Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Todoist with a Notecard for the Day

Photo by: pshutterbug

As I mentioned in a long review, I've been using Todoist since August. I'll have you know that Todoist and I are still doing quite well. So well in fact that I recently started forking over $3/month for the premium membership. I'll share my thoughts on that another day.

Today, however, I want to share my experiences of halfway getting my hipster on. What? Well, basically, on top of keeping my entire list of projects, their associated next actions, and some notes on them on Todoist, I've started carrying around a 3x5 notecard for the day in my pocket with a list of the 1-3 most important tasks for the day, along with other little notes for myself (calendar items, small tasks that come up throughout the day, etc.).

Why carry a notecard for the day?

Despite being a GTD fan, I've been a firm believer in priorities for a long time. I think the priority differences between tasks should be the number one factor in deciding where to spend your time. That said, I found that having Todoist up, with all of my tasks, including a lot of low priority smaller tasks was unnecessary and frankly distracting. As I've said before, high priority tasks are often long and difficult, and when you're grinding through the trenches of these tasks, you're extremely vulnerable to distractions that take you out of the trench, which, if you finished digging, would help you tremendously in the longterm. These tasks are the research papers, the final papers, the essential background reading, the revising of a long proposal, etc. They are tasks that, if you got them and only them done today, you would go to sleep content. Conversely, they are tasks that if you leave them hanging while getting 15 other tasks done, you will still go to sleep agitated.

How many tasks should go on the notecard?

I think one, ideally, and no more than three. But it's up to you. Leo on zenhabits says he uses three. Alan Lakein in his old and famous book advocates a similar number for your A tasks. You can put more on there if you want, just don't feel disappointed when you aren't crossing them all off most of the time. Obviously if you finish one you can look back on your master list for another. In the end it really depends on the kind of work you do and how long your most important tasks usually take. I'm a graduate student in the sciences, so my most important tasks are long: many hours of experiments looking for certain data; many hours of reviewing papers and comparing to my results on a specific subject; many hours of data processing, thinking and (hopefully) concluding. So for me, dedicating an entire day to one of these tasks is useful, I usually end the day having made significant progress. Also, these thinking intensive, or equipment intensive tasks are often done much more efficiently in fewer sittings as train of thought and setup of equipment are vital, which makes stopping and re-starting really time intensive. Some days when I have shorter tasks that are the most important I use more than one.

What about all the annoying small tasks?

I do them somewhere in the afternoon energy slump. They are usually written on the bottom of my notecard, or on my "today/overdue" screen of Todoist. I try to do all of these for a given day at once. This idea of batch processing small tasks is one of the oldest tricks of the trade and if I linked to everyone that has advocated it, this post would get too long.

Why not use a full hipster PDA or moleskine?

Because I frankly don't want to carry around all that crap in my pocket. I don't carry my bag around to talks, or meetings, or class, so carrying a clipped stack of notecards or moleskine with every last thing I need to do just seems like too much. Not to mention the whole point of the notecard of the day is to focus solely on the task(s) for the day and not all the other stuff. Secondly, Todoist rocks: It's digital; it doesn't get heavy; you can add entire emails to it with the click of a button (okay, maybe a few); I could go on, but there are many things about it that I don't think I can replace with other tools.

Only the notecard?!

Lastly, I should mention that of course the notecard of the day can be used as a complement to any long list of tasks in any format, not just Todoist. Also, it can be used by itself. If you aren't a fan of long lists of all projects and associated next actions, or if you're just starting out in this productivity/organization thing, just keeping one notecard in your pocket every day and transferring remaining tasks to the next day's card is a great start.


Paul said...

Love your blog, it's witty and informative at the same time. Nice to see someone take GTD a little less seriously.

I've got to ask you as a fellow todoist: how do you set your priorities? I find this is todoist's weakest side. The priorities result in garish colours, and I miss being able to have cascaded priorities such as in Life Balance, where a task is only as important as the project it contributes to.

Do you simply go through all your tasks each day/week and decide your priorities for the day, there and then? Or something more sophisticated?

Bdizzy said...

Paul: My assessment of priorities is almost exactly your last suggestion "simply go through all your tasks each day/week and decide priorities for the day, there and then". My "notecard for the week" is a project in Todoist called "This week" and that gets made on Sunday or Monday looked at every morning, where things are checked off, and added. I then make a notecard for the day based on what I think is most important and do those. That way I'm not looking at my week's list (or worse, a larger list) and deciding multiple times a day what is most important and what I have time for.

Keep in mind that anything that has a day or time specific deadline goes in my calendar (as per David Allen's suggestions in GTD). The latter is obvious, most do it, but the day specific deadlines sometimes get put in a task list which makes you nervous because you're always wondering if there is stuff on your list that needs to happen today or not. Then you don't trust your list and keep looking at it too often.

I used to use priorities in Todoist but stopped doing it because this notecard for the day concept worked so well. When I did, I used only one level of priority though !p1. Four levels is just excessive, that's way too much work, at that point you must be spending more time maintaining the list and deciding whether task x is level 3 or 4 than doing work. Is that your experience?

Paul said...

Thanks, that sounds like a sensible approach. I too find that trying to assign complicated priorities is not worth the trouble. It's just another excuse to avoid GTD.

I also tend to use a single priority in todoist (p2 just because I like the blue!) I do this to flag the most important things, then make a shortlist from that - in theory at least...

Thanks again for the sound advice.

qmechanic said...

Yup, I'm a big fan of the one notecard and one pen in the pocket.