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« High Intensity Use of Time - Progress (or lack of it!) | Main | High Intensity Use of Time - Ebook »

What is a Task?

An email from dvd1955 raises an important point:

Could you please explain a little, maybe in a blog post for all to see, what you consider a “task” to be?  My confusion comes from the fact that the average time you must spend on a task is very low to get the number of tasks completed that you mention in some of your posts. For example, The High-Intensity Use of Time update mentions getting 30 tasks done in less than four hours. That means the average time spent on a task is under 8 minutes. When I look at the first twenty items on my current list, there are only three or four that could be done in under 8 minutes. And many of them would take well over 30 minutes, eating up that four hours very quickly. Some of them could be split into shorter sessions but many cannot.

 Looking at my current list I have some tasks that will take a long time, e.g. 

  • Learn Welsh
  • Write Ebook
  • Tax Return 

Some which are “portmanteau tasks”, which will take as long as I choose to give them, e.g. 

  • Read Kindle
  • Read [physical] Books
  • Watch DVDs 

Some which will take a medium amount of time, e.g. 

  • Walking
  • Visit Friend in Hospital
  • Write blog post 

Some which are variable in time taken but usually relatively short, e.g. 

  • Comments
  • Email
  • Voicemail
  • Arrange Boiler Service 

There’s also a special class of very short tasks. I have a lot of them on my list. Some examples: 

  • Tidy Desk
  • Tidy Office Table
  • Tidy Office Floor
  • Check Overcoat Pockets
  • Put Papers Away
  • Check Lowest Point Bank Balance
  • Shred Papers 
  • Check Diary

These last ones are essential for the smooth running of my work. I do many of them several times a day and they may take only seconds to do. But they are what keep my office efficient and tidy, my papers where I can find them, and so on. 

They are the sort of things which you might find on a checklist. So why not use a checklist? There are some very good reasons. The first is that a checklist is another document that I would have to find. The second is that “Office Checklist” is a large task and therefore tends to get done only once a day. “Tidy Desk” is a small task, especially if it’s done three or four times a day. Having this type of task on the main list gives much more flexibility.

So what is a task?

My answer is “Whatever you want it to be”. The way I write my tasks is the result of long experience in the best to write a particular task for me. I have no standard rules about length or format. My only rule is to write all tasks in such a way that I can remember what they mean. I don’t want to find myself trying to work out what the task “John re Email” refers to. Who on earth is John? His email or mine or someone else’s? What about? Did I mean Joan not John?

Reader Comments (15)

Hello Mark - I have a quick question regarding what you used to call "continuing tasks". With the 5 task method, how do you handle regular practices such as "meditate". If, like brushing one's teeth, it is generally something you do every day - do you leave it at that, as habit, and hope it happens, or is it best to include it in the 5 tasks at the start of each day? I haven't visited your blog in a while and can see many new developments, but I am hoping to refine working with your 5 task method in your book. I used to use the Do It Tomorrow approach, as you may recall. Any thoughts on continuing versus fresh tasks and whether one should discriminate in the 5 tasks method would be appreciated. Thank you !
November 9, 2017 at 18:57 | Unregistered CommenterLee T
Lee T:

The post above is about processing a "catch-all" list or "long list". The 5-task method is a "no list" method in that the five tasks are written down straight from your mind and are not taken from a larger list. They are two very different things.

Nevertheless the underlying aim is much the same. The idea is to build up strong habits and routines which make your work easier so that you get more done faster and more effectively.

So if something is already a habit and you are going to do it anyway, then it's not necessary to put it on the list.

If it's not already a habit and you want to make it into one, then put it on the list every day and it will soon become one.

You can also put taking breaks for lunch, exercise, etc on the list so that they bring that session of work to a close.
November 9, 2017 at 20:55 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This is a useful post. I had been wondering the same. Do you sometimes work longer on a single task, such as writing an ebook or doing research for a project? I mean kind of tasks that require concentration.
November 10, 2017 at 7:28 | Unregistered CommenterVille

Yes, of course. The rule is work on a task for as long as it feels right to do so.
November 10, 2017 at 8:34 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Lee T:

A type of task you seem to be searching for is a routine consisting of various sub-tasks, that you do very fast after another, in one go, according to the pattern of that routine. Mark talks about the importance of routines in the Secrets book and on this blog.

