Reducing noise in task management
A task management software is designed to be helpful. To remove noise from life. But when not organized properly, it can quickly backlash and result in something which adds more overhead than actually being helpful. The plan is: Avoiding and removing any noise, stuff which is not helpful for work. If tasks are entered wrongly, the list will be endless.
This article will go over a variety of tricks and tools to get the most out of task management by decluttering unneeded information. Not all task management applications will support every discussed feature, but a majority can be made to do a part of it. Mostly, this article focuses on methodology. They are ideas to try out or at least to keep in mind. The implementation of it will be very individual – both from the standpoint of used task management application and personal taste.
Things cluttering up
There are a variety of things, which do belong into the task management tool of choice but often just clutter everything up.
Future projects It is often helpful to plan and structure projects in advance, even if they have not yet begun. This allows for keeping track of things, making a long-term plan of life or work. These things belong into task management, so do not hesitate to add ideas and plans for things in the far future.
However, the number of a future tasks might quickly add up and create a large burden in a task management. Anything which is not doable at the moment should not show up in the main task list.
Reoccurring tasks Similarly, a task management tool is a great place for reoccurring work. The system should be a second brain. It can help remembering regular events, which are hard to keep track of. When did you last clean your curtains? If there is a bi-quarterly task for that, it is easy to track. A reoccurring date can be as far in the future as needed, so this can even help with any kind of seasonal events.
Reference lists A reference list is something like a list of books to read in future; movies recommended by friends. These should never clutter the inbox or a next action list.
All these things belong into the task management tool. They should not be omitted, but rather hidden. They can be paused, deferred, or simply filtered out using some tagging. If hidden, they leave the main focus, but are still available in the peripheral field of view: During reviews, or when actively searching for them. It will easily be possible to refer back to them at a later point when these tasks get more important.
Above, there were examples of things, which can be on the task list. These are generally things actionable. Reading, Writing, Replying something. For practice, try starting each a task title with an action verb to make sure it is really a task.
Calendar entries, meetings, and events are usually things, which are not well suited in a task management software. They classically belong into a calendar, and centralizing these into a task management software might only create unnecessary noise.
What does a task for Attending a meeting actually do? It is a reminder, but not something actionable at any time. Preparing a meeting, on the other hand, might suit a task management tool more closely. It can be done in advance, it is a thing to work on.
For a more detailed discussion on what things are tasks, and what things might rather be avoided, the article on task structure might be a good way to start. It also gives further insight on how to name tasks, and how to efficiently structure projects, tasks, and sub-tasks in a hierarchical way.
After making sure, that there are only real tasks in the task management tool, the first source of noise might already be eliminated. Unfortunately, the next action list will probably still be pretty long. When used daily, a task list can easily add up to hundreds of entries. Nobody wants to see all of them, ever.
If having a variety of projects, and open work for every single one, there might be hundreds of open things to do. Many of them have deadlines, so they could be done in order of deadline? How about things, which have no deadline? They could be done at an arbitrary point in time, but probably will just drown in the endless list of tasks and never finish.
There are a few very powerful tools for hiding tasks. All these tools are available in complex task management suites like OmniFocus or MyLifeOrganized. Applications with simpler approaches might lack some of the functionality, but it can often be replicated with custom filtering like described later.
Task deferment Deferment means postponement. As in, delaying the appearance of tasks. Some applications support defer dates or start dates. The idea is simple: A certain task or project is only doable after a specific point in time.
Let’s say, you want to apply for a scholarship or grant. The application period is during May, but it is currently beginning of April. You may not receive the application form until the end of this month, so why bother seeing the Fill in application form task all month? It is noise, as you will not be able to do this at any time, until a certain date is reached. It lingers in your task list despite being skipped every day.
Furthermore, by the time this date is actually reached, this task might even be ignored, as you already got used to seeing it every single day, beforehand.
This is, where task deferment comes in handy. When assigning a postponing date, the app will hide a task, until it is actually doable. This is a tremendous help when trying to declutter the task list.
If such a feature is not available in the task management tool of choice, the same effect can be added manually with a combination of keywords and proper filtering: For example, creating a custom task list which shows all tags except #Postponed. In this case, regular review of tags is needed to avoid losing track of hidden tasks.
Project pausing Sometimes, apps allow pausing of projects or even tasks. This can be another very powerful tool. A paused project will behave like a deferred task, but with an unknown date.
