The devil's in the detail

The devil's in the detail

(Simon) #1

I’ve been managing tasks since the first palm pilot was on the scene and previously to that good old pen and paper. I’ve noticed that my paper lists are less detailed than my computer lists. In fact my equivalent paper list might have 150 actions and the corresponding digital list some 200-300. When I ask myself why that is I come to the conclusion, because my digital task manager demands to be fed, or simply put encourages you to keep breaking down the tasks. Looking through 200+ tasks however, creates more friction than 150. It’s here that I noticed my problem. In the digital format I go into way too much detail. Some of that is to make use of features in my application.

As an example, on paper I may write:

  1. Design advert for event x

In my digital task manage I may write:

  1. Design advert for x
    1.1 Find image on pexels
    1.2 Choose colour palette
    1.3 Choose fonts
    1.4 Export as CMYK fogra
    1.5 Send to printers

I might even add a link to the pexels website, Adobe Kuler, Google fonts and my printer of choice.

At first glance the digital appears to be better as it’s simpler and clearer, but realistically, the pen and paper version would achieve the same results as I need to go through the steps anyway. Now multiply this with a hundred tasks and your task manager is looking very busy.

What I’m asking is whether this is really necessary? Is it making me less productive? At least with the GTD approach you only need the next action. The problem with this detailed approach is that you sometimes cannot see the wood for the trees. Also think of the time you spend doing this and multiply it by your task list. You might never do some of those tasks. Do we need all the noise this creates?

I’ve recently moved away from more feature rich task managers (Omnifocus and 2Do). Realising that I prefer the Taskpaper approach far more. Actually, I have a master list on paper. What I’m trying to do now is list the projects and tasks and not think about them until I’m ready to do them and then map them out. This approach does not work for me as well with digital systems that seem to encourage me to keep adding detail.

Would be interested in how the rest of you approach this.

(Wilson Ng) #2

I think we can break the task down into as simple as it needs to get. If “brushing teeth” is a good enough task description, that’s all we need. For my youngest daughter, I might have to break it down.

  1. Get your toothbrush
  2. Get the toothpaste
  3. Get your cup
  4. fill up cup with water
  5. get the 1 minute timer
  6. put toothpaste on toothbrush
  7. start 1 minute timer
  8. brush top teeth for 1 minute
  9. start 1 minute timer again
  10. brush bottom teeth
  11. rinse mouth with water from cup
  12. put away toothbrush, cup, and toothpaste
  13. take out floss
  14. cut floss to desired length
  15. floss teeth
  16. toss used floss into trash bin

I’ve been advocating a hybrid system. Use OmniFocus to store all my projects and tasks. Then use an open notebook on my desk and write down the 3-5 tasks to work on today. I also choose one Big Rock project to focus on when I can get a big time block free.

I use digital when I need to do my planning. I use pen-and-paper when I’m executing.

I wonder if others have found their own balance?


Lately ,I’ve been moving in hybrid direction myself , using paper for note taking and task manger to give me location based reminders.

Simon , in note taking ,details captured on paper are bullet points ,on keyboard where I can type way faster , I will capture ALL sort of irrelevant details (which I need to sift through later to make sense) , on paper I will process what I’m writing . So maybe it’s the dumping attitude into task manager which can be looked into.

(Justin DiRose) #4

What’s been missing for me is the 50,000 foot view of my life right now.

I’m working on remedying this by using a Bullet Journal to plan things. OmniFocus is where the actions reside, iThoughts will be where the project planning/brainstorming resides, and the journal will be where my higher level planning sits.

When I sit in the weeds of my task manager, that’s when I get lost and overwhemled. However, those weeds are important when I’m actually acting on work. Where they trip me up is when I need to get a big picture view. At that point I’m seeing all the leaves on the trees instead of the forest when I should be trying to find the dying trees to cut down or areas to plant more.

I think the more detail we can have in our checklists and next action lists, the better (obviously within reason), but only when the project has a logical order. I find taking a regimented or structured approach to something that should be creative hinders my ability to get it done because my brain gets stuck in process mode.

These are some initial thoughts on the matter. I hope to write a little bit more about how I approach things in the near future.

(Mike N) #5

HelIo, my name is Mike and I hoard tasks.

I’ve firmly come to the conclusion that I require friction in the process of task management - it can’t be easy to add a task or detail like you are describing above. It also has to be difficult for a task to stay on the list. Make your task list a slippery surface.

Paper + variants of Mark Forster’s AutoFocus System + The One Thing has simplified everything for me.

On paper, I write a single, clear, action-based statement that is focused on the outcome. No subtasks, details, etc.

Don’t put garbage into the system and expect it to be clean.

Similar to the “design advert for x” example, I write “Reorganize the garage” and not “Reorganize the garage, get new broom, buy shelves, plan trip to Goodwill, etc.” Those can be flushed out if needed during the process, but are noise until then. They also make you feel like you accomplished something, but in reality, I don’t care about the fact that I bought shelves - I want the outcome of the garage being clean. Don’t distract from the outcome.

