How to Banish Zombie Tasks

Looking over my to-do list the other day, I noticed the same tasks that had been there for weeks, and it's a pattern I've observed since I started keeping to-do lists. There always seem to be some tasks that have an almost undead quality to them. You either end up looking at them and ignoring them, or you hack away at them for an hour or two and are still no closer to completion at the end.

The worst part about these tasks is that they suck away your energy and distract you from your major goals. Completing a task and ticking it off helps to fend off procrastination, so seeing your next action list swell with hordes of undead tasks is not helpful because it can cause you to ignore the list altogether.

How do we put these zombie tasks to bed?

Why do we get Zombie tasks?

The easiest way to make sure a task keeps coming back is to define it incorrectly. There are a few mistakes that seem to keep cropping up, and it's important to keep them in mind when creating your next action lists.

Mistaking a to-do item with a someday/maybe – I love the "someday/maybe" list from the GTD system. If you do any kind of creative work, you'll always end up with creating ideas you don't have the time or energy to implement at your current point. Keeping a someday/maybe list helps you keep track of these ideas so they don't disappear into the ether.

If you see a task on your to-do list that you aren't going to work on for a while, it might be best to move it to your "someday/maybe" list instead. As long as you're reviewing this list in your weekly review, it won't get forgotten and you'll be able to divert your energy to other tasks.

Mistaking a to-do item for a project – This is an easy mistake to make, especially if you're not clear on exactly what a project is. A project is anything that requires more than one next-action to complete, and a next action is a physical action that will move a project closer to completion. It can take time to fully appreciate the difference between the two, but once you've mastered the technique you'll find your to-do lists are much more helpful.

Not giving a task finite limits – A next action should have a beginning and an end, and should ideally involve a single activity. The reason for this is that you want to start it, work on it and then KNOW that it's finished. If you can't work on it for a session and know that it's finished, it's probably a project.

Missing previous steps – This is another problem I've run into quite often. I'll see a task, but remember that something else has to be done before I can do it. It's a good idea to enter this new task into your system, and move the old one to the project task list.

I like to plan ahead, and one of the things I don't like about the GTD system is the lack of next action grouping. Keeping a separate task list for each project helps a little, but if you have a lot of projects it can get quite unwieldy.

Preventing Your Tasks From Becoming Zombies

Now that we know what not to do, let's take a quick look at the qualities that make a good next action.

Something that can be done in one sitting – This isn't an essential requirement, but I've found that it helps to list tasks as something that can be done in a single session. If it will take a lot longer, then it's possible that it's actually a project so I'll try to break it down further.

It's a physical action – The next action list should only list actions that need to be performed. If you're looking over a list and having to process items as you go, then they need to be re-worded.

Finite Limits – There are set conditions for the task completing. Instead of "Brainstorm article ideas", use "Brainstorm 25 article ideas". This way you know when you've done enough. It sounds simple, but it's an easy detail to leave out.

Cleaning Up The Stragglers

The easiest way to get rid of the lingering tasks is to re-process them during your weekly review. I've found that I get a lot more zombies if I've been lax with my weekly reviews. It can be a difficult habit to get into, but it really is the most essential component of an effective GTD system.

How to Create an Effective Schedule

Do Schedules Work?

Some time ago I looked at how David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system was working for me, and pondered over some of the improvements that could be made. One of the improvements I thought about was the use of a schedule, so I've been experimenting with them over the past few weeks.

The overall results have been very positive, and although there's still a lot of improvements that can be made, I'm confident that it's worth the effort.

Why Bother With One?

  • Structure – A schedule gives you a sense of structure for your day, which can help you organise your time and resources.
  • Helps you focus – You'll constantly be looking at your goals and projects in order to put together your schedule, which helps prevent them from being overlooked or forgotten.
  • Highlights your limits – This might seem like a strange thing to mention, but being able to see your limits is very helpful when you're planning your working week. We'd all like to be able to do more in less time, but seeing how long tasks actually take can stop you from overloading yourself and burning out.

Creating a Simple Schedule

Here are a few recommendations to help you when you're creating your schedule:

