There’s an interesting interview on the Evernote blog with Mason Curry, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.
I particulary liked his description of Maya Angelou renting “tiny, mean” hotel or motel room in order to do her writing, and surrounding herself with a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards, and a bottle of Sherry.
Back in the far-off days before computers that’s probably exactly what I’d have surrounded myself with, except I’d have had a bottle of whisky rather than sherry.
I’ve just signed a contract with Hodder’s to write a book in their new Secrets series. It will be called Secrets of Productive People: 50 techniques to get things done, scheduled to be published Summer next year.
There’s an interesting article on various vehicles for to do lists on Danny Schreiber’s Zapier blog, which mentions a couple of my systems.
I hope he’s corrected the spelling of my name before you all write in and correct him!
This is a follow-up to my previous post The Spinning Plates Method of Project Control, in which I shall be making observations about how best to work this system. It’s not intended to be a static post, but one which I shall keep adding to (newest on top).
What does it mean to finish a task in the sense of having no work outstanding as stated in the rules? It doesn’t mean “finished for good”. Basically the sense is that you are up-to-date with the work on the project. You can be up-to-date with a project long before it is finished for good. If you have a project which you expect to take three months, then you are up-to-date as long as you are on track with the schedules and deadlines relating to that project.
So a very important part of running the “Spinning Plates” is being clear what you mean by being “up-to-date”. You may need to have a different definition of this for each project. Sometimes these are set for you, but more often you will need to define them yourself.
If you have a project to read “War & Peace” you might have a goal of so many pages or chapters a day - or you might simply be happy to read “something” every day without defining how long that is. It’s up to you.
For Housework, you might have daily chores, weekly chores (each on a different day of the week) and monthly chores. As long as you are on schedule with these, you are up-to-date.
For electronic implementation, there is no need to have more than the one active column. The columns across the page in the written version look pretty and provide a historical record, but they are not strictly necessary. All you need to know is whether at the end of a pass there are any arrows or crosses in the column. And of course you can use any symbols you like (or colour coding) in place of the ticks, arrows and crosses.
It is a good idea fairly early on to add a task called “Minor Tasks” to your list. You can then keep a separate sublist of small necessary tasks which don’t fit into any of the existing projects on the main list. However this must not become a place where you add everything you haven’t yet succeeded in putting on the main list. Remember that like every other task the “Minor Tasks” task must be completely cleared before you can add any more tasks to the main list.
You are therefore advised to use the following rules with respect to the “Minor Tasks” sublist:
1) Don’t add any tasks which are too big to be done in one go.
2) Don’t add more tasks than you can do in one go.
3) Make the “Minor Tasks” sublist a closed list, i.e. no new tasks can be added to it once it has been started until all the tasks on it have been done. I also recommend you do the tasks in the same order they are written.
Size of Tasks
I’ve tended to refer in the instructions to “task” and “project” more or less interchangeably. This is quite deliberate because the system simply treats a project as a big task. Whether a particular entry is a big task or a small task is up to you.
It’s sometimes a good idea to combine small tasks into larger tasks as you go along. So for instance if you have a project to sort out your office, you might start with a task “Sort Desk”. Once the desk is sorted, that is retitled “Tidy Desk”, and you start another task “Sort Pamphlet Racks”. That again becomes “Tidy Pamphlet Racks”. After you’ve done this with a few more office-sorting jobs, you can combine them all into one task “Tidy Office”.
Remember that although you can combine existing tasks, you can only include tasks in the combination which are already on the list.
The best time to do this sort of editing, combining and retitling work is when you are rewriting the page because you have filled all the available columns.
Here’s a video of the right way to get projects going and keep them going:
- First, get one project up and running properly
- Take necessary action to keep on top of project
- Then get the next project up and running properly
- Take necessary action to keep on top of both projects
- Then get the next project up and running properly
- Take necessary action to keep on top of all three projects
- Repeat until you have reached the maximum number of projects you can keep on top of
- At that stage you either have to stop adding more projects, or remove old projects to allow for new ones.
Note the priority is always to make sure the existing plates are spinning properly before adding a new one (though in the video the performer is deliberately adding a bit of drama to keep the audience engaged).
How can we actually do this in practice when we are dealing with real-life projects rather than spinning plates?
