An Approach to To-Do Lists that would even appeal to Unstructured Workers

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43 Folders has this great little approach to dealing with a to-do list.

As I’ve said before, items can sometimes linger on your TODO list a lot longer than you’d like, and it can be tricky to understand exactly why that is in each case. I’m convinced cringing is often a factor.

Being that it’s Monday, and a lot of us are planning this week’s activities, why not join me in a modest exercise.

  1. Print out your TODO list (alphabetically, if possible)
  2. Read it over—beginning to end
  3. Go back and circle each item that makes you cringe, or that causes you some kind of existential angst
  4. Per cringe item, think honestly about why you’re freaked out about it. Seriously. What’s the hang-up? (Fear of failure? Dreading bad news? Angry you’re already way overdue?)
  5. Now, again, per cringe item, add a new TODO that will a) make the loathsome task less cringe-worthy, or b) just get the damned thing done
  6. Cross the original cringe items off your list
  7. Work immediately on the new, cringe-busting TODO

If you could do this for just one item on your TODO list today, wouldn’t you be a little better off? Is there a quick call you could make, a draft you could edit, an email you could return, or some other piddling 2-minute task that would plane some cringe off of your hated tasks?

Imagine if you did this today for five items on your list. Now imagine you began each Monday with a Cringe Bust. Might be a handy way to pick off old items and let some unnecessary anxiety out of your working week.

(For extra credit, find the item on your list that’s been making you cringe for the longest. Anybody else turning up items that have been inducing cringes for over a month? Ouch. I suck.)

I like this approach because it appeals to the semi-structured/unstructured Graham Chastney. I’m definitely not one of these people who can look as a to-do list and prioritise it and then work through in priority order. It just doesn’t appeal and it’s in that word that the true me is revealed. There are loads of other tasks that may be more important but that just isn’t enough, they have to appeal in some way or another. And I’m OK with a philosophy that defines one of the factors as the cringe factor. Of course I also assess my to-do lists from other appeal factors.

  • Is this task interesting?
  • Does this task have value (as defined by me of course)?
  • Is this task for someone I like working with (because I don’t suffer fools)?
  • What is the reward for this task (that is rewards to me of course)?
  • Do I know that in completing this task that I will just get another one given to me (so actually there isn’t any point in completing this one)?
  • Do I think that if I don’t do this task the reason t do it will just disappear (as so many do)?
  • What is the pain involved in not doing this task (because life isn’t without pain anyway)?
  • Is this task overdue yet (because I don’t need to worry about it if it isn’t)?

Yes I know this list should be something more like:

  • Is this task of value to the company?
  • Has this task been requested by my superior?

Tough, it doesn’t. Those two narrow factors just don’t appeal. And yes I really do believe that my employee should give me tasks that appeal (if they want the best out of me).

More on the Form Factor Pschology v Car Psychology

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Steve has commented (and again) on my form factor piece.

He has compared his IT to the vehicles he has in his household. It occurs to me that I should do the same, so here goes.

We have three PC’s in the house, but only 2 cars.

  • Sue uses the middle of the road HP desktop – and she drives a Toyota Yaris. Functional and easily parked.
  • I use the HP Media Center PC upstairs – and drive a Ford Mondeo Ghia X. Basically a middle of the road car with a few bells and whistles.
  • I also use my works ThinkPad T41 which I think is also synonymous with a Ford Mondeo.
  • We all have mobile phones – and we all have bikes.

Office Efficiency

One of my ‘other’ jobs is to help a volunteer organisation in their use of IT. This organisation is only small and consists of six members of staff. My daytime job is to help large corporate to get the most out of their IT investments.

Both of these jobs give me an interesting insight into the ways that people interact with IT. One of them is all about detail, the other is all about high level big picture. On a personal level I tend to use one as a counter-balance to the other.

Large corporation try to increase office efficiency by investing huge amounts of money in large projects. These projects tend to focus on a radical change across a whole corporate base; new email system, desktop refresh, application upgrade, new application. In most instances the training for these changes focuses on the way that the change works; this is the way that you send email in this new system; this is the way that you schedule meetings; etc.

