The second step is to match up the moments I have available with the appropriate category of task.
In a perfect world, all my top-level mental functioning time would be spent on top tier tasks, and likewise my lowest-level time to clear out my admin tasks. Perfection isn’t possible, but I take two main approaches to get as close to this as I can. The first is prospectively scheduling key tasks in advance, and the second is updating tasks moment-by-moment.
Scheduling in advance
When it comes to planning my days and weeks, I will first assess the periods that I have available and decide the category of task most appropriate for each period. For example, if I have a free evening with 3-4 hours of undisrupted time, then I will allocate a top-tier task. If, instead, I have an hour or two free before heading out for a talk or social event, then I will allocate a segmentable task. Likewise, if I have a four-hour period, but I am expecting a few phone calls, or other disruptions, in the middle, then I would be more inclined to allocate a segmentable task than a top tier task.
If I have a relatively free day, then I will allocate tasks to the level of functioning I expect myself to have at different times of day. I know I perform best late afternoon, so I would put my most challenging task then. I know I’m slowest in the morning, so I would put a ‘segmentable’ task then, and just accept however much progress I’m able to make.
In this way, I can roughly match tasks to the appropriate moments. However, there is always an element of unpredictability around circumstances and how you will feel, and therefore it’s important for such a system to be adaptable. I do this by allowing the updating of tasks moment-by-moment as follows:
I allow myself to alter the tasks that I’m working on at any moment, but with certain restrictions.
Let’s say I’ve allocated a really challenging task to a free evening, because I anticipated that I would be on my top mental game. However, the evening comes around and I’m feeling tired, uninspired and am not making good progress on the task.
I will afford myself the possibility of a switch to an easier, less cognitively-demanding task, but only after giving the task a fair shot. It can be tempting, when we hit the internal resistance of a challenging task, to want to give up and do something easier. Therefore, I will force myself to spend 30 minutes of focussed, undistracted time on the task before deciding whether to switch: this will ensure that I really am too tired, or not in the right frame-of-mind, for the task, rather than just feeling lazy or giving in to the resistance.
Likewise, I actively encourage myself to switch upwards to a harder task, if a good period unexpectedly becomes available, or my brain is performing at a top level, in a period that I hadn’t predicted.