We can use a rotational list method. This one is designed for use with a notebook and pen/pencil. I’m sure it can be adapted for electronic use, but I haven’t as yet tried to do so.
I emphasize that this is an experimental method, which I haven’t tried out fully myself yet. You are welcome to have a go, but don’t expect polished perfection!
It has two phases: I - Build-Up; II - Control.
Phase 1 - Build-Up
Click image for full-size
Start with two tasks and write them on the first two lines in your notebook. Work on them on turn. When you finish a task, cross it off the list if it’s done for good. But if is a recurrent task leave it where it is.
When you’ve finished both tasks, add another task. Rotate back through both the previous tasks (if they’re still there) to make sure nothing new has come up for them, and then work on the new task. Once there’s no more work left on any of the tasks already entered you can enter another new task. Check back through the old tasks for anything new that’s come in and then work on the new task.
Proceed in this way adding a new task every time you’ve cleared any work on all the old tasks. If there’s any work left outstanding, then you can’t add a new task. You have to keep rotating through the list until all the work is cleared.
You will probably find that your list grows very quickly at first and then slows down considerably. Once it’s grown to the point that you are having trouble getting your work done quickly enough, you are getting near the limit of how much work you are capable of doing. That means you can’t take on much more work without endangering the work you have already got on your list. You are at liberty to remove any task at any time to reduce the workload, but you can only add a new task (or restore an old one) when there is no outstanding work.
Phase 2 - Control
Click on image for full-size
So far we’ve only talked about what happens when you have work in progress on one or more tasks at the end of a pass through the list. This is quite normal and nothing to worry about, but while it’s in effect you can’t add any more tasks.
However there are two ways in which you may actually fail at doing a task:
1) You may come to a task and, without any satisfactory reason, decide you don’t want to do any work on it at that time. If this happens the task has been failed. Satisfactory reasons might include wrong time of day, wrong weather conditions, necessary pre-condition not met, work task during leisure time (or vice versa). Unsatisfactory reasons include not feeling like it, high resistance to task, pressure from other more urgent tasks, low energy.
2) You fail to get a task completed in time for a deadline. This applies even if the deadline is self-imposed. Again the task has been failed.
At the end of a pass in which one or more tasks have been failed, the number of tasks on the list has to be reduced by the number of tasks which have failed. The tasks removed do not necessarily have to be the tasks that failed.
Note that this is not a punishment for failing a task, but a way of consciously reducing your workload control so that you can get back on track.
1) Write out a list called “My Top 5 Ideas for [specify subject]”
2) Put the list away where you can’t see it.
3) The next day, write out a fresh list for the same subject. Don’t refer to the old list. It doesn’t matter whether the items on the new list are the same or different.
4) Repeat every day, until you get inspired to put some of the ideas into action.
5) Every week or so, re-read the old lists to see how your ideas have progressed, and maybe have another think about some of them.
Some suggested titles:
- My Top 5 Ideas for Making More Money
- My Top 5 Ideas for Being Healthier
- My Top 5 Ideas for Being a Better Son/Daughter/Father/Mother/Husband/Wife/Significant Other/Friend
- My Top 5 Ideas for Improving the Invoicing System
- My Top 5 Ideas for My Next Holiday
Yes, your’re right. That was My Top 5 Ideas for Top Five Ideas Lists list.
Perhaps I’ll write another one tomorrow!
Second Day’s List:
My Top 5 Ideas for Keeping My Office Tidy
My Top 5 Ideas for Books I Want to Read
My Top 5 Ideas for Being a Better Friend
My Top 5 Ideas for Improving the Systems in My Business
My Top 5 Ideas for Things I Want to Do Before I Die
Third Day’s List:
My Top 5 Ideas for Being a Better Friend
My Top 5 Ideas for Getting Fit
My Top 5 Ideas for Losing Weight
My Top 5 Ideas for Birthday Presents for my Wife
My Top 5 Ideas for Improving My Website
This will be the last example I write on the website. I hope you get the idea!
As promised in my last post, here’s the method I am using at the moment with great success. You need a random-number generator to work it. The one I’m using is at http://www.random.org/integers/
I am using paper and pen, but I’m sure it can be adapted for electronic use. I just haven’t yet attempted to do so.
