In his excellent book, Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger quotes Socrates, who suggested we “carve nature at its joints.” In other words, when categorizing, we should look for natural distinctions to make before inventing our own.
When I first became interested in productivity, I tried simplifying my life with a better system. I tried to build every possibility into the system so that it became a sort of artificial intelligence, figuring out what I needed to do and handing me one discretely packaged 20-minute-or-less-task at a time. Every task had a duration, a start date, an end date, a priority, tags, notes, an associated project…insanity!
Today, I simplify my system for a better life. The fewer steps (and the fewer arbitrary distinctions), the better.
I’m Being Productive, Right?Unfortunately, I’ve always enjoyed playing office. I used to play with my grandfather’s leather-bound ledgers like some kids play with G.I. Joes. So Obstacle #1, for me, is that I kind of enjoy fiddling with calendars and task lists and systems. It’s calming.
But part of the appeal to a workaholic like me is that such fiddling is, on some level, work. Because, all things being equal, even I’d rather go for a walk or play a video game. Productivity isn’t that fun.
To-Do Lists Aren’t a GameProductivity sites and software are so nifty nowadays that we often enjoy trying them out and playing around with them. Some developers have even tried to make productivity into a game outright, letting you assign points to tasks and “level up” as if filing TPS reports were just another quest in World of Warcraft. (“Not enough mana.”)
Obviously, the creators want us to enjoy their products, but on a deeper level their approach is oriented toward adding a teaspoon of sugar to an unpalatable thing: work.
But we use our systems for life, not just work, so I would argue that a little less sugar is called for. Many of our tasks our quite pleasurable. We don’t want to end up with our noses buried in the manual when we’re supposed to be playing. (“It says here I’m supposed to get romantic-like with my wife…”)
Invisible ProductivityWith that in mind, I’ve been using a very, very simple system for tasks. And not simple in the sense of, how can I tweak my system to make this particular task take fewer steps today? Rather, I try to stick to basics and if the system doesn’t absolutely need optimizing, I don’t optimize. My goal for 2008 is to make my system invisible. To stop thinking about it.
Getting rid of contexts was a huge help. I’ve since realized that I never really took advantage of contexts. They only added complexity (and anxiety). I’ve been much more productive just thanks to that step. But where do regular, repeating tasks fit in?
Time to Make the Donuts…Yes, there are some Web 2.0 task managers that will adequately track regular, repeating tasks (like watering plants, washing the dog, or just plain flossing). The problem with letting your traditional task manager handle these, even if it has the necessary features, is that they tend to clog things up.
That’s one of the appeal of contexts: being able to move that stuff into a separate bucket. But it really doesn’t belong on your task list at all. I don’t want to check off all that more trivial stuff, I just want to do it without even thinking about it.
If something happens once a month or less frequently, I’m happy to throw it on my “tickler” calendar as a repeating event, but more frequently than that and it becomes a hassle to manage all those recurring events.
So in the interests of simplicity, I’ve created a “procedures” tab in Netvibes. (Your own Web dashboard of choice should serve.) On that tab, I’ve created a bunch of sticky notes, one for each “joint” of my day.
Carve Those JointsThe joints of my day are Morning, Beginning of Work Day, End of Work Day, Arriving Home, and 10pm. Those are turning points when I usually have a bunch of recurring tasks to do. In the morning, I want to make sure to pack my iPod, my gym clothes, and so on. At 10pm, I want to remember to wash the dishes and walk the dog.
Often this stuff all gets done naturally, but sometimes I’m feeling foggy and, without a clear list of tasks, I’m liable to just brush my teeth and fall into bed or skip the gym clothes.
For stuff that happens once a week, I enter the appropriate day of the week with the task at the bottom of the right note. At the bottom of the Arriving Home note, I’ve written “Wednesday: Clean kitchen countertops.”
As an added bonus, I added a note to the page with a typical grocery list. When it’s time to shop, I quickly scan the list for what we’re missing, write it down, and head out.
Photo by scottfeldstein.