Justin discusses Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism and how it impacts personal productivity.
Justin’s approach encompasses much of what I’ve been trying to tackle for many years now. Sometimes I focus on a Big Rock project and ignore my housekeeping tasks. Other times, I’ll be putting out fires with due items and daily requests and I’ll forget to work on an important Big Rock that I’ve been meaning to work on for weeks. I was looking for a balanced approach to ensure that I give some time and attention to different groups of tasks. I’ll attempt to show my real world approach using Justin’s ideas.
I have been unsuccessful in choosing the 3 MITs to work on a daily basis. At times, I have been successful using a Dashboard or Today list. But it focuses on single actions and doesn’t deal with Big Rocks. I’ve also incorporated a Big Rocks list to make significant progress on my Big Rocks but I sometimes neglect single actions and maintenance tasks. I slowly realized that I couldn’t have one ultimate list that will cover my needs. I actually needed several lists that I will describe soon enough!
I have a lot of things on my plate and I found that I was spreading myself thin on what needs to be done. Here are the five main group of tasks I try to juggle with in my life every day:
Due Tasks – anything that has a definite due date to complete a task. Otherwise, penalties (financial, social, or otherwise) can incur. The majority of my due tasks come from groups 3 and 4.
Big Rocks – any projects that are currently active and actively being worked on right now. I want to dedicate time towards any Big Rocks that will hopefully improve my life.
Repeating Maintenance Tasks – These repeating tasks must be performed on a continuing basis to ensure a certain standard of life. Tasks such as taking out the trash, paying the rent, creating the weekly reports, backing up my computer hard drives, and preparing next week’s meeting agenda are examples of treading water. If I don’t perform these admin tasks, life gets messy. The trash starts to smell, the laundry isn’t getting done, or my wife starts throwing eye daggers at me for some forgotten reason.
Single One-Off Tasks – Life comes at me whether I ignore it or not. I have new tasks created with walk-in customers, daily emergencies, social interactions, and any pre-planned one-off tasks that will eventually need to be taken care of if I can’t delegate or delete it. Oftentimes, this group of tasks will intrude on the first three groups listed above. It pretty much throws my list of pre-planned tasks for the day off track. I never get around to work on the above three groups because I’m entrapped in this group.
Someday – This is a group of projects or one-off tasks that I have intentionally placed on the back burner. It is not part of my MIT group and I won’t think about doing anything that falls into this category. I try to avoid wandering into this group of tasks as much as possible. The only time I will check my Someday/Maybe group is during my weekly review.
Create Saved Searches For Quick Access
In order for me to switch easily from one task group to the next, I’ll need to prepare my lists. In OmniFocus, I can create custom perspectives. The custom perspective is a saved search that groups my tasks using a set of filters and sort order. Other task managers might call it a Smart List, Saved Search, or some other variation. Use the saved search feature to give you quick access to the tasks that you need to work on during a time block.
Here some examples of my OmniFocus custom perspective settings for each of the MIT groups.
Repeating Maintenance Tasks
Single One-Off Actions
Most task managers have a built-in Flagged list. I have been using my Flagged as a “Today” list. I flag tasks that have no due date but I would like to work on them this week. If your task manager does not have a Flagged list but it does have tags, you can assign a “Today” tag or “MIT” tag to tasks that you would want to work on today.
Now that I have my saved searches, it’s time to start planning.
The Weekly Review
I am using the weekly review to hit my weekly goals by choosing a handful of tasks (anywhere from 10 to 20) and one to two Big Rock projects to focus on next week. This basket of tasks and Big Rocks are action items that I would like to work on next week. Using the weekly review gives me a strategic plan to ensure that I am taking care of work in all three task groups (due, single actions, Big Rocks).
On the last day of my work week (typically Fridays for most of us), I start planning for next week. I go through the five groups:
Due Tasks – I review my Due Tasks list to look for any missed overdue tasks as well as upcoming due tasks for next week. This gives me a heads-up review of what due items are coming. I print out my due task list and put it in my BuJo.
Big Rocks – I evaluate my progress in my current Big Rocks. I can choose to continue working on them next week. If I didn’t get to work on a Big Rock, I will have to decide if I want to keep it for next week or I should put it back into Someday mode and choose another Big Rock. I choose one or two Big Rocks and print out the project next actions list and put it into my BuJo.