I’m using a loose-leaf binder with lined pages of 32 lines, but the method will work perfectly well with a bound notebook and pages of any number of lines.
First I list all my tasks in the notebook - one per line.
I then set my randomizer to produce integers in the range 1 and 32 inclusive. The upper number is the same as the number of lines on a page. This is just a convenient number which produces reasonable results, but you can use a lower or higher number if you wish.
Starting from the beginning of the list I use the randomizer to produce a number and move down the page that number of lines. I then do some work on the task on that line. Please note that I don’t have to finish that task, just do some work on it.
Once I have worked on the task, I cross it off. If I have not finished it or if it is a recurring task, then I re-enter it at the end of the list.
I then use the randomizer again and count to the next task (going to the next page if necessary).
When the number the randomizer produces would take me beyond the end of the list, I circle back to the beginning of the list, ignoring empty lines on the last page.
I continue circulating through the list in this way.
When I’m counting forward, I INCLUDE in the count the lines which have been crossed off. If I land on a line on which the task has been crossed out, I move to the next line in which there is an active task. I call this movement a “slide”.
For example imagine I have the following tasks:
Date of next meeting
I throw a five, so I count down the list, remembering to include the crossed out lines. I land on the “Write Report” line. I then “slide” to the next active task which is “Performance Reviews”. Slides work slightly different from counting. If a slide takes you to the end of the page, you circle back to the beginning of the SAME page. So if “Performance Reviews” in the example had already been done, you’d have circled back to “Email” at the beginning of the page.
Date of next meeting
Counting crossed-out spaces and sliding are very important, because they have the effect of increasing the chances of the older tasks on the list being selected. Note that if you don’t include lines with crossed-out tasks in the count, then every task will have an exactly equal chance and there will be no preference for older tasks.
A few points to note:
1) Random numbers behave randomly. They don’t behave in the way we expect them to behave. If they did, they wouldn’t be random. You will find that you are constantly surprised by them.
2) The system as described has a built-in bias towards clearing the older tasks off the list. This means that nothing will stay on the list for very long. How long that is depends on the length of the list and the amount of time you can devote to working on it. If you want things to move on really quickly then keep the list short.
3) The random-number generator is quite indifferent to your priorities, wishes and time-pressure, so if something needs doing now - do it!
4) Any attempts to increase the probability of certain tasks being selected will result in the chances of all the other tasks being reduced. So I advise against it.
… ok, perhaps not an entirely new concept. Some of you may have read the 1971 novel The Diceman by Luke Rhinehart and may even have experimented with deciding on your next action by the roll of a die. But I think very few people have ever made it into a systematic way of living their life.
With the help of the members of this website’s General Forum (see the threads Shades of the Diceman and Shades of the Diceman - Part 2) I have been trying out a new concept in time-management. Basically the idea is to use a normal task list but, instead of selecting the next task off the list yourself, you select it by using a random number generator.
Although it’s early days yet, what we have discovered is that the randomness has some very positive effects:
- It takes out all the personal decisions which are hugely influenced by emotions, fear, laziness, habits and just general human fallibility - and instead presents the next thing to do without any attempt to justify it. Instead of spending time and energy deciding how urgent or important or pressing or scary or avoidable a task is, you just forget all that and accept a purely random decision.
- What we are finding is that stress levels fall and resistance is reduced almost to zero. We seem to have taken the “friction” out of deciding what to do next.
It is however important to design a system which will channel the randomness so that it generates a productive result. In my next post, I will describe the system I am using at the moment. This has truly amazed me by how effective it is, how easy to work and how comprehensive.
(A guest post by Vinay Patankar of Process Street)
The key to success, when managing a business, is undoubtedly the productivity of your employees. Unfortunately, many businesses suffer from inefficient teams.
Getting down to the core of the problem can be as simple as bringing in a new tool or program to jumpstart the team’s attention and motivation. Process Street, is here to help. Bringing in the simplicity that is Process Street’s process management capabilities and the ability to join an entire crew into the project under one roof, optimizing your team is as easy as signing up.
If you’re running a business, you may have encountered various tools aimed at task management. These are tools such as Teambox, Asana and countless others. These are great for one off projects and tasks, but they don’t cater to tasks that happen on a recurring basis, whether frequent or in frequent.