In my work with the volunteer organisation I have realised how diverse the use of IT is in the day to day things. There are now many different routes to achieve the same thing. In Windows (for instance) think of the different ways that you could open an existing Word document; you can use the folder views via something like ‘My Documents’; you can open up Word and do a File-Open command. Previously people would try to assess the efficiency of these types of operations by looking at the number of steps that needed to be undertaken; the one with the least steps being the most efficient. While in theory this is correct, I have come to the realisation that actually the one which is the most efficient is the one which works best for the individual. The biggest efficiency problem these days is not the time it takes for the computer to undertake an operation, it’s the time it take the individual to map out in their head the operations. And the pictures and maps that people use to do this are not linear ABC type maps, they are more like mind maps.

The only truly inefficient thing is the task map that someone has in their head which takes them on a route around the task, rather than getting straight to the task. So the challenge for corporate training is to find these inefficient tasks and routes and assist people in finding a new route. This type of education and learning is radically different to the way that we educate people today. Firstly, we need to make people realise that their productivity is their responsibility and not the responsibility of IT. But that is a difficult one to sell to some people. We then, also, need ways of understanding the ways that people are using their IT. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to say “I notice from our logs of the system that you keep going to your “My Documents area by first opening My Computer” did you know that you can get there quicker by doing this.”

That type of logging is clearly not available today, all we get are ‘event logs’ which tells us about problems and issues, but tell us nothing of the way that people are working.

The always-on social impacts

My friend Steve has just posted a really interesting article on the business case for PDA’s, but most importantly the impacts of the Always on Society.

It’s very interesting observing the social impacts of the working environment that people are forced to work in. I wrote the other day about the general working environment and it’s impact personally on my productivity. (Today I am working from home and it’s Friday s feel great). But it’s a really interesting thing to observe how other people interact with technology and the various connection infrastructures that they have.

Sue, my wife, is an interesting example. She works as a Pastoral Worker for our church (a voluntary position, but no less demanding) and the way that she interacts with the various connection infrastructures is fascinating.

When we come home from holiday, or even a short break, Sue has established a routine that drives me nuts, but is actually no different to the way so many people interact with their connection infrastructures. On films people returning from holiday, walk through the door with bags in hands, turn to each other, have a big hug and say something like ‘it’s great to be home’. Not in my house, are you kidding. As soon as Sue gets through the door she picks up the post and goes straight to the phone which will inevitably be flashing with a number of messages. These messages will be the few messages that have been left in the last 24 hours, because she has already phoned it every day while we have been away. And while she is walking around with the hands-free phone listening to the messages she walks into the study turns the PC on and sits down. She then goes through the post while the PC is booting up (still listening to messages) and down-loading the emails. She then goes through the emails. As a man this is infuriating because I am, of course, completely superfluous to this activity (there is nothing worse for a man than to feel redundant). So what do I do, I go and get the bags in from the car of course.

The thing is, these messages and emails can be anything. It’s not primarily personal correspondence that she is dealing with here, it’s primarily work related. And because she is a pastoral worker these messages can be anything and generally include births, deaths, sickness, upset, separation; anyone of the full spectrum of life’s highs and lows.

Yet, just because it is there, she needs to reconnect herself. She knows it drives me mad, and she knows that for me it marks a stark and sudden end to a holiday that I would rather keep going for a few hours.

I don’t take a laptop on holiday, not because I will fell the need to stay connected, because I know Sue will need to.

The other thing she has is the need to read text messages as soon as they arrive, wherever whenever, even if it’s late at night. For me, it’s more likely that the message itself will spoil my nights sleep, for Sue, the knowledge that there is some information that she doesn’t have will definitely spoil her nights sleep.

Now, there is some logic to all of this. And I’m not saying I’m right and she is wrong. I’m just saying we are different. For Sue, she would rather get all of the information in small doses. Just because she has the information doesn’t mean she worries about it. For me, I’d rather not have the information at all, because I do worry about it. Not sure whether that’s a man-woman thing, or whether it’s our different personalities. What it does mean is that she sneaks away while we are on holiday to phone home and listen to the messages and that definitely troubles me, because it feels a bit like she is behaving like an addict would. She only does it because she knows it winds me up, I’m sure.

Anyway, at today’s level of technology there is a certain level of disconnection. If we are camping in Northern Scotland there is no mobile signal and I’m not driving to a phone box so she can listen to the messages. But those days are rapidly coming to a close. So what will it take for us to fully understand what we are doing to ourselves in being this connected and when will we understand how to train people how to deal with his level of connectivity. How do you train someone to turn off a mobile phone? How do you train someone to know that stuff happens and to relax in it? How do we change the technology so that we get the really important stuff and not the dross? I have a colleague who sends everything to me as ‘urgent’ and it’s not. One of these days he’ll send me something really important and I’ll miss it.