  • Create it the night before – Creating your schedule the night before gives your subconscious time to process everything on it whilst you sleep. It also means you're able to get on with your work as soon as your day starts, instead of having to figure out what needs doing first.
  • Use large blocks – Don't divide the day into chunks that are too small. Hourly blocks are generally large enough, but it can take time to get into the flow state required by some tasks so you may need 90 minute or 2 hour blocks.
  • Group similar tasks – If you have a lot of small, similar tasks, it's best to stick them all in a half hour group and just dash through them. Clearing up all of these small tasks will give you a sense of satisfaction and leave you feeling energised.
  • Schedule your rest and relaxation – Working for long periods without a break will eventually take its toll, so schedule some time to get up and have a walk around. If you're an early rise, you may also want to schedule a 30 minute nap around lunch time. This can give a much needed boost of energy, and will stop you flagging later in the day.
  • Keep it flexible – It's very difficult to predict how long each task will take, so make sure your schedule is flexible and can cope with a reasonable amount of unexpected delays. One important point: don't fall into the trap of using your relaxation time as a "buffer" zone. Relaxation time should not be seen as something that is a luxury, and should be treated as important as any other activity.
  • Know your limits – We'd all like to be able to get more done, but it's important not to overestimate how much you can physically do. If you don't give large tasks enough time, you risk creating a backlog as the day goes on which will bog down your mind and demotivate you.

You may need a few days to get into the groove of using a schedule, but the more often you do it the more proficient you will become.

Optional Extras

Example of a schedule

As you'll notice from the rather colourful photo, I colour coded the tasks on my schedule. I tried two main methods of colour coding during the trial.

The first method I tried was to colour code by category. This seemed like a logical idea at first, as I could see which projects were getting the most attention and which were being neglected. I soon realised that I would run out of colours if I used a different colour for each project! I modified the system slightly to use colours for more general categories, such as "computer projects", "business projects" and "personal projects".

After a few weeks of this system, I switched to colour coding by priority. I used the Covey Quadrant style categorisation for this method. If you're not familiar with Covey's four categories, they are:

  1. Urgent and Important Tasks – Firefighting, pressing problems and deadline driven tasks fit here.
  2. Important and Not Urgent – Tasks that need to be done, but aren't particularly urgent. This is the area your should spend most of your time on.
  3. Not Important and Urgent – Things like some phone calls and meetings.
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent – You should look carefully to see if these activities are worth doing at all.

So far this method has worked the best, as it forces me to look at the bigger picture and to be more careful about where I spend my time. It might seem like a clash between the relatively priority free GTD system and the rigid quadrant based thinking, but really helps to keep a tight focus on what is important and what isn't.

Future Improvements

Although using the quadrant method of sorting tasks worked well, I think there is room for improvement. I tent to think that most tasks are important or they wouldn't be scheduled, so it's pointless to classify everything as a quadrant two task. One method I'd like to try out is Steve Pavlina's 50-30-20 rule (the Pavlina Pyramid?) for sorting tasks. These segments are:

  1. A Tasks – These are tasks that will yield significant benefits over a 5 year timespan (and beyond).
  2. B Tasks – Tasks that will bring benefits over the next 2 years or less.
  3. C Tasks –These will only bring improvements in the short term, and probably won't be remembered further down the line. However, ignoring them could cause problems at a later date.

You'll notice his system of prioritising is much more focused on long term goals and benefits, which can often be left behind in the rush to get something complete.

Finding My Blogging Feet

When I started this blog back in June, I'd intended for it to become my main outlet for writing. I'd noticed a lot of my articles on my software development blog were leaning towards personal development, productivity and all kinds of self improvement topics.

I still wanted to write about games and software, but productivity and videogames are two very different audiences, so it was a good idea to split the blog into two. Originally I was going to pick some generic name for this blog, but I decided to use my own name which was very out of character. It seemed like it would be a good growth experience.

So Why Did The Writing Dry Up?

I didn't follow a schedule

I've tried blogging with and without schedules, and I've found that using a schedule improves the quality and frequency of my work. Being able to see what articles will be published in the next few weeks allows me to prepare and research, and I find myself sometimes drafting posts weeks before they're scheduled to be posted. It's a nice feeling to know that you've taken care of a week's worth of work.

"Not an expert" syndrome

I often feel that I can't write about something unless I'm an expert on it, and I don't really consider myself an expert at anything. Clearly, that has an effect on how much I write.

A Cold Writing Style

I didn't really let my personality show through in any of my earlier work, and it made writing something of a chore. There can sometimes be a feeling that you should distance your personality from your blog, which probably comes from a need to protect the ego. People will criticise your blog no matter how good it is, so it's only natural to try and separate it from yourself as much as possible.


Another point that's related to not being an expert. I'd often write lengthy articles, and then bin them because they were full of perceived imperfections. Perfectionism is a huge barrier to personal productivity, and it's even more problematic because it can be justified as "trying to maintain a level of quality".

How I'm Solving These Problems

Making a schedule

Looking ahead, I can see how my blogs are going to shape up over the next few weeks. This is a big help for scheduling work, and means I know a big article won't sneak up on me. It could be argued that keeping a schedule removes some of the spontaneity and passion from a blog, but it suits my working style so I'm inclined to disagree.