Process Street takes it further by brining the project to life in a virtual business ecosystem, where everyone can see where their gears function in the whole of the project.
You may be asking, why is that important? Well, the reason is simple. Business executives have established that team members and employees, function better and offer better productivity when they can see how their actions and completed tasks affect the company. For example, if you keep Bob, Mary, and Tom confined to their cubicles, and give them each a task list, at least one of them will be inclined to slack off thinking that “maybe” his job is not as important as it seems. In other words, someone else will get to it.
Under Process Street, everyone has a place, a purpose, and serves the cause in their own way. And luckily for the owner of Bob, Mary, and Tom’s company; Process Street offers a fully functional version of the tool absolutely free for up to 3 team members.
For larger teams Process Street offers 4 convenient and cost effective brackets. For example, a team of 10 can use the tool for just $30 per month.
Teams of 20 and 50 can use the tool for $50 and $100 per month, respectively. And when it comes to SMEs, we all know the teams can expand greatly as the business flourishes. For these larger enterprises, Process Street allows you to call in and get a reasonable quote for your team.
Design and Functionality
Process Street makes the interface of the tool interactive and beautiful. Process Documents are broken down into tasks which can be checked off as staff complete them. The rich content interface includes rich media such as video and images to get the “big picture” across to the team, no pun intended.
But arguably, what makes Process Street different from the rest of the tools currently on the market, is it’s unique ability to track the completion of processes across the board. Under Process Street, as we mentioned before, everyone is responsible for something, and the team knows this. Managers can look into the tool and see who’s not working up to par, spot those inefficiencies that are holding the entire project back, and do something about it. Inefficiencies mean loss of money for the company, there is no other way to put it. Process Street ensures that money stays where it belongs; in your pocket.
The same concept breeds healthy competition, as the managers can also see who in the team is completing their tasks in a reasonable time frame. Process Street can become the epicenter of productivity, with employees vying for the monthly/ weekly prize offered to the most productive employee; that is of course if your enterprise offers such incentives. The competition can be as simple as just who gets to stay onboard.
Many traditional enterprise owners refuse to believe that the majority of their wasted time comes from unnecessary meetings. That’s right. Often, a meeting needs to be called so that everyone can gather and get the new updated information issues on a change in standard operating procedures.
This can be a real problem for growing businesses who go through changes like babies go through diapers. All those meetings for minor changes can be eliminated with Process Street. The tool itself offers the ability to update processes, directly to the task list, and teams will get respective notifications on the application.
That means, there is no need to send out a mass email to the company (which probably won’t get read anyway). And since, most team members will have Process Street open all day, there are no excuses such as “I didn’t get the email”.
Process Street also allows Managers and SME owners to manage their processes from multiple organizations from one consolidated account, great for subsidiaries and different office locations.
We’ve seen task management a million times over. Process Street, is process management, complete with employee productivity, and inefficiency management. It works for the team, managers and the company as a whole, and soon will change the way SMEs do business altogether. Create a free account today and see for yourself.
Vinay Patankar is the CEO of Process Street, a productivity tool for process driven teams. Process Street is 100% free to use for small teams and freelancers. Create a free account here: http://process.st
The “Georgette Heyer” is a very simple method, an early version of which I described a few years back. I’ve been using the present version on and off and found it reasonably effective, but I don’t think I have ever described it in writing.
What the early version consisted of was either doing the first task or the last task on your list.
The major drawback with this was that if the first task was difficult then it encouraged a proliferation of trivia being entered at the end of the list.
However after writing about this first version I thought of a method of preventing this. This was that once you have done the last task, you have to ignore any newer tasks and work backwards from the task you have just done. You have to continue doing this until you do the first task. Once you’ve done the first task you chose between the first task and the actual last task.
Here’s an example:
Write Report on Project X
Sort filing system
You are faced with the choice of tidying your desk or writing the Project X report, so you naturally chose the easier, which is tidy your desk. By the time you have done this a couple of other easy tasks have arrived on the list:
Write Report on Project X
Sort filing system
You are not allowed to got to “Sharpen pencils”, but have to work backwards from “Tidy Desk”. So you are faced with a choice of the Project X report or sorting your filing system. Sorting your filing system is something you’ve been avoiding so you prefer to do the report. A few more tasks arrive in the meantime.
