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Is your task list becoming a task database?

It could be worse, it could be a task retirement home ...
Feb 8, 2021

At a certain point the incentive to do these often old, out-of-context tasks turns vengefully into a serious disincentive to even look at them, much less attempt to get them done.

Nobody starts out thinking they will have hundreds of tasks

It happens slowly, just a few tasks added every day that just don't seem to get done. Before you know it you have a behemoth of tasks, seething just under the surface of today's task list

This task is important! (at the moment, at least)

Imagine an important project of yours is on your mind, and after thinking about how it is going and where it is going, you get a great idea or you think of something that will avoid future issues. An important task is born!

So you add it to today's task list. Your full of hope, confidence and determination. This task is gonna get done today!

Context gets lost as time passes

At the time you record a task as being something you want to do, you choose a title for the task that encapsulates:

  • what to do, and
  • how to do it (maybe)

But why you want to do the task is often missed: it makes the task too long. After all, you have a lot more things to do today.

And you'll definitely remember why you wanted to do this task. Right?

Uh oh, tomorrow is here (already)

Somehow the day gets used up and this task was either not done or not even started. Now it's tomorrow. It's the new today. And today has a new set of urgent tasks, commitments and want-to-dos. Yesterday's leftover tasks get shuffled into today. And it still doesn't get done.

At some point, that not-yet-started task from one or more days ago starts to look like an accusation. Not pleasant.

Your daily task list gets too long to see at a glance. The the number of things you get done each day hardly makes a dent in the task list in front of you. Something snaps. Time to pare down.

And so, you make the bitter decision to move some tasks off today's task list, put them on hold. Ah... Now I can focus.

Now where should you put these? Of course! Right into a task manager! Or maybe I'll write them into nice moleskin notebook.

Yeah - I've got one right here, uh somewhere, - there it is! I signed up ages ago.

Sure, you'll review these on-hold tasks every few ....

... days, or weeks. Certainly every month on the 1st. Right after my morning coffee, and after I feed the dog, just before I feed the fish... Ahhhhh !

Now, extrapolate this behaviour over weeks and months.

That, my friends, is the beginning of your task database.

The problem with tasks, is their title

The titles you choose for your tasks should be chosen carefully: some represent novels that you can't read in a day.


When you look at today's task list, try to get a feel as to how much is hidden behind the brief description you gave as a title. For example, "feed the dog" is very low level and actionable today in a reasonably short period of time. Whereas, "revisit my video setup" or "code the Stripe interface for one-time subscriptions" are more involved, possibly multiple-stepped and may require some thought.

What you have here is a difference in granularity, the particle size of your tasks is not the same. The way forward (for you, buddy) is not as clear for each of them. So when you see this, then your tasks title are not tasks at all, but triggers that need further breakdown into actionable steps. Your titles become mini-goals that will have several tasks.

You need sub-tasks or ordered steps (or both).

Sub-tasks and sequences of steps

You don't want to lose that nice title you first gave, but you need to augment that with all the steps that are needed to accomplish this. So go ahead, start to flesh this title out into sub-tasks, ordered in the proper sequence.

Wow! This is a bigger "task" than I imagined.

Don't despair! You just got an action plan of tasks together and you're going to be able to do some of them today. So highlight the very next step and put that on your task list for today. Keep the rest together and handy - you're going to want to do the 2nd step after you do the first, and so on until it is done.

So I have hundreds of tasks? What's the big deal? They're all there and I can find them when I need them. I'll get around to them eventually. I have to prioritize my time, you know.

Now where did I put that ?

Clearly, your task list for today will end up being fairly short (If you want to get it done) and so you have to choose what gets done and push off what does not to another day. This includes things that you want to get done. The day is only so long.

At some point in the future, though, your project will become front-of-mind once again and the pathways in your brain will lead to fuzzy recollections of the things you had intended to do: "Hmm, I'm sure I had a lot of things I wanted to do on this..." But what were they?

At this point you will have to draw upon the tools you used to store them away for future reference: the task manager (manual or electronic forms). Hopefully you tagged them with a project code and client code. It may take a while but you will find them.

I was going to do ... that?

Now as you glance over the list of tasks you made for yourself way back when, the difficulty will be figuring out what exactly you meant - what were you thinking of when you wrote this down? Is the task still valid? Have circumstances changed the need or the process of doing it?

You will have to decide that all over again in light of today's situation. So with that said, just how important were those task that you put off all those weeks ago?

OK, but what's the solution?

There is none. Intentions to do things should never to curtailed, in my opinion. Keep trying to do a lot each day, especially the things that lead to your goals.

It's not the end of the world that you didn't get all of them done today. There is no need to rue them. Look at them as new friends that you created to give focus to your day. Keep them for a while in your daily task list, but move them out if you think they do not or cannot realistically be done within the week.

Store them away if you want for later review, but take a moment to add the 'why' and any other context. And be realistic about your future self. If you find the 'why' of now will likely have no merit before you think you will get back to this project, then simply delete them.

You may end up with a task database. That's OK. It's your database. Keep it as small and as meaningful as you can but don't spend much time on it. After all you got things to do, buddy.

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