I am the parent of two young kids. It is easy to sink into random stuff, and not follow up on goals. Strict time management and priotization means I get to work on open source projects, write programming books and update my blog with a decent cadence. Since a lot of people were asking me how to do it, I wanted to share my methodology. The following is descriptive, not prescriptive.
One thing I am proud of is that the initial draft for the post was written a year ago. I have done my edits for clarity, but found that my description of the process, for the most part, has remained the same. This made me confident that it is time to publish: this process has existed in its current form for at least a year, and I believe almost two years. This is not some fad diet for me: this process has proved its worth.
Glyph has already written at length about how a full Inbox is a sign of misprioritized tasks. Saying "no" is one example (in other words, prioritizing away). But when saying "yes", it is a good idea to know when it can be done, when should you give up, and potentially apologize, and when should you give a heads-up that it is being delayed.
His description, being more high-level, is prescriptive. The follow-up is the process I use, shaped by those general ideas.
The tool I use is TODOist. The first time I tried it, I decided it lacked some necessary features. I still feel this way — about the free version. The free version is completely unusable. The premium version is perfectly usable.
The salient features of TODOist, that the rest of the explanation depends on, are:
- Android integration. I use Android on my phone, and depend on good phone support. TODOist has a widget which lets me add a task without waiting for an app-launch. It integrates with Google Assistant — it is possible to configure all "Note to self" to be new task creations. Finally, it integrates with the "Share" menu, so sharing things can create tasks.
- E-mail integration: a customized e-mail address which opens a task for each e-mail
- Browser plugin: add a task without opening the site, as well as "Add website as task" for current page.
- A task can have arbitrary attachments.
E-mail scan process
I read e-mail "when I get around to it". Usually several times a day. I do have notifications enabled on my phone, so I can easily see if the e-mail is urgent. Otherwise, I just ignore the notification.
When I do go through my e-mail, I follow the rules:
- If it’s obvious there is no task, archive
- If it’s something short, obvious and I have the time, do it and archive. However, if I find in the middle that I am wrong about it being short and obvious, I abort. Usually it is obvious if an e-mail will require a lengthy research project. The most common way of being wrong is when, while responding, I find myself getting too emotional. I have trained myself to consider this as a trigger for aborting.
- Otherwise, I "Forward" and send it to the TODOist auto-task e-mail — and then immediately archive. The forwarded message, having literally all the words in the original, is enough information to search for the original in my archive.
The only "permanently" open tabs in a browser should be "communication" tabs: FB messenger, whatsapp, slack, etc. If any other tab feels like it would be bad to close, create task from it. I verify that each tab is OK to close, or needs a task + close, by closing all non-communication tabs if the tabs become too small to read the titles (Chrome) or the tabs need scrolling (Firefox).
My usual research task takes several tabs (Python documentation, StackOverflow, GitHub pull requests, tickets and more), so tab accumulation happens naturally, thus triggering the garbage collection process.
This is a daily task, to go to the filter "triage" and clean it out. The filter is defined as "not marked ‘time permitting’ and does not have a due date". Since tasks come in without marking or due date, this is a filter for tasks that come in. The task is "done" when the filter is empty. Any task that actually needs to get done will get Scheduled with a due date. Note that this due date is not a real "due": it is when I plan to do it. This will get determined based on the task, on my available time, and when other tasks got scheduled.
Otherwise, the task is marked "time permitting". This means, in real terms, that I will probably never get around to it. This is fine — and it feels nicer than archiving or deleting the task. It allows me to be less FOMO when doing the triage.
Occasionally, an external trigger will rescue a task from the "time permitting" graveyard.
Rebalance means that I do not want to have an empty day, followed by an avalanche day: I’ll be as carefree as the grasshopper that day, watch TV and frolic, and then drown in tasks the next.
I look ahead, and if I see a day with less than 5-6 tasks, I will move some tasks forward to get done sooner. I do not worry about the opposite. If there are too many tasks one day, they’ll naturally get postponed.
I treat the due date as an "ETA". I try to do all tasks due a given day on that day. If there is an objective deadline, e.g. a CFP that closes on a date, that deadline will be in human readable form on the task.
If I am too tired, or cannot handle more load, I start rescheduling "today" tasks. This process will take into considersation the "objective" deadlines, if any. It will also take into account the subjective value of the task to me.
Any task that gets postponed "too many times" gets moved to "time permitting".
Humans are social creatures. Some tasks, I cannot do alone. For example, when publishing a blog post, I like to have some trusted people review it. This means that I need their feedback.
When I need something from someone, that’s a task. The task is to use that thing. The due date is the date to poke them about the delivery of the thing. Because I try to build in a buffer, it allows me to be nice about it. I am endlessly patient, with e-mails asking "let me know how it is going".
Some people are also busy. If someone tells me "I’ll give it to you in a week", I make a task to ask them about it in a week. If they deliver, they will never know: the task gets done when I get what I need. If not, I’ll mention, gently, "hey, it’s been a week, wondering if there’s an update."
Some people, for good or bad reasons, do not deliver. Then I have the task of deciding what to do about it. Sometime I’ll ask someone else for help. Sometime I’ll do it myself. Sometime I’ll drop it. Whatever it is, it was my explicit decision.
If there are too many tasks, and I feel overwhelmed, I will start postponing any non-urgent tasks. Sometimes, this means I will postpone everything. If I lack the spoons, I lack the spoons. I do not feel guilt about it.
Inbox Zero is possible. Not only that. Inbox Zero, I have found, is easy. Doing everything I want to do is not easy. But the meta-process: deciding what I want to do, deciding what I am going to say "no" or flake on, that is easy.
This leads to less anxiety. I do what I can, and decide that this is enough. I am kind to myself. Be kind to yourself. Go Inbox Zero.
(Thanks to Shae Erisson for his feedback. Any issues that remain are my responsibility.)