This PhD comics strip captured my attention a few days ago. It’s very easy to be under the spell of so productive by crossing of numerous little tasks and enjoying a completed list at the end of the day. Little tasks are important, but if they don’t help you toward the ultimate goal, they’re inhibiting your deep work progress. It’s not the quantity of check boxes you cross off, it’s the quality of the work that leads to ultimate productivity.
There is a balance to many little tasks that lead to productivity and little tasks that lead to busy work. Yes, there are certain cases where many small check-ins make sense. For example, working on a large knit (or crochet) project to deadline. The list to the right shows my recent progress on a sample garment I made. It was important to keep precise track of the number of worked rows and felt good to cross them off, but listing each on my todo list wasn’t useful. At first I had large scale progress markers, such as “finish section A”. However, they were too large. I became overwhelmed and found it difficult to focus on the project (my bathroom, by contrast, sparkled). I then timed how long each row took to work. Armed with that data, I set new smaller goals as my focus, “finish rows 1-7 of section A”. Once I knew the time effort required, I could set achievable tasks and made steady progress.
This is why reviews and planning are important. As I work through my project list, I think about the end goal. What do I need to do to finish? Then I look at my task list and figure out what the specific next thing. Sometimes it’s taking a short detour to find a new pattern, time how long it takes me to do X, and then set my next action.
Tiny little tasks can help you move into the mind set of productivity. But beware their allure, it’s important to be careful that you don’t avoid the big projects you need to tackle to move forward in your work.
Last night I had the joy of attending a lecture by the artist of PhD comics, Jorge Cham, and physicist Daniel Whiteson about their new book, We Have No Idea. It was a really great talk and if you get a chance I urge you to pick up their book and (catch one of their talks).