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What's on Your List?

One of my "breakthrough moments" in trying to get organized came only recently - about a year ago - when I asked myself: What kinds of tasks do I put on my to-do list?  It turned out that my answer to that question pointed me at the most important criteria I wanted in a task management system.

So.  What's on your list?  This is one of those reflective questions, when you have to step back from things and look at them from the meta-level.  Do it when you have time, and when you have a reasonable sample of your completed tasks to use as raw data.

Categorize your tasks.  There's an infinite number of possible categories, but only a few will make sense to you personally.  Those are the ones you want to find.  And I can't tell you what they are.

I will tell you what categories I came up with for my own tasks.  Hopefully that will help you find your own.
  1. Tasks I can do in one sitting.
  2. Tasks that take multiple sittings to complete.
  3. Tasks that have a start date.
  4. Tasks that have a due date.
  5. Tasks that are important (and tasks that are not).
  6. Tasks that must occur at a specified date and time (i.e. appointments).
That's it - these six types of tasks cover everything I do.  Let me explain them a bit.

By a sitting, I mean a period of time long enough to get one or more things done, and short enough to not drive myself nuts.  I'm not writing here about GTD's two-minute rule.  It's more a function of how your day is laid out and how much you can do at once without taking a break.  Sometimes, the duration of a sitting depends on what I'm doing.  I find grading exams to be tooth-achingly tedious, yet it's something I really have to be in top form to do.  So I'll work in no more than 15-minute increments, after which I take a break.  Other times, like when I'm programming, I can go for hours without even noticing the time.  (Okay, I'm weird that way.)  The length of a sitting depends, for me at least, on the nature of the task as well as the context (how the rest of your day is arranged).

Personally, I find a "sitting" to be between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on the nature of the task.  This way, I can typically knock off several small tasks or take a bite out of a more substantive task, and then take a break to clear my head.  Taking a break is really important.  (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like the Pomodoro technique.)

You may find your ideal sitting is only five minutes.  Or maybe an hour.  You should experiment.  You'll know when you hit the right sitting length, because you'll find a natural end to something at just about that duration, whether it be the completion of the task or a natural breaking point in the task.  Put another way, you'll find that you're most effective when you've found your natural "sitting" duration.

Ask yourself:
  • How often do you take breaks during your work?
  • How long are those breaks?
  • What triggers your need for a break?
  • How many things can you do comfortably (i.e. without stressing yourself out) in an hour?
These questions will help you determine what your personal ideal sitting length is.  Consider the answers, and think of how you can make these answers part of a routine that is your default way of getting stuff done.  Don't think that they routine you develop is sacrosanct; you have to remain adaptable to circumstance.  But all else being equal, your routine is what will help you be both as effective and efficient as possible.

The idea of multiple sittings is more from AutoFocus than from GTD, but it's something that works for me.  Many times - for instance, when I'm writing posts for this blog - I get the urge to write, but the urge leaves me before I finish a post.  I can either force myself to keep going - and kill the experience for myself (not to mention ending up with a crappier post), or I can just call it a day and come back to it later when I feel like writing again.  Life's too short to waste it grinding through things just because they're on a list.  So I have no problem at all with multiple sittings for a single task.

Start dates are, I think, under-appreciated as task attributes.  The idea of a start date is that you don't even have to worry about the task until the start date.  It's a great way to keep your list uncluttered by tasks that you really, really don't care about right now.  For instance, before I take a business trip, there's always a number of tasks to settle things at work and prepare for the trip.  Once I've arranged the trip, I work up those items and set their start date (yes, I'm assuming there's a software task manager at work here) to be one week before I leave.  That invariably gives me enough time to get everything done without rushing.  And it keeps those tasks out of the way until the time is right.

I think we can safely skip discussing due dates.  Right?

Task importance (i.e. priority) is a prickly subject.   Some people love priorities; other people hate them.  I've already written about priorities.  In what I've written, I've suggested at least three levels of task importance: tasks that need to be done before any other task, tasks that need to be done soon, and tasks that can be done whenever.  I myself use only two levels: things that need to get done soon, and things that can be done any time.

Finally, we have appointments.  I really, really do not see why so many apps support tasks but not appointments, because they really are the same thing.  Fundamentally, an appointment is a task that must be completed between a precise start date/time and end date/time, such that the start and end times are usually (but not always) within a few hours of one another.

Tasks and appointments are basically the same thing.  Ideally, they should be treated in a highly consistent and integrated way.  Unfortunately, this seems to be rarely the case in practise.  Of the dozens of apps I've looked at, I've only found three that make a serious effort to combine tasks and appointments: Pocket Informant, SmartTime, and Google Calendar (with Tasks).

So, we've got our six types of tasks.

A good task management system will handle only and exactly the kinds of tasks you have; nothing more (or it would be inefficient), nothing less (or it will be ineffective).

You now have some key criteria for seeking out (or possibly inventing) your best time management system.  You're looking for a system that manages just these kinds of tasks, as quickly, reliably, and elegantly as possible.

Exactly how you can go about doing that will be the subject of future posts.

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