Living an organised life in the cloud, part 3: Anytime Tasks

This is part 3 of a series of posts, describing how I organise my life and everything in it. Rather than an ad hoc scattering of random ideas hodge-podged together, I had time recently to engineer a system that really works. My life is now much less stressful, much more productive, and much more fun! This makes me a very happy man, and in this post I describe how I organise the Anytime Tasks component of my life.

In part 2 of this series, I described Fixed Blocks – the concrete commitments in my calendar and blocks of time that I’ve set aside to work on a project. Anytime Tasks (AT’s) are very different to Fixed Blocks. They’re something I have to do, sometimes by a particular deadline, but otherwise it doesn’t matter when I do them. Together with the Fixed Blocks component, and also with the Projects component, it means that I can always answer the question “what should I be doing right now?”. What’s more, I can answer it knowing that I will be doing what is the right, best, most productive, most happy making thing for me to be doing right now, and that the answer to this question takes into account all my commitments, priorities and personal energy level. This is very exciting!

Classically, I organised my AT’s in a random collection of todo lists, grouped “vertically” by what the task was about. For example, I had a couple of lists of things I had to do for my DPhil thesis, kept a scattering of emails in my inbox as a record of outstanding tasks as MCR president, and had a scratch text file on my BCG laptop with things I needed to do for my current case.

The advantage of organising things vertically like this was that it was quick and easy to record tasks as they come up. The problem was that grouping tasks like this made it really hard to decide what to do next whenever I had a spare moment, and it was also really difficult to keep track of all the deadlines in each of the verticals. If I had a spare moment I’d have to go through all of the lists to try and decide what to do, and I had no idea what the most urgent thing to do when I was next in the office. It was a nightmare!

What’s more, for the same reasons a paper diary is terrible, paper is also a terrible way of keeping track of AT’s. So it should be no surprise that I have eagerly switched to a digital system. Right now, I use Wunderlist, available on the web and as iOS and Android apps. Unfortunately, the iOS applications are quite buggy so I’m thinking of switching to RTM, but even in its buggy state Wunderlist is a massive improvement over my old system.

In part, this is just because it avoids the problem of paper while making it easy to prioritise things and get deadline reminders. In addition, I have also adopted a collection of methods inspired by David Allen in GTD, and I’ll spend the rest of this post explaining and motivating these.

In a GTD system, tasks aren’t grouped into vertical silos. Instead, they’re organised horizontally, by the context or environment where I can complete them. For example, one of my todo lists now is Phone, and it is the list of phone calls that I need to make. Any time I come across a new phone call that I need to make I add it to this list – and any time I have a quiet moment and my phone handy I look at this list and make the call. Because I’m disciplined about making sure any phone call that I need to make gets added to Phone, I also don’t have to worry about keeping track of phone calls anywhere else. This is “everything and easy” again.

Importantly, organising AT’s horizontally like this means that I need to do the thinking up front to make sure that the task is always a discrete and actionable one, with obvious steps to complete it. This means that when I realise that there is a task that I need to complete then I need to think then and there what the concrete action to complete it actually is. Putting the effort in early like this isn’t easy for me, but the downstream and net benefits are so huge that it has been an easy habit to acquire!

Like Phone, I also have a number of other lists that I use, and ComputerErrandsHomeOffice and Agenda all represent different contexts for my tasks. For example, Computer has a list of specific things I need to do while at a computer – to cancel my membership in a club, to download some new battle scenarios for a wargame I play and so forth. Errands has my errands, including any shopping I need to do, one entry per store, and Home and Office have things I need to do at the home and office respectively. If I need to talk with someone about something the next time I see them then I add an Agenda entry with their name as its title and summarise what we need to talk about in the notes for that entry.

With this method I’ve been able to unify all my previously overlapping lists into one structured group of lists, and the horizontal organisation of actionable tasks also makes it very easy for me to work out what I should do whenever I have a gap and lets me focus all my energy on the task itself, whether it’s a work obligation, personal obligation or just having fun. Already this is great, but as with my Google calendar and Fixed Blocks there are a few tweaks which make it even better.

Firstly, to help make sure each of my commitments is only recorded in one place (a big part of making the system easy), I don’t track next steps for any of my projects in Wunderlist. This is because the tasks in my projects are so inter-related with each other, and these relationships are confusingly obscured when they are added to the Anytime Tasks system. I also set aside specific Fixed Blocks of time to work on these projects.

Secondly, some Anytime Tasks must be completed by or on a particular date. For these I simply add a “due date” and Wunderlist’s (and RTM’s) functionality make it very easy to see the few tasks that are due today (or are overdue!). Similarly, I invest a little time each morning and use Wunderlist’s “star” functionality to highlight the priority, undated tasks for that day. Because I have more than 150 AT’s scattered across the Phone, Computer etc lists at any given time this is an important quick investment up-front that makes it really easy to identify next actions later on, reducing the overall effort I need to make and leaving me with more spare time and energy to live my life.

Thirdly, if I ever come across an AT that I can do straight away and which will take less than 2 minutes then will I do it straight away instead of adding it to Wunderlist. Although I have engineered my system to take the minimum net time and effort possible, it isn’t free and does take some energy. If a task takes less than two minutes then it is more efficient to just do then.

Fourthly and finally, I also use a number of other lists that aren’t strictly discrete and actionable tasks:  WaitingFor, and a group of SomedayX lists (SomedayKatie, SomedayRead, SomedayWatch and SomedayOther). Things I am waiting for – e.g. call backs I’m expecting and books I’ve loaned to friends – are added to the WaitingFor list. That is because it is easier for me to make a small effort up front than to spend a lot of energy trying to remember, and it also helps me cover everything, because once it is in my system I don’t have to worry about forgetting it!

Each of the “SomedayX” lists is similarly a collection of things I want to remember, but don’t want to have to spend any effort remembering. Whether it’s one of the hundreds of books I want to read, places I want to travel to with Katie or any of a hundred other things, these lists stay on top of everything I want do someday so that I don’t have to.

Finally, while I do track regular activities (like reviewing my AT lists weekly so that I can prioritise them easily each day), I should also note that I don’t track birthdays or anniversaries as AT tasks. Instead, I track them as “all-day” FB’s in my Google calendar, and I add a couple of reminders – one 2 weeks before (for cards) and one a day before (for a happy birthday email). Now a purist might argue that birthdays should go in the AT system and not the FB system, and also that none of these last lists are for discrete and actionable tasks, and they’d be right… But that argument also illustrates an important aspect of my system design: A system that is everything and easy is much more interesting to me than one which is conceptually pure! Expect this to come up in the other components as well!

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