Let’s face it: if you follow David Allen’s sensible advice and collect all your tasks, notes and ideas in a single ‘trusted system’, you will be spending a lot of time interacting with that system, whether it be paper–based or centred around a productivity app. Ideally, accessing that system should inspire you to achieve things. It should be a favourite mental hangout, where you catch your breath, regroup and plan how best to spend the next hours or days of your life.
For many of us, the opposite happens: we dread opening up our task manager as we know we will be confronted with a seemingly endless list of tasks. It can be an overwhelming and disheartening experience. Many of the tasks (‘build cubby house’) seemed fun when you first entered them. Months later, here they lie, these bleached and broken dreams, shipwrecked on the cliffs of distraction, washed up on the shores of procrastination. When it gets really bad, it seems as if merely looking at your task list sucks all the life and energy out of you, like a Dementor in the Harry Potter novels.
So what can we do to keep motivated and energised? What can we do to keep our task list lean, informative, stimulating? We cannot complete all tasks quickly, so how do we prevent frequently deferred tasks from going stale?
These are my suggestions for restoring freshness and focus to your task list:
Reword the task
Nouns denote things in the real world. They are the lumps of existence: bread, car, kitchen, mountain. Verbs signal how we change or interact with things in the real world: bake, drive, paint, climb. If you formulate your task using only nouns (‘quarterly newsletter’) it is more likely that it will sit in your task list like an immutable lump, for you have not given yourself the key that provides access to the task. That requires a verb (‘plan quarterly newsletter’). Make sure all your tasks start with a verb.
Flush out the hidden project
Sometimes you may shy away from a task (‘plan quarterly newsletter’) because it seems too big. That may be because it is actually a project, that is, a group of related tasks, each of which needs to be completed for the goal to be accomplished. With ‘plan quarterly newsletter’ now promoted to project status, you can start identifying all project steps (‘ask Suresh to write an article’, ‘ring Judith re group photo’, ‘draft story re cake stall’ and so on).
Review weekly, in depth
One of the key principles of David Allen’s Getting Things Done® (GTD®) approach to productivity is that you should review your outstanding tasks on a weekly basis. Questions I ask myself in these weekly reviews include:
- do I still need/want to do this?
- what is the next action to progress this project?
- do I need/want to do this in the next week?
- can I delegate this to somebody?
- am I spreading myself too thinly? Am I able to say no?
- is the reactive stuff crowding out my priorities?
Be guided by the vision you have for your life, the goals you want to achieve. Life is now and every 30 minutes are precious. Be ruthless in culling any task that has lost its relevance.
Defer start dates
Look for a productivity app (such as Omnifocus) that lets you schedule a start date for your tasks; and hide from view all tasks with a start date in the future. This reduces visual clutter while maintaining the integrity of your trusted system. Postpone tasks by rescheduling the start, rather than the due date (see below).
Use due dates sparingly
Believe me, it’s no fun when your app tells you have have 48 ‘overdue’ tasks. Use a due date only for immutable deadlines, such as the due date for a bill, a loan repayment or an assignment or contract deadline. Avoid using due dates to set an ‘aspirational deadline’ for yourself, such as reading a journal article by next week. Nothing evil will befall you if you decide to raid Hellfire Citadel in World of Warcraft instead of reading D Rivel et al (2011) by 9:00pm on Sunday night. Use next actions, tags, flags or reminders to keep track of priorities and important subtasks instead.
Get things done
David Allen’s approach is called Getting Things Done®—not Getting Things Listed. Organising your tasks is but a means to an end: getting them done. If you do not know where to start in your oversized to do list, just pick one area and commit to focusing on that area for the next two or three hours. It will help you break through the indecision and score some successes. One of my favourite features of Omnifocus is the ‘focus’ button, which hides everything except for the currently selected project folder. It helps me avoid distractions. If you feel you are forever falling short of (your own) expectations you may need to keep a separate list of tasks you have completed. Some apps (including Doit, Things and Nirvana) come with an attractive logbook feature that makes it easy to keep track of your achievements. You can set up a ‘done today’ view in Omnifocus but it is a bit less elegant.
Put projects on hold
Don’t bite off more than you can chew, they say. I can think, with some glumness, of nine or ten major home maintenance projects that await me (GTD® context = ’someday’; Ozengo context = denial). All that practical stuff involving power tools and visits to hardware stores is way out of my comfort zone and likely to flatten my normally joyous mood. Do I want to see all these unstarted projects every day? No way! I am being pretty brave if I have one of them on my active projects list. The others slumber in my Omnifocus ‘on hold’ section, with review cycles ranging from three months to a year. The lesson: if you’re not likely to be working on it any time soon, keep it out of sight.
Make it fun
Make sure that your to-do list is not confined to chores. Include fun activities, such as family outings, books you want to read, opportunities for learning and development and exciting places you would like to visit ‘someday’.
So you have 800–plus tasks in your productivity app and none of the folders make sense anymore. Doing your income tax return seems more fun than spending another minute with your to do list. What do you do? You have three options, none of which should be entered upon lightly:
- you can renounce the world and become a forest monk in Thailand
- you can switch to a new to do app and, for a while at least, your to do list will be as crisp as a freshly–baked French breadstick, and much shorter than said baguette
- you may be able to create a DTF (dead tasks folder) in your productivity app and drag all (or some) of your projects into it. Set up new projects and contexts that make sense to you now. You can work through your DTF in your weekly reviews, tackling one or two folders at a time. Drag any crucial tasks across to a new folder, delete the rest.
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I hope these hints were of use to some of you! I’d be interested to hear of your litle tricks and strategies for staying on top of things. Finally, bear in mind that being productive is only one small dimension of being—you may excel at something totally different. Or you may be productive in a totally different way. Like power tools.