Task-Managing Series, Part 2: Optimal Method

Published September 20, 2009 in Self-Organization - 3 Comments

Tasks2 copy

It has now been three weeks since I started the task-managing experiment and I have mainly been focusing on when and how to set my tasks. Here are my experiences, so far:

Ongoing List vs. New List Every Day

When I work with an ongoing to-do list, I simply have one list with all the tasks that need to get done and I add tasks and tick tasks off as I go along. If I don’t get a task done today, it will simply still be on the list tomorrow. Similarly, if I have a task I know I need to do in two days time, I simply write it down now, together with all the other tasks.

Using an ongoing list and ta-da lists, I completed 17 out of 19 tasks during the course of one week. That is a good ratio, but as you can tell, I didn’t set very many tasks. This is mainly because an ongoing list gets crowded pretty quickly. It’s no real help if you have a list of 20 unsorted tasks in front of you, so with the ongoing list, I only wrote down the most essential tasks. This method required an average of 47 seconds per completed task.

This method is very flexible and takes up a minimal amount of time. There is no re-writing of tasks and no scheduling involved. It’s probably the easiest method to follow and the fact that it encourages you to set only a few essential tasks per day can be a blessing.

The downside of this method is how chaotic it is. There is no sense of priority and if I set a task today that is meant for a few days later, it will just sit there with all the other tasks for a few days. It makes it difficult to decide what needs to be done first and I rarely got the satisfaction of completing the entire list.

The alternative is to start a new list for each day. Following this method, I re-write any unfinished tasks to carry them over to the next day. I update the list as I go along, when new things come up, but I also set aside a specific time during the day for organizing the tasks and setting new ones. I wanted to test doing this either in the morning or in the evening, but I was useless in the morning. In the evenings, I can think clearly about what needs to be done the following day and make a decent task-list. Early in the mornings, my brain just doesn’t want to do this kind of thinking. I can be productive early in the day, but apparently not the planning kind of productive.

Following this method (also with ta-da lists), I completed 32 out of 35 tasks during the course of one week. Again, the ratio is good, but this time, I set and completed way more tasks than with the ongoing list. I spent an average of 44 seconds on each completed task, slightly less than with the ongoing list. While the difference is small, it shows that focusing on what tasks to set once a day is probably more efficient than just adding them as they come up.

In short, with this method I got more done in slightly less time (per task). That’s certainly a good thing. I found that it really helps me to take a few minutes in the evening, before I turn off the computer for the night, and plan the important tasks for the next day. Since I start with a clean slate each day, the list never gets too crowded and it’s easier to prioritize, even though I didn’t use a system to set priorities. Another positive aspect is that completing the whole list by the end of the day gives me a nice feeling of accomplishment. Plus, re-writing left-over tasks for the next day is like making a renewed commitment and that can help to complete them.

I really didn’t find any major drawbacks for this method.

Preliminary Conclusion

My experiment is still ongoing and I am currently testing out different media for managing my task-lists. So far, I can conclude that making a new list for each day is definitely better than using an ongoing list. An ongoing list is extremely simple, lacking structure, prioritization and scheduling. This might be a good thing if you have the tendency to over-organize and want to categorize every minute detail. An ongoing list could help you focus on just what’s relevant. For any other situation, I recommend taking some time evening to plan the tasks for the next day.

While I set and completed more tasks with a new list each day, keep in mind that not all tasks are created equal. “Take out the trash” and “work out” both count as one task, but one of them is completed in under a minute while the other takes about an hour. Also, not every task is equally relevant. In this early stage of my experiment, I have not yet done anything to prioritize my tasks, but I will be looking into that later on.

The findings of this first part of my experiment aren’t particularly spectacular – I’m aware of that. Stay tuned for my next update, when I will be reporting on the different types of task managing software I have used.

This post is part of a series.
Part 1: Introduction to the Experiment
Part 2: Optimal Method (currently viewing)

  • Pingback: Task-Managing Series, Part 1: Introduction to a Self-Experiment « The Explorative Approach()

  • Just found your blog! I too have been experimenting with different to-do list methods. The issue I’m having right now is finding a way to separate daily items (like for a daily checklist) from those that are one time tasks or part of bigger projects. There are so many online task management systems and none seem to be a perfect fit! For now though, I am using Toodledo, and it’s as close to perfect as I have found. Best wishes!

    • Shane

      Hi! I’m still in the process of testing out the different software-options. There really are almost too many to choose from. I’ll have a look at Toodledo as well – hadn’t heard of that before. I can confirm that setting tasks for specific dates is something most task-managers won’t let you do very easily. I wish you all the best with your experiment and hope you’ll let me know if you find a great tool for task-managing. 🙂