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How I keep track of tasks

I use a super-simple system for keeping track of tasks that are mine personally to manage. I use issue-tracking systems for software projects and consulting work, but there is still a bunch of work-related and personal work that I need to make sure I don’t forget.

The main point is not to ensure that I don’t forget, actually. It is to be able to put it out of my mind with confidence that I won’t lose it. I have a crowded mind, and the cleaner I can keep it, the better.

My system has three parts: my pockets, my notepad, and a directory on my computer.

In my front pocket I have a ballpoint pen. Currently it says Holiday Inn on the side. In my back pocket, I have a small piece of paper – usually about half the size of a standard letter paper, folded small enough to fit. It might be a used envelope, or a napkin, or a piece of actual notebook paper. I write down everything that matters to me. If I hear a song on the radio and I think my wife will like it, I write down some key lyrics I can search later, such as “your arms are my castle, your heart is my sky.” I write down anything I feel guilty about not doing, or neat ideas about stuff I could do, or whatever occurs to me. The goal is to write it down and trust that it’s now permanently in the system, then clear my head.

I do much the same thing with my notebook. I tend to pick these things up at conferences. I use two or three pages a week. A small size, like the size of a paperback book, is best. Legal pads are too big. One of the best pads I ever got was an InnoDB pad. I keep one page for random whatever-comes-to-me. At the beginning of each week, I collate these items; some of them I move off to the directory on my computer, others go into a single page, grouped by importance or topic as I see fit, in the notebook. The page needs to fit everything I’ll do that week. There’s no way I can do more than a page’s worth of things in a week. Typically about half the page is carried over to next week. (I just cross things off as I complete them or move them to the clean page.) This ensures that all of the important and/or urgent things are easy for me to reference, without a bunch of other stuff intruding. I also write down things I do that aren’t in my list – if I jump in and help out on a project, for example, I’ll write that down and then cross it off. This is a good record for my weekly report.

I just came back from a conference, so there are pages and pages of thoughts stimulated from conversations, people to follow up with, thank-you notes to send, and so on. A lot of this is going to be easy to take care of: I’ll just do it if it takes only a second, or move it to my computer for later followup. After I collate and organize, I tear out the old pages, feed them into my weekly report, and throw them away. They are redundant.

In my computer’s home directory, I have a directory to hold text files. Here I hold medium-term and long-term items, things that I want to do “someday” or reference material, project notes, and so on. I name each text file by topic, and there are dozens. I keep these as simple and few as possible. There’s one for music, for example. I looked up those lyrics, and then put the artist and album into todo-music.txt in my directory. Next time I decide to order a batch of CDs, I’ll refer to this list. The names of the files aren’t scientific – I just started out with what seemed right, and changed as I saw the need to; the current files have served well for a long time, so I think it’s stable and useful. I organize the lists in two sections: the top N priority items, and everything else. They are separated by a blank line. There is no need to be fancier, I find. Most things go into the everything-else category.

So in the end, my pockets and one page in the notebook are for capturing ideas as they come to me, another page is for what I decided to prioritize for the week, and the computer is the long-term spillover for things that need to get out of the notebook. This is a lot like levels of cache in a computer. I’m keeping the most important stuff in a compact way, easy to work with. And paper is definitely easier to work with than anything with an ON switch. I have no categories, sorting, tagging, hierarchies, or anything else like that. If it’s a single page the size of my hand, there’s no need.

This system was inspired by multiple attempts to use task lists on computers, personal organizers, the Getting Things Done system, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People method, and many more. Name your favorite app or method – I’ve probably tried it or something like it. These days it’s pen, paper, and Vim. The system has been working for me for a couple of years with excellent results; I rarely to never forget anything. Although I may deprioritize it, which is effectively the same as saying I’ll never do it, I have the peace of mind that comes from knowing I have ten years or so of ideas I’ll never forget, should I ever find myself with ten years to spare and nothing to do with them.

The Getting Things Done system is very valuable in one specific way for me: capture everything and get it out of the head, to keep the head clear. I can’t overstate how important that is to me.

Next I’ll write about how I get things into the system in a way that lets me also have confidence I’m not losing track of something I’m taking on (or being asked to do).

Posted on Wed, Jun 30, 2010. Approximately 1100 Words.

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