Deliberate task management

In my experience, the act of curating your tasks over a period of time (whether a day, week, month, year, or decade) is the single most important aspect of personal task management. Tools like priorities and recurring tasks have their place (primarily as memory aids), but they in themselves do not contribute to being organized or productive.

The only thing that works consistently is deciding what will be done and when, and, if that plan fails, planning again.

In terms of implementing this, I’ve added a “Curated” list to Remember the Milk where I move my tasks for the day. It’s been incredibly effective. I move them back to “Do This Week” if I don’t finish them or priorities change.

I suspect that team-oriented task management (such as project management) has a different dynamic, and I think that priorities are more useful there. For a single person, though, order (which task first, which task second, etc.) is more important than priority. I do use priority in my “Do This Year” list because I might forget what I considered relatively-important, especially among postponed stuff, when I moved it there.

The final thing that is perennially applicable to personal task management is that it evolves over time and with life. I’ve been changing and tweaking the way I manage tasks for as long as I can remember, and I doubt (like with most things) that I’ll ever find the One True Way. More important to me is that whatever I’m doing at the moment approaches being useful for the situation I’m in.

This was supposed to be a long tweet, but I guess it became a post. Hope this helps!

My current workflow - daily list + task store
I’m writing this post to give context to “Does this exist? A tool that helps you keep your task list up-to-date.”
The “daily list” in the title is my todo.txt. The “task store” is Remember the Milk.
  1. Most new tasks or quick notes go into my Todo.txt, either via todo.sh on the command line or via Todo.txt Touch on my phone or tablet.
  2. Periodically (it’s supposed to be every day), I’ll review the todo.txt and move any still-valid tasks into Remember the Milk, generally using rumember. If I’m on the go, I’ll do it manually on my phone.

There are reasons I don’t use Remember the Milk for everything. The biggest one is that it forces me to re-evaluate my task list from time-to-time. I’ve found that there is a golden middle of automation when managing tasks. Task management is not just listing tasks; it’s a mental process and an approach, ever-evolving and in constant change. No approach does or should work forever, although how long each one works may vary. I’ve gone from very complex to much simpler. The appropriate tools vary with the need.

Solved: How to photograph and add a task for papers to file

A couple days ago, I wrote about my paper void. I wanted something that would let me quickly (and optionally) snap a photo of the paperwork and get that photo stored in Evernote and sent to my task management app, in this case reQall.

Happy to say that I managed to work something out. Here’s how the finished “product” works:

  1. I take a photo of the papers and email it to a specific email address.
  2. Gmail adds a label to emails sent to that address, so it labels the one I sent. This is done via a filter.
  3. IfThisThenThat (http://ifttt.com) has a task set up with a Gmail trigger on, you guessed it, the label with which Gmail just labeled it.
  4. IfThisThenThat reacts and emails the task to reQall, using the “received on” date to set the reQall due date so I can schedule it when I next look at reQall. (And all the obnoxious emails in my inbox both don’t hurt and hurt. But I’ll figure out a way to solve that with some other tool.
  5. Another Gmail filter detects if the email sent to the special address has an attachment. If so, it forwards it to my Evernote Mobile email address.

Voilà! I can take a photo, share it with myself on my phone, and I’ve at least saved myself a bit of time.

I’m still not really satisfied and might write a little app so I can do this in bulk on one screen on my phone…but this scratches my itch for now, and I don’t really want to write an app. I have better things to do.

Priorities are relative

One of my Skype contacts has an awesome profile message:

"I don’t have time" = "It’s not a priority." When something is a true priority, we MAKE the time.

That’s so true. The context in which I’m writing today, though, is that priorities are relative even to each other. I split my week into different activity groups, or whatever you want to call them. I have a plan for when I’m going to work on a certain type of task. This allows flexibility but with enough structure to get something done. And I’m realizing that most of priorities are only relative to each other within these timeframes. In other words, I don’t have to figure how important cleaning up my email is on a client work day because I wouldn’t do any in-depth email cleanup on that day. But within a block of time set aside for business administration? That’s when I even need to think about the priority of email cleanup.

So this makes planning the week easier since I don’t have to figure out the relative priority of everything. I just need to decide under which set of activities each task belongs, and then I can prioritize it against a much more meaningful set of other tasks.

And if stuff is an emergency, then, as the quote above implies, I’ll make time.

