Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Task Reset Without Bankruptcy

I try to maintain a decent level of productivity discipline. I use Getting Things Done as a baseline of operations, but like most every GTD user, I have shamelessly bastardized it to my specific needs, pulling in other ideas from sources ranging from agile to energy mapping to child management to god knows what.

It largely works well. It’s still a bit weak on the self-directed writing projects, where I can’t break it down into word count goals the same way I can with contracted work, but other than that, it generally keeps me moving, with a few caveats.

I tend to suffer from an accumulation of cruft. Tasks that I really intend to do but never get around to. Emails I need to keep track of. Just a backlog of stuff that slows down the system and makes me feel less on top of things[1].

In the past, I’ve dealt with the the cruft through bankruptcy. I archive all my mail, delete all my outstanding tasks, and restart with a fresh capture of what I need to do. This works ok, but it has obvious risks - it’s very easy to drop something on the floor if you haven’t been diligent, and the very nature of the problem makes diligence difficult.

This week I found myself in a similar situation, but I have approached it differently with two tricks.

The first is that I finally broke down and tried the mailbox app. This has been a big help for me, but it’s not necessarily going to be a similar help to everyone. It’s an ok email client for gmail, lacking in a number of features (robust tag support, search and the ability to mark as spam are the big ones) and if it was judged solely by that it would be a real dud. However, while it’s only so good at handling email, it excels at managing email. It uses really clever gestures, but just saying that helps no one, so let me describe it.

When mail arrives, swipe right to archive it, swipe all the way right to delete it. Good start, yes, but the killer app happens when you sweep left - a choice of times pops up (like, later today, this evening, tomorrow morning and so on). You tap one, and the mail message vanishes until the time you selected.

So, if you’re like me, and your email box is full of implicit to dos, you can get them off your immediate radar to come back when convenient. Yes, this totally lets you keep kicking things forward (which I do), but it clears your mind while you do it. I love this function, and it’s pretty much the sole reason I’m excited to use this app. I really hope that other apps (including maybe to do apps) start adopting this technique.[2]

So, that cleaned out my inbox in short order, but that left my to do list, which had gotten pretty sprawly. So I took a tip from a Marc Andreessen post[3] where he suggested maintaining only 3 to do lists, one of things you need to do now (DO), one of things you need to do at some point (REVIEW) and one of things that can wait (HOLD). This simplicity was pretty much exactly what I needed, and I ran through my tasks, dumped them in the right buckets, and carried on quite successfully.

Curiously, the only speed bump was when I chose software. This method seemed simple enough that I figured I’d just use OSX Reminders, since it has iCloud sync to my iDevices. Sadly, iCloud proved frustrating and unreliable, so I tried other things. Lots of good todo apps out there (and I own many of them) but surpisingly few of them worked well for this particular system. I needed syncing and the ability to easily move items from one list to another, and finding that combination was surprisingly elusive. The best match actually looked to be the things app (which I had on my phone), but if I wanted sync, it would have been pretty expensive to get it on desktop and iPad. Given that I had already shelled out for the full Omnifocus suite, I couldn’t really justify that.

Thankfully, I found a solution using Omnifocus (thouse three lists are now my working contexts) and I’ve since been very happy with it. I dunno how long it wil be before complexity creeps back in, but in the short term, this has allowed me to simplify my system without the kind of interruption that bankruptcy tends to entail. That’s a big win. It’s also useful to boil the system down to the smallest possible set from time to time, so that I can be thoughtful about what I add back in.

In any case, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and your system is offering you no relief, you might want to consider a similar paring down to essenetials. It might be just the thing to break th elogjam without sacrificing your work.

  1. And yes, I know, if I were a better disciplined GTD’er, the weekly review would address a lot of these things, but I’m not. I’m working on it, but I wouldn’t hold your breath  ↩

  2. If you live out of email, the Mailbox is not going to be an all in one solution for you. But it might be an effective doorman for when you’re managing your mail on the road.  ↩

  3. No link because the service it’s hosted on disapears in about a day.  ↩


  1. Things doesn't sync with Reminders or the Calendar as of the latest version. When I have some runway I want to reimplement OF for that reason, but I am not actually sure IT does.

    Do you integrate your to do list app with your calendar app? I really would LIKE to. Generally I just throw a calendar reminder in manually when I decide today's the day for a task. But dating it in the app and having the calendar remind me would rock. I actually use Google (am Android user) as my "sync hub," which makes me a little less reliant on iCloud, but it is not perfect.

  2. I have yet to find a calendaring solution that I'm 100% happy with, so tend to just check the calendar at the start of the day and fold it into my plan. I've experimented wih having todos show up on calednars for due dats and such, but it largely seem like extra noise. My calendar tells me if anything is up today and when my meetings are, and that's all I really need

  3. I recently hacked Outlook in order to get the kind of task tracking I wanted. Helped tremendously with my day job work but I need to report out against how long it takes me to do things there. Actually working on hobbies and stuff? Not so much. This article I had actually dropped into 'Pocket' for later. I'm surprised it isn't a month later. I'm going to check out Getting things done.


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