Mark Forster’s systems have you scanning a list (with various rules on order) and asking a question of each item.

Questions are typically along the lines of:

  • Am I ready to do this now?
  • Is there anything more urgent than this?
  • What do I want to do more than x?

You regularly work back through your list. You reprioritize items by crossing them off and re-enter them at the front of the list, so old items can be bubbled up and aren’t orphaned on previous pages.

I’ve adopted different questions for different reviews and this has been the game changer.

Every 2-3 weeks I intentionally “weed” my list. I go line by line and I ask the following questions:

  • Is this still something that should be done? If yes, next question. If no, delete it.
  • Is this something that should be done by me? If yes, next question. If no, delegate it. Now.
  • Is this something that is relevant or actionable in the next 6-12 weeks? If yes, next question. If no, deleted and placed on a digital someday maybe list. If it isn’t a 100% yes, it is put on the someday / maybe.
  • Can I do this in the next 5 minutes? I will often just do items during this review if they get through the three questions and it would take less than 5 minutes. If not, I move on to the next item in the list and start the questions over.

Items do not stagnate on my list and I have become very stingy/deliberate about what I place on the list. I mercilessly remove stuff during the normal course of working off of the list. It is amazing how often you put something in the someday / maybe / icebox list and it is never relevant. I do have distinctions between someday / maybe lists i.e. work items that will likely be relevant this year vs. “nice to dos”. These are reviewed on a periodic basis.

At the start of every week, I work through my list using the question from The One Thing by Gary Keller: is this the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary? I select that item as my focus for the week. I will often do this at the end of the day for the next day, particularly if the item selected for the week is done. I do those items start to finish at the beginning of the next day without distraction, if possible. Then I handle “urgent” items and work the list based on the AutoFocus rules. I use different variants depending on the deadlines/workload at the time.

If I’m having an unfocused or off day mentally, I just find whatever is on the list that I don’t have resistance to (AutoFocus v1) and do it. The AutoFocus systems also have a general rule that you don’t have to finish a task you start, if you worked on it and didn’t finish, you just cross it off and re-enter it into the list.

With more involved projects, I will generally have a list item that says ‘work on project x’ and have that broken out on another page until there are critical actions or deadlines. Most of my day job projects are in project management applications, so I don’t reproduce that effort. Just what I need to action on.

I rarely have more than 50 items on my master anymore. This is down from hundreds or thousands previously.

The last 2 months of this approach has significantly changed my world view. I look back at my “very productive” self of the last 20 years and see a crazy person.

No work for work’s sake and no tasks tasks’ sake.

Separting vision, strategy / goals, planning, and tasks is the model I’ve taken as well.

(Wilson Ng) #6

oohhh… Now I get AutoFocus! Thanks for the explanation.

For folks who are interested, Mark Forster has been prolific. He has experimented and designed several task management workflows such as DIT (Do It Tomorrow), AF (AutoFocus), and the Final Version (FV). Here’s a link to FV.

His other systems are described here:

I am a big fan of doing an end of month review and viciously delete or delegate tasks and projects. I put almost every now project and task into Someday/Maybe lists. Then I’ll choose a small handful of projects and tasks on my plate and work from there.

At the end of the month, I’ll go through my currently active projects and lists as start putting stuff back into someday/maybe or delete it or delegate to someone else who has the capacity, time, and talent to complete something I struggle with.

I also look through my Someday/Maybe projects and lists and viciously delete or delegate stuff. Sometimes there are tasks and projects that grow stale and are no longer relevant or meaningful. That’s when I have to just delete it.

In order to have a nice lawn, we have to go out and cut the grass every few weeks. The same analogy applies to our projects and tasks. Curation is important. Otherwise, we’ll just hoard and our projects and task lists just start looking ugly.

(Joe Buhlig) #7

For ProCourse, I’ve found that having a list of projects in Discourse and my individual tasks in OmniFocus actually works really well. It’s odd how separating those aspects into two different digital systems is possible.

But before I landed on that, I was using a paper list of projects and not tracking individual tasks at all. And I managed to keep up with it pretty well for a few months. It always surprised me how the name of the project could trigger the next steps without having it written anywhere.

That said, I was still losing tasks here and there. That’s why I brought OmniFocus back. But now I don’t worry about breaking it out unless I can’t do it all at once. Some of my “tasks” are technically entire projects.

Create test instance of Discourse fo ABC Company

That should be a project and has about 45 steps for me. But I’m not detailing it out each time or even checklisting it because it’s unncessary and has too many nuances each time.

I’m not sure I’m to this point yet, but I think I’ve headed this direction.

Good point. I wonder if the ease of entering data into these digital task systems have us learning to dump everything into them with the expectation that we’ll do them someday when in reality, we just need to say no more often.


Definitely checking this out. I saw it a while back now, but didn’t give it a solid look.

(Mike N) #8

This is a challenge with Mark’s information, there is just too darn much.

These variants build off of each other and assume some understanding of the previous versions. I attempted to place the articles in a logical progression.