**Repeating Maintenance Tasks ** – Many of my repeating maintenance tasks have due dates and will automatically show in my Due Tasks list. However, there are many maintenance tasks that have no due date. I’ll flag these tasks instead of giving them a false due date. I continue on to the next task group.
Single One-Off Tasks – Some of these one-off tasks will have a due date and will automatically appear in the Due Tasks list. Otherwise, I can flag a small handful of one-off tasks that I want to work on next week. After flagging some repeating maintenance tasks and single one-off tasks, I will visit my Flagged list and print this list to place into my BuJo.
Someday – I look at some tasks and see if I can find time for a few Someday tasks to work into next week’s schedule. I also put some current single one-off tasks into Someday if I would like to consider them for the future.
Life has a funny way of filling up my schedule with requests from my customers, my family, and other social interactions. I try not to flag too many tasks because Life will fill in all the rest of my day if I let it. Saying “no” to new requests has been a struggle but I’m learning to become more judicious in what new work I can turn down. And no, my Honey-Do list from my wife is still mandatory. 🤨
Working On My Pomodoros
Now I have my weekly plan for next week. These are the three pages that I will refer to when I want to work on a pomodoro:
A Due Task list.
One to two Big Rock projects with the associated next actions.
Flagged Single tasks that comes from one-off actions and repeating maintenance tasks.
If I wanted to go all-digital, I would just refer to the three saved search lists throughout the day:
Flagged list showing one-off actions and repeating maintenance tasks.
My week is spent trying to go from one group of tasks to another. I use the pomodoro technique to limit myself from spending too much time in any one task group. I can elect to keep working on the same task group or switch to another task group when I start another pomodoro. I want to work on at least two different task groups throughout the day. It might be a Big Rock or it might be some single tasks. Or I could just try to burn through all the Due tasks first before getting into the daily requests from my one-off task list. I switch between the three pages I filed into my BuJo.
The Daily Review
At the end of the day, I’ll start working on a daily review. I check off any tasks that I completed in my task manager. I can recalibrate daily to make sure I make progress in my three task groups. I add new inbox items into this week’s plan or just record them into my OmniFocus inbox for later consideration. The daily review recalibrate my direction and I can further refine how my week is going. I choose tomorrow’s tasks by measuring the progress I made in today’s tasks.
This is my attempt at figuring out my highlight tasks for the day. I try to make progress in the three task groups – The Big Rocks, the Single One-Off Actions, and the Repeating Maintenance Tasks. I can’t ignore any one group. Using the saved search feature in my task manager or having the three task group lists in my BuJo allows me to quickly move from one group to the next. I try to spend a fair amount of time in each group. There will be days where I am completely focused on a Big Rock. I will need to catch up on some Due tasks or Repeating Maintenance Tasks later. Each day is unique and I want to switch between my different task groups quickly and easily. Preparing my task group lists during the weekly review allows me to prepare a strategic game plan for the next week. I don’t diddle-daddle in my task manager now that I have a game plan.
How do you choose your highlight tasks? Are you an eat-the-frog kind of person? Do you choose the 3 MITs? Or do you just roll the dice and take on whatever fancies you? I’d love to hear from you!
Community member @BrianP has a question we dive into this week: how do you best pick your daily most important tasks?
Stepping Away From My Task Manager
As much as I love my task manager, I have arrived at the realization that the less time I spend in it, the better I feel. I get anxiety when I look at all of these checklists and projects. My bucket list of things to do keeps growing and I can’t stop to stop it from growing! I have these great intentions of fixing things up, taking on more responsibilities, and handling more than I could ever reasonably handle. But all of my projects and checklists were giving me a lot of stress with its overwhelming content. Perhaps it’s time to step back?
I started to do a lot of procrastinating and pretended I was doing productive work by visiting my task manager and staying there. I would obsessively stare at my projects and checklists to make sure I’m up-to-date. I would tweak a couple of projects here and there. I dreamt of what “finished” looked like when I checked off the last action item but I wouldn’t take the next step of starting the project. I was stalling for time by starting at my task manager. I would nod approvingly when my MacOS Screen Time stats showed that I spent a lot of time in my task manager. But I actually got nothing done.
I started to analyze where I was spending my time in my task manager. I wanted to eliminate any time that was spent wandering in my task manager.
How To Reduce Screen Time In My Task Manager
Maintain a simple folder and project structure
It is easier to review my projects and checklists when my folder structure is simple. I grouped my project according to my Areas of Responsibilities.
