There’s an interesting hole in the task management and productivity literature. The situation is when you know more or less what needs to be done, but not exactly how to do it, and from where you’re starting, it’s not clear in what order and how long each particular task will be.

And the whole thing needs to be billed.

You have two choices. The first is do what everyone else does and just get ‘er done. The second is to write down everything you do – as you go – and sort it out later.

If you know you’re going to be doing the task in the future, or that you’re going to outsource it or pass it downstream, method two will pay you back.

Edgewall’s Trac is a pretty good tool for untangling a messy project. For example, I’m prepping the Blog Maintenance Challenge for pre-launch, and I have an extensive number of small tasks to accomplish. The normal thing to do is write out a task list up front, then check everything off. In this case, I’m not sure exactly what needs to be done at a task-based level.

Task-based productivity is the notion that at the scale where things actually get done, productivity is linear. The vast majority of people can do only thing at a time, and a task is one of those “things” that get done. Typically, a task should be something taking between 15 minutes to perhaps an hour and a half. If it takes longer than 90 minutes, consider breaking it into two tasks.

As it turns out, implementing what’s described in this blog post is almost multi-tasking.

It is doing two separate tasks in the same billing period, but these tasks are closely related by context.

Given you treat your task lists as intellectual property assets, when you’re faced with a messy set of “things to do,” creating a set of tasks will pay you back the second time you do them.

## Untangling

It’s pretty simple:

1. Open your task management system and create a ticket or issue or whatever you call it. In Trac, it’s a new “issue.”
2. Fill out the ticket as best you can, including as many steps as possible.
3. Now start the task. At each step, update your ticket (or issue, etc.)
4. When you’re done, mark down the time it should take to complete the task. This may not be the same as billable time, but that’s a different blog post.
5. Test, if applicable.

Now you have a linear, stepwise procedure for duplicating this activity in the future. You could even make a checklist out of it. Once you have the whole project written out in steps, you’re in a better position to bid for future work. You know, add up all the time for the steps, add in the overhead, multiply by hourly rate, $profit$!

For what it’s worth, this blog post was written while untangling a set of tasks for the Blog Maintenance Challenge. Namely, developing a fast procedure for getting into and out of Paypal for increasing prices (the Challenge starts off at low price, increase price as material is added).

If you found this useful, check these out:

Are you logging your work? If not, why not? If so, what’s the biggest benefit you have found?

## Log Your Work: Writing It Down is More Important Than Writing It Right

Peregrine falcon (Wikimedia image)

I’m sitting in my friend’s—Travis and Shai’s—living room here in Mira Park. For those not familiar with the intricacies of San Francisco neighborhoods, the rule is something like this: if two adjacent blocks can find a name for themselves, they will. Thus, Mira Park is lodged between (go figure) Mira Loma and Glen Park.

It’s a nice place. A peregrine falcon just landed on the rail of the deck, right outside the living room window. Sweet. I love the San Francisco Bay Area!

What does this have to do with diary of your work?

Well, maybe not much… but it inspires me to write!

So let’s get going.

Every single productivity book I have insists that successful people always write down what they did, even if such people don’t write down todo or task lists (they invariably do). This is a tough one for me, I’m much better at writing out task lists then checking off or logging what got done.

However, keeping a log is very effective. Depending on your industry, you may have to keep a log, a sort of “work diary.” For example, the US government requires contractors to keep time sheets documenting how government money is being spent. Take the time to add a few remarks on each time entry, you have a log.

### Using work log to increase productivity

When you’re in business, tie each log entry to an appropriate account, which can be used to measure direct and indirect costs associated with each task.

By “account” I mean, how to log the expenses into, say, Quickbooks. Tracking time spent on client work is important. But tracking your own overhead is really important too. Which means developing a chart of accounts that makes sense. Which means everything you do needs to slot into some nice little category on your time sheet. For example, I use ClickTime (you should too), and set up project and tasking along account numbers as best I can.

There’s many activities to consider when logging, because different activities account differently. For example, overhead versus production (whatever that is), versus research and development, versus business development. As an entreprenuer, you want to track these activities as well.

But it may not clear to you exactly how to account for this wide variety of activities.

