In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about managing open-ended tasks that don’t have a specific due date.
Hello and welcome to episode 5 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.
Before we get started, I would like to thank all you amazing people who invested in my productivity bundles over the holidays. The response was tremendous and I hope you all will get hours of good productivity advice and know-how over the coming weeks.
This weeks question comes from Alice in Italy, Thank you, Alice. Alice asks
Coming from a paper planning environment, one of the issues I have with task management apps is I don't know where to add tasks that have to be done during specific weeks or months but not on a specific day. How do you handle this kind of task? I tried to put them as all-day events in my calendar, but I don't like the way they clutter my entire week/month.
Hmmm good question, Alice.
With this kind of issue, it is always a good idea to go back to basic best practices. What I mean by that is how best to use the various apps we have.
You only need three apps. A calendar, a to-do list manager and a note-taking app. Which apps you choose, of course, is entirely unto you, but you need one of each.
Your calendar is for specific events that have a date and or a time. For example meetings, appointments with friends and family and conferences and workshops. In David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, David recommends you put things you absolutely must do on your calendar too, but for me, my to-do list manager does a better job of things I must do, so I only put specific events where I have to be somewhere or talk to someone on my calendar.
Your to-do list manager is where all the things you must do go. Now all to-do list managers I have seen, allow you to put dates on tasks and so, putting tasks onto your calendar seems to be a bit overkill to me. I use the date function on my to-do list manager for all tasks that must be done on a specific date. So for example, if I need to finish writing a report by Friday, there will be a task in my to-do list manager that tells me to “continue working on the report” with a date set for Monday. Once I have worked on the report on Monday, if it is not finished, I will change the date of the task to Tuesday and so on until it is finished.
Finally, your notes app is where you store all notes and support materials for things you are working on or would like to keep for future reference.
I have spoken and written about hard edges between these three areas quite a lot, and it is very important that you keep very hard edges between these. If you put things to do on your calendar and add notes to your to-do list manager, for example, very quickly your whole system will fall apart because you will never be able to find the things you need when you need them. Events and appointments go on your calendar, things you have to do go on your to-do list manager and all other support materials go into your notes app. FULL STOP.
So, going back to Alice’s question about how to handle tasks that do not have a specific deadline, but must be completed within a specific time frame, these I would put into my to-do list manager and date them with the date I want to work on them. For example, if I were developing an online course, I would have a task such as “work on presentation slides”. Now, this does not actually have a deadline date because it is a task that forms part of a larger project. The slides need creating, but there is no specific day they need creating on. So, when I do my weekly or daily review, I would see when I have time to do the slides and if and when I do have time, I would add the date. I know this sounds complicated, but it is not really. Creating an online course is a big project, there’s a lot of planning, thinking and developing. When I am preparing a course, that is the main project I am working on at that time. There would be no other big projects on at the time, so my focus is on completing that project. So, all I am doing is deciding which component I will work on today or tomorrow, for example, and that would depend on where I will be and how much time I have available.
Project deadlines can be a grey area. I work with some very busy executives, and usually between August and October, they are in the midst of planning next year. These executives not only have their own plans to work on, they also have to oversee the planning of their various departments. Departments such as sales, marketing, HR and customer service. They have to make sure that these department’s targets fit in with the overall company’s goals. In this situation, they have a lot of deadlines to manage and I recommend they use their calendars for these deadlines. Only the deadline is in there, tasks related to the project are in their task managers and notes related to various meetings will be in their notes app.
Getting really good at answering questions such as “what is it?” Is it an event, task or note? Is something well worth practising. It can save a lot of time when you are doing your daily reviews and help you to maintain the hard edges you need to maintain a functioning system.
How would you handle single action tasks? Tasks such as making a dentist appointment for a checkup and scaling or something related to work such as follow up on Mr Brown in six months time. Here you have a choice. For the dentist appointment, you could add that to a tickler file in your to-do list manager. What is a “tickler file”? I hear you ask, well so as not to go into too much detail, a tickler file is basically a folder in your to-do list manager that contain things you want to be reminded of on a specific day in the future. It doesn’t really matter how far into the future you want to be reminded, but I would not add in anything beyond 12 months. All you need to do is add the task to your Tickler file with the date you want to be reminded.
Another way to approach this is to take a look at how you managed these kinds of tasks on paper. Did you maintain a master task list you looked at every day or did you forward plan tasks in a diary? Pretty much all the ways you would plan on paper can be replicated digitally. Once you know how you did things on paper, it is relatively easy to find a digital way to do it. Think of Evernote as a digital filing cabinet and you have a natural way to store all your digital files. Think of Todoist as a ring binder with various projects organised on different pages and you have a digital to-do list notebook.
The final way to do this is to step back and ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. This is one of the issues I have with Evernote when it fills up with thousands of notes. I begin to feel it is bloated and I have to step back and ask the question what am I trying to achieve. Ultimately, I use the favourites function as I would use the top front part of a filing cabinet—a place for me to quickly grabs the stuff I use every day or almost everyday. The rest of it I use for storing my digital papers pretty much in the same way I would a physical filing cabinet.
Hopefully, this has helped many of you with the transition from paper planning and task management to digital.
So to sum up...
If you are coming from a paper-based system, then before moving everything over to a digital system take a look at how you are organising things on paper. Then, look for a digital system the replicates this as close as possible. You can modify things once you get comfortable with your new digital system.
Always keep a hard edge between your apps. Tasks and to-dos go on your to-do list manager. Events and appointments go on your calendar and everything else, your support materials, go into your digital notebook. This will help you when you process and it will help you to find the things you need when you need them.
Maintaining a digital organisation system is not particularly difficult if you keep it simple. I have always found that things go wrong when I try to be clever and make things complicated. Very soon, things start to fall apart and I always have to go back and simplify things again.
Thank you very much for listening. Don’t forget, if you have a question about productivity, self-development or goal planning you would like answering you can contact me either at firstname.lastname@example.org, on my website carlpullein.com, through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
It just remains for me now to wish you all, a very very productive week.