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Matching tasks to moments: a method to maximise productivity
In this week’s email, I’m going to share how I match my tasks to my current level of mental functioning and conditions.
If you are like me, then you may have noticed your level of mental performance can fluctuate significantly with the time of day / proximity to the weekend / level of motivation / current alignment of the stars, etc etc
For example, my brain is rarely at its sharpest early in the morning, and only really starts to hit its stride in the late morning/early afternoon. I’m also influenced by how much free time I have and what I have scheduled. If I have “high pressure” events coming up, then part of my brain is used up thinking about (read: worrying about) those, meaning I have less brain power to use in the present.
At times, this can be frustrating; I may have a four-hour block of free time one morning that I devote to completing a substantial project, like a coding assignment, but then if my brain doesn’t “start firing” as I want it to, I may make frustratingly less progress than I wanted.
The solution that I have developed over time to minimise the impact of this is to deliberately match the difficulty of my tasks with my current level of functioning. Of course, this is easier said than done, as both task difficulty and level of functioning can be challenging to predict in advance. I’d say it’s more art than science.
But I believe I’ve got reasonably good at it, by using the approaches that I’ll describe, and that this has had a big boost for my productivity.
(In next week’s email, I’m going to share how I have improved and adapted these approaches since becoming a parent.)
Also, it’s worth noting that I don’t speed 100% of my time in this ‘productivity mode’. That would be pretty intense, so I deliberately spend time outside of it. But, when I’m trying to get things done, these are the approaches that I will take to maximise my efficiency for doing so.
Defining task tiers
The first thing I do is to categorise tasks, based broadly on difficulty. I personally use the four following categories: top tier tasks, middle tier / segmentable tasks, flexible tasks and mindless tasks. I’ll explain these to demonstrate the principles of my approach - these work well for me but are by no means the definitive approach.
(Since becoming a parent, I have added a fifth category, which I will explain next week.)
Top tier tasks
As the name suggests, these are the tasks requiring the highest level of mental functioning. Ideally, these will be completed in an environment free from distractions, with a significant chunk of time carved out for un-interrupted focus. I will typically choose one of these each day and that will be my top priority to achieve.
These tasks often require a lot of thought and concentration for a sustained period of time (often several hours). If the task is not achieved in the initial allocated period, much of the ‘line of thought’ can be lost and must be re-built up on the second attempt. This can make it very inefficient to not complete the task on the first pass (thus necessitating a good, uninterrupted period to begin with).
Examples for me could include a challenging maths problem or coding assignment, or writing a large think-piece or article.
Middle tier / Segmentable tasks
These are slightly easier tasks, but still ones that are important to complete well. I describe them as ‘segmentable’ because it is easier to stop the task part-way through and pick up a later date (in contrast to top tier tasks). This makes it less critical that are in an undistracted environment or are at your top mental performance, as you can always decide to stop and come back to the task another day.
Examples could include editing a video or writing initial drafts for a blog post - in both cases, you can make progress then stop without too much damage.
These are tasks without a defined end-goal, but still things that I want to work on. The nature of the tasks lend themselves to dipping in and out of them, as time allows.
Examples include browsing YouTube videos on a particular subject, or learning a language through DuoLingo.
These are tasks which I have to do, but which require minimal mental functioning to complete. They are things that I could up in the middle of night and complete while half-asleep.
The main example would be ‘admin’-type tasks. For example, I recently had to print off a complete lots of paperwork to work as a locum doctor.
Matching Tasks to Moments
The second step is to match up the moments I have available with the appropriate category of task.
In a perfect world, all my top-level mental functioning time would be spent on top tier tasks, and likewise my lowest-level time to clear out my admin tasks. Perfection isn’t possible, but I take two main approaches to get as close to this as I can. The first is prospectively scheduling key tasks in advance, and the second is updating tasks moment-by-moment.
Scheduling in advance
When it comes to planning my days and weeks, I will first assess the periods that I have available and decide the category of task most appropriate for each period. For example, if I have a free evening with 3-4 hours of undisrupted time, then I will allocate a top-tier task. If, instead, I have an hour or two free before heading out for a talk or social event, then I will allocate a segmentable task. Likewise, if I have a four-hour period, but I am expecting a few phone calls, or other disruptions, in the middle, then I would be more inclined to allocate a segmentable task than a top tier task.
If I have a relatively free day, then I will allocate tasks to the level of functioning I expect myself to have at different times of day. I know I perform best late afternoon, so I would put my most challenging task then. I know I’m slowest in the morning, so I would put a ‘segmentable’ task then, and just accept however much progress I’m able to make.
In this way, I can roughly match tasks to the appropriate moments. However, there is always an element of unpredictability around circumstances and how you will feel, and therefore it’s important for such a system to be adaptable. I do this by allowing the updating of tasks moment-by-moment as follows:
I allow myself to alter the tasks that I’m working on at any moment, but with certain restrictions.
Let’s say I’ve allocated a really challenging task to a free evening, because I anticipated that I would be on my top mental game. However, the evening comes around and I’m feeling tired, uninspired and am not making good progress on the task.
I will afford myself the possibility of a switch to an easier, less cognitively-demanding task, but only after giving the task a fair shot. It can be tempting, when we hit the internal resistance of a challenging task, to want to give up and do something easier. Therefore, I will force myself to spend 30 minutes of focussed, undistracted time on the task before deciding whether to switch: this will ensure that I really am too tired, or not in the right frame-of-mind, for the task, rather than just feeling lazy or giving in to the resistance.
Likewise, I actively encourage myself to switch upwards to a harder task, if a good period unexpectedly becomes available, or my brain is performing at a top level, in a period that I hadn’t predicted.
Following these principles has really helped me overcome the wide variability in my level of mental performance at any moment. I believe they could be helpful for others - even those that don’t succumb to the same levels of mental fluctuation that I do :)
In next week’s email, I’ll explore how I have improved and adapted these approaches since becoming a parent.
This week's links
This was the best podcast I’ve heard in quite a while… I wanted to stop and make notes pretty much every 5 minutes. It’s a wide ranging conversation, from philosophies on tech and wealth creation, to politics and news consumption, and a brief foray into ‘the meaning of life’.
This was my first main exposure to Naval Ravikant and I’m going to be exploring his work a lot more in the coming weeks.
I wrote an article which covers similar ground to today’s newsletter but from a different slant, for those interested.
This week's video
How I Prioritise Tasks | Productivity and Study Tips #5
Have a great week,
Hi! I'm Chris, a Cambridge medicine graduate now working as a doctor in London and exploring a career applying machine learning to medicine. Every weekend I send out an email sharing my experiences, life lessons as I learn them, and links to my favourite things on the internet.
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