How I manage my work to not lose focus and stay on track.

Wether I am working on a large project or am just starting out on something small and new I eventually end up with too many ideas for new features or improvements. Like pulling on a thread a small bug reveals something else that needs fixing or while implementing a new feature there is something else that would be really cool.

Each would just take a few minutes but everything I find or come up with also adds a few new additional things. Eventually I am so far down the rabbit hole I often forget what I was working on in the first place.

The only solution that I have that actually works is to avoid starting on anything else until I am done with what I was supposed to be doing. Without this focus the amount of work that is in-progress just piles up. The downside is that without a method of keeping track of new discoveries a lot of potential improvements are lost.

There are tons of formal processes for doing this, like Getting Things Done, which are similar to how I do it and I am sure my method is not unique.

My compromise consists of adding whatever potential new work I find to the end of a to do list. Normally I keep a general list and also a separate one for each new project but these can be split up arbitrarily. I often also have a duplicate in my general list for important tasks. At the start of each day, or whenever the list has had a bit too many additions, I just re-order it in which way makes the most sense at the time.

I realize that what makes the most sense at the time is not very helpful so I have added a few pointers here that help me stay productive.

  • I add one or two small and simple tasks to the very top. Any low hanging fruit that is easily taken care of within the first thirty minutes of the day. I have found that having something to check off the list early makes the more difficult tasks appear less daunting and gets me motivated early.
  • If there are any external stakeholders to the project such as a customer, another department, or colleagues in general I normally have a good idea of how most of the tasks are prioritized and sort the list accordingly.
  • I sort everything else by roughly estimating the impact and required work. Combining these gives me a very simple cost-to-benefit ratio (impact / cost = benefit) which by all means does not need to be exact since I am just weighing the tasks against each other in my head.
  • If there are any ambiguities I of course put the more fun or interesting stuff first.
  • It also helps me to understand when I am in “brainstorming mode” and my time is actually well spent on populating the list.