Later Never Comes

14 Feb 2016

Something that I’ve been historically very lousy at is triaging tasks. It seems like there’s always a pile of things I’ve been meaning to get to eventually, but it never seems to get smaller, and some things stay there for an impressively long time. This is true when I’m working by myself — whether on hobby projects or just general life stuff — but I’ve also worked on teams building software where we’ve had this problem.

Recently I’ve managed to find a way to stay on top of this stuff, and lately I’ve been wildly successful in triaging tasks because of it. The key insight: It’s okay to defer a task, but defer it until a specific time, not “later.” That pile of things I mentioned is the “later” pile, and later may never come.

The inspiration for this comes from a talk I stumbled across called Inbox Zero. The speaker describes an approach to dealing with email intended to keep your inbox from becoming a TODO list. The basic idea is this: never check your inbox without emptying it. Do one of the following with each message:

  1. Delete/Archive it
  2. Delegate it to someone else
  3. Respond to it now
  4. Defer it.
  5. Do it.

I’ve adopted a variant of this for my email. It doesn’t really include (2), and (3) and (5) are pretty much the same in my view. (4) is dangerous. I don’t include what the author uses (4) to denote, but I do something similar, which he includes (somewhat non-intuitively) as part of (5): schedule it. It’s fine to not deal with it right now, but decide when you’re going to do it. Later is not a time. If I want to make sure something gets done in a reasonable time frame, I actually specify when.

So, to recap, my version is:

  1. Delete it/Archive it.
  2. Deal with it now.
  3. Schedule it.

Email isn’t the only task queue in my life though; some things come in via other communication means. Examples: SMS, in-person conversations, random ideas that pop into my head. So, I do something similar with all of these.

I’ve been doing this for a couple weeks now. I’ve felt very on top of things, and the same amount of stuff in my life feels a lot less stressful. It seemed worth sharing.