### Categorize your time to measure effect on bottom line

If your time accounting doesn’t appear to fall into neat little categories (and it won’t when you’re first starting out), it’s critically important to write out in detail not only what you did, but why the task was important. It’s this “why” that’s really important, for a couple of reasons:

1. After sorting through a month’s worth of log entries, you will see which activities add to your bottom line, and which subtract from your bottom line.
2. Your tax situation will become much clearer. The “why” will allow you figure what activities are legally deductible. If you have legitimate research and development costs, you may be surprised at what can be written off.

Here’s the upshot: until your chart of accounts is set up correctly, simply write down what you did, once you get it done. Don’t worry about whether it’s written down “correctly,” just get it written down.

Watch for the next article in this series, where I’ll help you determine whether you’re a “lumper” or a “splitter,” and what that means for your business. In future articles, I’ll add some examples, and a chart of accounts.

## How To Be Productive When You’re Super Tired

Being really, really tired, too tired to do get into your normal work groove, is a blessing… IF you’re willing to downshift and accelerate.

My secret: I keep my mind in gear by keeping my body in motion.

When I’m tired, I have a very short attention span. If I sit down, I’ll either fall asleep, wish I were sleeping, or waste time by surfing the web.

I’m standing up right now, at my kitchen table. Too tired to sit down. I’ll type a few sentences here, then go wash some dishes, then take a look at my Trac list, sorted on Covey’s quadrants to pick off anything urgent.

I usually take my shoes off when I’m inside. Not today. Too hard to shift gears when I need to step outside on a whim. For example, I have a “stair scape,” the outside stairs are loaded with plants. Good day to prune and repot. And there’s the garage… always the garage. Anything to stay in motion.

Part of extreme fatigue is induced by dehydration. Black tea and coffee are diuretics. It took me 15 years to figure that once I’m caffeine saturated, I need to drink a lot of water and get some exercise to drive the hydration back into my body. If you don’t get any exercise, the water just passes right through you. I’ll be drinking a lot of water today, and taking some fast walks around the neighborhood.

### How did I get here?

Here’s my current situation, on Friday June 26, 2009. I’ve spent most of 2009 busting hump. Typically, I’m working 6 days a week. Usually from when I get up (between 5:30 – 7:00 am) until I fall out of my chair (between 10:30 pm – 1:30 am). I got off the coffee about 3 weeks ago, but I’m working my way through a huge bag of Peet’s English Breakfast blend black tea my friend Walter brought over (Thanks!). Most of the work I’m doing is intensely creative like writing blog posts, or learning I’m fundamental skills for web programming, WordPress, sales, and marketing, which are new fields for me, or all at the same time.

In short, I’m really busy.

### Fatigue is where productivity tools shine

If you have been reading along, you are familiar with several of the productivity tools that I use. On days when I’m really beat, all of them come into play.

I also have a secret weapon, “Dave’s Market Quadrant” which provides me with an amazingly simple method to extract exactly what needs to be done. It will work for you too, give it a try!

The articles here on There Is NO Box are a part of my strategic plan. Since I tend to write down what I’m doing anyway, it makes sense to write them somewhere that’s easily accessible. In the future, instead of having years of material locked up on out-of-date wikis, or old versions of MS Office, these process documents will be posted for easy reference on the web. This may or may not benefit you, it certainly benefits me!

### Going through Trac tickets

So, I don’t actually use Trac daily. I use it… often. Like today when I’m tired. Going back through tickets displayed in the Covey report on Trac, I am immensely satisfied to close several obnoxious tickets that have been bugging me for weeks if not months. Some of these chores just got done. Close those as “fixed” or “finished.” Some didn’t, and it didn’t matter. Close these with a comment and a “wontfix.” Some of the “wontfix” might get reopened later, I’ll worry about it then.

### Clicktime time tracking — another secret weapon

I have had an account with Clicktime for time tracking for over 3 years now. I first got the account to track “sweat equity” in a startup venture. While that’s a tale for different day, I got in the habit of keeping track of my time. This habit is useful for a couple of reasons:

1. For consulting, time tracking is more than useful, it’s necessary when billing clients by the hour.
2. For entrepreneurs, finding out how long it takes to perform tasks allow you to outsource, bid and make projections much more effectively.
3. Long term examination of your time reports let’s you check your accuracy for time estimation.

