The following is a guest post from our friend Cal Newport from his Study Hacks blog. We’ve also sent one of our own guest posts over there: Implement a Mechanism-based Lifestyle

Project Paralysis

The scenario is common. As the semester progresses, long-term projects began to pile up. A research paper for your history class. A big programming project for computer science. The articles you promised the school newspaper.

This mess of deadlines soon becomes too intricate to decode. It’s too much to handle. You freeze, and then end up scrambling, right before the deadlines, again and again, pumping your stress to dangerous pressures while handing in dangerously shitty work.

To many this is just college. Stretches of drunken stupidity followed by bursts of stressed out chaos. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no magic solution: hard work is hard work. But one simple hack can make a big difference…

The Tale of Two Tasks

Let’s start with the basics. There are two types of academic tasks: small and urgent, and big and long-term. The former is the grunt work due every week: problem sets, reading assignments, little essays. These tasks tend to fall into a routine. You get used to accomplishing them.

Big and long-term tasks, like writing a large paper, on the other hand, have no routine. When many pile up they begin to conflict, and it becomes hard to make real progress on any. The task is to monumental.

Enter my secret weapon…

The Project Queue

The most important document on my desktop is called Project Queues. Inside, I have two columns: one for my work as a graduate student and one for my work as a writer. In each column I list the next major step of all the big and long-term projects on my plate. Roughly speaking, I add new projects to the bottom of the list, but I am open to messing around with the sorting to make sure that the higher on the list the more important the project.

So far, so good. But here’s the crucial part: I have to finish the task on the top of the list before I am allowed to move on to the next. Furthermore, I review the queues almost every day. I’m never at a lost to know what is next for me to accomplish. No matter how much I procrastinate, the reality of the list doesn’t change. That next horrible, loathsome chunk of work is staring back. It’s not going anywhere. It has to get done.

The effect: I focus down and get things done. I may not like that top task. I may hate it, in fact. But I can’t get to the other urgent tasks below until I finish it, so I keep pushing. And you know what? Once you get going, it’s not all that bad.

Why This Works

Without the queue, my attention is disperse. I tend to work on the long-term projects that catch my interest at the moment, or put them all off all together. The queue focuses my energy. It says: you can’t just work, you have to *finish* things. And you have to be continually finishing things. If the queue is not advancing, you are not doing what you need to be doing. It’s a simple structure, but it brings every thing that is important into focus.

Try it.You might be surprised how much more drunken stupidity you can weave into your life once the bursts of stressed chaos are removed.

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