Adding too much to a task manager

We have many threads on this forum that talk about task management. It seems that many people regularly move task managers. This seems to hint at a problem. Either in how we manage tasks or that the software solution is lacking.

One of the questions rattling around in my brain is about how much we add to our task managers.

My question is: Are we failing because we add too much to our task managers?

Would limiting the amount of projects and tasks solve much of our difficulty? A small task list can be managed just about anywhere, so it would seem that large tasks lists may be the problem?

We all have the same amount of time. If all projects and tasks had clear durations and the total of my tasks list means that every hour is filled for the next 3 months, then should I be adding more?

How do you approach ensuring that your project/task list doesn’t have too many items? Do you have strategies for limiting what you add to your task manager, or do you have a separate space where you put tthings?

First of all, I can see no “We”, if it comes to Task-Management!

This is a very personal thing, and I don’t think that, even in similar circumstances, two people will really use the very same Task-Management approach ever.
If you have Tasks, that needed to be done, they belong on your Task-List. It is that easy.
If you skip Tasks, you have to do, from that list, you will be probably end up in Problems.
And yes, it is possible, that the amount of time you have available is less, than what you really need, to finish all Tasks on your list, but this simply means, you have to find a solution, to get Tasks you have to do from your list, e.g. by delegating them to someone else (Craftsman, Secretary, IT-Specialist, Housekeeping and so on, for example).

It is of course something completely different, if your Task-List contains Items that are there because you “want” to do them, like a Hobby, or Items that belong to a “Sometimes/maybe”-List.
Those could be skipped from the Task-List, until you reach a level there, to get everything done.

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This is where management and regular reviews of your task management system help. Many people capture many, many tasks which seem like a good idea but which in truth they’ll never do, others have all of their tasks on show which overwhelms them.

  1. If realistically, you’re never going to complete a task. Delete it
  2. if tasks are aspirational or cannot be done now, put them on a list out of view and review that list weekly/monthly/quarterly as appropriate and add them back to your todo list when you’re ready for them
  3. make sure you have views which only show you either things you need to work on now and/or things you can work on now

If you don’t manage and review your system, it won’t work. This is why the Review phase is the most important part of GTD.

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Yes, this is a problem and I deal with it by using the Someday feature of Things. During my weekly review, I will add any task that I don’t think will be done in the next week to the Someday list and then I don’t see it again until the next weekly review. I also will just delete tasks if they’ve been hanging on the Someday list for too long. I don’t have a strict rule, but if I haven’t done it in 2 months or so, it probably will never get done.

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I have a task manager like NotePlan so that I have a place to jot down everything percolating in my brain. And it’s like brainstorming, where I don’t judge, categorize, or assign priority. It’s simply captured. I’m with the others on this thread – later on is when I’ll review and do something useful with the item.

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I’ve always been a list-maker. Having my plans/ideas/possibilities written down somewhere allows me to get on with things — otherwise, the new ideas keep popping back into my memory to disrupt me.

So, for me, there’s no such thing as adding “too much” to my task manager.

However, that means that I either have a task manager that allows me to capture (and possibly organize) all of those potential tasks but also hide them away from my day-to-day operations, or I need to use two systems.

I’ve tried to use two systems a few times — one “active” list for stuff that I have concrete plans and timelines for, and another for the more vague tasks. This never was satisfactory because I spent too much time managing them (where does a task belong? when do I move it? if it’s not on the “active” list, did I forget to write it down?, and so on.) I really wanted the two-system lifestyle to work, but it just didn’t.

Instead, a single task manager with good options for easily deferring or marking “inactive” most tasks is a better solution for me. I have stuck with OmniFocus for years because it’s built for this style of task management. Not only does it allow me to quickly and manage (usually reduce) the number of available tasks, but it has a great function to help me review these lists. Reviews are a critical part of keeping my task management under control.

I have tried other systems through the years, and that experimentation has shown me that I can’t fight the way my brain works. If you’re new to the whole world of task management software (like somewhere in the first 10 years of exploration), then I think dabbling in other systems regularly can be a good idea. Only by trying other systems did I figure out what works best for me (even if I wish I could work differently).

