May 26, 2022
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Productivity is one of those problems that has always remained unsolved. The reason why it’s always been an elusive problem is because the very concept of productivity is such a big, fuzzy concept.
The atomic unit of productivity is a task, but tasks are a vague concept that are defined by any number of external factors. Tasks are also often not static, but in fact evolve over time or due to the stimulus from a whole host of different inputs.
We often think of tasks as simply “things we need to get done”, but there are actually many different types of tasks, each with their own characteristics and nuances. Some types of tasks are not even considered to be “tasks” but do have a big impact on our productivity.
In this post we’re going to look at the evolving nature of productivity, what makes for a good productivity method, and why a fixed productivity method simply does not work.
Before we try to understand what makes for a good productivity method, first we need to understand the basic unit of productivity, the task.
A task is a vague concept that is defined in terms of its external inputs. Generally speaking, a task is something that you have to do, will do, needs to be done, or will be done by someone else.
Tasks can be dependent on other tasks, on people, or on a date or time. During the lifecycle of a single task, it could be dependent on any of those things, none of those things, or some of those things at different points in time.
As tasks evolve, they can go from being not urgent to critically urgent as a deadline approaches. A task could be the number one priority for hitting an important objective, but then be disregarded as superfluous when the objective changes.
Tasks usually involve people, and people can come and go through the life of a task. Whenever you involve multiple people with a task you suddenly have a combinatorial explosion of complexity, particularly in scheduling work.
Finally, tasks can be dependent on some tasks and be a dependency on others. Tasks can be delayed or completed early, or new tasks added as dependencies of tasks that should be tackled first as requirements change, or unknowns are uncovered.
Let’s take a look at some concrete examples of different types of tasks. There are many different permutations of what could be considered a task, but I’m going to concentrate on the 4 main tasks you will encounter.
The first type of task is the to-do, typically a discrete piece of work that needs to be accomplished either by you, or by someone else.
A to-do task can be dependent on other tasks, or itself be a dependency of a different set of tasks. It can have a hard deadline, a fuzzy deadline, or no deadline at all. Some types of to-do can only be started after other to-do tasks have been completed, and some can only be started after a certain point in time.
To-do tasks can be important, not important, urgent, or not important, or any combination of the two.
Events aren’t often thought of as being tasks in the traditional sense, but they are a very important type of task that usually have a disproportionate effect on our productivity.
An event is essentially a task that is usually explicitly tied to a date, time, location, or any combination of the three.
Events usually involve people, so there’s often a coordination requirement to be solved, and will typically require all of your attention.
A question is quite a broad concept that doesn’t usually invoke ideas of productivity. However, questions are an important type of task that are often overlooked.
For example, how many times have you been blocked from making progress on a project because you have a question that needs to be answered before you can continue?
The question in this example is a critical task that must be answered in order to make progress. A question is a prompt to shed light on a problem. But because the very nature of the question is the task of seekly clarity, it means there’s an element of risk.
The final type of task are reminders. Again, reminders are often not thought about as being tasks in the traditional sense of the word. However, reminders are an important type of task when you consider productivity as a whole.
A reminder is a note to yourself or to another that a task must be completed. The reminder is not the task itself, it’s a meta task to ensure that the task is handled correctly.
However, just because a reminder is a meta task, and not the task itself, doesn’t mean we can overlook it when it comes to selecting the right productivity method.
So as we’ve seen so far, tasks are a vague concept that are defined by a number of different factors, and there are many different types of tasks, some of which we don’t often think of as tasks at all.
Tasks, just like people, have characteristics that define them. These characteristics give us an insight into how best to handle the task.
For example, a task such as “design the new marketing website” is very different to a task such as “send invoice to the client”.
If you asked someone to distinguish these types of tasks, they might say one was highly creative, whereas the other was a routine admin task. They might say, one will have a long, possible unknown duration, whereas the other will have a fixed, highly predictable duration. Or they might say one requires a lot of energy and effort, whereas the other hardly takes any energy or effort at all.
However, to complicate matters further, any of the characteristics of the task are also subject to change depending on any number of external factors.
For example, a task might be due soon and so it is suddenly more urgent, requires a greater amount of energy, or causes a higher level of stress to the unfortunate person who has to complete it.
Or perhaps you are struggling with a task that you were hoping to complete on your own. So instead you ask to collaborate on it with someone else, thus taking the task from being asynchronous to synchronous.
There are more productivity strategies than you can shake a stick at, but one thing they all have in common is a fixed set of “rules” that must be adhered to in order to make the system work. Typically productivity strategies will be a set of prescribed rules that should be followed.
However, as we’ve seen above, it clearly does not make sense to try and use a fixed strategy on a problem that is constantly evolving. In order to handle a moving problem, you need a solution that can evolve too.
Despite what most productivity gurus tell you, there isn’t one true method to solving productivity. Instead you need to use a system that can handle the unpredictability of our unpredictable world.
One such method is improvised just-in-time productivity. This methodology doesn’t prescribe a fixed set of rules, in order to deal with the evolving nature of our work, but rather a system for picking the right thing to work on at any given time.
The problem with improvised just-in-time productivity is, it’s a very difficult problem to solve, requires a lot of effort, is yet another thing to think about when you really should be concentrating on getting your work done.