Write Report on Project X
Sort filing system
Research possible venues for sales conference
Check staff meeting minutes
This time, because you’ve now actioned the first task, the choice is between email and the staff meeting minutes.
A few things to note about this system:
- You should only put things on the list which you are ready and prepared to do now. Even regularly recurring tasks should only be re-entered when they are ready to be done again.
- By working backwards from the end of the list and forwards from the beginning of the list, you will fairly quickly reach even the most difficult task. It is possible, particularly with a very difficult task, that the first task on the list may also be the one worked back to from the end of the list. If this happens, then there is no choice - that task must be done.
- Don’t put time-specific tasks on the list.
- The rule “If it needs to be done now, do it” applies.
- If you take some action on a task and re-enter at the end of the list, then the rule “You can’t do the same task again without doing another task first” applies. You then chose between the first task and the last but one task.
Why “Georgette Heyer”? It’s getting too difficult to find descriptive names for all the time/task management systems appearing on this blog, so I’ve decided that in future I will call new systems after the English Wikipedia featured article of the day.
Hyperink has the book in Kindle, iPad, Nook and PDF formats.
If you buy the book from Hyperink, have a look at some of their other titles while you’re there. They’ve got an increasingly interesting selection.
And wherever you buy the book from, please write a review!
“I am a stay-at-home mother willing to be working and using my best skills for things other than the daily backlog of home activities. You have collected here a group of your posts that made sense to me before but now even more because of the way you have arranged them in this ebook. I have been longing to state what I want to do, where I want to go, what work would I like, etc., and find it difficult. But the exercise of stating what I don’t want makes sense, and it is already allowing the flow of more clear ideas in my mind. It was an exercise my dad taught me long ago for some short essay at school and I totally recreated that moment and the relief of finding solutions. I’ll be working and practicing some of these ideas as you suggest.” Wendy Putzeys de Lee, Guatemala
I’m pleased to say that I’ve just heard from the publishers:
The book is now live on Hyperink at this link: https://www.hyperink.com/The-Pathway-To-Awesomeness-bA210AA213DCoupon code: AWESOME for $1 off the price.Still waiting for it to go live on Amazon (should be really soon).
Sorry about the non-appearance of the ebook yesterday. The matter was entirely out of my hands.
According to the publisher yesterday evening (yesterday evening in UK that is):
We’re currently awaiting approval from Amazon’s submissions reviewers. In Pacific time (currently 2:30pm) it should be approved either later tonight or tomorrow, unless they have any change requests.
Unfortunately I’m away for most of today, so I won’t be able to notify you until this evening at the earliest if the book appears today. Even if you see the book appear, you will need to wait for the code if you want the discounted price for readers of this blog.
For anyone interested I’ve just started a new blog called Nothing Much To Go On. It’s a much more personal blog than this one and will cover just about everything I’m interested in without any reference to what you the reader might be interested in (Be warned!)
However one of the things I am interested in is time management and personal organization, so you may pick up a few gems now and then.
The Pathway to Awesomeness: How to Get Things Done and Live a Productive Life, a selection of the best posts from a decade’s worth of my blog and newsletter will be published as an e-book on Monday, October 14th.
The book will be priced at $5.95 and will be available on Amazon Kindle and on Hyperink in multiple DRM-free formats on October 14.
For readers of my blog and subscribers to my newsletter there will be a reduced price of $4.95. Watch out on Monday for details of how to order.
The trouble with large backlogs, as I have often remarked, is that they are very difficult to clear. Once your in-box gets to the size that you can’t deal with all your emails in one session, it seems to fill up as fast as you empty it. I expect you’ve had the experience of getting several hundred emails down to 60 or 70 after a mammoth effort, only to find that after a couple of days the backlog is nearly as big as it was before.
Ok, here’s a three stage method for clearing the toughest email backlog. I don’t claim it’s the only way of dealing with a backlog, but it certainly does work.
Sort your email by “Name of Sender”. That will achieve two things. You can see which emails are from important people whom you don’t want to ignore, and you can also delete loads of stuff like Facebook notifications in batches.