For an example of how my brain works, I currently have 60 “projects” (lists) with 665 “actions”. Some people would say that’s “too many” and it would cause them to panic. But my Work list of active tasks has 12 actions, and my Personal has 38 active items. I had family obligations on Sunday that meant I didn’t do many of my maintenance tasks, and obviously I was too optimistic about what I would get done in the evenings last week. So, when I plan my week today, I will return some of them to inactive and defer others to later this week (or next weekend).

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I agree 100% with the premise of Simon’s post. Back in the days when I switched task managers every couple of years, I always dumped EVERYTHING into the task manager when first using it — every thought of something I might want to do; every task I delegated to someone else. Etc. That’s what I thought (perhaps wrongly) that you were supposed to do with GTD, after all.

Ironically, it was the occasional act of switching to another task manager that made me realize the folly of this, at least for me. There were countless items I would delete every time I moved, after looking at items and thinking, “Not sure why I put that here. Not a big deal now.” I realized that dumping everything into a task manager had me spending more time managing, organizing, and deleting tasks than it did actually getting work done.

I by no means am suggesting I’ve figured this stuff out, but now, when something comes up, I’m better at identifying what I really need to do, and what isn’t that important to begin with.

This applies to my “Someday” list, too — I try to identify items that I really am going to want to get to, as opposed to “Eh, might be nice,” because “Eh, might be nice,” more often than not turns into, “Eh, just taking up space and I will never have time to get to it.”

Usual disclaimer for the above — this is what works for me, and your milage may vary.

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One key concept in Kanban is to “limit work in progress”. It is about acknowleding that you can do a lot, but you can’t do everything at once. By only commiting to a limited number of active tasks, you stand a MUCH higher chance of actually completing them.

Keeping 20 projects spinning will create so much overhead and context switching cost that you won’t be able to move forward on any of them in any meaningful way. Focusing on just a few and actually completing them will allow you to pull in a few more, well defined tasks.

…or so goes the theory anyway.

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I just keep it simple now and I only use the Reminders app. I only do three tasks a day and strictly keep to this. However I always do 3 tasks daily. I never miss.

Small everyday stuff like putting the bins out etc doesn’t got in just really proper tasks.

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@margaretamartin - Great post, very well stated. Just to reiterate a few points.

Same here. I want my system to encompass “everything.” That way I can fully trust nothing is slipping through the cracks.

That is where I landed.

I ran into the same trap. I lost trust in my system when I was doing a balancing act between separate systems. Even just having wishlist items or someday/maybes in another list created friction and trust issues for me.

Yep. Everything in one place at all times. My philosophy is add liberally and defer or move to “someday,” with equal liberality.

Me, too.

Basically, I hereby join and ratify your post… if there is such a thing on our forum. (Of course, this is what works for me, and I’m not suggesting that it should work for everybody. I agree with @Ulli’s observation that task management is highly personal.)

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I just read this article last night that speaks to this phenomenon.

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For me? 1000% yes. I gave todoist a try and the one thing I miss is the ability to filter out old tasks. I’ve now added a more granular review into my workflow and it isn’t as bad, but it’s still too much.

I make good use of perspectives in OmniFocus to allow me to focus on the task/context at hand; but have found that it’s still an issue as it makes “review” too cumbersome. Recently, I changed up my routine to only review at night because I don’t want to spend the most productive hours of my day making decisions on “tasks”. I also try to reduce cognitive load by not having to make decisions on tasks and focusing on output and/or outcomes.

These recent workflow changes have helped, but it’s still a bit of an issue for me.

I think the biggest problem people have is not being realistic about their time. Task managers make all tasks look the same, but some tasks will take 5 minutes, others will take hours or days. I’ve started a discipline of making a time estimate for each task, I have tags from 5 minutes up to 2 hours. If a task will take longer than 2 hours, then I have to break it up into smaller tasks.

I then schedule time in the morning to work on the big tasks. Most days I also set aside an hour for admin tasks. All those little 5 - 15 minute tasks, like making a phone call or filling out a form, etc.