Keep relevant projects and checklists
It’s easy to start adding projects and checklists. It’s time to start clearing some old cruft out of our task manager. Delete projects that no longer have any meaning or purpose to our lives. Delete or consolidate our checklists. If a checklist has not been used in the past 3 months, consider it as a candidate for deletion. Why have a checklist if we’re not going to visit it and use it?
Each folder has a group of projects related to an Area of Responsibility. All of my
Home projects goes into the Home folder. My
Work folder holds all of my work-related projects. I have a
Maybe folder that holds a variety of ideas or projects that are still in the planning stages.
I keep my folder and project structure as flat as possible. I never like to have sub-projects. If I have a large project, I’ll create a folder and populate it with projects that represent a project stage.
Sub-projects can group similar tasks together but it just makes my main project longer. It is easier for me to see a large project as a series of smaller projects inside a folder. A huge project with an endless series of sub-projects makes me dizzy when I have to scroll endlessly through it. I can select a project inside a project folder to focus on a particular project stage.
Keep relevant smart lists or custom perspectives
Many task managers such as OmniFocus, 2Do, and Todoist have the ability to create a smart list. It is a saved search that can be easily accessed with the click of a button or a shortcut key. The smart list allows us to quickly create a view that shows the desired tasks at the right time. I don’t need to wade into the deep waters of my Projects view or Tags view to find a group of tasks. I can just jump into the desired smart list and see what I need.
Delete any smart lists that are no longer used. I often take a screenshot of my smart list settings and save it into a folder holding these screenshots. It’s easier to access your smart lists when you have a small handful to choose from. Friction occurs when I have to skip past smart lists that are no longer relevant.
Once a month, I like to update my smart lists. If I haven’t used a smart list in the last 3 months, it might be time to archive it and remove it from my task manager. There are some smart lists that I keep for the summer. When summer season finishes, I archive that smart list. I don’t need it for the rest of year and I don’t want to add more noise to my task manager by keeping it when it’s no longer needed.
Keep My Tags structure simple
Once every three months, I like to go through my tags and consolidate or delete tags when needed. I used to have several tags (contexts) such as:
Mac tags, I had multiple tags for the various apps that I was using. But I’ve consolidated everything under a single
Mac tag. I don’t worry about a specific app or condition when I’m using my Mac. The only time I’ll consider a sub-context such as a specific app or online status is if I need to break down a long
Mac list into smaller groups.
In this example, I don’t frequently use Excel a lot. I can delete the
Excel context and assign those tasks to my
Mac tag. I do use the Ulysses app a lot and have many writing ideas captured in OmniFocus. I’ll assign the
Ulysses tag to any tasks that I want to send to Ulysses.
If you haven’t used a tag in a long time, consider deleting it for now. You can always add a tag back in the future when you will be frequently using it more.
Go Analog when I am in “Action Mode”
Action Mode is the time I spend throughout the day getting actual work done. I’m not staring at my task manager during this time. I transferred a handful of tasks from my task manager to the BuJo and work from that list. The only time I actively engage in my task manager is at the end of the day when I do my end of day daily review and plan for the next day. I call this time block my Planning Mode. This is the only time I actively engage in my task manager. I check off completed items, process new inbox items, and update any projects or checklists. When I finish with my Planning Mode, I am confident that I no longer have to look at my task manager until the next Planning Mode time block.
For more discussion about using a BuJo with a task manager, here is a post about that discussion:
Keep It Super Simple (KISS)
My task manager is easier to browse when I do the following things:
Keep a simple project and folder structure.
Maintain a simple tag structure with as many tags as needed and with as few tags as needed.
Update my smart lists (saved searches) by eliminating unused smart lists and keeping the smart lists I will frequently use in the next month or so.
Use my task manager only during my Planning Mode phase when I am performing a daily review at the end of the day.
Use my BuJo as a way to stay out of my digital task manager.
I feel so much better when I’m not spending so much time in it. It means I’m actually working on something instead of planning. My task manager is a planning tool. I understand that there are many users who need to refer to their task manager on their smartphone, tablet, or Mac. But it’s too much of a distraction when I am chasing shiny squirrels in my task manager. Keeping my task manager database super simple allows me to browse effortlessly through.
What makes you stay in your task manager? What do you do to keep you task manager simple? Do you have it open on your desktop all day long? Can you get your work done with all the distractions that a task manager gives you? I’d like to hear about how and when you are using your task manager!!
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