Re-thinking Task Execution
The Limitations of Task Managers
I’ve written many articles about how to manage tasks, or at least how I manage tasks. There are so many different systems with which one can wrangle their tasks together, though I find David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology to be the most inclusive and most customizable. If GTD is a technology, then perhaps it has the most “switches” and “settings.”
But systems like GTD only set us up to sink the ball into the hole; that is, they provide a framework with which we can sort our tasks and filter our lists down to a manageable and do-able size. GTD (and other systems) also build in a weekly check-in of some sort so that tasks don’t get lost in the shuffle.
But the thing that GTD doesn’t do is tell us how to execute on the task. All the parameters and thinking goes around how to organize lists so that execution becomes a breeze. But that only does so much to help someone with a wandering attention.
The Short Burst vs. Deep Work
Years ago, over a decade probably, I discovered the idea of pomodoros, which means working for 25 minutes, taking a 5 minute break, and repeating this over and over until you’ve completed your task for the day. I credit pomodoros for getting me through college, grad school, and many other tasks where my attention wanders.
I don’t use pomodors anymore, however. I’ve found that there’s a certain flow that can escape me if I’m interrupted after 25 minutes. Sure, I could click the timer back off and continue my work, but even that momentary pause is enough to throw me off.
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport seems to be against the idea of the pomodoro, or short burst of work. He recommends 90 minute or more work periods of intense focus. If you can’t do that at the start, you can work up to it. Pomodoros were training me to keep my attention short. So while they were helping me to get work done, they were actually hurting my ability to focus and stay attentive for long periods of time.
Negative Consequences of Pomodoro Training
This manifested in a bunch of ways that were not immediately apparent. Movies became harder to watch for example, but I loved watching YouTube videos that were 20 mins or shorter. I used to listen to full albums but now find myself stuck on one song over and over, and exploring generated playlists vs. really getting into an album. Hell, even the types of music I was listening to changed – I had replaced much of my ambient and jazz music (long pieces) with short, poppy hits. Part of that can be blamed on my decision to use Spotify as my main music consumption vehicle.
So now, I’m attempting to lengthen my attention such that I don’t need a pomodoro to get my work done. I meditate so that I can practice the art of bringing the mind back when it wanders, and through writing a long-form book (being released soon), I have also cultivated this skill. It’s still a work in progress.
Awareness is Key
If you’re unsure of how to start with changing your focus, the first thing you can is become aware of then you drift. How long does it normally take you? Do you pause every paragraph, or at the end of every sentence, or every 30 seconds…?
Once you have an awareness of where you are, it’s much easier to decide where you need to be. Maybe pomodoros are a good starting point, and they can be really useful with manual tasks like washing the dishes… but for creative tasks, it is really important to lengthen the working period until you get to 90 minutes.
For me, 25 minutes just isn’t enough to elicit the levels of creativity that I know I’m capable of.
(If this topic interests you, there’s an entire book on the subject of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I also recommend Deep Work by Cal Newport, which gives some specific strategies and reasoning for why one would want to be in a flow state while working on a creative endeavor).