Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 25

Compound and Atomic Tasks

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com.

A few weeks ago, I talked about some systems for todo listing on various levels: chain of self command and personal punch cards. The basic idea of chain of self command was to associate tasks of different magnitudes with different granularities of calendar time: a year for big tasks, a month for medium tasks, a day for little tasks. Personal punch cards are a concrete implementation of this general idea: you use index cards corresponding to each of these calendar units. An index card for each day, and index card for each month, and one or more index cards for each big picture year-long goal or problem that you want to attack. There was a bit more to it, and if this sounds at all intriguing to you I encourage you to dig up those podcasts. But today I'm going to focus on the daily todo list. In fact I'm going to focus in even more narrowly on the individual daily todo item. The task.

The question I'm going to examine is: when you write down a task on your daily todo list, should you try to break it up into as many atomic subtasks as possible, or should you try to glue together several related subtasks into a single compound supertask?

The answer is, of course, that it depends. And what it depends on most, I think, is whether the task in question is something routine, that you do every day, or a one-off, a novel or unique task. Routines should be compound, one-offs should be atomic. Here's why.

Routines, stuff you do or want to do every day, tend to be things you understand well. You know how long they will take. They are not surprising. You understand the associations between routine tasks, if they exist. So it makes sense to stick them together if you can, because then instead of having to remember or write down five things, you can get away with only having to remember or write down one. For example, I need to feed my cats every morning. I also need to give them water. I also need to scoop their litter. I could make these things separate tasks, but it's easy and convenient and natural to regard them as one supertask. Here's another example. After I do my exercise routine, shovelglove, it would be a good idea for me to shower. While I'm at it, I might as well shave. And cut my nails. So these 4 things make one natural compound task. I should probably add "floss" too, but I'm not quite there yet.

What do I gain by consolidating these 7 tasks into just 2? Well, for one thing, I'm more likely to remember to do all of them. All I have to do is remember one of the components and I've go the whole bundle. "cats" or "exercise" or "shower." I know some of them sound like basic things that any reasonably socialized non lunatic would do without systematic intervention, but I can get astonishingly forgetful when I'm in a rush, and I don't think I'm the only one. It also puts some extra pressure on you to do some of the important but seemingly optional stuff along with the basic necessities. Most of us wouldn't leave the house without showering (I hope). But far too many of us leave the house without exercising. If you bundle exercise and shower, the exercise becomes non-optional. All of a sudden you can't leave the house without exercising. This is a really simple, but really powerful motivator. And it's very natural. The association already exists, you're just formalizing and strengthening it.

I also, if you remember from my punch cards segment, have just ten rows in my "routine" column on my daily index card, and I don't want to blow 70% of them on my cats and basic personal hygiene. You could say that's an artificial constraint, the number of lines on an index card, and maybe that's true, but it's still an important constraint. Because the number of tasks makes a difference, even apart from the actually amount of cumulative work this corresponds to. If the number of tasks gets too high, you start to lose track, even if you're writing everything down. You want to keep it to a manageable level. X amount of work divided into 10 tasks is easier to deal with than X amount of work divided into a thousand tasks.

I don't know if this is necessary, but you can also come up with silly mnemonic names for compound tasks, just by glomming words or word parts together. So shovelglove plus shower plus shave plus nails becomes "shoshoshana" which sounds vaguely Hebrew, which I am also studying, incidentally. This makes it super hard to forget what the component tasks are, and even gives you a clue as to the order in which they are to be performed. And it's compact. It's easy to write down or just remember.

The danger with compound tasks like this is that you will overwhelm yourself with monstrously hard quadruple decker tasks. That's why I only recommend it for routine tasks that you understand very well. You know how long they're going to take, and you know how they fit together. For one off or novel tasks that you don't really know how long they'll take, I recommend the opposite: break them up into as many small parts as possible.

I've found that novel tasks almost always take longer than you think. By breaking them up into tiny parts, you factor this extra time into your plans. You're less likely to overextend yourself. Some one off tasks, like sending an email to someone, might be easier to judge, but it still makes sense to keep them nice and atomic because it doesn't have any natural associations with other tasks that will help you bundle it. Plus if you segregate your routine and one off tasks, as I do with my personal punch cards, filling up a row with a little task helps compensate for the inevitable other row that is going to take much longer than you think. And you want to fill these rows with as many easy, well understood things as will fit, both to keep hard poorly understood things from sneaking in and overwhelming you, and to give you a motivating sense of progress as you cross these things off. I've found that a sense of progress, even a somewhat artificial sense of progress, motivates me to get more done.

My daily punch cards have three columns: work, routine, and errand. Routine is obviously routine, but work and errand are one offs. Some of the tasks in my work and errand columns are ridiculously small. It might seem like I'm just tyring to fill up these columns to make it look like I'm accomplishing something. And that's true. But in the process of wanting to seem effective by crossing off lots of tiny little accomplishments, I wind up getting much more done than I used to. I like to have at least 7 tasks in each column (and no more than 10). This is the sweet spot between ambition and complacency that keeps me moving at a rapid but sustainable clip. If I write down at least 7 tasks in each column and get them all done, I give myself a little star on that card, kind of like the psycho schoolteacher played by Judy Dench in Notes on a Scandal. Very motivating. Just imagine her saying "gold star day."

Well, I'm out of time. Hope some of this was useful. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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