What is the best word for “task”?

Here’s a thing we have noticed: all the words for “todos” (as we think of them) feel not-quite-right. I suspect this may be why there are so many todo-apps or task trackers, and so few happy users of such products.

“Todo” as I have seen it is generally used for small things, or things with no firm delivery date. Most people would not describe a presentation you had to deliver to management on Monday as a “todo”, for example, while you might say “commenting my code is a todo” or “is on my todo list”. It also feels like something you decide for yourself, and not something someone (like you boss) gives you; “here are your todos” feels like a rare phrase. (In fact, as of this writing it has 9 results in Google. Not 9 million or 9 thousand, I mean the number that is 1 less than 10.) “Todo” is a very common word, with 2 billion google hits.

“Task” is more formal, and feels like something given to you be someone else, but is less common than “todo” with only 0.5 billion hits. (It has 158K results in Google in the “here are your” form, wildly beating “todos”.)

“Job” has a primary connotation of “what you do for a living”. “Goals” are more final or end-state oriented. “Objectives”, while technically correct and loosely used enough to mean “anything you are trying to do”, is a mouthful and less frequently used; only 0.3 billion hits there.

As far as I can tell, there is no word in English that means “something you want to accomplish, which may or may not be given to you by someone else and may or may not have an end date”. Maybe this is the reason the “task tracker” or “todo app” space is so crowded, and yet customers are still dissatisfied: there is a gaping hole in English to describe the problem. As a result, it is easy for customers and businesses to talk past eachother; when the words don’t exist to describe the goals succinctly, the only words you can say are the ones you don’t quite mean (and everyone gets confused).

So what is a good word to use? The standard startuppy thing is to invent a new word, like AirBNB or AirPaper, and make its definition the thing you want. My current favorite is French for “task”: “tâches”, pronounced “tash”. As far as I can tell, this is a monosyllabic word that has no common use and is very close to the thing I want to talk about. Should this be a thing?


Improve how you spend your time

Improve how you spend your time

More than ever, the world is full of highly-accessible and addictive time sinks. I have lost more hours than I care to think about on imgur, video games, what have you; technology has made it easier than ever to lose an hour here or there and not really notice. Entire categories of business have built their products around providing an addictive product, frustrating users, and charging for tools to defeat that stress. (Paging Candy Crush and Clash of Clans.) While this can be fun at the time, it can lead to regret in the long term: missed deadlines, poor grades, experiences foregone by time misspent.

So what is the average person to do?

“If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” – Lord Kelvin

There are two big tricks these companies use against you: psychology and statelessness.

Using your brain against you

On the psychology side, timewasters make it trivially easy to spend “just a little” more time; imgur streams entertainment at you with each tap of the right-arrow key, and games of Candy Crush are intentially short enough to perpetually allow “just one more”. Apps, especially, try to build an “engagement wheels”: addictive little cycles that are easy to get lost in for great lengths of time.

Exploiting lack of context

These timewasters can get away with consuming so much of your life because most people don’t measure how they spend their time. Most people live in the moment, doing what seems like the best thing to hit their next goal or do their next job. This is a context-free way of approaching the world; instead of considering broader patterns and retrospectives, always focusing on the next few minutes makes it possible to repeat past mistakes.

It is exactly this context-freedom timewasters want to exploit! Because most people don’t track how they spend their time, it is possible to lead people into giving more money, time, and attention away; users literally don’t notice/comprehend how much time slips away.

The simple solution

But the trick is to have a retrospective; exactly how much time did I waste this past week? Am I OK with that? We cannot change what we do not measure, and we can’t make informed choices about how to spend our time without data on how we have spent it and how happy we were.

You need to do just a little bookkeeping. Calendars are not great for proactively planning, but they are a great place to store how you actually spend your time. Personally, I use Google Calendar; I am almost always in front of my computer, and that gives me ample opportunity to dash off what I actually did at any random time. I make blocks for whatever I was doing; times don’t need to be exact, so the default intervals of 30 minutes to multiple hours are just fine. This gives me a rough picture: how much time am I actually spending on things I value? How much is on entertainment I won’t value long term? Is it in big chunks, or slipping between other tasks?

Entertainment and timewasters are not intrinsically bad, but letting businesses that want your time and attention make your decisions for you is. Taking control of your time is surprisingly easy; just a little bit of tracking make it much, much easier to make informed decisions and change your habits. The tools are free! Use them!


