. This helped me to stay focused on what was important that day. It also motivated me to get on with tasks. It’s amazing the difference it made to my productivity. It made me realise that I often procrastinate simply because I can’t decide which task to do next. Numbering my tasks took away this ambiguity. This worked even if I numbered my tasks in a completely random order, rather than by priority!
Related post: Setting ‘Micro Tasks’ for Improved Productivity
Dividing tasks into 3 columns
I began to divide my task diary into 3 columns. In the first column, I would put essential tasks that had to be done on that particular day. The second column was for tasks that I wanted to prioritise for that day but were not essential. The third column was for other tasks that I would quite like to do if I got time, but they could wait.
I liked this system and I am still using it. It helps me to visualise which tasks are most important that day, and I can focus on each column in order from left to right across the page. It also makes my diary look neater and more organised!
Using a random number generator
This is a method I have been experimenting with lately, and it works well in the same way that numbering my tasks did. If at any point in the day I am feeling unsure what to do next, I count up my tasks and use a random number generator to select one. This helps me to pick a focus and stick with it!
A couple of years ago, I had a phase where I would completely break away from my task diary on Fridays. Instead, I would pick a focus for the day, for example, learning a particular skill, reading or sorting my room. I would stick to this task for a full day (with breaks). I called this ‘Focus Friday’. This method helped me to get ahead in certain areas of my life that needed a boost. Sometimes it is easier to maintain momentum by sticking to one task until it is done, rather than frequently swapping between tasks, which I have a tendency to do.
Sometimes, there is a day where I have one task that I need to spend a lot of time on. Examples would be: needing to spend a lot of time working on my blog, or needing to practice a piece of music. On days like these, I alternate this primary task with other tasks. I start the day by working on my primary task, sometimes for a set length of time. Then, I pick another task (or a few shorter tasks) to do. After this, I go back to the primary task, and so on. This approach allows me to spend plenty of time on the primary task, whilst also getting breaks from it, and getting other tasks done.
Spontaneity and monthly goals
As I have written about in my post: My Goals for January 2020, I am aspiring to bring more spontaneity into my life this year. Therefore I am putting less pressure on myself to complete every task on my to-do list each day and placing more value on the kind of days that flow spontaneously. This links in with my new goal-based system which you can read more about in the above post. I am stepping back and looking at life from a monthly perspective rather than day-to-day. As long as I achieve my goals within the month, it doesn’t matter how I allocate my time each day.
More and more, I am realising the benefits of doing something new and different every day, rather than following the same routine. I hope my future methods of organising my time will develop to reflect this, and allow me the flexibility and spontaneity I desire.
How do you organise your time?
Have you ever used a similar system to any of mine? Or do you prefer to be more spontaneous and less rigidly organised? I’d love to hear about any of your methods or systems – let me know in the comments!