Battle To-Do Debt

My colleague, Alex Gustafson, recently wrote about To-Do Debt, and I’d like to dissect his post. :)

Reminder: I try to practice the methods described in “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.

I’m one of those people that uses a full to-do list as motivation to keep the day moving. Left to my own devices I can sit quietly in my chair and let hours float by while I just think. There’s lots of thinking to do. But when I have a full list, it’s a lot less likely I’ll waste my time this way.

The end result is that I add a due date to almost everything in my Wunderlist so that I can stare at the “Today” smart list instead of into my own mind. The other result is that a lot of my recurring events will go red (i.e., late) and stay red for great lengths of time.

I think you’ve gone numb to a few areas in your task manager. The edges of your system are fuzzy from missing proper categorization, and you have too many items scheduled to be completed each day.

Confession: I do the latter often. It’s a work in progress. :)

If you ignore the red text (time-sensitive to-dos), the system breaks down from lack of trust, and reduce the chances that you’ll take those to-dos seriously. Don’t set unnecessary due dates on to-dos.


David Allen suggests using your calendar for items due on a certain days.

I use my calendar for timed events and informational items (a.k.a. FYI), but I’m cool with due dates in my task manager, Things, where to-dos or projects appear in red on the day they need to be completed.


I spot an Automattic and Ingress list in your sidebar, and suggest creating folders and/or more lists. (e.g. DnD, Draw, Read, Blog/Main, Blog/Baby, and Someday.)

Glancing at the lists in your sidebar can help with a trigger to review the to-dos in each list, and keep you accountable to move items forward to completion. (Or, help you realize you should move a list/to-do to your Someday folder/list.)

Sort the to-dos into lists when you determine where they belong, rather than staying there indefinitely. If a to-do isn’t in a list, I feel it has less importance because I haven’t fully determined how and why it needs to be done.

Add tags (context) to to-dos in your Inbox. Tags allow you to reduce the number of displayed items appropriate to your current context.

Here are some example tags:

  • Time (5m, 10m, 15m, 30m, 45m, 60m, 90m)
  • computer
  • home
  • errand
  • call
  • iPhone
  • internet
  • write
  • read
  • book
  • buy
  • car
  • Energy (low, medium, high)

In practice:

  • 07:30 — I’m inspired to write! I’ll view the “write” tag.
  • 11:45 — I have 15 minutes at work before heading out to lunch. In the Automattic list, view the “15m” tag.
  • 16:00 — I’m tired. I’ll wind down by catching up on reading P2s threads by viewing to-dos with the “read” tag in the Automattic list.
  • 20:30 — Are there five or six quick to-dos around home I can complete within the next 30 minutes? View the Home list, then search for the “5m”, “10m”, “15m”, or “30m” tags.

For instance, learning to draw is a hobby right now. I want to do a little bit everyday, but it’s much lower priority than finishing my work tasks or chores at home. So it hasn’t happened in almost a week.

Is it a priority, would you like for it to be a priority, or will it be a priority at a later date? This is a great exercise, as I sometimes find myself inadvertently embracing guilt, rather than punting something to my Someday list, or scheduling the to-do to resurface on a later date.

At least once a week, review all your lists — to-dos and projects — in order to:

  • Add new items.
  • Add context to items that have gone stale.
  • Add subtasks to stalled to-dos. Don’t forget to add tags to those subtasks.
  • Check completed items.
  • Delete irrelevant items.
  • Punt items to a Someday list.

While the features and terminology might differ, the concepts are similar from Getting Started with Things:

Great titles for your to-dos make a big difference. […] Be crystal-clear about the real action you’re going to take, so that when you see the to-do again later you won’t have to think twice about what you meant.

Using your screenshot, here are some examples where I combine the above concepts (descriptive title that conveys action, plus tags):

  • “Blog post” vs. “Blog post: Read and scoff at Bryan’s post about To-Do Debt” (Tags: read, 10m, computer, internet)
  • “Read” vs. “Read GTD: Chapter 1” (Tags: read, 30m, book)
  • “DnD Writing” vs. “Write about x” (List: DnD. Tags: 30m, write)
  • “Drawing” vs. “Start sketch of y” (List: Draw. Tags: 30m, write)

Mowing the yard is important, but I hate doing it and I’m only willing to bother under the right weather conditions and time. So it will probably stay red all the way up until there’s a jungle in my back yard.

