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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

The Beauty of the Recurring Task

There’s a certain kind of to-do list item that can really bite you in the butt: the recurring task. While programs like Sciral Consistency are designed specifically for managing fuzzy-intervaled tasks, MS Entourage has a handy “Recurrence Pattern??? box that lets you define how often and when an item should pop up on your radar screen. This is a feature I love and use whenever I can.

In addition to the common “Every Monday??? and “Every Other Month??? items, Entourage lets you set a manual interval for repetition that’s based on the last time the task was completed. For example, anyone who’s lived in San Francisco knows how inexplicably dusty your house gets. I have a reminder to sweep the bunnies from the hallway every 5 days (regardless of the day of the week that falls on). So if I tick it off today, it automatically pops back up again next Sunday. Then it hangs around, bugging me, until I do it again, and so on.


This is a great feature for handling a lot of stuff you don’t want to forget about—but that you don’t want sitting interminably on your to-do list.

  • Change baking soda in freezer & fridge (every 180 days)
  • Check in on progress of My Bloody Valentine’s next record (every 120 days)
  • Check for price changes on CD-R media (every 90 days)
  • Change water filter in coffee maker (every 30 days)
  • Check email on disused email account (every 14 days)
  • Think about making a new set of 5ives (every 10 days)
  • Call Mom (every 7 days)
  • Sift through spam folder for false positives (every 5 days)
  • Process outstanding Hipster PDA cards (every 3 days)

The thing I like best about this—and I admit that this is a subtle feature—is that regardless of how long it takes me to finish the task, it always re-generates itself with the correct interval. If I don’t feel like sweeping the floor and it takes 7 days instead of 5, no problem. Better next time.

Much nicer than watching a half-dozen, guilt-inducing items pile up behind one another like a traffic jam.

Khoi Vinh's picture

With iCal, you could in...

With iCal, you could in theory create the recurring task as an all-day event and then set it to repeat at certain intervals (as another reader explained above). Unfortunately, if you don't finish the task until say two days after an interval, there's no one-touch way to then shift the intervals forward. It's that single-click ability to reset the intervals that makes it truly useful -- a tiny user interface detail that makes all the difference.

Oh well. I wish iCal did have this, because I prefer it to Entourage's calendar/task module. It needs a serious update, though.

On the other hand, the recurring task is a vehicle for potentially dramatic forms of procrastination. I bet Kevin Shields has a recurring task that pops up every month that says, "Finish new album." Look where that got him!




An Oblique Strategy:
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