Managing your time when you’re not very good at it

A friend considering a return to school recently asked me how I manage my time while being (in no particular order) a graduate student, a full-time employee, a husband, a father, a contributor to various projects, etc. As you may have surmised from the frequency with which I update this blog, the answer is “poorly”. But since I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a while, I decided now is as good a time as any to commit my answer to more words.

I really do maintain that I’m not good at time management, although I’ve done well enough to survive into my third year of graduate school. Maybe the smartest thing I did was to slowly ramp up: I had a semester of school finished before my daughter was born, which was very helpful in allowing me to adjust to both separately. I’ve also borrowed heavily from some of Tom Limoncelli’s sage advice, although I’m not nearly as good about following it as I’d like to be.

To manage the high-level view of things, I have turned to TaskJuggler, a free software project management tool. I use this to manage application development, paper submission, and miscellaneous projects at work. For school, I mostly use it to track the classes I’m taking and progress (such that it is) on my thesis. For larger projects (e.g. research papers) within a course, I’ll include those as sub-tasks, decomposed as necessary.

For smaller tasks, and the miscellaneous to-do items of life, I use a text-based to-do list manager called TuDu. True to Limoncelli’s “The Cycle” methodology, I try to have every task scheduled for a day, even if that day slips. Tasks with no scheduled day often languish forever. The other advantage to scheduling tasks, especially things like homework and other school-related tasks, is that I can make sure I don’t try to do too much in one night. It can be easy to forget how much you have to do until it is too late to do some of it earlier.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about managing my time is that sometimes, things will hit the floor. That’s okay, so long as it’s well-planned. Sometimes you have to decide where effort is best spent. As an example, at the end of last semester, I was facing the last week of classes with two research papers, a group project, and a homework assignment due. I decided to sell out the homework assignment in favor of the research paper for that class, figuring that the paper was worth more to my grade than the homework. I did get a pretty bad score in the class, but my overall grade was still an A.

It helps to set aside time to concentrate on what’s important. Between the time I get home and the time my daughter goes to bed, I spend time with her and my wife. The only time I’ll skip that is if I have something else scheduled that evening, or if I’m hopelessly underwater on my to-do list. When class is cancelled or dismisses extra early, I use that time to work on any outstanding schoolwork I may have. I’ve commited to git repositories while on the bus. And when life settles down a bit, I’m going to take a nice, long breath.

Managing to-do lists with TuDu

I have no problem admitting that I’m not very organized.  I often find myself letting tasks drop, especially if they’re not part of my normal routine.  It’s not that I’m lazy (sometimes!), it’s just that I forget what I need to do — or I remember everything at once and get overwhelmed by it all.  I tried using project trackers like Planner and KPlato, but they seemed way too heavy for what I needed.  Fortunately, I recently came upon a small project called TuDu.

TuDu is terminal-based, as are several of my other favorite applications, which means it is unobtrusive and can be left running in a screen session for quick attachment from anywhere.  It supports nested tasks, making it easy to break down larger tasks into manageable sections.  Schedule dates, due dates, and priorities can be used to keep the more important items at the top of the pile, and categories can be used to filter items for the chronically over-burdened.

Since I’ve started using TuDu, I’ve found that my productivity has (or at least has seemingly) increased.  There’s a great sense of accomplishment to be able to mark an item as done.  Just remember to hit ‘s’ frequently, as TuDu does not auto-save the XML file.