Exploring the paper void (and living to tell the tale)

tl;dr: Do you guys know any good tools or techniques for checking unprocessed papers on your desk (or other places) and dealing with them in the proper timeframe? This would ideally be a method that lets you file the papers off the desk and then take them out when they’re needed.

Paperwork, paper mail, and all kinds of paper most often have three fates:

  1. Processed immediately. If it’s interesting, this is most likely. Checks, payments, acceptance/approval letters, and stuff I knew was coming tend to fall into this category.
  2. Added to the paper queue. This is the most common; papers that don’t need immediate processing or filing tend to go onto the paper queue “to be dealt with later.” How far into the future “later” is can vary.
  3. Added to the filing queue. This happens if I’m finished with the papers, but the file folder or storage area isn’t close enough; in practice, this is an ever-growing pile of stuff to file.
  4. Photographed and put into Evernote or Shoeboxedaff…then added to the paper queue.

Eventually (usually when I move), the paper gets filed appropriately, at which point it becomes records.

The problem I want to tackle, however, is not so much that paper is lying around, since the solution for how to get papers filed faster is to work it into my schedule. What I want to improve on is knowing what the unprocessed paper is at any one time and to be able to check this in one place.

What do I mean? Well, let’s look at what types of things are on my desk at the moment:

  • Transactional letter from the bank - ah, I can stick this one in the filing queue.
  • Information from my credit card company; I want to take a photo of this and then file it.
  • Another transactional letter from my bank…filing queue.
  • Packing slip from a previous purchase - filing queue. Not sure why this was in my paper queue (this happens a lot)!

You get the idea. I don’t need this level of complexity. All I need is a better way that isn’t insanely time-consuming but lets me know what’s dealt with, what needs dealing with, and when said dealing-with needs to occur or occur by (or that it doesn’t have any set timeframe).

The solution need not be technological, but that’d be neat. I think I will start by sticking post-it notes to each item with a date and any relevant notes, and then sort these in date order. But a “paper dashboard” with a supporting mobile app (and maybe reminders to enter in unentered new stuff) would be cool. I’d (probably) pay money for this. And tell this. Hint hint.

    Wow. I’m consistently amazed how the simple act of moving a to-do from the back of your mind to the front of your mind (by writing it down and planning it) significantly increases the chances that it’ll ever be done.

    Noticed something about my planning

    …and that’s that I’m ridiculously prone to being distracted while doing so! Just today, I:

    1. Checked my phone for email a few times
    2. Started thinking about optimizing the planning/scheduling process
    3. Started tidying up this and that (my lists? my computer? I don’t even remember)
    4. Gravitated towards fixing anything that was going remotely wrong, even if it could wait
    5. Checked my Skype icon for new messages like 10 times (I’d catch myself each time though)
    6. Did I mention I checked my email?

    This is a subset, but I realized that this is probably complicating things, so planning time is now going to be super-focused, especially since it’s usually at the start of the day without any momentum to bring me back or any feeling of, “I should be doing [insert thing]” to keep me on track.

    How I structure my workweek

    After struggling with quasi-burnout and distractions for weeks on end, which was eroding my income rather uncomfortably, I’ve finally been able to structure my week in a way that’s been working. “Working” means that I’ve been hitting budget. And I have to hit budget because I work for myself, in case that wasn’t clear.

    Let’s start with what I was doing.

    The Past

    My past is rather fanciful. Basically, I went into business with a pretty good plan, as one must do. That plan still forms the foundation of what I do and my reasons and goals for being in business. One of the core tenets is that I must be able to spend time developing income sources other than hourly. This in itself is good, and I have not scrapped this. However, my days were filled with conflicting priorities all sandwiched together. My ideal schedule (often not followed) was something like:

    1. Respond to urgent emails
    2. Do some business administration tasks, paperwork, business errands, marketing, etc.
    3. Work on R&D projects (non-hourly revenue sources and experiments)
    4. Do some work
    5. Lunch
    6. Do some more work

    …all fit into a ~7.5 hour day (not including lunch). Can you see why these priorities conflicted?

    So, I looked at the situation and decided I needed to front-load the hourly work that was paying the bills. My schedule became something like:

    1. Urgent emails
    2. Do some work
    3. Lunch
    4. Do more work
    5. Business administration
    6. Work on R&D projects

    This was better…but then I would inevitably either get caught up in email and lose the flow in the morning or I wouldn’t get to biz admin and R&D project stuff in the afternoon. Or both.