That being said, keeping track of time is boring, so I don’t do it all the time, and rarely fool with it when I’m in the groove. More on time tracking in general and Clicktime in specific in a future post. The important thing is that if you aren’t tracking your time on a regular basis, you need to start doing that right now.

### Fill-in-the-blank structures

Long time readers have visited Website In A Weekend, a sister site to There Is NO Box which is dedicated to all things WordPress. I have an ongoing “productivity war” with my friend Deacon on who can produce 101 things the fastest. My thing is blog posts on WordPress, his is some sort of art print. Working on this project is an excellent productivity default. Another fill-in-the-blank is this series on productivity. There’s another dozen posts on productivity in my draft queue. Being too tired to work on anything “productive” is the perfect time to write about productivity.

### Catch up on reading or videos

Catching up on reading has an additional benefit of inducing naps. Just about every genius on the planet from Poincare to Edison to Da Vinci recommended taking a nap.

Required reading only, no diversion for fun!

I find it better to read in hard copy as well, not surfing the web or reading ebooks. For important ebooks, I’ll print them out and take notes in the margin.

You have to accept that your productivity on “down days” is going take a different form than in days when your in the groove.

Play to your strengths. When I’m tired, I’m more of writer than a programmer. I can often write until I’m falling out of my chair. With programming, not so much, I usually need to be mentally fresher to get started programming. Perhaps you’re the opposite: you can program until you are falling out of your chair. In any case, work with what you’re good with.

Very important to stay in Covey’s Quadrant 2; work on tasks that are important but not urgent. You can’t do this in Quadrant I, when it’s “pedal-to-the-metal firefighting.”

## There Is NO Box will be ramping down for a while

There’s been a fair number of articles posted here over the last couple of months, on topics ranging from C programming, to productivity, writing and inspiration, and even some notes on small business marketing. (Near) Daily posting is more activity than the blog was conceived of having. The initial idea was having a place to jot down one or two small articles a month, reflecting what I was currently working on.

In software development, this is called “feature creep,” where the scope of the project grows incrementally until it resembles some gross, multi-headed hydra rather than the lean, mean machine initially desired.

As a result, activity here will scale back in favor of developing content for Website In A Weekend.

What you can expect here in the future…

## TODO: sorting by Covey’s and Blanchard’s Quadrants

Which items on a todo list are important?

Which are unimportant?

Which should be done first, and which can be postponed for later (or never perhaps).

The problem with listing todo items in simple order of priority, let’s say 1, 2, 3 and 4 where “1″ is highest priority is that such a listing doesn’t really reflect the importance of an item, only it’s urgency. For example, taking out the trash isn’t really all that important. It could wait… for the next pickup. It’s not like they don’t pick up once a week. And when you’re in the middle of a great project, taking out the trash is just a distraction. Some of you readers probably have trashed piled up, don’t you… you know what I’m talking about.

Listing by priority would be fine within each of Covey’s quadrants. But when the priority listing is spread over multiple quadrants, the sense of importance for any particular task is lost.

Let’s take a look at Steven Covey’s Time Management grid:

 URGENCY IMPORTANCE Quadrant 1:Urgent and Important,Fire Fighting Quadrant 2:Important but not UrgentProduction Quadrant 3:Urgent but not Important,Distraction Quadrant 4:Not urgent, not important,Time wasting

Taking out the trash goes into Q3 “Distraction” quad, right along with getting groceries, vacuuming the family room, doing the laundry, paying the bills, etc. For me, Q3 is Procrastination Station. I might have all the bills “paid.” That is, all the checks in stamped envelopes… sitting on the desk for a week until I get around to it.

Which reminds me, I need to run a quick trip to the post box. Back in a bit…

…Nice. Found a nickel on the sidewalk. It’s my lucky day. Back to work.

#### How to use Covey’s Quads

Covey’s quadrants, AKA Covey’s time management grid, works best with well-defined tasks, where “task” is defined as an activity that can be succinctly described in a single sentence to capture the essence of the activity. For example, “Cook Christmas turkey” is a task. Tasks may have subtasks (“Fix stuffing for turkey”), and may be subtasks of some other task (“Cook Christmas dinner”). In any case, the directions for accomplishing a task (let’s call them “directives”) don’t go into this grid, and are handled in detail elsewhere, ideally in checklists (open to suggestions for checklist web applications).