So I’m only looking at the full list of tasks once in the morning, deciding which ones I have time to work on today. I also make a weekly plan, so the biggest projects are already pre-selected for that day, but I still review all the tasks in the morning to make sure something more important hasn’t cropped up since my weekly plan was made.

For most of the day I’m only looking at a small list of tasks I selected in the morning. If I finish all of those tasks, then I’ll go back to the full list again to find more things to do.

Keep a full list of tasks, but only look at them once a day (or once a week) and the rest of the day you’re looking at 3 - 5 tasks.

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I agree — review is the final challenge in any task management system. (Unless you’re using the type where you frequently remove every task and rebuild from scratch. Usually that’s a paper system!)

One thing that’s helped me is to realize that I’m only good for about 30 minutes of review time. After that, I find myself faking it — looking at everything but not really making a decision about it. So I do shorter reviews more frequently. That means I can’t review everything each time, so I now make better use of OmniFocus’s custom review times for projects.

It was hard to know how often to review each project, which is why I ignored this for many years. But I started making educated guesses and gradually adjusted review frequency as I went along. I think that’s really the way to do it; wait until you either feel like you are looking at something too frequently or you’re missing things because you aren’t reviewing a project frequently enough.

I also think that review frequency changes for some projects, too.

OmniFu has this built in with a Duration field that can be used to filter perspectives.

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Great article. It was even better after discovering that the author wrote his own todo app to manage his tasks and even something perfectly customized still wasn’t perfect. I think we need tools that, instead of organizing our work, just do it for us… or at least the boring parts. :slight_smile:

I will make one “brain” observation that I’ve seen with myself that makes me think almost any to do list system is good, no matter how well you use it. I was going through a set of old papers that I had in a box and stumbled upon a “goals” list that I had written. It was not dated, but it was several years old. I didn’t remember writing it, but it was in my handwriting. I have no recollection of ever reviewing it. But weirdly, over the years, I had accomplished everyone of those goals that I had on the list. (And some of these were mundane little goals, not change-the-world–this-is-my-destiny type-goals that you would expect never to forget. Things like “study good etiquette.”) I wonder if just the process of writing things down crystallizes them in our minds, whether we use the list or not.

I have seen this thing happen several times since. Maybe this is just some weird way my brain works, but I feel it’s more universal than that.

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A former colleague of mine used to say “writing is epistemic” (we write to understand what we know) and I’ve never let that go. I truly feel this is the case for me as well.

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I read the whole article and at the end it mentions Cal Newport and time block planning. I don’t think of my task list as a list of everything I definitely have to do, I think of it more as an aid to spending my time more wisely. I see most people just responding to the latest “crisis” or email thread and that is rarely the most important thing to be working on. They spend their time working on other peoples priorities. I want to spend most of the day working on my own priorities.

I do this and have for years now, especially when things seem to be getting out of hand. Really grounds me in what I can achieve in a day or a week. Mark Forster’s “Get Everything Done” promotes this as well which, to me, has quite a calming effect. I can’t literally do everything so Mark suggest the same as what you propose - decide what you can do today (balanced with what needs to be done) and then do that, so you get everything done, by and large, for that day.

Forster recommends having a backlog of stuff that you can dip into as and when you can and as time and priorities allow (that’s my translation, don’t blame Mark if I’m wrong).

(It also assumes a level of maturity about picking the right tasks. :wink:)

Also, I’ve started prioritising sleep as my main task in the morning and by that I mean, I work during the day to maximise my chances of having a good night’s sleep. Ergo, I don’t go to bed or wake up in the night worrying about a task I should have done. Doesn’t always work but it’s better since I started doing that. Plus a good night’s sleep charges me up for a better day at managing my tasks - a virtuous circle, if you will.

Side note: I’m looking after an anxious greyhound at the moment so my sleep last night was not ideal :face_with_spiral_eyes:

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The observation from Kanban is true, however it says nothing about the queue size in front of the system. I’ve seen Kanban and Scrum done where teams have a queue of work over year in length. This is pointless.

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