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Dr. Productivity or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Task List

John Funk
I'm a designer, artist, and developer. Interested in art and game programming with JS.
Updated on ・6 min read

This article is split into two parts, understanding the problem and using OmniFocus to improve time and attention management. Pardon the typos, etc. I wrote this as a stream of consciousness to share my ideas. If anyone ever wants to chat about it, hit me up on twitter.

Part 1: The Problem

Where I'm coming from

I'm a dad, a super ok developer, an artist, a designer, a teacher, a musician (maybe?), a carpenter (sort of), a Dungeon Master, a... Well, let's just say that I wear many hats. Like you, I'm curious. The world is a wonderful place with so many experiences to be had and so many things to learn. Curiosity is great, except when it's not. It's great except when you need to manage your time and attention, and realize that doing so poorly creates heightened anxiety, which cripples you from doing even the smallest and most simple thing.

I can't speak for you, but I was never taught the skills to manage my time and attention. Skills that are crucial to survival this day and age, where everything is looking to steal them away from us. We are defenceless and for the most part, we're hurting because of it.

On the shoulders of giants

Over the years I've tried to find ways to manage anxiety, stress, projects/tasks, roles and responsibilities, and in general... feel ok. Here's a system that worked for me and it might work for you too. I'll be using OmniFocus for my implementation.

It's worth noting that the majority of this is inspired by Merlin Mann of 43 Folders and his excellent podcast with Dan Benjamin called Back to Work on 5by5.tv. This is a distillation of what's stuck and what's worked.

Caveat emptor: I've never actually read "Getting Things Done" by David Allen, but I think this approach is pretty close to the GTD ethos.

The crux

As I can see it, the main problems that we're trying to solve are as follows:
1 - Balancing time and attention is hard
2 -Focusing your time and attention at the right things is harder
3 - Not doing what you think you should be doing is crippling
4 - Not doing things that are congruent with who you are creates cognitive dissonance
5 - Consistency in anything is hard
6 - Our sense of time sucks almost as bad as our perception of the effect of our effort over time

Part 2: The solution

In summary the solution is to have a series of reviews where you look at who you are, who you want to be, what's important to you, and outline tangible and actionable things to move you to that destination. The glue that ties all of this together is that you have a place to go--or an application that you use, which in my case is OmniFocus--that you can trust to hold everything. The result is a prioritized set of things to do that are congruent with how you see yourself. It almost seems like a novel idea when you read it aloud.

Step 1: Yearly review (or getting started)

The first thing I do is ask myself, "What do I want out of life?" I try to ask myself big questions like, "What makes me happy?" If I've been using the system for some time, I like to review what I wrote previously and ask myself, "Are the things that I'm doing working? Were my assumptions about what makes me happy true?"

These big questions take time to answer, so we're only really going to think about them once every 6-8-12 months, ish.

Make this yearly review a project that reoccurs every year.

Step 2: Who am I

As part of my yearly review, or initial setup, I'll make a series of folders based on my roles in life. I order these by priority. One of the things I love about OmniFocus is that my list of "to-do" item will be ordered by this set of prioritized folders. I end up with a to-do list based on how I should be prioritizing my life.

For example:

- Health
- Husband
- Father
- Pet Owner
- Finances
- I want to be better at...
    - Music
    - Drawing
    - Carpentry
- Work

There are a couple important things to note here.

The first is that this is just a set of dependencies. Each folder is dependent on successfully attending to the folder above it. The idea is that being a good father is easier if i'm a good husband, and that's easier and possible if I'm doing things to maintain my health.

The second thing to note is that these folders directly reflect the level of actionable attention I'm giving to these areas of my life. I might be putting the folder of father up high on my list, but maybe that folder doesn't have any projects in it. Or, maybe the items in work far out weigh the number of items in health. That's not to say these should all be even, but it's a very quick and clear visual indicator that you might be mixing up your verbs and nouns.

Step 3: Weekly review

At the start of every week I do a weekly review (it's a reoccurring weekly task) where I perform the following.

  • Brainstorm new projects and brain dump anything in my mind. I try to get things out of my mind so that I don't have to remember anything.
  • Review project priority and put the most important projects at the top
  • Mark any projects I'm not working on this week as on hold
  • Look at long standing on hold projects to see if I should (or can) drop them.
  • Review the calendar to see if anything is double booked, forgot to get booked, etc.
  • Look at any projects that don't have a next task to see if something can be done to move it to completion or if it can be marked as complete

Step 4: Use the system and create some projects

We can now safely create projects because we have a simple prioritized structure to put them into. For the most part projects will be a set of tasks. My recommendation for that is to write them as actionable individual things that you can do instead of ideas. Also, avoid setting estimated times or due dates for them. It might be tempting to make your GTD system into a schedule but I've always found it to be more trouble than it's worth. I write down specific date/time things in the calendar and then leave everything else date/timeless.

Step 5: Creating habits

I found that I had a lot of anxiety from feeling like I was letting areas of my life atrophy, or that my nouns and verbs were mixed up. It's important that if I say I'm a noun (artist) that I'm frequently "verbing" (making art). I've been using simple reoccurring tasks that are trivially doable to help build those habits, but also to give my brain a nod that, "Hey, I hear you. I know you're concerned about me being an artist and I'm going to do something about it." What I'll do is create a tasks that repeats every 1 day from the time it was completed. The task's duration is 15 minutes, but I ask for 5 minutes of output. For example, "Draw for 5 minutes," or "Jog for 5 minutes." I'll then tag those as "Daily" (it's the only tag I use) and make a perspective in OmniFocus for it. The result is a list of simple daily tasks that make sure I'm always on top of things. And when I look at them I think, "PSH... I can draw for 5 minutes. What's 5 minutes!?"

The biggest key here is that you're consistently showing up and doing a little bit of work. That little bit of work over a huge amount of time will have a massive impact on all aspects of your life. To me, it's been one of the biggest parts of actually have a work life balance.

The danger zone

Avoid getting too clever. Setting up a GTD system with complex tags, filters, etc, invites you to fiddle with you setup. Keep things simple and clear.

Be careful about "fake it till you make it." because you might be doing more of a, "fake it till you break it." Being aspirational is good but I usually recommend that goals and aspirations should be difficult but still attainable and realistic. Give yourself room to manoeuvre. Keep pressure on yourself low, and enjoy the process of getting things done, learning, and growing in the directions that are important to you.

Discussion (1)

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Henry Souder-Arguedas

I never know how to get a task or productivity app to work for me but I will check out Omnifocus. Right now I just log things into Google Calendar so I don't forget them, which works well enough, compared to just trying to remember them. Thanks!