Your to-do lists probably include many small tasks, but it’s likely that you also have some big projects you would also like to get done: getting in better shape, organizing your home, writing a book, planning a vacation or a major event, etc.
For some people, staying on track to accomplish major tasks can be a real challenge. The following are some ways to make sure things get done:
Make a realistic plan
An unrealistic plan is discouraging — no one likes falling behind. And creating an unrealistic plan means you’ll spend a good amount of time re-planning.
To keep your plan realistic, break big tasks down into smaller ones where you can better estimate the time needed. A project called “organize the house” is hard to estimate, but estimating how long it takes to sort through a box of papers is much easier. (And if you have many boxes and haven’t yet gone through any of them, you may want to go through one before finalizing your plan.)
When coming up with a plan, it’s always wise to remember Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” People always tend to underestimate — forgetting some tasks, being too optimistic on how long certain tasks will take, and ignoring all the ways things might go wrong. Try for realistic estimates of each task, and then add some overall contingency time. The more this project differs from anything you’ve done before, the more contingency time you’ll want.
Schedule time to get the tasks done
Once you have a plan, you need to set aside the time to do the tasks on that plan. Some projects don’t even need a detailed plan — they just need dedicated time to accomplish the work. One example is writing a novel, and author Neil Gaiman explained how it’s done:
Set aside time to write that’s only writing time. Put away your phone. Turn off or disable your WiFi. Write in longhand if you wish. Put up a do not disturb sign. And make your writing time sacred and inviolable.
And in that time, this is the deal. You can write, or you can not do anything. Not doing anything is allowed. (What not doing anything includes: staring at walls, staring out of windows, thinking broodily, staring at your hands. What not doing anything does not include: alphabetising the spice rack, checking Tumblr, taking your pen apart, playing solitaire or running a clean up program on your computer.) …
Doing nothing gets pretty dull. So you might as well write.
This idea extends well beyond a writing project. As Austin Kleon tweeted:
How to X more:
Set aside dedicated time for X.
Track your progress and celebrate your accomplishments along the way
Tracking your progress against your plan is crucial in case adjustments are necessary. If your plan isn’t working, the sooner you realize the problem, the better. You’ll have more time to work with others, if necessary, to change the deadline, the scope, or the budget to create a more workable plan. Also, keeping track of your estimated times vs. your actual times will let you make better estimates in the future.
Celebrating your progress can help keep you motivated. That can be something simple like a triumphant update on Facebook or Twitter, or (especially for major milestones) something more substantial — providing some sort of treat that’s meaningful to you.