Never feel overwhelmed at work again- the M.I.T. technique

Never feel overwhelmed at work again- the M.I.T. technique

Have you ever felt exhausted after a day at work? At the end of a busy day, you couldn’t remember how you spent your time. All you knew was that there was more to be done tomorrow. You were tired, overwhelmed, and even a bit frustrated — the to-do list always out-ran you. You might have wanted to review your day and see how to be more productive. But the pain you had in your head from a long day was so strong that all you could do was to drag yourself home and collapse on a couch until it’s time for bed. The next day, the same story repeats.

That was my life in the past few months. As my role evolves, coding is no longer my sole responsibility. My days often consist of a mix of interviewing, various meetings, code reviews, ad-hoc discussions, and coding. Often, at the end of a day, I would feel like a failure because I didn’t make as much progress on my project as I had wanted to. All I could think of was all the remaining work that needed to be done, which could be discouraging since I never seemed to be able to get to the bottom of the to-do list.

This troubled me for a long time. I knew objectively I worked harder than ever. After a day of hard work, I deserve to feel accomplished and proud.

Things changed after I discovered the M.I.T. technique: a powerful way to keep me focused and productive throughout the day.

A Most Important Task (MIT) is a critical task that will create the most significant results. Every day, create a list of two or three M.I.T.s, and focus on getting them done as soon as possible. Keep this list separate from your general to-do list. 

The Personal MBA

Here is how I apply it to my day-to-day work. After I get to the office, first thing in the morning, I open my note-taking app. (I use Workflowy.) I first start a new section for the day and write down two to three most important tasks I want to focus on and get done under the M.I.T. section. Then I list out tasks, both M.I.T.s and non-M.I.T.s, in the order I plan to do them under the log section. I then check my schedule for the day and plan blocks of time for the M.I.T.s. I will try to get them done as soon as possible.

Lastly, before actually start working, I tell myself as long as I get the most important tasks (M.I.T.s) done, it’s a productive day that I should be proud of. Finishing these tasks is my definition of success for the day.

Here’s an example of how my note will look like:

As the day goes, new tasks come in. According to their urgencies and importance, I add them to the log section. Here is how it might look like in the middle of the day:

My M.I.T.s for the day is flexible for change. It’s totally fine if I need to swap a M.I.T. with a new one or even decide to not work on it until another day altogether.

At the end of the day, I will update the progress of all the tasks, especially the M.I.T.s, and leave a note for tomorrow. Here is how it might look like at the end of the day:

It feels great to be able to see all the tasks you worked on and how you spend your time at the end of a hard working day. (I also create a Google calendar event to log how I spend my time after I finish a task.)

Here are three great benefits of this approach.

1. Listing M.I.T.s at the beginning of a day sets the tone for the day. The M.I.T. list is an anchor of my day. It keeps me focus and calm. No matter how many meetings I have to go to or how many ad-hoc tasks pop up, I always return to my M.I.T. list and remind myself these are the focus of my day. If important things come up, I evaluate them with my M.I.T. list and update the list accordingly. 

2. Reviewing my log at the end of the day is an opportunity to reflect on how today went and identify areas of improvements. Besides that, it’s a time to celebrate all the tasks I accomplish and feel proud of my hard work. Software development is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important that we regularly acknowledge the great work we have done and celebrate the small successes we have along the way. Before using this technique, I often felt overwhelmed and discouraged because I was too focused on the end goal and all the remaining work and failed to acknowledge the progress I made. This technique helps me enjoy every step of the journey.

3. Having a log of how I spend my day makes weekly and monthly planning easier. At the end of each week, I can see how I spend my time and if it's aligned with my priority.

There are other areas I can improve my productivity and achieve better work-life balance while getting more done. I will explore and experiment different techniques and share on the blog when I find something interesting. Subscribe if you are interested!

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My career plan of the year is to grow into a tech lead. I’m excited about all the learnings ahead and would love to share this journey with you in a brutally honest fashion. I will be sharing my weekly learnings here.

In the next few months, I will focus on growing in the following areas so you can expect to see learnings related to them:

  • focusing on the big picture of the project instead of near-term implementation details;
  • balancing my efforts between leading projects and coding;
  • work-life balance for long-term productivity;
  • the human side of software development: making sure everyone riding with me enjoys the ride and feels fulfilling and growing.

I hope you will join my ride and I will see you next week in your email inbox. 🙂

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12 Comments Never feel overwhelmed at work again- the M.I.T. technique

  1. Sihui Huang

    For meeting notes, it depends. If it’s public note shared with the team, we might have a shared Google Doc. If it’s private notes just for myself, I might have a running section for the project that’s outside of my daily log.

  2. Russ Jackson

    Just a question about your work flow. For those items that are in your log but you just don’t get to that day, do you add / move them to the next day’s log / MIT? How do you keep track of the big picture / project work? A different tool, or just a different area in workflowy?

  3. Sihui Huang

    Hi, Russ!
    Yes, I will carry the items I don’t get to work on today to tomorrow’s log and reprioritize them.
    For big picture/project work, I use a different tool (currently it’s trello for all the task and a simple spreadsheet to keep track of timelines).

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