Basic AutoFocus
Flexible AutoFocus
Real AutoFocus
Fast FVP
“Oasis” Add-on to Fast FVP

The comment sections on most of the articles contain some real gems.

When there are no deadlines - Basic AutoFocus is amazing:

When there is a high urgency / high demand situation, Fast FVP is effective.

I stick to a master list and add/remove rules when needed. I think of it as changing the lens or filter I’m viewing the tasks (life) through.

(Wilson Ng) #9

Whew… I lost track after AutoFocus and couldn’t tell which one was the latest.

Mark Forster was my inspiration for experimenting and evolving your productivity workflow. But I only change my workflow if I think there’s something missing.

Forster is prolific and it was interesting to see his evolution. I remembered buying one of his earlier books, Do It Tomorrow, and he explained his workflow at that moment in time. I can’t remember what came after that But I did follow him up to AutoFocus. I couldn’t use his entire system but I tried to take a little bit of his concepts and adapted it to my own. I can’t remember what I took because it’s been so long since I’ve read that book.

For now, OmniFocus is my master list. But then I just grab 3-5 tasks and one or two Big Rock projects to work on. All the details of my other projects and other tasks are left in OmniFocus until I can deal with what’s on my plate right now.

(Joe Buhlig) #10

Thanks for this. I might have some downtime this weekend to work through the pieces of this. It looks intense to catch it all, though.

(Justin DiRose) #11

Read: 14 hours in a car with a couple other productivity nuts.

(Mike N) #12

What I would do to test the concept:

  • Watch the Basic Autofocus video above just to get an idea.
  • Take one context / focus / project area (Mark separates work & personal into two different lists. I do not.)
  • List out everything you have to do or can think of on the list. Start a new list, don’t use an old list.
  • When you are ready to work the list, go through the entire list just reading every item. Slow down a bit and read. Don’t make a decision. Don’t take an action. Just look at them.
  • After an initial scan, go back to the beginning.
  • Read the first line. In this test we aren’t really asking a question - just do you have a gut reaction to work on this?
    • If no, move to the next line.
    • If yes, work on that task. You don’t have to finish it, just work on it. 5 minutes is fine.
      • If you finished the task, cross it off.
      • If you did not finish the task, rewrite it at the end of the list and then cross of the initial entry.
  • Go back to the top of that page of your list and work back down slowly. Do you have a gut reaction to do anything? If so, work on it and then repeat the loop.
  • If you just want to get rid of something, scribble it out or cross it out (if you don’t want a distinction between dismissal and actioned)

This will teach the basic looping behavior. The different questions and processing rules will be required for different scenarios, but the review loop is the engine behind this.

Generally, urgent items are done immediately outside of the loop but if everything is urgent that is difficult. I would find some context that you don’t have any urgent / time sensitive actions. Or just throw everything at it and see what happens.

After doing this process over several days, then maybe dive into the articles and forum posts. It will all make more sense.

(Joe Buhlig) #13

I think I get the idea of AutoFocus now. Thanks for the list above.

I can’t say this is something I feel a need to develop or adopt. My take is that it is designed to build in habits that I think I already have. The idea of reviewing a list and then making a gut call on which one to do is great but I already do that within the GTD framework.

Sidebar: I clearly saw GTD in AutoFocus. It looks just like a version of implementation with minimal contexts.

Regardless, I do see the value in building the habits that help you define the level of detail you need to spell out in your own systems. Not everyone needs them all the same.

(Mike N) #14

Agreed on all points.

I don’t think there is any magic in the basic autofocus system (listening to your intuition vs. priorities is an interesting concept). What was the magic for me was bookending the system with two objectives:

  • Make it difficult for tasks to stay on the list - slippery surface
  • Only do the tasks that matter that only I can do - One Thing / Essential Few

Those are the key points that I’d suggest taking away from my example. The system to do it is irrelevant.

I use the loop + question flow of AutoFocus to accomplish it as it was a simple implementaiton, analog friendly, system/rule based, and by the very nature of it you are seeing all the tasks. No hiding it in a review context. When was the last time you elimiated 25% of your “commitments” during a review? If the answer isn’t today, tomorrow would be the next best answer.

For context, my issue is overcommitment but I don’t overcommit and defer. I overcommit and pull all-nighters to get everything done multiple times per week. I’ve slept less than 28 hours per week for most of the last decade. The system that resolves my issues may not be relevant to someone else’s.

(Simon) #15

Thank you! Some really helpful replies. I have used Forster’s Autofocus on and off.

I really liked your earlier breakdown and questions @mike2, very helpful, I may just steal them an use them myself!

I’ve actually been keeping a paper based project list and digitising them when I work on them. However, I have been experimenting with doing this all on paper. My productivity and thinking improves massively on paper. I have a notebook with a master task list in the front. Then some 40 pages in I have an active task list where I list what I’m working on. A project is given it’s own page. The only negative is reminders. However, if I’m up to speed with my reviews this works well. I also find I’m more likely to pull out a notebook when I have spare time than a laptop or iPad and less distracted when I do so.