A post on managing tasks always provokes response. From, “just write a to do list on paper!” to “Reminders works for me”, to Omni-fu with keyboard shortcuts.
Alrighty then. So what’s my task system?
“Do or do not, there is no try.” Yoda.
An effective system is a trusted system. The idea is to free up resources in the brain, by putting meetings, events, deadlines and tasks somewhere else. So, the first thing to do is spew everything out of the head, into the system. My current system is BusyCal (from Setapp) and Things. Appointments go into BusyCal, everything else into the inbox of Things. This can take anything from fifteen minutes to two hours. I’ve found, while rebooting the system as it were, that I completed several of these “brain dumps” over the first week, as more tasks occurred to me. Sometimes, I was creating tasks to do tasks - so “Schedule all insurance renewals” for example. Get EVERYTHING into the system. If you don’t, you can’t trust it.
Adopt an action bias.
Put more simply, every task should be an action. (Hint, start with a verb). “AML Procedures for Acme inc.” is a poor task. “Write AML Procedures for Acme inc.” is better, although later, we might convert this to a project. I went through my inbox and amended to the tasks to begin with a verb.
I like the Akkies definition of a deadline. These are commitments, that if missed, will have serious negative consequences. An insurance deadline for example. If you don’t renew on time, then you are uninsured. If you don’t file your tax return, you get fined. If you don’t submit your paper, you’re penalised. “Go grocery shopping” is probably not that critical. I might want to go shopping on Saturday, and schedule it for Saturday, but if something comes up, I’m probably OK going on Sunday. We’ll get to scheduling later.
“Write AML Procedures for Acme inc.” is OK. I write procedures for lots of people. However, there is a bit more to it than simply stepping up to the computer and typing. I’ll need to clarify exactly what the business does, and therefore what legislation and regulation is relevant. I’ll need to talk to the client. I’ll need to review their existing documentation and assess whether I’m working from an existing policy or drafting a new one. You get the picture. This one task is actually many tasks, that may or may not be completed at one time. To make this task truly actionable, it needs to be split into sub tasks. So, I create a project. You can break the whole into tiny single actions, and may find yourself with 25 tasks. I tend to break it into larger chunks, that will usually be completed at the same time, giving myself no more than 9 tasks per project.
Discover your Areas
Things works in Areas. These are groupings of tasks and projects. Obvious ones might be "Home" & "Work", for example. They’re the equivalent of folders. Start grouping tasks together. It’s perfectly possible to define areas in advance, but I preferred to let mine emerge from the big list of tasks in the Inbox. I compared these with my calendar set, my notes app and my file system. It strikes me that these should largely match up, and surprise, surprise, they do. My common areas are Lime, Nero’s, Learning, Life and Creating. My two companies, my two passions and my day to day life. I also have areas called Productivity and Templates in Things, that do not have a corresponding folder or calendar.
Plan your Day
All the tasks now live in their areas, and some have deadlines. In the “Today” view, I now see my calendar items (set up in Things preferences) and any tasks with deadline today. Best to do those, or suffer negative consequences. What else to do?
Welcome to your first planning session. There are lots of ways of doing this. Daily? Weekly? Monthly? All of them? I’m starting daily, but with a hint of weekly. I click into “Anytime”, where all my tasks are divided into their areas. I expand all the lists, to give me the full daunting extent of my tasks. Inevitably, I find duplicates, or things that I’ve completed, and I delete or tick as appropriate. Then, I pick out some important tasks, and drag them to the Today tab, automatically assigning them today’s date. I may identify a task that I know I want to sit on a specific day, and therefore assign it to that day. That’s it. Repeat that every day for a week, and order emerges from the chaos. When I find a task that is truly in the realms of “maybe, one day”, I drag it to “Someday”. I have a task to tidy up my Apple Playlists in there, for example.
Plan your Week
Now that I’m returning to golf, I need to be more mindful that a few days will have a huge chunk of time carved out of them. For this, I look at the “Upcoming” tab which gives me detailed views of the coming days and then overviews of future months. As golf is in the calendar, I see where the tasks / time ratio is wrong and where I need to slot the most important tasks.
Far and away the biggest impact is psychological. I feel more in control. Focusing on embedding the system is a virtuous circle. The more I work on getting the system working, the more tasks I fit into it, and the more disciplined I become at being intentional in my effort.
Next time, checklists, routines, repeating tasks and other features that I may or may not start using.
Any tips and hints from your systems gratefully received! Members, drop them into the Slack, anyone else, drop me a mail or tweet me.
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