Last Time I wrote about the trouble with TODO lists -- that they can actively distract from the work. If you have discipline, if you have focus, who needs a TODO list?
Or, to put it a different way, if you don’t lack discipline or focus, the most important thing for you to do is the work, not the TODO list. Pick one thing at a time, focus on it, and get it done-done. Then pick something else.
Sadly, not all of us have the luxury of working on one thing at a time. Even those of us who do know the pain of forgetting important things because we were focusing on urgent things. It’s too easy to save the project, but get home an hour late and forget the diapers and milk. Sometimes those ‘diapers and milk’ are to review a critical document, that either gets blocked, or, perhaps worse, goes forward without your review but full of errors and omissions.
Today I’ll talk about three ways to remember the milk.
The first is to use your email as a TODO list, either by marking undone things as ‘favorites’, by pushing TODOs into a folder, or by keeping email that needs action around as unread. I’ve done this before, and I really don’t recommend it, especially the unread email trick. It’s too easy to not deal with an email that causes you a little pain, thinking “I have to come back to it, it’s unread.” The problem (well, one of the many) is that deadlines are rarely embedded in a subject, and you might ignore an email past it’s natural due date.
The second is to use a TODO application, like ‘Things’ for the Macintosh or, ironically enough, RememberTheMilk.Com. These apps generally allow you to enter a due date for any task, then sort by due date. I use ‘things’ as a reminder service for small tasks, especially recurring tasks -- I need to put out periodic blog posts, record podcasts (*cough* Brett, Tim), paint the corner of the house, pitch articles, go to interviews, pack for travel, and so on.
RememberTheMilk requires a web connection, which I don’t always have; I’m writing this from my children’s tennis practice. Things only works on one device. Apple’s new cloud calendar service will sync devices ... when you have a web connection.
But let’s not compare products by making a grid and a bunch of checkboxes. The real question is will the product fit my life?
What problem are we trying to solve?
People call things and TODO lists 'personal productivity systems.' I find this hugely ironic. TODO lists can do lots of things, but they won’t make you productive. Here’s a few thing these systems actually can do:
- Give you a vision for all the work. If you find you are constantly late, you could make a list of everything you have to do. Odds are, one of two things are probable: Either you are actively wasting time, or you have more work to do then you realized.
- Help your prioritize. Once you realize your plate is too full, you can decide what to stop doing, or what do to late. (In “Good to Great”, author Jim Collins calls this the 'stop-do' list, claiming it’s critical to making a truly effective company.)
- Remind you when things are about to fall off your plate. With that TODO list in place you can sort by due date and make sure you are working on the things that need to be done, even if they aren’t always the most pleasurable. If you have the kind of job where work comes in different stages, and you have the work to do, the work to finish, and the prep work, this can be extremely important.
One More System
I’ve been writing and speaking professionally, as a part-time activity, since 2004. Over time that work became a larger and larger part of my life. Around 2007 I found that I had multiple projects in play at one time, in multiple stages.
Then I discovered wikis for personal project management.
A wiki is a series of inter-connected web-pages, created on the fly by clicking 'edit' or 'new page.' The word wiki itself is hawaiian for 'quick'.
The idea behind wikis is a little counter-cultural; that anyone can contribute. I’ve been using wikis for years for business project management, but around 2008 I started to use my personal wiki to manage by work-in-progress writing inventory.
To manage a new assignment, I first create it as a wiki page. Then I tag the page as either 'proposal stage' (just an idea) or 'in-process.' Then I write the article. Once I finish the article, I delete the inprocess tag and move it to peer review, maybe email some, well, peers for review. After peer review is finished, I can delete the 'peer review' tag, submit the piece, and change it to 'submitted', and, eventually, published.
Now the home page of my wiki is a collection of tag lists; it looks something like this:
If I have to abandon a project in-progress, it’s no problem. Next time I get some free time, I scroll down to InProcess to see what needs attention. I can also look at peer review to see what’s ready to submit, and check the submitted list to see if it’s time to talk to an editor again.
Finally, I can manage my work by the size of the lists. Right now, InProcess is large, but a great number of those are interviews waiting on a brief conversation, so the list appears to be more work than it actually is.
This ability to manage-by-looking isn’t really possible without some tool.
What I find most valuable is that the wiki does not prescribe a workflow. Instead, if gives me a visual representation of the work in progress, and I get to pick what to work on. I use things to manage to dates and deadlines outside of the publishing world.
Then there are the small articles, the articles I can finish in a day. I'l manage those with a tickler in things. Once the tickler hits, I'll write the article in a day, something we used to call JFDI at Socialtext, or “Just Focus and Do It.” (Some people thought the F stood for something else, but I’ll call it Focus.)
Of course, all of these things suddenly became much more important when I went independent two months ago. Before that, I used the wiki for my writing hobby and things to do things like remember the milk.
Today, my work in progress inventory is much larger, and the TODOs are things like interviews for consulting projects, reservations for hotel rooms, printing out directions.
Earlier in the article, I wrote that using a tool can help you find waste, and it’s true ... or, well, almost true. On some level, if you on work time, for whatever definition of “work time” you prefer, and find that you are doing things not on your list, well, that’s waste.
Or is it? It’s kind of silly to make a TODO item like 'research', 'prototype', or even 'let my brain wander', yet the subconscious mind needs that rest and recuperation time, even in the workplace. In my career I have worked with perhaps two people who didn’t need this time; it’s valuable and important, something Stephen Covey calls “sharpening the saw.”
I do know people who pencil in time for research, but it feels kind of artificial “okay, from eight to ten A.M. I'm going to do visioning.”
The brain doesn’t work that way; it wants to think about what it wants to think about.
The real challenge in productivity is to recognize when the time is veering off from R&D into waste. You don’t need a list to figure this out; often I find it's obvious, especially when I had a task that my brain finds painful, that it's trying to put off.
One more time: If you want a single productivity tip, find your true waste and slice it off, focusing on what really matters.
Once you're good at that, make sure you brain has some time to breathe, to think, and blow off steam.
Once you're good at that, if you see pain and could benefit from managing the scope of the work, the workload, or to multiple deadlines, then perhaps you might consider a task system like one of the ones above -- just be aware of exactly what you are giving up, and what you are getting.
Still to come: Managing workload at the team level, the organizational level, and tips for generating breakthroughs in throughput.
Assuming I have the interest and energy for it, of course.
What do you want to hear about? :-)