Streamlined Task Juggling: Getting things done when working from home

This is a guest post by Ben Stallings (Becca’s brother), a Web developer and permaculture designer in Emporia, Kansas.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – snap! The job’s a game!” –Mary Poppins

I work from home, and my wife doesn’t, so I do most of the housework as well as home improvements and managing my own work schedule. My clients rarely have fixed deadlines, so it’s usually on me to find the motivation to do my work and stay on task. Friends who don’t work from home often tell me that they wouldn’t know how to “juggle” work tasks along with housework, or that they’ve tried and failed to do it, so I thought I’d share my method.

Where I’m coming from

But first, a little background. I was a die-hard workaholic in high school and through most of college. If I took a class, I wasn’t satisfied unless I got an A on every assignment. If I joined an extracurricular group, I attended every meeting, and I showed up on time or early, and I resented those who didn’t! Then, over spring break of my junior year of college, I visited a friend in a small city in Mexico, and during his workday we took a two-hour lunch break (from 2-4pm, the famed siesta). Noticing my anxiety at the slow pace of the meal, he explained: “In America you have the Protestant work ethic, which says to go to heaven you must work hard. In Mexico, we have the Catholic work ethic, which says to go to heaven you must live well.”

That conversation caused me to question my approach to school, and later to work and housework. It made me ask, Who am I doing this for? What are their expectations? What do I hope to get out of it? How might I meet everyone’s goals, working smarter instead of harder, and leave more time for “living well,” whatever that means?

I had a breakthrough when I stopped getting my satisfaction from completing tasks and started getting it from making progress toward my goals. In school, I stopped worrying about how I did on any particular test or project or class and instead looked ahead to how each task was getting me closer to my longer-term goals. After college, I took a part-time job that paid barely enough to survive on, cutting my living expenses to levels I can barely imagine now, so that I had ample time to explore the city and soak up everything it had to offer. I’ve followed a similar approach in my career ever since: I rarely bill more than 2 to 4 hours a day to clients, which is barely enough to pay the bills and stay mentally abreast of the work, because I have too many other things I want to do with my time!

On the home front, I’ve applied the same strategy to most of the home improvement tasks I’ve undertaken. For example, rewiring our house was a pretty monumental project to tackle solo and would have been really intimidating had I tried to do it all at once, not to mention uncomfortably hot in the attic during the daytime hours. But instead I broke it down into a series of little projects that could each be completed in an hour or so, morning and evening when the attic was cool. Instead of one big burst of satisfaction at the end of the project, I got the satisfaction of completing each light fixture or outlet in each room, day after day, for weeks.

I should also say that I have some chronic health conditions that make it difficult to predict how much energy and mental focus I’m going to have, even a few hours in advance. This is part of why working from home suits me better than working in an office, but it also means that I have to be ready to make proverbial hay as soon as the sun shines again. If I have only three hours of mental focus in a day and spend it all on tasks that don’t require focus, that’s a wasted day. That’s why my paid work doesn’t even appear in the screenshots below: when I’m feeling focused, I go to work, and everything else can wait until I’m ready for a break. Besides, my workplace has its own system for to-do lists.

Task juggling

Think about that metaphor: we say we’re “juggling” tasks. Juggling is as much about catching the balls as throwing them. If you take your satisfaction from seeing how hard or fast you can throw a ball, juggling is not for you! But if you like to see how many balls you can keep in the air and still catch them all, well, that’s good motivation. You will inevitably drop some, of course, but with enough practice a juggler can recover from that!

I’m no expert in game design or the trendy field of gamification, but I know two things: if a game isn’t fun, you need to adjust the rules until it is; and you can’t change the rules during a game. So here are the rules I’m currently following, after years of tweaking, but you might need to tweak them some more to work for you!

