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Task-Managing Series, Part 2: Optimal Method

20/09/2009 1 comment

Tasks2 copy

It has now been three weeks since I started the task-managing experiment and I have mainly been focusing on when and how to set my tasks. Here are my experiences, so far:

Ongoing List vs. New List Every Day

When I work with an ongoing to-do list, I simply have one list with all the tasks that need to get done and I add tasks and tick tasks off as I go along. If I don’t get a task done today, it will simply still be on the list tomorrow. Similarly, if I have a task I know I need to do in two days time, I simply write it down now, together with all the other tasks.

Stats:
Using an ongoing list and ta-da lists, I completed 17 out of 19 tasks during the course of one week. That is a good ratio, but as you can tell, I didn’t set very many tasks. This is mainly because an ongoing list gets crowded pretty quickly. It’s no real help if you have a list of 20 unsorted tasks in front of you, so with the ongoing list, I only wrote down the most essential tasks. This method required an average of 47 seconds per completed task.

Pros:
This method is very flexible and takes up a minimal amount of time. There is no re-writing of tasks and no scheduling involved. It’s probably the easiest method to follow and the fact that it encourages you to set only a few essential tasks per day can be a blessing.

Cons:
The downside of this method is how chaotic it is. There is no sense of priority and if I set a task today that is meant for a few days later, it will just sit there with all the other tasks for a few days. It makes it difficult to decide what needs to be done first and I rarely got the satisfaction of completing the entire list.

The alternative is to start a new list for each day. Following this method, I re-write any unfinished tasks to carry them over to the next day. I update the list as I go along, when new things come up, but I also set aside a specific time during the day for organizing the tasks and setting new ones. I wanted to test doing this either in the morning or in the evening, but I was useless in the morning. In the evenings, I can think clearly about what needs to be done the following day and make a decent task-list. Early in the mornings, my brain just doesn’t want to do this kind of thinking. I can be productive early in the day, but apparently not the planning kind of productive.

Stats:
Following this method (also with ta-da lists), I completed 32 out of 35 tasks during the course of one week. Again, the ratio is good, but this time, I set and completed way more tasks than with the ongoing list. I spent an average of 44 seconds on each completed task, slightly less than with the ongoing list. While the difference is small, it shows that focusing on what tasks to set once a day is probably more efficient than just adding them as they come up.

Pros:
In short, with this method I got more done in slightly less time (per task). That’s certainly a good thing. I found that it really helps me to take a few minutes in the evening, before I turn off the computer for the night, and plan the important tasks for the next day. Since I start with a clean slate each day, the list never gets too crowded and it’s easier to prioritize, even though I didn’t use a system to set priorities. Another positive aspect is that completing the whole list by the end of the day gives me a nice feeling of accomplishment. Plus, re-writing left-over tasks for the next day is like making a renewed commitment and that can help to complete them.

Cons:
I really didn’t find any major drawbacks for this method.

Preliminary Conclusion

My experiment is still ongoing and I am currently testing out different media for managing my task-lists. So far, I can conclude that making a new list for each day is definitely better than using an ongoing list. An ongoing list is extremely simple, lacking structure, prioritization and scheduling. This might be a good thing if you have the tendency to over-organize and want to categorize every minute detail. An ongoing list could help you focus on just what’s relevant. For any other situation, I recommend taking some time evening to plan the tasks for the next day.

While I set and completed more tasks with a new list each day, keep in mind that not all tasks are created equal. “Take out the trash” and “work out” both count as one task, but one of them is completed in under a minute while the other takes about an hour. Also, not every task is equally relevant. In this early stage of my experiment, I have not yet done anything to prioritize my tasks, but I will be looking into that later on.

The findings of this first part of my experiment aren’t particularly spectacular – I’m aware of that. Stay tuned for my next update, when I will be reporting on the different types of task managing software I have used.

This post is part of a series.
Part 1: Introduction to the Experiment
Part 2: Optimal Method

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Task-Managing Series, Part 1: Introduction to a Self-Experiment

29/08/2009 1 comment

Usually, this is where I would write an introduction on how effective task-management is becoming more and more important in this information-age etc. etc. I hope you don’t mind if I get right to the point, instead.

Goal of the Experiment

I will test out a few different methods of task-management, centred around task-lists or to-do-lists. The objective is to find an optimal method for keeping track of all the relevant tasks in my life. With any kind of task-management, it’s important to find a good balance: A system that leads me to excessive micro-management and distracts me from the big picture is just as useless as one that keeps me focused only on the larger tasks, letting me forget the smaller, maybe mundane but nonetheless important tasks.

The reason I’m doing this as an experiment is that I want to avoid just using the first method that comes along. I suspect that any kind of systematic task-management is better than no task-management at all, so whatever I try first will probably already seem like a fairly good idea. By deliberately trying several different approaches, I wont succumb to laziness and just settle for the first method I come across in a book or on a blog.

Here are the different methods I will test:

  • Having an ongoing list vs. rewriting the list every day (i.e. rewriting any unfinished tasks for the next day).
  • Setting tasks for just one day vs. setting tasks for a few days in advance.
  • Using software vs. writing tasks down on paper.
  • Software I will try: ta-da-list, todoist, OrchestrateHQ

I will try each variation for at least one week to give myself a chance to get used to the method. It’s possible that something seems uncomfortable to do the first few times but then becomes habitual and turns out to be a good solution after all. I wont try every possible combination of the above variations, just the ones that make sense – for example, if I find that using an ongoing list fits me better with one piece of software I won’t test ongoing vs. rewritten lists for every other software as well.

Benchmarks

When it comes to deciding which method is the best one for me, I want to rely on more than just my subjective experience. How I subjectively feel about each method is an important factor, of course, but it’s not terribly reliable and so I want to set two objectively measurable benchmarks:

  1. Tasks set / Tasks done per day.
  2. Time spent task-managing.

The first factor is a bit tricky: Ideally, I want to be completing close to 100% of the tasks I set for myself every day. This is easier when I set fewer tasks, but that’s not necessarily beneficial. The goal is to find a method that helps me set an adequate amount of achievable tasks and complete all, or almost all of them. Looking at the ratio of tasks set and tasks completed for each day should help me adjust accordingly.

The second factor, how much time I spend managing my tasks, is simpler: I don’t want to be wasting time managing the tasks when I should be getting them done. A task-managing method that uses less time is therefore always better than one that uses a lot of time.

There is one final benchmark that I will apply to whatever method I settle for: I will report on whether I stick with it. A few months after I have decided on what method to use, I will report on how it went, whether it was easy to continue and whether I modified anything about the method.

Getting Things Done

Since you are on the internet, you probably know about Getting Things Done by David Allen. I haven’t read this book yet, but I intend to – after my task-managing experiment. The reason I am postponing reading GTD is that I want to come to it having already gathered some experience on the subject of task-management. I think this will make it more interesting to read GTD and I might be able to learn more from it this way. If I find the ideas in GTD convincing, I will test them out as well and post about it here.

I don’t yet know what the focus of GTD is. I do know that my ideas for task-managing are mainly concerned with short-term tasks and less with long-term goals and the big picture. I intend to experiment with methods for longer-term task-managements somewhere down the road.

For now, stay tuned for updates on my initial experiments.

This post is part of a series.
Part 1: Introduction to the Experiment (currently viewing)
Part 2: Optimal Method