Managing Tasks without Deadlines

This year, I’ve reached a subtle but important transition point in my academic life. Up until now, I’ve mainly been taking classes, which usually means that my work came in chunks due at regular intervals, whether they are readings, problem sets, or essays.

This meant that the main way I kept track of all of that was through calendars and to-do lists with deadlines. For instance, I used Google Calendar’s tasks heavily, which lined up the to-do lists with my 

By contrast, from here on out (at least while I’m in grad school), my academic work consists primarily of open-ended tasks like “investigate this research question.” Those sorts of tasks often don’t easily admit a characterization into “done” and “not done” or have deadlines. So I needed a new system.

After trying out a couple different ideas, I’ve come across something I find I really like. Here’s the idea: I plot all the various things I have to do on two axes. The first axis is how important or urgent that task is. The second axis is how enjoyable, fun or rewarding it is. Earlier, I posted a cruder version, but here’s what that graph currently looks like:

At the end of this entry, I’ll list what all of those abbreviations mean, but first let me orient you. In the upper left are the tasks that I actively should be doing and which are fun or rewarding. In the upper right are fun tasks that aren’t especially important right now. And in the lower left are the most annoying tasks that I just need to do. There’s not a lot in the lower right since I tend to ignore those things, but for instance you can see that I recently did my laundry so it’s not urgent right now.

There’s a ton of information in this diagram so let me go through it. I’ve color-coded these little magnets by the following categories:

  • Red = Social. As you can tell, these tend to be the most fun, but not very urgent right now.
  • Green = Tasks. I should probably clean my apartment sometime relatively soon, and I’ve got some leftovers right now so cooking isn’t a priority, but I enjoy it.
  • Yellow = Faith-related. Okay, softball (SB) is a little bit of a stretch, but it’s with my church.
  • Dark Blue = Research. I won’t go through all of those different categories, but you can that they tend not to be the most enjoyable for me right now, which is a prayer request.
  • Light Blue = Misc/Teaching. Three of these (“Grade” and the two labeled “AoPS”) are related to teaching for the Art of Problem Solving. You can see that the magnet in the top left is this blog, which is why I’m working on this post right now.
When I complete a task, or at least make progress on it, I move that magnet to the right. Many magnets slowly make their way leftwards, and I occasionally take a look to see if any should jump. Magnets only move up or down rarely, when I reevaluate and decide that I like them more or less. (Grading in particular has jumped around the most.)
How do I decide what to work on? It all depends on my energy level, which is why I keep track of both axes. If there’s something that’s to the left of and above (nearly) everything else, that’s a clear winner and I should just do that. But otherwise, there will be a tradeoff to make.
If I had infinite energy, I should just do whatever is the most important. And when I’m super drained, I need to do whatever is the most rewarding. In between those extremes, I like to imagine a diagonal line slicing from the upwards and to the right, with some slope corresponding to my energy level. Hopefully this isn’t too technical, but you can see that after completing this blog entry, the next thing to do will be one of a couple research problems I’m looking at (“GI” or kMC”). Then I’ll need to figure out my next hall event (“HC”), do my quiet time (“QT”), or get reimbursed for my last one (“MIT”).
Since this diagram encodes so much of my current state, I think I’m going to just update you all with a picture of my current diagram in future posts.
Red (Social):
  • HC = Hall Councilor. Organizing events for people in my hall (5th South) of Sidney-Pacific.
  • Dom = Dominion game group. A group that spontaneously formed in GCF to play Dominion and other games together.
  • F+G = Funandgames game group. Organized by a fellow Caltech -> MIT student, Helena Zhang, we play a variety of short board games together rather spontaneously.
  • Tech = catching up with Caltech friends, either in-person or over Gchat
  • UP = Ultimate Pickup, or more generally anything to do with ultimate. I still go whenever I can, but this more corresponds to organizing new ultimate things myself, like the GCF intramural ultimate team in the spring.
  • Dept = socializing in my department
Green (Tasks):
  • Clean = clean my apartment
  • Cook = cook food for myself and often others
  • E-mail = sending and replying to e-mails
  • Laundry = laundry, which I do every 2-3 weeks
  • Shop = shopping, either at a grocery store, Target, or Amazon
  • $ = money-related things like taxes
Yellow (Faith):
  • CG = my community group at City on a Hill church
  • SB = softball with City on a Hill
  • BS = book studies I’m leading this summer in GCF
  • LG = planning large groups for GCF for the fall
  • QT = my own personal quiet time
  • VF = Veritas Forum planning for next year
Dark Blue (Research):
  • kMC = k-means clustering, a project with a couple CS grad students
  • MLRG = machine learning reading group, reading through some lecture notes by MIT prof Ankur Moitra with a few CS grad students
  • GI = graph isomorphism problem, with a math postdoc
  • PC = preconditioning, suggested by my advisor, Jon Kelner
  • NO = noisy or, suggested by Ankur Moitra
  • Phi_n = revising my paper (accepted with revisions) from five years ago
Light Blue (Misc):
  • TCR = this blog 🙂
  • AoPS Teach = think of better ways to teach for Art of Problem Solving
  • AoPS Prep = prepare for future classes
  • Grade = grade written problems (1/week/student) for AoPS
  • MIT = various things to do with MIT like reimbursement or housing
  • Quora = answer interesting questions on Quora
I’ll post updates if/when I change any of these out.

3 responses to “Managing Tasks without Deadlines

  1. Pingback: Veritas Forum Lessons, Part 1: Stop Optimizing Everything | The Christian Rationalist

  2. Pingback: Where do you review cycles run? | The Christian Rationalist

  3. Pingback: Where do your review cycles run? | The Christian Rationalist

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