  1. Use a task manager that can attach items to each date and notes to each item. I like Google Tasks, which integrates with the Web version of Google Calendar (just enable it under My Calendars in the left column). If you want to view tasks by date on a smartphone or tablet, you need a third-party app, such as Tasks for Android or gTasks for iOS. (The mobile Web site for Tasks does not organize by date.)
  2. If a task will take more than about 5 minutes, it needs to go on your to-do list; if you jump right into it, you’ll wind up procrastinating other stuff that needs to be done today.
  3. Unless a new task absolutely has to be done today, it doesn’t start out on today’s list; it goes on tomorrow’s list or later. For example, if I notice that the laundry needs to be done, I add a task to do laundry tomorrow, not today.
  4. Assign each task a priority at the start of its title (which helps it stay grouped together with others of the same priority): 1 means it must be done on that day, or at any rate progress must be made that day; 2 means that someone is waiting on it but it doesn’t need to be completed right away; and 3 means nobody cares about it but me. For example, cleaning up before guests come would be assigned priority 1, a home improvement project would be priority 2, and learning a foreign language just for fun would be priority 3.
  5. Take up each task long enough to make measurable, noticeable progress. This may take as little as 10 minutes for a priority 2 or 3 item, or an hour or more for a priority 1 item. The goal is to be able to step back and see at a glance that the task is closer to completion than it was. But if you’re having fun, feel free to keep going!
  6. As soon as you feel that you’ve made progress on the item, move it ahead the number of days that match its priority: priority 3 items move forward 3 days, but a priority 1 item moves only to tomorrow. Some recurring responsibilities, like giving the dogs their flea medicine or paying credit card bills, are priority 1 but get bumped ahead a month at a time.
  7. Whenever possible, record the amount of time you spend doing each task each day. I use a spreadsheet for this, because I use lots of spreadsheets, and the timer app on my phone, because it’s handy. This is not about making yourself feel bad, it’s about budgeting your time. When you can see that you spent 90 minutes on Facebook today, maybe tomorrow you’ll keep it down to 60 minutes.
  8. When considering which task to do next, consider its priority but also how much you’ll enjoy it. If you notice you’re avoiding a task that you think you won’t enjoy, think about how you could make it more fun. Can you combine it with another task? Maybe you can get your daily exercise while you run errands, or file a stack of papers while you watch a webinar. Be creative. Planning a large task counts as progress, but be sure to write down your plans (for example, in the task’s notes field) so you don’t repeat the planning step the next day.

Here are some examples:

  • Daily exercise is a priority 1, but I define it pretty generally. Some days going to the gym fits my schedule. Other days it’s nice outside, and I bike to errands that are other tasks, or just for fun. Still other days, I might just do some exercises in front of the TV before bedtime.
  • I’m working on a design for some clients that’s a priority 1, but I need to collect a lot of information from other people before I’m ready to put the parts together. Calling and emailing them counts as progress for the day. When I hear back from them, acting on that information will also count as a day’s progress, even if the action is just to call or email someone else. Clients are usually thrilled to hear updates from me day after day, because it gives them reassurance that I’m making progress, and they can see the project coming together. It also gives them opportunities to provide feedback early if they see me heading in an unexpected direction.
  • Watering the garden is a priority 2, because if I water every day, the plants grow shallow roots and become dependent on irrigation. But if there’s rain, that counts as watering, so I can bump the task two days ahead without needing to take any action myself.
  • Every now and then, my email inbox gets too full for comfort. When I notice this, I put a priority-2 email task on tomorrow’s list. When I’m ready to do that task, I spend 10-30 minutes working my way through the inbox before booting the task two days ahead. If an email links to an article I want to read later, I put it in my Pocket and delete the email. If responding to an email will take more than 5 minutes, I make a task for it on tomorrow’s list. When my Pocket gets similarly full, I make a task (priority 3) to clean it out… keeping in mind, any article that will take more than 5 minutes to read gets its own task!
  • I gave writing this article a priority of 3, because nobody was waiting for it. The day I created the task, I assigned it to the next day. When the next day arrived, I just created the document and wrote a brief outline before bumping the item three days ahead. When that day arrived, I opened the document again and started fleshing out the outline before putting it away again and bumping the task 3 days farther on. And so on, until it was completed!

Here are some example screenshots of my to-do list while I was writing this article. I started out the week a little behind:
But Monday was a really productive day, and by the next morning it looked like this:
Tuesday was not as productive — I basically did a little work for pay and my priority 1 items and little else. But Wednesday was another productive day, and by Thursday morning I saw this:

If you’re a fan of gamification, you probably think that’s not what I’m doing here, and you’re right. Proper gamification would involve lots of little token rewards, and I’d need to be able to share my progress with a community of friends playing the same game, to encourage competition. If I were promoting this system to, say, a classroom of children, I would definitely do those things, but as it is I work alone most of the time and don’t feel the need to compete.

Those of you with kids might say that it’s all well and good for me to do this without kids in the house, but it would never work for a parent. I can’t speak to that; maybe you’re right. But then again, maybe the kids could use this method for their household chores. Then the hallmarks of gamification like token rewards (allowance!), “leveling up,” and competition would come into play, so to speak.

In any case, this is the system that works for me at the moment. If it stops being fun, I’ll adjust the rules until it’s fun again! I hope you find it useful as well.

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