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The Simple Problem of Too Much To Do

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  • The Simple Problem of Too Much To Do

    In an earlier thread, Neil wrote:
    Originally posted by neil007
    For me [the 'unschedule'] addresses the problem of GTD - It defines work well, too well in fact because some of us see a neverending amount of work to do!
    I think this is a deep problem, and one not restricted to GTD. The problem is simply this:

    Imagine a time planning system as being like an airline check-in. Let's say there are multiple check-in queues - Cattle Class, Full Fare Economy, Business Class, First Class, Secret Class for Presidents, and so on. Each class corresponds to a "priority", for some meaning of that word.

    But, crucially, there is only a single check-in desk and agent.

    And the system is this - the agent serves the highest priority queue first. Only if that's empty may she call on people from the next highest. When that's empty, she again calls on the next highest. But, at any point, if someone arrives in a higher priority queue than the one for the person she's handling right now, she completes the current processing, and then jumps back to the higher priority queue.

    You can see where this is going.

    It is entirely possible - likely even - that some tasks will *never* get served. In fact, for sufficiently low priority tasks, they may find themselves getting further away from getting served.

    And this isn't a feature of GTD or any other system. It's a feature of reality. Regardless, it can still cause the sort of psychological stress that GTD aims to solve. Granted we may have all of the things we want to do written down and kept out of our brains - but it may become obvious that we are incapable of doing all of them.

    I see three solutions:

    a. Handle the queues (i.e. levels of priority) in a round-robin fashion. So, the agent is able to serve a lower priority client even if a higher priority one is waiting

    b. Increase a task's priority according to how long it has been in the queue. Eventually, even an inherently low priority task will become important

    But the problem is those is ... well, *why*? Why on earth would I want to allow what is a lower priority task get my attention if a higher priority one is waiting? Also, this wouldn't solve the problem of tasks (any tasks) arriving at a rate faster than we can process them.

    So the third solution is, I think, the only sensible one:

    c. Limit the queue sizes. The total workload of my various NA lists should be kept below a maximum level. When it reaches that level, I only get to add a new NA if I ditch an existing NA.

    Comments?

    --

  • #2
    That's an interesting observation - and I appreciate how it works. I have this problem with the main tasks of my job never mind the Next Actions I have decide upon.

    I'm going to give your 3rd suggestion a try for a while to see how it works with the enquiries I have to deal with. Some are high priority (from Key Customers) whilst some are lower priority (from non-Key Customers - surprisingly enough). The easy, sometimes low priority, ones often get done at the expense of more involved ones. I'm going to hold 2 queues: - one of Work In Progress and one for those that are 'over the limit'. When I complete a 'work in progress' enquiry I'll take one from the other pile and add it to the WIP pile.

    Let's see how this goes

    Thanks for the kick start !

    Regards
    Edward

    Comment


    • #3
      Originally posted by whsbpb
      c. Limit the queue sizes. The total workload of my various NA lists should be kept below a maximum level. When it reaches that level, I only get to add a new NA if I ditch an existing NA.

      Comments?
      --
      Yes, exactly. This is what Someday/Maybe lists are for: a place to put the stuff that you want to keep track of, but *know* you won't actually get to soon. More fundamentally, one of the core ideas of GTD is that everyone has too much to do, but the only way to deal with that is to know what you're not doing at any given time.

      You need to be careful about how you set the priorities for the various queues, though. An airline doesn't care if it fills up the plane with First Class and never seats people in Steerage, but you probably do care about low priority tasks. The example DA uses is getting new tires for your car. Getting new tires is certainly not as important in the grand scheme of things as high-value projects at work, spending time with your kids and spouse, etc., but if you ignore the tires for too long you'll end up stranded somewhere.

      Katherine

      Comment


      • #4
        Too much to do

        As I recall David Allen's response to the complaint" if I write it all down I cant deal with it, its too overwhelming" is that you are dealing with it whether it's written down on not.Your mind has all these loose things running around at various levels and you can never get a "mind like water" because you never know when one of those hidden things is going to become a disaster.
        David said when you sit down and look at everything on your plate you are then capable of making decisions. These will probably be 20-40K decisions. Some deadlines you may renegotiate, projects may be deleted or put on a someday maybe list.
        Sometimes you have to have a conversation and say I cannot get this done by the deadline. I had to do that last yearl. The deadline was absurd and the project was given to me 5 days before I was leaving for a much needed and looked forward to 5 day long weekend . I said I didn't think I could get it done before my 5 day vacation.I was told it was going to be very basic. I did the very basic and par usual all kinds of issues arose with the other side. Finally I had to say this is not going to happen in the remaining two days I have. I can find you another qualified person that can finish it. The person was furious and hasn't come back. Was I happy that happened? No. What did I learn? Be absolutely firm with no to a truly impossible deadline. Did I miss anything in the long run? No. Is having work from people who set truly impossible deadlines and go ballistic when it doesn't happen how I want to live? No. Do I need to set reasonable deadlines and then make sure that I meet those deadlines except in very rare circumstances? Absolutely.

        Everyone with any responsiblity has times when you have to work impossible hours for a finite period of time, but when you have to do it all the time something has to give. It may be the work or it will be You.

        David Allen says in Getting things done Fast that when he was coaching one executive they had to start at the 40,000 foot level. He was about to get a huge promotion and his wife was afraid he would never be home and was threatening a divorce. Until the client got his mind straight on that the other projects coudn't get on a list.

