Tag Archives: to-do lists

Setting Priorities and Planning

The Tuesday post was about why you won’t survive university unless you have solid time-management skills. List, prioritize and plan are the 3 basic steps behind every time-management method under the sun. Through them, you will get all outstanding tasks and plans handed to you in a neatly organized format through which you know exactly what to do and when – which is a way better option than always having an intimidating ambiguous pile of ”stuff-to-do” hanging over your head. Instead of fretting about everything, you can just go out and get things done.

2.) Set Your Priorities

There are several different methods you can use prioritize your tasks, but the idea behind all of them is the same: You take your to-do list, and divide the tasks into groups according to various criteria. Some of these methods are complicated and expect you to behave as if you were running a company (e.g. the POSEC method – a convoluted way to over-manage every aspect of your life), and some are very simple and effective, including my personal favorite: the Eisenhower box.

Eisenhower Box

Different tasks on your list are going to have to be sorted according to importance and urgency. However, I cannot stress enough that urgent and important are not the same thing. If you check out the graphic of an Eisenhower box on the right, you will see that not everything that is urgent is important (e.g. the phone ringing – you need to devote attention to it right now if you don’t want the caller to hang up), and that not everything that is important is urgent (e.g. choosing a major for university, plan to take over the world etc.). So you do the following:

Group your tasks in 4 categories like in the graphic. Do not use the examples already inside as a guide, they are exaggerated as an illustration (I don’t think anyone would be so busy to put “extinguish fire” on a to-do list with the goal of doing it later). The guideline for “urgent and important” is anything that will have negative consequences if you do not start working on it soon, e.g. if you don’t start studying for that big exam scheduled in 3 days, you will most likely get a poor grade. The benchmark for “not urgent and important” is any big decision or long-term plan, like finding a place to live on campus next year. The “not urgent and not important” and “urgent but not important” categories are pretty self-explanatory.

After you have everything from your list in little groups like that, first cross out #4 (“not urgent/not important”). If you judged a task is neither urgent nor important, it is probably not worth worrying about and doing. Group #3 (“urgent/not important”) mostly consists of small annoyances, and this group is usually empty, because such things get dealt with as soon as they occur, so they don’t even get written down. You are left with the 2 “important groups”. For these, you proceed as follows:

3.) Plan

Get a planer and write the urgent/important stuff into timeslots closer to today and put the not urgent/important stuff in timeslots after those. That is the basic idea.

Having a planner is important because as a student you always have a lot of stuff going on, like tests, labs, assignments, a job or two… It can be overwhelming to keep track of all that in your head. You become stressed out of your mind because so much is going on. However, when you write it down, everything stops looking so scary. Why?

a) Your tasks don’t seem that big (because you have a clear overview)

b) You can start doing your tasks instead of just panicking about them (because you can plan out a way to solve them in the same planer)

As for myself, I first tried using my phone as a planner, but it didn’t work out because I was too lazy to type stuff into it. Next I tried a bound paper planer, but stopped using it after a semester because it is structured either per day (with hour slots), or per week (with day slots), and I needed both views at the same time.

Finally, I ended up using my timetable as a planner. I just made a table with 30 minute divisions for the entire week, and inserted my classes, labs etc. into it. What I got is all of my scheduled commitments in clear view, and empty slots for when I’m not going to school. Print a bunch of copies, fill the empty slots with whatever needs to be done, and that’s it.

Although this type of planner worked best for me, you should try everything until you find out what fits you best, because as I said in the previous post: everyone is different and different things work for different people. Maybe you will like using your smartphone best, because it is convenient (you always have it with you), or maybe because you can sync it to your computer. As long as you have a clear overview of what’s coming in the following week(s) and can prepare accordingly, it will do as a planner.

This three step approach to organization simply works because there is no complicated procedure: you write down stuff that needs to get done and then you sort and go do it. Give these tips a try, and be sure to comment on how they worked for you in the comments section below.

Time Management and To-Do Lists

Allow me to convince you why you need to own a time-machine in order to survive university :

[start math]
In university you are expected to build a 15+ credit timetable per semester. This translates to at least 15 hours of lectures and anywhere from 0-6+ hours of labs and 0-6+ hours of tutorials per week. In addition, most professors recommend 2 hours of study for every hour spent in class, so that adds up to 45-57 hours per week. But the best part is that if you are an engineer you will be taking 18-20 credits per semester. So we have a minimum of 57 hours of study for 19 credits, without counting the tutorials and labs.
[end math]

It comes down to 8+ hours of work 7 days a week. Way more than a full-time job!

Therefore, you will arrive at a crossroads: sleep, party, or study – And you will only be able to pick 2 out of 3. You can either:

  • Party and sleep – and have a lousy GPA.
  • Study and sleep – and be a lonely integral solving hermit.
  • Study and party – and not sleep at all.

Therefore, you can’t have all three… unless you own a time machine. Or have access to the technology and facilities to make clones of yourself that will do the work for you. Or have evil minions, Santa’s elves, Oompa-Loompas or the like under your command. Or have time management and organizational skills and some common sense… or something along those lines. Here are some pointers:

  1. Know what’s coming (make a to-do list)
  2. Identify what is important (set your priorities)
  3. Plan accordingly

Check out this guide and you will realize that 24 hours a day is more than enough to get studying done AND to get enough sleep AND to have fun. And it all starts with:


1.) Writing To-Do Lists

A to-do list can be anything you like: a small notebook, your smartphone, a piece of software, even a cleverly folded piece of paper. It really isn’t rocket surgery: if you need to do something, and can’t do it right now, write it down so that you can do it later.

That’s pretty much it. However…

… there are a couple of things you will need to keep in mind about what you write down in your list and how you manage it.

So what goes on your list? The short answer is tasks – “non-routine non-trivial expenditures of effort” (this is my definition of a task, and it is a damn fine one if I may add). By that I mean that you should NOT write down things like “brush my teeth”, “make breakfast”, “wash dishes”, “feed the gimp”, “go to class” or routine everyday stuff like that. Why write those things down, when you do them automatically on an everyday basis? Tasks that DO belong on to-do lists are things like exams, assignments, holding a presentation, paying the bills etc… They aren’t something you do every day, despite the fact that some of them occur predictably (like paying the bills).

Another thing you have to watch out for is not to over-manage your list. While it is true that your list should be organized and relatively “tidy”, you might actually get less work done if you are constantly fiddling about with it. The point of this whole time management thing isn’t bookkeeping but getting stuff done.

And at last, let’s talk about the least important thing about to-do lists: how they should look like. Feel free to ignore other people’s advice on categories, columns, no columns, having one list, two, five… those things really don’t matter, what matters are YOUR preferences. What works well for others might not work so well for you, so do whatever feels best and whatever you feel most comfortable with, because in the end, there is really no “right way” of organizing to-do lists.

Let’s say that after reading this you go ahead and write a to-do list. After writing it, you will know what needs to be done. Unfortunately, by itself that information is of limited use, because this is only step one to managing your time effectively. Your next steps are setting up priorities and laying out a course of action, which you will be able to read more about in the Saturday post.