Don’t plan with your calendar

For most people, task scheduling is throwing stuff onto a calendar according to some rules, (mostly: don’t schedule over lunch,) and filling the calendar as well as possible. When all of your work is time dependent, like prescheduled calls or meetings all day, this is a fine solution; the calendar sorts things by time, and your work is sorted by time. Great! But what wait a second: very few people have that kind of job. So how is everyone else supposed to schedule? We think the calendar is a bad solution, and want to introduce the DAG

Calendars are bad

The calendar is actually a very misleading tool for work that is not time-blocked. It is easy to throw a 1 hour call in from 3 to 4, but when does “add the login feature” fit on the calendar? How long will it even take? Usually the answer is ¯_(ツ)_/¯, which makes scheduling anything else on the calendar misleading or impossible. You *could* throw the feature addition in from 9-11AM, but the 11-12 slot has problems:

  1. If you put something there and the feature takes too long, suddenly you feel “behind”.
  2. If you put something there and the feature goes faster than expected, your calendar doesn’t show the real time you had. You can either spend the time moving everything in your calendar, or leave the misrepresentation.
  3. If you don’t put anything after that feature, your planning tool isn’t actually showing your plan.
  4. If you just roll everything you intend to do today into a “today” bucket, you lose specificity about relative size of tasks and are more likely to guess wrong about how much you can do in a day.

All of these problems get compounded when your coworker, manager, or spouse wants to have an idea of what you are doing, and when it will be done. In the worst case, your manager asks you to estimate times for everything (with something like Jira) and then browbeats or punishes you when work goes differently than your fictional estimates. This is also a great way for managers to “encourage” you to stay late/on weekends “to finish what you said you would do”.

So what is a better tool?

DAGs are great

The scheduling we are talking about has only a few features: there is a 1+ number of things to do, and some of them belong before others. (You can’t do “deliver supplies” before “pick up supplies”, or “make deck based on Kim’s analysis” before “get data to Kim for analysis”.) There is a name for this kind of structure: the directed acyclic graph. That is mostly jargon from math, but it has the same properties we just described:

  1. Every element is a block with lines to show relationships (a graph)
  2. There is an ordering to before-ness or after-ness of items (directed)
  3. If A is before B is before C, then C cannot be before A (acyclic)

Instead of imposing arbitrary times on work that doesn’t have natural start/stop times, a DAG lets you do the first things first, noting how long they actually take, and move on to the next things when you are able to do them. No more adjusting your fake intial estimates to match reality; just doing work in the right order, and making note of what happened.

So how do I use one?

The easiest way is to buy a bunch of index cards (~$5 for 100) or the ever-wonderful full-size sticky notes and write down all the things you have to do. Sort them in order of execution. (I find it easiest to sort them on a table with first steps close to me and downstream tasks behind. You might find that some tasks have more than one “before” or “after” element. For example, “Go to shopping center” unlocks “buy some timber” and “buy some cold drinks”, and together those unlock “Go home and build a sawhorse”; this would look like a diamond pattern with “go shop” near me.) After sorting, keep them in your pocket and continually keep doing the top card.

Whenever you finish a task, write down when you start and finish each card for future reference if you like. (It can help to have some blanks to write surprise work on, for example if your boss just “drops in” and you lose an hour in an unscheduled meeting).

This method is great for reducing the costs of multitasking, not perfect; it is hard to share the cards, and if you want metrics or visuals on your work you need to enter all the data by hand. But it would definitely be convenient if someone was building a digital version, right?


Multi- *answer text* -tasking

There is a prevailing notion that women are “just better” at multitasking, partially because some studies report just that. But that shallow analysis is more show than substance, and it doesn’t explain the Whys and Hows that are key to making positive changes. To do multitasking well, there are two things you need to understand: context switching and planning.

Context switching is the change in focus jumping from one problem to the next, and it is expensive. Some studies show an effective IQ decline when people take the test while multitasking, and this makes some sense: in order to switch contexts, your brain needs to flush out all of the old-task stuff and reload all of the new-task stuff. Anything that did not take up much mental space wouldn’t occupy you for long, so the tasks we end up doing tend to involve at least some flush & reload. Multitasking frequently involves rapid switches, back and forth, between one or more tasks; you end up paying the overhead cost on each switch, multiple times per task. If you can stick to only one task, you don’t switch contexts and pay no costs, so you are more efficient. We have written before about getting things out of your brain so they aren’t obstructive, and not needing to switch contexts is a similar removal of barriers.

But according to a few studies, some people are better at multitasking. Do they switch contexts more quickly? Do their brains flush and load new information faster or more efficiently? If you ask the experts, the answer is a strong “No”. Instead, better multitaskers (frequently women) put more effort into the up-front planning of the work.