Let’s apply some a couple minutes of thought to the to-do “Mow the Yard” as an exercise.

  • Do you need to prepare anything before you can start mowing the yard? If yes, add subtasks.
  • How much time will it take? Add tags!
  • Do you and your wife care if it’s a jungle in the back yard? If not, move it to your Someday list or folder to get rid of the guilt. You’ll come across it when you review your lists weekly, or when you see a jungle in your back yard. :)

At what point do you declare to-do bankruptcy to get rid of all this to-do debt?

I don’t; that’d entail nuking the whole system and starting from scratch.

Throw Simba

Instead, I employ the above techniques to renegotiate my agreements to eliminate any guilt.

I can work very hard all day, cross lots of items off my list, and still feel like I’m not getting traction.

Traction on what? Try adjusting your Smart Lists so Completed is visible, and review it daily for a confidence boost — or reality check if you’re doing to-dos that aren’t relative to your goals.

I’m one of those people that uses a full to-do list as motivation to keep the day moving. Left to my own devices I can sit quietly in my chair and let hours float by while I just think. There’s lots of thinking to do. But when I have a full list, it’s a lot less likely I’ll waste my time this way.

The end result is that I add a due date to almost everything in my Wunderlist so that I can stare at the “Today” smart list instead of into my own mind.

Takeaways

  • You already have a full to-do list in Wunderlist (and your calendar). Both are technically groups of organized sublists in various designs and layouts. Review both when you have discretionary time, then work off those tasks.
  • Limit your Today smart list for to-dos that need to be done today.
  • Pat yourself on the back! Review your Completed smart list regularly.
  • Allow yourself to “punt” items to a later date, into your Someday list, or into the trash.
  • Bonus: Read “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen. ;)

Thanks for the prompt, Alex!

Things: Project templates!

Cultured Code released Things Cloud “Nimbus” a couple of days ago. I found myself skimming their Twitter feed and saw:

Mac: While viewing the Projects focus (⌘+5) — i.e. you aren’t viewing the details and To Do items within a project — select the project you’d like to copy, then press ⌘+D (Duplicate) to create an identical copy of the project.

(You can also duplicate To Do items.)

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Despite not having read the Project Templates support page from Basecamp Help, I recently learned that I could create project templates in Basecamp—which include To Do lists—and longed for similar functionality in Things.

I…think they had it all along. :)

It should be listed on the keyboard shortcuts page (required reading for all Things for Mac users striving to be super efficient).

Here are some project template ideas:

  • Packing list
  • Important weekly/monthly checklists
  • Irregular projects (new clients, employees, taxes)

How would I create, organize, and save the project templates for future use?

Initial setup will take less than a minute:

  1. Open the Tags window (⇧⌘+T), and create a tag named Template for the project.
  2. Click the blank area—in the row of the tag—furthest to the right, which will display a text area with a blinking cursor. Choose a letter to be used for a keyboard shortcut for the tag, like “T”.

Goal thus far — When viewing the Project focus (⌘+5), find your project templates quickly by pressing Ctrl and the letter you chose in step 2 earlier. (e.g. Ctrl+T)

Create a project template:

  1. Create a new project, which will be your template.
  2. Add your desired project tags, notes, and To Do items.
  3. Navigate to the Project focus (⌘+5), press the keyboard shortcut you’ve chosen for the Template tag (Ctrl+T, for this example), then move the project to the Someday focus (⌘+Y) to hide it from your Active Projects list in the sidebar. Once you’ve created several project templates, you can use the up (↑) and down (↓) arrow keys to select a project.
  4. Optional: While viewing the Project focus (⌘+5), select the newly-created project template, and File (⇧⌘+F) the project in the correct Area.
  5. Repeat steps 1–4 for additional project templates, as needed.

Now, you’re a few keyboard shortcuts away from creating a new project from one of your templates. By few, I literally mean:

  1. (⌘+5) Navigate to the Project focus.
  2. (Ctrl+T) View all projects with the Template tag.
  3. (↓ or ↓) Navigate to your desired Project item.
  4. (⌘+D) Duplicate the project template.
  5. (⏎) Open the duplicated project, remove the Template tag.
  6. Edit the project to be specific to the scenario (a.k.a. profit).

