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Tackling the "to-do" list problem

I have a to-do list (surprise!) - actually I have a couple. Possibly even a few... I've even got an item on one of them to consolidate the lists together.

It is so easy to keep adding new items, and it isn't as easy to mark them off. Tasks change status or become mini "projects" with multiple steps (get car oil changed = schedule oil change appointment, which leads to an appointment being booked, which will be the item until it can be marked complete.) At some point I really want to visit the whole "to-do item status" concept as well.

Anyway, this is how the inner workings of my engineer brain function. Some tasks are insanely simple, but mixed in with more complex ones that require perquisite tasks, specific times of the day (business hours for example), specific people, or specific locations that may or may not be possible to get to easily.

I've struggled with trying to tame the never-ending lists. Last week I had a night open and plans to be really productive and knock some things off my list - which wound up not happening, but other "productive" tasks did get taken care of. Those were not planned, but still helpful. Someone said "what a productive day" and I felt like it wasn't the "productive" I actually wanted.

Working in the world of software/web development, this kind of stuff has parallels in the engineering world. I guess you can call that "technical debt" - new stuff is coming up and old stuff isn't being taken care of.

That won't work for me. I need to be making progress, I've got a lot of tasks that need to be finished. That's why they made the list to begin with.

While I've always had the desire to finish these things, I haven't had the proper personal accountability for actually checking things off the list(s) - I love marking things done, but I don't make it a regular habit of checking them enough.

Enter Beeminder - a personal accountability system for reaching goals. A co-worker introduced me to the site. I started thinking about the usual suspects - like losing weight and thought about some of the things he had put in - like making sure he spends X hours a day being productive on personal projects. What I liked most is the work spent on the system to make it statistically sound, measurable (a goal needs to be measurable), capable of automating, and with appropriate notifications to remind me to log whatever data isn't being supplied automatically via other devices or services (your scale can talk to it, for example.)

I started thinking about other ideas to put down as goals. One of them was being "productive" by marking one thing off my to-do list per day. However, that can vary. Some items are easier than others, and what if I have a day where other "productive" tasks come up that take away from that list (as a lot of days do...) - so I began thinking more about it.

I came up with the idea that each task should have some sort of amount of effort associated to it. The effort is derived from the amount of work the task requires and/or the amount of coordination due to location, time constraints, people constraints, etc. For example, getting my passport - that has been on my list for over a year. I paid for it, filed the paperwork, just need the photo and actual submission done. I tried a few times last year but never had all my ducks in a row, and then it fell by the wayside (I had no real need for it and got busy with other things.)

Being a obsessed with completing things like I am, it's still on my list, and I want to get it done. I won't be surprised if my payment is now forfeited due to government accounting needing to close the books each year or something like that. Nevertheless, it's something I should have anyway, it's staying on the list. That would get a value of 1.0 - the highest a task can have, in my world. It requires finding a place that is open, a place that does photos, possibly trying to haggle with them to honor my payment made last year, etc. - a lot of possible effort there, along with time constraints (business hours, sort of) and location (specific locations handle specific things.)

Once I thought about it in that way, I could put in a Beeminder task of "finish at least 1.0 units of effort per day" or something. I started thinking of other tasks on my list, and it looked like that would be an easy way to try to knock things out. It almost becomes a game.

Then I started expanding the idea further. Those random unplanned tasks that come up, such as helping my Parents move? That took a lot of physical work and time. I can't really be taking care of other items if I am busy helping them out. I don't want to be penalized for it. So we can introduce the concept of "bonus units" - I could say "I didn't do anything on the list, but that was definitely worth 1.0" - and feel like the day is fulfilled still.

I believe every day people should do something to advance their life (or someone elses), and this way of tracking makes it easier to be accountable.

Extending it even more, random daily tasks that may or may not be done, based on laziness, distractions, whatever - those can have some value too. Maybe you don't go to the store that often - so going to the store is 0.2, or getting a haircut is 0.2. What about laundry? Those things do count. They are productive. Most of us probably wouldn't think of giving ourselves some credit for them when introducing something as detailed as this.

Those people who prefer the stick vs. the carrot could even put in negative units. Maybe you want to stop watching so much TV, so you deduct 0.1 units per hour. Combine that with earning 0.2 units per hour of gym time, and you are doing the equivalent of calorie counting but with productivity.

The gamification makes it kinda fun, and it might make it easier to adopt as part of a daily routine. Tying it to a system such as Beeminder could be useful too, if you like their method of being punished for non-compliance. Some of us need that, and I may wind up using their site for tracking each day's units.

I tried to come up with a name for a unit, the best I could come up with was "Personal Productivity Unit" (or PPU, since it needs an acronym) - but it was an idea that has been brewing for a while, and I think I have come up with enough structure now to give it a shot in real life and see how it fares.

Finally, I am sure I am not the first one to think of something like this, there are probably books written on this, but I haven't seen anything myself and it makes my engineering brain happy to be able to weigh tasks and set a goal based on that. If anyone else has any more ideas on the subject, I'm all ears!

Categories: Lifestyle
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