Sort your email by “Subject”. Again this will bunch many emails together which may no longer be relevant or which you decide you can’t be bothered with. Delete them all.
By the time you’ve done the first two stages, you should hopefully have reduced the number of emails in your backlog considerably. Time for the next and last stage.
Sort your email by “Date”. Now deal with your email in batches of one day at a time, starting with the most recent day (today). This is the opposite of what most people do, which is to start clearing the oldest emails first. Starting with the oldest is a mistake because it will take you a long time to work from the oldest email to the most recent email, and during that time you will be behind on all your email. If you start from the most recent and work back you will instantly start getting on top again. Or as a client of mine once put it: “If you start from the oldest, all your friends will think you’re an idiot. If you start from the newest, only half of them will!”
Every time you finish a day, download new email and deal with that before starting the next day. That way you are not adding to the backlog by neglecting new mail. So the sequence goes like this:
Clear today’s mail
Clear today -1 (yesterday)
Clear today’s mail
Clear today -2
Clear today’s mail
Clear today -3
If you have a month or more’s worth of neglected email, it’s going to take you some time and probably several sessions to get through it all, but you will be able to see exactly how much progress you are making and best of all you won’t be adding to the backlog.
In my article Countdown I described how it is more motivating to count down than to count up when tracking your progress numerically. For example if you goal was to lose 10 lbs in weight, then it’s more motivating to say “I’m 5 lbs away from my weight goal” than to say “I’ve lost 5 lbs towards my weight goal”. The first concentrates your mind on the end result and encourages you to reach zero. The second takes your mind away from the end result.
I have just had a very good illustration of this principle in the Kindle for Android app. Up to now the Kindle app has only told you how far you have got through a book, e.g. 80% completed. But they have just introduced a new version which also measures your reading speed and tells you how long it will take to finish the current chapter and the whole book. I’ve found its estimates to be pretty accurate.
I’m reading a fairly long and detailed non-fiction history book at the moment (Frederik Logeval’s Embers of War) - just the sort of book I usually get distracted from quite quickly - and Kindle is giving me the following feed-back about how far I currently have progressed:
7% of book completed
26 hours 4 mins left in book
25 minutes left in chapter
You can only see one of these at a time. Which would you monitor in order to motivate yourself to keep going with the book?
I’m finding minutes left in the chapter to be the most motivating by far. One chapter is an achievable chunk, and so I get the satisfying feeling of achieving zero quite regularly.
It’s not very difficult to see how the same method - counting down using small chunks - could be applied to other goals. Weight, exercise and money goals immediately spring to mind as they are easily measured. But even with less measurable tasks we can switch from saying “This is three quarters done” to “Only a quarter left to go!”
I’m just wondering what the experiences of other people have been who’ve downloaded the beta Version 5 of Evernote for Windows.
I’ve found it so unsatisfactory that I’ve gone back to version 4. Problems I found in my brief experience of it are:
1) I could no longer scan directly into Evernote from my scanner. I use a Doxie but I gather the problem applies to at least some other scanners too. I assume (and hope) this is not a deliberate change, but considering the emphasis Evernote puts on the convenience of scanning directly into Evernote you’d think they’d get this right before releasing the beta.
2) They seem to have abandoned the extremely useful feature by which only the tags relating to the current search/notebook/tag are shown.
3) The Shortcuts have been relocated from the top of the screen, where they were always accessible, to the top of the left-hand panel, where they are only accessible if a) you have the left-hand panel open and b) you are at the top of the panel.
4) They have removed the Thumbnail view, which was great for sorting and displaying photos in particular, and replaced it with a prettier but less functional “card view”.
5) They have redesigned the display to remove all the contrast between the different sections. This may look prettier, but can be confusing. In particular you can no longer see at a glance which notebooks you are sharing on-line.
Altogether it’s considerably reduced the speed and ease of use of Evernote for me with no real accompanying advantages.
It’s not the first time that Evernote have removed features which formed one of my major reasons for using Evernote. I’m still waiting for them to put back the feature by which items on a task list which have been ticked off are no longer displayed. That disappeared if I recall correctly when they introduced Version 3, and I’ve never used Evernote for task lists since.
Other people’s experiences welcome in the comments.