    This needed another revision. I realized (and read somewhere, can’t remember where) that the first thing I did each day basically set the tone for the day. If I spent that initial energy on email, email would dominate the day. If I started out with an hour (or even a half hour) of work, then I’d build momentum, which would equal more billable time overall. I wanted that. So I further front-loaded the Do some work stage and put answering urgent emails second, after 30 minutes or an hour of work. Important emails were still answered, and things were picking up. However, business administration tasks and R&D tasks still suffered. So what did I do? Join me in the present.

    The Present

    The present, knock on wood, is fairly good. I’m hitting the minimum amount needed to pay the bills and save up a little for R&D*. This is more or less my work schedule for the week:

    • Monday-Thursday: Work, answer urgent emails, work. Period.
    • Friday: Work on business administration tasks primarily - clean up email, take care of marketing, accounting, or whatever needs to be done. Some work can be tacked on if needed, but budget should be hit by end of day Thursday.**

    See what I did there? I picked one main thing to do each day instead of trying to do several things that required different kinds of focus. And this is actually working, so I’m continuing to do it and have no doubts that I will further refine the process as I learn more.

    I’ll be sure to write about it.

    * See my developer blog post, http://kkdev.tumblr.com/post/11606838515/further-r-d-fund-thoughts and the linked post therein.
    ** I haven’t managed to do this yet, but I tend to come awfully close. Sometimes I get a head start on Sunday evening, but I am trying to phase out weekend work unless totally necessary. Who wants to work every day? 

    Hey, is this blog readable for you guys? I wanted something minimalist but good-looking, but perhaps it’s a bit too minimal…it seems like the actual post text is a bit difficult to read. Might just be me. Give me some feedback if you so feel.

    Experiments in flexible scheduling

    I wanted to nail down a particular topic for this post, but I think I just have to get the ideas and discoveries I’ve been saving up out of my system and can be a bit more organized (irony there) in the future.

    I’m always trying to minimize administrative time in planning the day and strike the right balance between flexibility in schedule and clear goals for different periods of time. In other words, I don’t want to let my days be swept away simply because I haven’t decided on what to do with them, but I don’t want to be so inflexible that I can’t adapt to the changing circumstances of life (and mine change a lot).

    It’s my opinion, as you can tell from the tagline of my blog*, that the way I plan should reflect reality and help me achieve my goals regardless of technicalities. To that end, I’ve actually stopped planning the week in as much detail as before. I used to decide which tasks I would do each day, but this week I just picked the tasks I wanted to do this week and decided that I would review the list each day and allocate some tasks to the day at the start of it (or the evening before) if I knew I would have time. Things that had particular deadlines could of course be scheduled, but there were many things I wasn’t getting done the other way anyway…so why spend time on it if it wouldn’t help much?

    And so far, so good. I’ve been using Simpleology's little “Start My Day” feature, and that's been kind of cool. You start with a brain dump and get out all the morning thoughts (surprisingly helpful!), then you pick what you want to do at all, what you maybe want to do, and what you can dump. Then for the things you want to do, you decide if you want to do them today or schedule them for later. When scheduling for later they can be added to your other task management systems or calendars (I use reQall and Google Calendar). This actually makes sense and makes Simpleology act as something different than a task management system - it’s more like a temporary place that you put your tasks while they’re active, and it helps you have a bit more information about them than a task manager or simple list may store. I can also see which tasks I keep adding as part of the brain dump, and if I keep thinking about them, then I can see that perhaps I need to take care of them. It’s also nice to add stuff and then immediately dump it, so I mentally filter things into actionable and non-actionable items.

    I don’t remember to start my day every day, but I figure that’s alright. It does help, especially on weekends and times when I don’t have a defined routine to follow. On workdays, I often don’t need it as much, since I structure my workweek specifically so that I don’t have to think too much (I’ll write about that separately).

    Ahh, that felt good, and there you have it. That’s where I’m at currently, and it is saving a bit of time. By the way, I also use Gmail’s Tasks feature to keep track of the things I will do each day and the tasks for the week. So Gmail Tasks is a subset of reQall, and Simpleology is a subset of the Gmail Tasks list.

    I’m considering switching to Wunderlist instead of Gmail Tasks, but I have to learn more about it first. I’m all for keeping things simple and fast, and Gmail Tasks is fast and can be managed almost entirely with keyboard shortcuts. That’s going to be hard to beat.

    * At the time of writing, the tagline was: Why follow systems that work for other people when your life isn’t the same? I’ve picked and chosen from different systems, but I still beat my own path, and this is my blog about organization, time management, and planning.