Sharing my Experiences

Instead of trying to write from an expert's point of view, I should write from my own point of view and discuss my experiences, the problems I've encountered and anything else that might help other people. If I'm struggling with something, the chances are that other people are struggling too.

Letting Go Of Fear

Being criticised is part of life, and is definitely part of the internet. Letting my personality show is an important part of making the blog readable, and more importantly they make it more interesting to write for.

The Tough One

Dropping the perfectionist part of my personality is going to be difficult. I think this is something that will have to solved by experiencing life from a non-perfectionist point of view. For example, trying to live as a non-perfectionist for 30 days, and then seeing what happens.

Now It's Your Turn

So how did you find your blogging feet? What's bugging you and what do you think is holding you back?

A GTD Retrospective

After reading how David Seah is managing with his implementation of GTD, I thought I'd take a look at my own system to see how things are going. If you haven't heard of GTD (Getting Things Done), I wrote a review of GTD some months ago on my other website. I also recommend checking out Merlin Mann's "43 Folders" and the Official David Allen website too.

I started using GTD in my final semester of university, and I'm quite sure it's the reason I managed to stay (relatively) sane in those final few months. As much as I hate to admit it, I was incredibly unorganised in my first few years, so any kind of system would have made a big difference. I'd heard a few developers talking about GTD on some game development forums, so thought I'd give it a whirl. Whilst I didn't achieve a "mind like water", I did manage to reign in all my tasks into one place. Considering the position I was in before ("mind like whirlpool"), I was quite pleased.

The bits that work

The Two Minute Rule

Like Dave, I find the two minute rule to be incredibly useful. I would often look at even the smallest of tasks and decide “I'll do it tomorrow”. Not a good habit. There's only so many times you can put a task off until it becomes urgent, and getting into the “I'll do it tomorrow” habit is a sure-fire way of getting yourself into trouble.

Taking up the two minute rule helped me to break this habit, and made me far more productive. Anyone who suffers from procrastination will know that once you're started, nearly all resistance vanishes. Thrashing through a list of two minute tasks often left me with more energy to pursue the bigger tasks.

The Someday/Maybe List

This was another simple change that I've employed. I have a lot of ideas, and I usually think of new ones when I'm supposed to be doing something else. It surprised me that I'd never thought of keeping track of all these ideas in a single place. The "Someday/Maybe" list is a place for me to make a note of all these fantastical ideas, and writing them down means I won't be distracted by them whilst I'm working.

Having an "In" Tray

University generated a lot of actionable items, such as coursework, research subjects and a small forest's worth of lecture notes. Before I had an in-tray, they used to just sit in my bag and wait for something to happen. As you can probably imagine, this was note the most effective system in the world.

Contextual “To-Do” Lists

My time was generally split between four places – university, home, walking through town and sitting on the bus. Dividing tasks into contexts instead of subjects eliminated a lot of mental sorting when in different locations. For example, if I needed to buy something, I would put it on the "@Town" list, which I'd check when in a position to do some shopping.

I also had an "@Bus" list, as the journey lasted around an hour, so it was a good place to revise my notes from the day and plough through a list of small tasks.

The bits that don't work so well


I like the idea of the "next action", but I like to plan further ahead than a single action. Writing software can be a very daunting task, and there's often a whole heap of things that need to get done. Next actions are often very small, and it doesn't seem like the best way of managing a large scale project.

Perhaps keeping track of all this is beyond the scope of my current GTD system, but I know other developers have used it to perhaps some tweaking is in order.

Keeping It All in One Place

I regularly switch between the computer and my desk, so finding a way of storing these tasks and projects has become quite a challenge. I'm still a fan of using paper, but it's much easier to modify tasks that are being managed on the computer. Sometimes I find myself writing the same thing on paper and on the computer, which is very frustrating.

No Scheduling

Whilst to-do lists do the work of deciding what needs doing, they don't help with when it needs doing. The calendar can remind you of deadlines, but there seems to be a gap between the action and the deadline. In a way, this is connected to my problem with GTD's management of projects and my own tendency to plan things out quite thoroughly.

How do I fix these things?

Over the next few weeks I want to modify my entire system to iron out these problems. My current plan is to keep a project plan at the front of each project's folder, and to schedule my day into hourly "blocks" where I can work through the project's list of tasks. Project milestones will get added to the calendar, and I'll trial a completely paper-based system.

Has anyone else encountered these problems with their own systems (either GTD or something different)? If so, how did you remedy them?

30 Days of Positive Affirmations - Repost

Back in November of 2005, I decided to try using positive affirmations for a 30 day trial. I wrote a series of articles for it on my other blog, and rather than repost the whole series here I'll link to the originals.

The whole experiment was an interesting experience, and I recommend trying out affirmations to see if they work for you.