From-scratch daily to-dos

Just a little observation: I’ve been working on a spare-time project for a while that, while involving a lot of coding, is relatively focused on learning / research (of a sort – certainly not professional research).

On any given day there are a lot of things I could do, and since it’s all new ground, at least to me, it’s hard to know what will yield results and what won’t.

I’ve found at some point I ended up making new daily to-do lists every day I work on the project, without necessarily referring all that much to previous days’ to-dos. Things often change every day, so I just start a new list from what’s in my head right then. Often I’ll go back and pull out old ideas from previous days’ lists (I keep a journal of them in an org-mode file) – but I don’t do that routinely, and I don’t try to avoid “letting things fall through the cracks” – because, since this is about exploring and learning, that’s just not a problem I need to solve.

This seems to have been working well for me for this project, though I don’t apply it to other things. Of course I used to work this way in the past with everything, making little paper lists, before I discovered GTD and org mode, and I fall back to that when I periodically, still, lose my “GTD cleanliness” – but in this case it’s turned into a deliberate decision. In particular it helps me spend a bit of time every day thinking what direction I should be going in rather than just dumbly heading in the same direction as yesterday.

Anybody else work like that?

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I did this for quite a while. I used a moleskine pocket daily planner, a little notebook with one page per date. That way I could easily look back at previous day’s lists or write todos on the page for a future date when that made sense. And, yes, the leakiness, with incomplete tasks drifting into the past, was definitely a feature, not a bug.

I think the advantage of a leaky system like this is that it can help maintain a level of relevance that a more water tight system would require a significant amount of effort to maintain. The trade-off, of course, is that something truly important may fall through the cracks.

I’m currently using the autofocus system, which has some leakiness built in, too. When you review a page and no tasks on that page strike you as ready to be done, you’re supposed to dismiss all the tasks on that page without immediately re-entering them again.

GTD seems like the antithesis of a leaky system. Everything is captured and processed, and every decision to remove something from the system is made deliberately. I think that approach is often the right one. Both students and business executives need a system that won’t let important things disappear. The cost of this property is an intense weekly review for the purpose of ensuring the system remains relevant and in-sync with your reality.

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Yeah, for a large mass of tasks – sadly: I’d rather I didn’t have to so many tiresome things – from experience, what needs doing is pretty clear and any leaks would just lead to anxiety of the kind Mr. Allen describes.

Swinging off topic even further than I started perhaps, I find one thing recently which has most cost me in terms of falling off the GTD wagon is missing weekly reviews due to an excess of tiny inactive projects, the great majority of which should really always have been “reference material” that I scan fully maybe once a quarter and otherwise ignore. Even if I set “next review” timestamps on those, just setting new timestamps for the ones that “fall due” each week takes up a surprising amount of time, and almost all of them just get bumped again to some semi-random date in the future – it’s hard to be sufficiently realistic about when I’ll get around to things! That pushes up the time for a weekly review into “too long” and it doesn’t get done.

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I’m not sure if this is exactly right, but my mental model of is that it tracks your medium/long term goals and the idea is that every day you think or meditate on your goals and your day and decide what you’re going to do that day each morning. That is, it functions more like a “Reminder to not forget about your goals while making your daily todo list” rather than “Todo list”.

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