Sunday, December 02, 2012

Working with Queues and To-Dos

People work through tasks using queues. Some people try to combine all the tasks they need to complete in a given day/week/month into a single list and call it a to-do list. Those same people tend to be the ones that write those lists down.  And there's good reason.  Combining and prioritizing all the tasks you need to complete takes a lot of mental time and energy, and no one wants to repeat that every time they need another task to work on. I don't have any problems with this method, but it has never quite worked for me.

I've never been one to make to-do lists. I don't consider myself someone with an exceptional memory or an uncanny ability to keep track of things. In fact, if you verbally tell me even the simplest lunch order, I will forget it almost instantly, guaranteed. Same with directions. But I rarely forget about a task I need to complete. So I started to consider why.

Last week, I had an unusually high number of tasks to complete. They fell into different categories, the two main ones being work tasks and personal tasks. But instead of creating a single to do list and then through each task, I formed two shorter queues, each containing the items I needed to complete in either my work life or my personal life.  Each of these lists were prioritized based on the items in the queue.

Now I tend to be very terrible at multitasking, so I can only work on one task at any given time. Each time I complete a task, I look at the next items on each queue and make a decision on which one to complete.  Many short lists, with quick evaluations on what needs to be done next means that I don't need to spend a lot of time making decisions about priority between different tasks.  And prioritizing personal tasks among each other is much easier than prioritizing work and personal tasks together. So take your to-do lists, group them into multiple smaller queues of tasks ordered by priority, and pick then next thing from the top of the queue.

The other advantage is that when a new task comes in, you can quickly put it into a priority with the other tasks in that queue, and not have to spend time figuring out which work task your dry cleaning should go above.

There are a few problems with this method. I tend to wait until the last minute to complete things.  This is because a task is only completed when there are no other tasks of higher priority ahead of it in any queue.  Also, some tasks I really just don't want to do.  They tend to block an entire queue because I can't process anything else until I do the thing I don't want to do.  That happened last week, and as soon as I did the thing I was trying to avoid, I rushed through the rest of the items in the queue in about five minutes.

So in my opinion, the secret to getting rid of to-do lists is to make many short lists of similar tasks organized by priority instead.  Then, as you complete each task, run through all the queues you can think of and see what the next thing to do is.  Also, try to tackle queues that are blocked before they start to cause too much trouble.  To me, this takes much less brain power than you would expect.

Now if I could only spend more time on my RussThoughts queue...