Productivity – List Notch system

This is a write up of my current to do list system.  My system and the method of this write up is based on Mark Forster‘s to do lists.  If you are familiar with The Final Version Perfected you will be able to recognise elements from that system.

It’s not perfect, but it has been working for a few weeks now.  I have difficulty often with tasks of variable “size” and variable “time” (these are both a measure of “getting it done”).  I started with the FVP and modified as I felt like it.  This is my Notch system.

I am confident, and I have not yet written about in detail:  telling someone your final system is a bit like giving to someone in the pre-industrial revolution, “a working 2010 car” and expecting them to use that to build their own.  If they are a very very good engineer they will work out how to take it apart and how to put it back together so that they can build their own and get driving.  Systems are not necessarily as complicated as a car, and it’s maybe not so hard to give someone a to-do list system and expect them to make use of it, but I am cautiously providing my system with the caveat that it might not just “work”.  I also don’t credit myself for using a working car in contrast to being in the pre-industrial revolution.

I believe the skill that underpins systems, the one that doesn’t get mentioned often enough when we talk about systems that do or don’t work for us, is the underlying meta-system of trying things and iterating on the results.

Having states my caveats about cars and underlying iterative systems…  This is where I am today.

To start, make a list of all the tasks that you want to do today in any order that they come to mind.  If you are confident that things cannot be done today, they don’t belong on the list.  i.e. tasks requiring a specific geographic location that you are not intending on visiting today.  Consider things that might be due, things that are large are acceptable.

–I make assumptions that significantly small tasks of under 5 minutes don’t belong on the list, and regular activities don’t need reminding (i.e. dinner with friends).

Example list:
Battery blocks

Next to each task, write how long you predict it will take.  These will be wrong, that’s okay – one of the things we are training is predictive power over future tasks, another is acceptance of the total time you do or do not have in your day.

Example list:
Dogs – 1.5hr
Space – 20mins
write – 1hr
Sanding – 3hrs
Emails – 5hrs
Battery blocks – 3hrs

An important thing that time-estimates can reveal is whether you were planning to surprise yourself by completing more than 24 hours of “expected work” in an 8 hour work day.  With that in mind it might be worthwhile planning what you wont to do today.  Hold onto this thought for now.  (my example list has 13hrs and 50 mins on it)

Look down the list and decide either what you will do first, or what you will do last (or both) and number them accordingly.

Example list:
Dogs – 1.5hr
Space – 20mins
2. write – 1hr
6. Sanding – 3hrs
1. Emails – 5hrs
Battery blocks – 3hrs

Example list:
4. Dogs – 1.5hr
1. Space – 20mins
3. write – 1hr
5. Sanding – 3hrs
2. Emails – 5hrs
4. Battery blocks – 3hrs

If you find that two tasks are equal, number them the same number.  It doesn’t really matter.  Do either of them first!  You can decide later when you get to that number.  If they are equally important then doing either of them is winning at deciding what to do.

After the list is numbered, do the first thing.  If you don’t want to do that, you can reconsider the numbers, or just do the next thing instead.

After some period of time you might find yourself bored of whatever task you are on, or for whatever reason doing something else.  (I will sometimes do a bit of email while taking a moment from other tasks).  Don’t worry!  This system has you covered.  Any time you feel like it – look to your list and put a notch next to tasks that you have done.

Example list:
4. Dogs – 1.5hr
1. Space – 20mins – |
3. write – 1hr – ||
5. Sanding – 3hrs
2. Emails – 5hrs – ||
4. Battery blocks – 3hrs

I did the number 1 and I finished so I crossed it out, but I didn’t finish 2.  What I did was do one “notch” of work on 2, and then do a notch on 3, then go back to 2 for another “notch”, and go ahead and do another notch on 3.

I use notches because sometimes I don’t finish a task but I put a volume of effort into it.  In either time or in depth of work required.  Sometimes a notch will be a really hard 10 minute stretch, or a really easy two hour streak.  The notch time is the time it takes you to come back to the list and consider doing the other tasks.

This seems to be effective for tasks that will need a break, you still get some credit for a notch but you don’t get to cross it out yet.  A notch is up to you.  but really it’s just a way to keep track of how much of the thing you hacked away.  Some tasks take 5 notches, some take 1.  If it’s the end of the day and a task is incomplete but has 4 notches done – you get to feel like you did complete 4 notches even though other tasks were completed in 1 notch.  This task is clearly bigger and harder to complete.

I like that this listing permits larger tasks to be on the same list as “one notch” sized tasks.  In the sense that you can still track the productivity and progress even without completing the tasks.

Where this system fails:

  • On days like today, where I don’t feel like writing out the list (most of my day is ugh, getting out of bed was hard).  Happens about once a month for me.  But also a workaround seems to be to write a list the night before, or look at yesterdays list for clues about where to begin.  Still – failure mode happens.
  • On days with other fixed appointments – sometimes it’s hard to decide what to do in the limited time frame, but that’s where estimates come in, as well as thinking backwards for time management, as described in that post.
  • For really really big tasks.  I have a task that is likely to take at least 20 hours over two days and it requires me to be in a set place and work on nothing else during that time.  That task has not made it onto this list system and probably never would.  In the mean time, lots of small tasks are getting done.

Meta: this took 2 hours to write.  Today has been a day full of suck and I don’t know why but at least I wrote this out.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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