Progress Log - Redux

It's been over a year since I first wrote about my progress log on my shareware development blog, and a lot has changed in that time. I'm still using the system, but I'm starting to outgrow it quite rapidly. As I focus more on long-term goals and my overall purpose, I notice that tracking the really short term goals is a struggle as the long-term vision is forgotten.

Large goals need to be broken into smaller steps, but you must always keep your eye on the larger picture in order to succeed. Forgetting where you are going is one of the biggest barriers to goal completion, so the progress log should have a system that prevents long term goals from being forgotten. There's nothing more frustrating than finding some goals you wanted to achieve written down on a hidden scrap of paper with a date from 6 months ago.

There are still barriers that prevent me from using the progress log on a regular basis, which really defeats the point of having it. Let's look at what works and what doesn't…

What works?

The points system – I definitely get more done when I've been using the system for a few weeks, and it really motivates me to work harder. It's really a private commitment to do something, and having it written on a piece of paper that is regularly reviewed galvanises it in the mind.

Reflection – It's all too easy to keep your head down and work without looking up to see if you're doing the right thing. If you find yourself saying "I'm too busy to look at my goals", then you have a problem. Taking time at the end of the day to reflect on what has happened can help you keep a check on your progress, as well as helping you analyse what your stumbling blocks are.

If you work from home, you can also use this reflection time as "closure" to your day, which you use to signify that the working day has finished. Work will quite happily encroach on the rest of your life, give yourself a definitive ending point to stop it doing this.

Helps to build & maintain habits – It takes roughly 30 days for a habit to form, and those 30 days can be extremely difficult if you don't have a system to help you. Getting into my habit of daily exercise was helped by tricking it off on my goals tracker. It almost acted like a contract with myself, and it pushed me to exercise in some pretty manky weather!

Weekly goals – Seeing my weekly goals helped me create schedules and keep track of my progress. It didn't do much for larger goals, and if I missed a weekly goal it created a backlog and decreased my productivity.

Increased motivation and focus – How you work is affected by how you feel, but instead of making ourselves feel good about our work we often only remember the bad things. Keeping a record of the things that have been achieved prevents us from warping what actually happened, and makes us feel better about ourselves.

What doesn't work?

Lack of focus on larger goals – There isn't really a reminder of my big goals or purpose inside the tracker, which means they can be forgotten too easily. Putting them in my progress log seems like a logical step, especially if I'm going to be looking at it more than once a day (see below).

Not reviewed often enough – This is more of a flaw in how I used it than how it was laid out. I firmly believe that you need to look at goals at least once every day in order to root them into your brain. It might sound like overkill to look at your goals several times a day, but if that's what it takes to work then it's worth it.

Scoring system too vague – Things like "concrete project work" don't go far enough to explain what they actually are. This is especially important as GTD defines anything with more than one action as a project, so just about any action would fit here. Something like "publish blog or site article" is much better defined. Trying to group all tasks into scoring zones is quite difficult, so it might be a case of breaking them into A, B and C tasks as I mentioned in "How to create an effective schedule".

No rewards – I'd like to experiment with tying the scoring system into some form of reward scheme. It would be nice if the work was always its own reward, but sometimes you need that little extra encouragement to push you through. This would also help me partition my time between pleasurable pursuits and work related stuff.

Drawing it all – Yes, it was fun to draw and colour it all in, but it still takes a lot longer than printing a new sheet out. Any form of barrier that discourages me from using the system should be eliminated.

Further Improvements

As you can see, there's a lot that can we built upon, but also a lot that needs to change. The biggest change the system needs is a tie-in with my larger goals. In my next article I'll be writing about the new and improved system that I'm about to start experimenting with.

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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.

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