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Ganging your mosquito tasks

Not all tasks are created equal. Our to-dos all differ in priority, complexity, time requirement, and context, so it’s probably daft to always capture and expose them in an identical way. I have a little trick for dealing with this that’s been working really well for me.

Back in the day, my to-do list was an egalitarian nightmare of inefficiency — verb-centric “next actions” through they all were, I commonly faced a task list that looked something like this:

  • call Alice about Foo project
  • fix line 125 of bar.php
  • fix line 349 of bat.php
  • take out kitchen recycling
  • buy milk
  • buy index cards
  • sweep the decks

Now, the problem here might be self-evident to you smarter people, but I was missing an important concept: there is such a thing as too granular a task to track as its own event. In this instance, I was cruftifying my landscape with items that were way too detailed or tiny and, consequently, I’d turned my task list into an undoable roller coaster of un-focus. Just as “projects” are composed of “tasks,” I like to think that “tasks” themselves can often be collected into silos of small “mosquito tasks.” And my solution, as ever: text files and alarms.

In the example of my sample tasks above, the phone call is the only item that remains intact after this overhaul. The code fixes, chores, and shopping items each got shunted off into their own silos: “bat project code fixes.txt,” “semiweekly chores.txt,” and then the to-buy stuff all goes into the proper lists in Splash Shopper.

Why? Because, by and large, these are tasks that can and should be ganged into focus and completion at a single sitting, rather than being treated as discrete items. For myself, I’d never fix one bug or do one chore any more than I’d clean one hand or buy one egg — these are things I want to collect as they occur to me, and then do them all at a pass on a regular, repeating basis. They’re maintenance projects that must be tended to in a timely manner, but there’s no need to have the whole army of them glaring at me all day as I try to focus on the new and nonce tasks that most demand my A-Game concentration. This gets them out of sight until it’s time to focus on them.

But, is this different from a GTD “context?” You bet it is. For example, I have an “@write” context with a project of “Write Thank You Notes,” but no way do I want to track every single person who gets a note as a separate task. Oy vey. No, I just collect all those folks in a running text file and then pound through them as time allows. The vertical focus rules (plus this is all very conducive to running a dash)

By capturing and storing my “mosquito tasks” in one place and giving myself a regular reminder — I use the “recur” function in kGTD but you could use Outlook, etc. — I can return again and again to lists like:

  • Fix broken URLs
  • Update Firefox extensions
  • Run monthly Mac maintenance regime
  • Go to the health food place
  • Bring these items up with client Foo (a/k/a “Agenda”)

If you’ve been putting off a bunch of crap on your list, try a quick run-through and get an idea whether all your items are roughly the same “size.” If a task seems really big, make sure it’s not actually a project. If a task seems incredibly, annoyingly small (and especially if you discover it has neighbors that are also tiny), consider whether it might be more do-able if you tracked it outside your regular to-do list. Put ‘em in their own silo, and then come back later to knock them all down at once.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
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