An example could be "morning routine", where you put that as a task on your 5T not a list list, and the action would be to do your morning workout, showering etc in the bathroom, clearing your bedroom and off you go to the next task.

Another example could be "blogging routine", where you read your RSS feeds and then write the needed blog post.

And so on.
November 10, 2017 at 12:45 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
Thanks a lot for this post. This made me realize something you've stated before, that even if you don't finish the task, you can just re-enter it. This mentality of just slowly working on tasks should absolutely kill procrastination.
November 11, 2017 at 18:26 | Unregistered CommenterYoyorast
Dear Mark Forster

Thanks for your methods to change how I do for work, now I am using FVP (2015).

But when I finish my task, I found I always choose the easy task (chores), I am worried about I can't work efficiently.

In addition, I separate the list for work & personal, but I saw the separate advice is using by location (office & home), what is impact in these different ways?
November 13, 2017 at 3:02 | Unregistered CommenterEthan Zhang
Ethan Zhang:

<< But when I finish my task, I found I always choose the easy task (chores), I am worried about I can't work efficiently.>>

The quote from Khatzumoto which I've used a couple of times recently applies here too:

"There are no hard problems, just poorly sliced ones. There are no hard problems, just oversized slices."

The lesson is to reduce the size of each step you take doing the harder tasks until they are easy. So organizing a conference is a hard task but thinking about possible dates is easy. Doing your tax return is a hard task but gathering the papers together is easy. Calling a difficult customer is hard, but jotting down some notes about what you might say is easy.

<< In addition, I separate the list for work & personal, but I saw the separate advice is using by location (office & home), what is impact in these different ways? >>

Do it whichever way suits you best. Another way is the stalactite/stalagmite method in which you write personal stuff from the top of the page down and work stuff from the bottom of the page up. When they meet you draw a line between them. That way you have your tasks sorted into work and personal, but they are all on the same page so you don't have to refer to a separate list if you want to do some work at home or some personal stuff at the office.
November 13, 2017 at 19:22 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark Forster:

Thanks for your advice, I'll try to find the suitable one by these methods.
November 14, 2017 at 5:14 | Unregistered CommenterEthan Zhang

Do you have any particular method for slicing tasks down to size?

If you enter a project that is just too large or intimidating to stand out do you consciously slice it up into easier chunks or do you make a decision about it's size and difficulty when you initially list it?

I'm really wondering about the mechanics of how you get from "big scary project" to "series of smaller easier tasks" using the standing out method.
November 14, 2017 at 10:05 | Registered CommenterCaibre65

<< Do you have any particular method for slicing tasks down to size >>

Not really. Once you get moving on a project the next actions tend to become obvious and can be individually listed.

How do you get moving in the first place?

Instead of writing "Big Scary Project" on your list, write something non-threatening like "Think About BSP" or "Discuss BSP with Jane". If all else fails, write "Get Out the BSP File".

The simplest way of reducing the intimidation factor is to work little and often.

I would always read the task "Big Scary Project" as "[Work on] Big Scary Project [for as long as I want to and not a second longer].
November 14, 2017 at 11:36 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
There is a method for breaking down large projects in Mark's first book called "halving" that would help. I think that is the name but I am not at home so don't have the book to hand. Very useful technique.
November 14, 2017 at 17:23 | Unregistered Commenterskeg
Would be interested in how halving works if anyone can send a quick summary.
November 14, 2017 at 17:42 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Halving is a great technique for sorting a big pile of stuff (e.g. a big stack of paper). It involves asking the same yes/no question for each item in the pile. I don't think it's generally applicable to a Big Scary Project, though.
November 14, 2017 at 18:55 | Registered Commenterubi

I think it CAN be used for a large project. Mark's book (p120) gives the example of halving for projects as "taking everything you have to do and dividing it into half over and over again until you have only one thing left to do - then you do it"

What I do with a large project is do a brain dump of what I think is involved and then use the above technique on what I think needs to be done to create more tasks.
November 16, 2017 at 9:10 | Unregistered Commenterskeg

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