Managing Priorities Outside of Work

I’ve been fortunate to take some serious down time during the summer. After working pretty much non-stop for ten years, things have piled up. I took some time to rest, then got to work on some personal projects that have been neglected far too long.

What I’ve learned, however, is that it takes more than time to get things done. After about a month, pretty much all I’d achieved was completing a couple video games, and putting all the things I wanted to do into one very long list.

My first thought was that I wasn’t focusing, so after listening to a podcast by Scott Hanselman about organization, I decided to try the Pomodoro Technique. This is a fairly simple system where you try to focus completely on a task for 25 minutes at a time, shutting out all distractions.

After a bit of Internet searching with no results, I started making my own pomodoro timer application. I had something working in a couple hours, barely holding myself back from adding sounds and animations. It would have been a lot faster, but I wasn’t completely focused on the task.

Armed with my timer, ready to experience my first burst of productivity, my wife came home from work. I told her excitedly how I’d built this magical thing, and how I’m going to start getting so much done. Then she asks me one simple question, “Why didn’t you use the timer from the kitchen?” This is when I realized that my problem was focus on a whole other level. I was doing work, but I wasn’t doing the right work.

This is a common problem in the software world: getting overwhelmed by a giant list of tasks, doing a little bit of everything, and completing nothing. I’ve experienced this first hand, and have been using effective tools for dealing with it for years, but I had never considered applying them to my personal life.

I tried a few things next, but the best help came from the book Getting Results the Agile Way, which was also mentioned in the podcast. It combines agile philosophy with some ideas about balancing life priorities and energy levels. I’m not committed to the entire process, but the parts I am trying have already made a big difference. By focusing on three goals a day, I’m now managing to plow through even dauntingly large tasks. Though I’m not doing everything on my list, I’m getting the most important things done, and because I feel that I’m making progress again it’s motivating me to work harder.

Taking the time off has been really good for me. Beyond organizing my personal priorities, I’ve also been organizing my main workspaces: my office, and my kitchen. You could say the experience is like rebooting a computer; it took a bit of time, but now I feel fresh and full of life, ready to tackle something new.