“They spent more time thinking at the beginning, whereas men had a slight impulsiveness, they jumped in too quickly.” – Professor Keith Laws.

This should be very encouraging! Instead of some inescapable biological fate, good multitasking boils down to something anyone can do: a bit of up-front planning. Rather than immediately sprinting toward the goal, a little planning might save you substantial effort and get you to the goal faster. In the sprinting metaphor, checking the bus schedule and waiting at the stop for a few minutes might get you across town much, much faster. In multitasking, planning out how to minimize context switching minimizes the costs you pay. Men tend to be slower multitaskers; the time spent planning pays dividends by saving even more time later.

Modern life is emphasizing multitasking more and more. Instead of merely having to mind a phone, we now have phone, email, text, instant message, Snapchat, and whatever else all commanding our attention. As multitasking becomes more common, the price of being bad at it gets higher and higher. A little planning goes a long way in freeing up your time while reducing stress.

(We’re making progress on our tool to simplify this planning and execution process for exactly this reason; check back soon!)


Stress less about perfection

The book Art and Fear has a powerful parable about obsessing over perfection:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Getting stuck in the “quality” trap probably sounds familiar; it definitely does to me. It is easier on the ego to focus on ideals, rather than risking “failure” or a version that has visible flaws. This trap most often shows up in my work life if I let it, but the most troubling scenario is when I am picking tools. It is easier to stress over which library to use, or whether to deploy on Amazon or Google, etc than it is to plow ahead and fail a few times trying out the various possibilities. (No one likes to explain to a coworker or boss “I spent most of today failing with {these tools}, and have not much to show for it.”)

But as the ceramics story makes clear, the locally-safe strategy is not the globally-best one. Getting the amateurish copies out of your system, and not chastising yourself for their quality, is a more effective way to get to quality than wrestling with quality is. If you want to more effective, just try things out until you find the thing you like! I was not maximally effective for big chunks of my life because I focused on flaws in the planning systems I saw, rather than getting the bad versions out of my system until I found something that fit. Experiment, make mistakes, learn from them, and move on to a better way; it is the most reliable route, even if it seems scary!


Lifehacks: Externalizing Your Brain

We’ve been experimenting with lifehacks, and wanted to share one of our favorite recent discoveries. These are portable & rearrangeable notes, which are useful for tracking spending, keeping reminders with you throughout the day, and reordering components of complex things like documents, slide decks, or task orderings. They let you externalize your reminders and thoughts into the world, so you have less mental energy bound up in keeping track of things and more for things that matter. You really ought to buy full-adhesive sticky notes.

Unlike the post-its you’re familiar with, these sticky notes have adhesive across almost the entire back, which makes them much more useful; they don’t fall down or tear like regular post-its, and can be re-stuck wherever you need them.

Some of the big uses we have found so far:

Better Incidental Expense Tracking

Let’s be honest: it is really, really easy to lose track of how much you are incidentally spending during a day. $4 for a latte, $17 for lunch, random amounts in groceries every few days, maybe an iced tea on a hot day; these transactions add up, and it is hard to make improvements to your spending without knowing where the money goes.

These sticky notes make it easy to keep track: get a plastic card that fits in a wallet (like a library, grocery, or credit card), and put a sticky on that card in your wallet as you leave home every day. Carry a pen with you, and whenever you open your wallet to pay for something, write down the rounded amount on the sticky. At the end of the day, transfer the sticky to a calendar (or rewrite into the calendar if you want). At a glance, you can see roughly how much you are spending out-of-pocket, every day that you have done this.

Keep Todos With You

I usually have a couple random minor tasks on any given day. (For example, “make this phone call”, “pick that up on the way home”.) However, I usually forget these during the flow of the day, and too often they go uncompleted. If I need to remember something before leaving for the day, I usually hide my keys on top of it so I have an active reminder before I head out; these notes make it easy to do the same thing with random tasks. Putting a sticky on the back of your phone with the jobs that need doing will provide you with reminders throughout the day, giving you several prompts to get those things done. (I know that I usually pull out my phone on my walk to the car, aka right before I need to run errands, or during the small lulls of the day ideal for getting something done.)

Contextual Reminders

These notes don’t just have to live on your person! 1. put ideas you want to keep in mind on the back of your front door, 2. errands on the dash of your car, 3. follow-up notes on your desk at work to remind you to ping that person if they don’t respond by a certain time.

I promise you, if you start small habits of offloading your brain into something better for persistent tracking, you will feel a weight lift off your shoulders. These notes have an 88% 5-star rating on Amazon as of this writing, and 200 of them costs $5; try them out, and see the difference $5 can make in your well-being!