Such a feature can be useful for a growing database. If working with far-future tasks or reference lists, it is often very hard to determine start dates or deadlines. But, they are a source of noise in daily work, and the task manager will blow up over time. Thus, hiding inactive tasks and projects can of great help.
In apps targeted at Getting Things Done workflows, like NirvanaHQ or GTDNext, there is a mode, where whole projects or single tasks can be set to someday. If this functionality is not available as a feature, it can also be manually implemented with keywords and filtering.
Sequential projects Projects can either be sequential or parallel. This specifies, whether tasks related to a project need to be finished in a certain order or not.
When renovating a room, it makes no sense to start painting before actually buying a bucket of paint. Therefore, the task Start painting does not need to show up, before finishing Buy paint. This would be a sequential project. Having projects set up correctly, not-yet-available tasks are hidden automatically.
On the other hand, when creating a project to write a draft of a thesis, one might want to start multiple chapters in parallel to see whether the current structure works out. Thus, a project for this could be parallel.
There are also a couple of other ways to achieve similar functionality as above. This can be useful if the task management tool of choice does not support task deferment or sequential projects. Tools like Todoist might be a great fit in general, but that does not mean a sacrifice of all hiding capabilities. But even if using a complex app like OmniFocus or MyLifeOrganized, the tips introduced below can be used in addition. Play around with each idea and mix them into the workflows as needed.
Usually, it is possible to create some kind of custom filtering. This could custom views, a filter or search. If all projects or tasks are flagged with the necessary metadata, this results in a powerful tool.
One way would be tagging. This is usually either called context, tag or keyword. The idea is simple, and probably already familiar if ever used something like Twitter: When adding a hashtag like #at_home to all tasks, which are usually done at home, they are easily retrievable by the full-text search of the app of choice. Even if no tagging is available as a feature, the tag can also just be appended to the task title instead.
Selecting a priority for a task is another bit of metadata which later will allow easier filtering. Todoist or GTDNext allow setting a priority for a task. This could be interpreted as importance or urgency. Again, this allows easier searching and filtering of tasks.
Todoist allows creating custom filters, which stay in the sidebar. They are basically saved sticky searches, so anything retrievable via search can be added to the sidebar as a filter.
All the previous sections talked about how to not see all the clutter. In daily life, these things should not be seen, just to not get crazy. There will come a time when a certain project or task will be relevant. The art is, to hide it as long as it is irrelevant, and to show it from the point it gets relevant.
If there are correct deadlines attached to all tasks and project, notifications and other functionalities of task management software will usually automatically help with not losing track of the most strict deadlines.
However, a static system will never guarantee, that all dates are correct, and things might change after they are entered into the task management tool. Therefore, regular adjustment of all defer dates and deadlines is necessary.
A weekly review helps with this. Once a week, sit down with the task management tool and go through all projects and tasks. Very quickly: Ideas, which got unimportant or already finished, can directly be removed or archived. Everything else, does it look right? Change a few deadlines, add a few new ideas to some future projects. If everything looks right, it will work out correctly.
The important point is, to make sure to look at everything once in a while, to make sure that nothing will slip through and everything is coherent.
A task management system is a tool to work with. Do not hesitate to make frequent adjustments, reorder tasks, remove unnecessary things, and so on. Nothing is cut in stone, and nothing should be.
When in daily use, task management tools tend to clutter up. Many things in daily life, but also future planning, resulting in noise. A proper care can help avoiding the task list getting messy.
First, the task list should only carry items which are actually actionable tasks. Things, which rather belong in a calendar or other app, create an unnecessary barrier between you and the real tasks. If avoiding these, the task lists will empty up.
Second, there are a lot of things which actually belong in a task management tool, but might be notes to the far-future self. For example, reference lists and tasks for projects, which have not even started. To avoid these things cluttering up the task list in daily use, things should be postponed, paused or hidden. Many complexer applications have customizable tools to help with this.
Filtering task lists by projects, areas of life, or contexts is another way to limit the view to only important things.
Last but not least, a proper care and regular review help this issue in multiple ways: It will remove unnecessary bloat from the system. Things, which are already done but still left, because they have not been checked yet. It will also avoid losing track of projects and deadlines. It might even help with the tool getting messy in the first place.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission if you make a purchase.
Dr. Marc A. Kastner
I am an assistant professor working on computer vision and multimodal understanding. I am interested in task- and knowledge management. In my free time, I blog on productivity workflows and apps.
For my professional portfolio, please visit: marc-kastner.com
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