stut-it Martin Stut - Information Technology Tailored to You
By Martin Stut, 2009-05-23
Both at home and in the office, I have a huge pile of tasks that would like to be done. Their priority varies widely from an idea to create that neat program, not knowing whether it will be useful at all, up to a broken file server in a branch office, blocking the work of 30 users. This pile of tasks is more than I can reliably keep in my sieve-like head, so I started taking notes.
My goal was (and still is): When I am ready to start a new task, e.g. in the morning or when I've finished the previous task, I want to look into the system and see clearly what I should do next.
My History of ToDo Management Systems
By mid 1993, after 2 years in my current job the office, the task pile was about 5 cm of 9x9 cm sheets, one sheet per task, each marked with importance (A,B,C), urgency (1,2,3) and the date I was asked to do the task. Most of the tasks were in B2, so the prioritization was not much help. I got the recommendation to work "first come, first served", but due to the size of the pile, the waiting times were unacceptable. So when new tasks came in (or I got external reminders of old ones) that could not wait 4 months, I started to assign them a higher priority. Because very few incoming tasks could wait for 4 months, many of them got a higher priority - until the higher priority queue became unacceptably long too.
Around 1995 I experimented with a self-made database application trying to combine task queue management and timekeeping. I really had to program a function "bulk priority reduction" to clear the highest priority queue for the really urgent tasks.
Moving to a Psion pocket computer did not help much, because it only turned the pile into a file. 5 priorities and a date weren't enough structure. Every few months, usually during a long train ride, I had to look through a few hundred tasks, deciding the fate of each of them. Priority 1 could expect work really soon, priority 2 was usually at the head of the queue being worked at, priority 3 and lower never had a chance, except by being bumped during a review session.
In the summer of 2003, after having worn out several Psions (Series 3, Series 3a, Revo, Series 5), I bought a Palm Tungsten C. The built-in task manager was even smaller than Psion's, but there was a freeware program called Progect. It was meant for project management and could arrange tasks (or any other notes) as a tree. I used Progect for everything, not just task management. I've never seen a pocket mind map system coming close to the efficiency of Progect. It enabled me to arrange the tasks in a tree, so I could quickly look through related projects, e.g. for a certain branch. For main office work ("what's up next, regardless of the branch"), there was a "flat view", showing all tasks meeting certain criteria (e.g. date not in the future, priority 3 or better) in a selectable order (e.g. sort by priority, then date, ascending). But because even Progect only had 5 priorities and a date, there still was the "barely structured pile" effect.
By late 2007 I was frustrated enough, that I started multiple intensive searches for PC based task managers. I found websites describing the "Getting Things Done" style, which appealed to me, especially the part "get stuff out of your head" and the definition of physical actions. During the last days of December 2007, in the free time "between the years", I discovered ThinkingRock, then at version 2.0 epsilon. On the first glance it had an overwhelming amount of features, but after half a day of reading and trying, I started to like them:
I 'm writing this last sentence in past tense, because an update (I think it was 2.0 epsilon to 2.0.1) broke that important feature "last sort order is by project tree sequence". That almost broke my life, because I was back again to "5 priorities and a date".
During a beautiful holiday in the mountains of Berchtesgaden (the southeastern corner of Germany, near Salzburg/Austria) I recalled my boss speaking of different priorities of different branches. So I decided to introduce a separate topic for each branch and to use the topic as a second sort criterion. With "date created" as a third criterion I was back in business again and I'm happy for almost a year now.
I still thought, that there must be a way to assign priorities in a way that the head of queue draws a meaningful line between important and non-important stuff. So I need much more than 3 priorities - and a way to assign them consistently.