Leadership, Software Development, Tech Industry, &c

Choosing Rules For Bounding Tasks In Time

I’ve been using GTD since late 2006, but it really took on a whole new level for me after reading The Secret Weapon Manifesto. For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time/task management methodology first introduced by Dave Allen in his 2002 book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”; The Secret Weapon (hereafter “TSW”) is a specific, detailed guide to implementing the GTD methodology using the popular Evernote note-taking service.

In a nutshell, GTD argues that, instead of keeping a single, time- or priority-bound “to do” list, you should keep separate task lists for each “context” you operate in; contexts are defined by geographical places and/or roles and resources required to complete tasks, such as “Home”, “PC”, “Work”, “Phone”, “Errands”, etc. You break tasks down into immediately actionable, piece-meal items, classify them into contexts, then pick and execute them based on context, energy levels, time available and relative priority. While there is much more to GTD, you could say this is the gist of it.

What TSW adds to GTD is a specific, technology-based approach to carry out and support the methodology, using the cloud-based Evernote service as your task repository. Notes are tasks, and tags allow you to sort tasks into appropriate contexts. Crucially, TSW also adds a notion of time-based contexts that is not overtly present in the seminal GTD approach; in addition to what is to be done and where is it to be done, TSW allows to frame a task regarding when it should be done. In true GTD style, however, time boundaries are relative; except for a few key things where an exact date and time is inherently critical for a task (think birthdays, meetings, anything that absolutely would go into a calendar), TSW posits that everything else in your life fits into five loose “time buckets”: Now, Next, Soon, Later, and Someday. (A sixth “when” context, Waiting, applies to tasks you have delegated or are otherwise waiting on some else.)

This may sound rather lax, but when you think of it, that’s just the way life plays out for most of us. Things come up, and you assign them to some sort of urgency scale, and (ideally) set off to complete them based on that order. Really urgent things you’ll want to get done today, but if for some reason you can’t, guess what will be the first things you’ll try to cross off your list tomorrow? So the “Now” context provides a really nice way to group things you may otherwise find yourself repeatedly and frantically moving to the following day in your calendar as other, more pressing matters pop up everyday - sometimes at a rhythm that doesn’t even allow you to register them in the system. Curiously, the leisure you allow yourself for less urgent things makes it possible to explain the need and behavior of the other time contexts under very similar reasoning.

So TSW provides “just enough” time bounding for your tasks. Or does it? For sure, original GTD is even more lax, which used to make me a bit uneasy when I had more than one or two urgent things to deal with among a few hundred other tasks; TSW is by far the best time-related customization I’ve seen applied to an otherwise very solid task management style. However, even TSW may be rather ambiguous in this sense: just exactly what belongs in “Now”? What in “Next”?

After a year or so using the system, I am thinking of two broad patterns to rule the selection of a specific TSW time context for my tasks:

  • “Daily”-oriented rules:

    • Now: stuff that needs to get done today (or tomorrow, tops)
    • Next: stuff that needs to get done this week
    • Soon: stuff ideally done by next week
    • Later: stuff that can be deferred at least 15 days from now
    • Someday: this one kind of explains itself
  • “Weekly”-oriented rules:

    • Now: stuff that needs to get done this week
    • Next: stuff that should get done by next week
    • Soon: stuff due later this month (can wait two weeks from now)
    • Later: stuff due some upcoming month
    • Someday: same as above

The “daily” and “weekly” denominations of the rule sets have to do with the overall urgency of the tasks involved, in both cases relative to a largely weekly scheme of planning and measuring work.

I’m sure you can come up with many other ways to rule these buckets. These two come from distilling key principles from other time/task management methodologies, such as Michael Linenberger’s “Manage Your Now!” and J. D. Meier’s “Agile Results”’s Rule of Three, or more specifically “Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, Friday Reflection”. The beauty of my proposed rules is that they can be flexible: you can switch between rule sets based on whether your task list leans toward the more planned, “strategic” side, or the more hectic, “minute-by-minute” side. Furthermore, you could conceptually cluster your tasks along those two lines (without explicitly reflecting said division in the system) and apply the relevant rule set to each such cluster accordingly.

Now, I’m off to review my task lists and experiment with these rules. I encourage you to pick up GTD/TSW if you haven’t already, join me playing with these rules, and best of all, tweak and tailor them to your own reality. We really owe it to ourselves (and, some of us think, to God as well) to make the most out of our time - even, and maybe especially, our “off-time”.


Melvin Pérez-Cedano - April 13 2013 6:56 AM

Good stuff, Ramón!

My task-management approach has been influenced by the same sources (Allen, Linenberger, Meier) you cite in this post.

(just for sharing) At the implementation level, after years using Outlook & Toodledo, I’m now using Todo.txt, a lighter tool in terms of planning. It’s priority-based and the only items that show up are 1st-priority (your ‘Now’ perhaps) bucket. That simple. I mentally map the remaining priorities (2-9) to time-bound categories like your (next, soon, later, someday). At the beginning I thought it wouldn’t work and that I would miss the more sophisticated mechanisms provided by Toodledo, but frankly it has been working just fine.

DISCLAIMER: typed using my phone; I apologize for typos and brevity.