Planning a lot

The number one reason for procrastinating is perhaps the task at hand is too hard to accomplish, and the mind would prefer more manageable tasks. Instead of writing up your result from the last set of regressions or editing the paper draft for one more time, your brain is easily satisfied at checking emails or grading homework. The small and manageable tasks make you look busy and bring you the sense of achievement when you cross them off your to-do list. The truth is they steal your time away and make you more nervous and upset when you face the real task that you need to do. The hard tasks (yet often important ones) are left sitting on the shelf of your page-long to-do list for years and never get done. It makes you self-doubt about whether you fit for this job/school and loathes yourself for not having the “resolute personality” of accomplishing greatness. This fear/laziness in front of the laborious tasks might be the source of stress for many procrastinators, at least it’s right for me.

As is mentioned in my previous post, the key to get things done involves one crucial step: planning. Planning doesn’t solve problems itself, but it lays out a clear picture of what you want to achieve through work, the necessary resources that you will need and when you are going to do it. The important thing here is to break things done into small tasks and assign each the exact time that you will need to tackle them. This may sound easy enough, but you won’t bother to do it unless planning has become second nature to you.

The book getting things done introduced two notions that will help you with planning and build your system to manage things at hand.

“Vertical focus” is sort of a top-down approach, where you start to think about what you want to achieve in your project, what resource/people you need and what specific steps you need to do to make it. This overview planning requires a chunk of time to do whenever you start a project on your own, and it would be a great idea to walk through this with your colleagues and advisors. The end form of this would be two things: a project proposal, including descriptions, motivations, and steps; a calendar marked with tasks with deadlines on every single job. It would also be a great idea to review this top-down plan now and then and see if you are still on track with what you set out to do in the first place. But then again, even those reviews need to get down on paper or system calendar instead of just thinking about doing them in the future.

“Horizontal focus” is essentially the day-to-day task assignment. For example, you might get a message on Slack from your advisor, saying “hey, can you send me a quick summary stats about the price data ?” Or an email on the deadline for submitting your paper to a conference in July. Instead of stockpiling them onto an existing to-do list and forget about them until the deadline is coming up. The tasks need to be put into the system under different projects and assign the time, priorities, and its linkages to other jobs.

There are excellent tools to make this process a lot easier. OmniFocus addresses the principles of the getting things done book. But unfortunately a bit pricey and only available on IOS/Mac platforms. I use a free software called freedcamp and below is a picture of one week on my calendar: tasks are divided into different projects, highlighted by priorities and deadlines. The weekly overview gives a clear view of every single step that you need to do every day, and you can start off your day without wondering about what to do today.

screenshot of Freedcamp dashboard

Planning is a typical example of the “important but not urgent” quadrant of the time management matrix in the book 7 habits of highly effective people. I have hated management books for years, yet here I am after struggling to do things in my procrastinating way. Spend a lot of time on planning and planning a lot, they will pay off eventually and often quicker than you think they would be.

Yujun Zhou
Data Scientist

Currently works at Facebook Applied AI Research as a Data Scientist. Trained in Applied Economics and Machine Learning.