Blanchard’s quadrants are a somewhat different way of examining the “getting things done” process, as explained by Mark Forster in a guest article on Andrea Novakowski’s blog. The quadrant itself it simple:

 Want to do/Don’t want to do Have to do/Don’t have to do Quadrant 1:Have to do, want to do Quadrant 2:Have to do, don’t want to do Quadrant 3:Don’t have to do, want to do Quadrant 4:Don’t have to do, don’t want to do

The key to using Blanchard’s quadrant is defining exactly what constitutes “Haves” and “Wants.” One way to do this is to convert “Wants” into “Haves.” For example: if you WANT to live indoors, you HAVE to pay the rent. Tying “wants” into “haves” using material association helps reduce emotional fogginess.

Curiously, for me, Quadrant 3 in Blanchard’s system corresponds to Quadrant 4.

Blanchard’s Quadrant 4 is a very curious thing, tasks or actions you don’t have to do and don’t want to do. These are probably emotionally driven. For example, I don’t want to drink a cup of coffee in the morning, and nobodies holding a gun to my head making me, but if there’s coffee in the house, I’m having a cup. Maybe 2 cups. Tastes good!

#### Wait! There’s more!

Covey and Blanchard don’t have a lock on this notion. Importance, urgency, wants and haves aren’t the only ideas amenable to simple 4-square analysis. Long time readers know what’s coming… “It turns out I’m writing an article on that.” And it’s done, go check out Dave’s Market Quadrant.

But that article isn’t finished yet. I’m moving out of the “write” stage of my rwx cycle and into the “execute” stage (topic of yet another post, of course). Here’s a hint: “Important” may or may not mean what you think it means.

[Original post: November 30, 2007]
[Updated: November 3, 3008]
[Updated: January 21, 2009]
[Updated: April 9, 2009]
[Updated: May 9, 2009]
[Updated: June 29, 2009]

## Four Hour Work Week: Master your tools, don’t let your tools master you

I just finished reading the “Four Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferris. I like it. In fact, just one of his suggestions repaid the purchase price: I don’t keep email in my inbox anymore.

### Master of My Inbox!

While I was reading about how Tim manages his email (batch lots), it occurred to me how to handle the 300+ emails needing sorting in my gmail inbox. Really simple solution: Select All, Archive. I now have a fresh empty inbox! For the email in other accounts serviced using Thunderbird client, the answer is even simpler. Do nothing.

Thats’ right. Let the email stack up in the inbox. Screw it. I will no longer waste any more bright sunny days worrying about email.

### Firefox gets pwned

Four Hour Work Week leads me onward. I had two FireFox browser windows open, going full tilt at the start of my day. Then Firefox locks up. I sit and wait for several minutes (really, more than 5), and it’s just locked up. I really hate to just kill the browser, all those things underway, won’t be able to get back to what I was doing.

My web browser either serves me, or it doesn’t. So I killed all Firefox processes. Whatever I was doing, if it’s really, really important, I’ll figure it out later. If not, so what, it’s gone.

And it’s not my problem.

### It’s a beautiful day

And the sun is shining!

Bye.

Yes, the non-sequitur at the bottom of the previous post was intentional. Welcome to my world.

## Continuous partial attention, again

I had a great post in mind on the topic of continuous partial attention, but I have forgotten what it was. Generally, I have about dozen things on my mind at any particular moment.

Look what happens:

• I run windows. When an app locks up or stalls, as they do with regularity, unless it is absolutely critical, my attention will wander. I will lose my place. Or, I sit in my seat fidgeting, feeling the stress grow as time slows.
• When the network is slow for whatever reason, same thing happens. My attention wanders away. Or, again as above, I simply sit and watch the computer screen do nothing.
• Getting anything done usually has to balance instantaneous motion with relatively infinitely slow operations. For example, I am backing up an archive to a new server. This is tedious, the archive is too big to tar.gz, but too small to hire out. But I don’t want to delete the old until there has been overnight backups on the new. My attention wanders…

How to bill? Lump sum? Overhead 3 hours, client 5 hours? That’s not really helpful for learning time value of activity for future cost estimation. What about working on overhead and client problems, or two different client problems at the same time? How is that recorded?

As a postscript, it amazes me that I wait for my data on my 2GB ram machine just as long as I waited on my first 4M ram Apple laptop. Or so it seems to me. What’s up with that?