Rad action for Drafts: Multiple Things

A few months ago, Ben Whiting shared an action he created for Drafts: Multiple “Things”.

When using Things for iPhone v2.6.3, you can’t add multiple to-dos in rapid succession by pressing Enter after each to-do. This action is a fantastic workaround.

Feature idea for Cultured Code: Copy Drafts’ implementation of their New Draft button (tap and hold) to the New To-Do button. i.e. Add multiple to-dos:

  • Without tags to keep it simple.
  • Within a list, area, or project.
  • Within a new project.

Please and thank you. :P

Favorite workflows for Alfred 2

The following are a current, alphabetical list of workflows I’ve installed for Alfred 2. Enjoy the rabbit hole! :)

Caffeinate Control by Shawn Patrick Rice: Replaces the Caffeine Mac app.

Caffeinate is a native OS X command line utility that solves the problem of your Mac constantly falling asleep on you. […] Caffeinate was introduced in Mountain Lion (10.8)[…]

Chrome Bookmarks by Marat Dreizin: I remember seeing this workflow, and I’m glad I finally installed it.

Faves by David Ferguson:

Mark a folder/app/file as a favorite and then provide you with quick access to those items by a keyword.

Results from the workflow are actionable (marked as file items), they can be opened it by pressing Enter, browsed in Alfred by pressing Cmd+Enter, or removed from the favorites list by pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Menu Bar Search by Ted Wise: Despite the workflow page on Packal saying it isn’t compatible with Yosemite (10.10), it works fine for me.

Netflix Search by Dorian Karter: “Search, autocomplete and launch Netflix.” Update 2015-06-19: v1.5 doesn’t work with the Netflix website revamp, so I’ve stopped using this workflow.

Non-Secure Empty Trash by Arthur Hammer: With the Empty Trash securely option checked in Finder Preferences, the default Alfred command to empty your trash (“Empty”) means the files will be deleted securely. If you don’t have anything sensitive that requires a secure file deletion, this workflow will save that time.

OS X Toolbox Workflow by Sayz Lim: The “tb” keyword gives you eight options in Yosemite:

  • Relaunch Finder
  • Toggle Desktop
  • Toggle Hidden Files
  • Memory Purge
  • Reset Launch Services
  • Toggle WiFi
  • Reset Launchpad
  • Relaunch Dock

Random Choice by Clinton Strong: Leave indecisiveness to chance. Options include:

  • Get a yes or no response to, “Should I…?”
  • Flip a coin.
  • Choose a random number using a minimum or maximum value.
  • Choose ‘…’ from a comma separated list of values.
  • Roll the dice

Rate iTunes Track by David Klem: “Assign a star rating to the currently playing track in iTunes.” I use Smart Playlists. Most of those have a rule which require songs to have ratings, and a couple of them only play songs that need a rating. For the latter, this workflow speeds up that process. (Related post from March 2006: How I use the Grouping field in iTunes.)

Rdio by David Ferguson: “Control your local Rdio application, search for tracks, artists or albums to play, and also provide you with information about the currently playing track.”

YouTube by Simon Støvring: Search YouTube videos with Alfred 2 and the “yt” keyword. Includes eleven commands, which you (fortunately) don’t need to remember. :)

Honorable mentions

Add to Things by Kim Franken: Add new tasks to your lists in Things. I don’t use this because I prefer the Quick Entry window to add context immediately.

Sometimes, when you’re replying to an email or browsing the web, you might think of something you want to jot down. Things makes it easy to do that before you forget, and without losing focus on what you’re doing. You can even automatically link to a website, email, or file, and capture snippets of text that you need to refer to later.

You can see more details on the support page from Cultured Code, “Creating To-Dos From Other Apps“.

Bluetooth Toggle by Jakob Wells for Yosemite only. For older versions of OS X, you can try another workflow here.

PingPong by Vítor Galvão: Hold the ⌘ (Command) key, look for the word “Pong”, and press the corresponding number to hit the ball. There are three difficulty levels.

Marvelous calendaring tips from Back to Work

I listened to Back to Work: 200: Blitzkriegscheiße a couple of weeks ago. Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin share excellent calendaring tips for yourself and shared events at the 52–minute mark.

The suggestion to include a list of agenda items in the notes field for the event is one of my favorite tips.

For reference, I currently use:


  1. I grabbed Calendars 5 when it was free last year for a limited time