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by whsbpb
          I see three solutions:

          a. Handle the queues (i.e. levels of priority) in a round-robin fashion. So, the agent is able to serve a lower priority client even if a higher priority one is waiting

          b. Increase a task's priority according to how long it has been in the queue. Eventually, even an inherently low priority task will become important

          But the problem is those is ... well, *why*? Why on earth would I want to allow what is a lower priority task get my attention if a higher priority one is waiting? Also, this wouldn't solve the problem of tasks (any tasks) arriving at a rate faster than we can process them.

          So the third solution is, I think, the only sensible one:

          c. Limit the queue sizes. The total workload of my various NA lists should be kept below a maximum level. When it reaches that level, I only get to add a new NA if I ditch an existing NA.

          Comments?

          --
          I'm sorry, I don't think your third solution is sensible at all *for me*. That's a perpetual state of triage, with some arbitrary limit on what I can take on. It makes sense for MASH units and emergency rooms, but I see nothing natural about it for an individual. My day has an ebb and flow to it. There are
          - fixed appointments, giving rise to
          - odd bits of time, useful for small next actions
          - chance meetings in hallways with key colleagues
          - batched tasks (e.g. while in accounting office, I see several people)
          - large blocks of time, suitable for large projects

          It's the DA invisible algorithm at work, the play of work. When my wife and I were young parents, and both in graduate school, my wife read an article for people in our situation whose advice I have always remembered: first things first, second things second, and third things probably not. But life is not always like that.

          If there are things on your lists that you can get rid of, and want to get rid of, do it. If there are things you need to move to someday/maybe, do it.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by kewms
            Yes, exactly. This is what Someday/Maybe lists are for: a place to put the stuff that you want to keep track of, but *know* you won't actually get to soon. More fundamentally, one of the core ideas of GTD is that everyone has too much to do, but the only way to deal with that is to know what you're not doing at any given time.
            GTD doesn't solve that problem. The simple fact is, it is entirely possible for the length of a person's NA lists to continue to grow, and for some tasks never to get done. Having clear visibility of that is better than having a nagging suspicion about it. But simply not having it happen is best of all. And even relegating stuff to a Someday/Maybe list won't help (and isn't always appropriate). Having a Someday/Maybe list that grows and grows, is not, as far as I can see, a Good Thing.

            Originally posted by kewms
            ...you probably do care about low priority tasks.
            Well I do, but not as much as a high priority task. My point is that BY DEFINITION it makes sense to do a high priority task before a low priority task. That's what I mean by the word "priority".

            Originally posted by kewms
            The example DA uses is getting new tires for your car. Getting new tires is certainly not as important in the grand scheme of things as high-value projects at work, spending time with your kids and spouse, etc., but if you ignore the tires for too long you'll end up stranded somewhere.
            Katherine
            In that case, tire changing is an example of a task that genuinely does increase in priority as time progresses. And there are many other examples. That's fine, that's like where the check-in desk agent yells out "Could anyone who on flight XYZ please come forward immediately".

            But there are *many* tasks whose priority can effectively be defined as follows:

            "To be done as soon as possible, provided nothing more important is waiting"

            My point is, for a sufficiently busy person (probably anyone who looks to GTD for help), the number of such tasks will increase. And no amount of management of tasks will solve that if the management starts only after tasks enter the system. The trick seems to be, to stop some tasks entering in the first place. To say "no", I guess.

            --

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by mcogilvie
              I'm sorry, I don't think your third solution is sensible at all *for me*.
              I'm not really sure it's sensible for me either, but I can't deny the existence of the problem - MASH-like or no. Basic arithmetic says that either the size of the entire content of your NA lists, project lists, Someday/Maybes etc, is, over the long run (it'll be bumpy in the short run):

              - Decreasing
              - Constant
              or
              - Increasing

              In other words, in queuing terms, the ratio of average task inter-arrival time to service time is either less than, equal to, or greater than 1.

              What I'm saying is, that all the systems on the planet - GTD included - will have limits unless they help someone prevent themself from getting into the "Increasing" category. And all the shuffling around of lists, into and out of ticklers, Someday/Maybes, etc isn't going to help.

              --

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by whsbpb
                What I'm saying is, that all the systems on the planet - GTD included - will have limits unless they help someone prevent themself from getting into the "Increasing" category. And all the shuffling around of lists, into and out of ticklers, Someday/Maybes, etc isn't going to help.
                I would say that every system on the planet has limits, period. In the end, they are just systems, after all. The intelligent decision maker implementing the system is the one who has to set priorities and actually decide what to do (or not).

                And yes, the only way to stay out of the "Increasing" category is to say no to stuff. That's true no matter what system you use. The difference as I see it is that a good system lets you explicitly decide, "No, I'm not going to be able to do that." Without a system, you're implicitly saying no when things simply don't get done, but in addition you have to deal with the debris that broken commitments leave behind.

                Katherine

                Comment


                • #9
                  "Priority" has become such a loaded word in time management that we need to recover some of its lost nuances.

                  You want to become a novelist. You have a 30,000 ft. goal of turning out your first manuscript. At 40,000 ft., you want to be fully supporting yourself as a writer, turning out new work prolifically, selling well, etc. So you put "Write novel" on your @computer list and make it Priority 1.

                  Well, it might be the most significant activity you could engage in. But does that necessarily make it the top priority? Do you stop checking your email because of the manuscript? After all, anytime your checking your email you could be working on your manuscript. Do you stop reading this forum? If your reading this right now, aren't you implicitly saying that reading this is a higher priority that anything else you could be doing? I seriously doubt that anyone who advocates sticking to the Most Important Things has nothing better to do at the computer than reading this.

                  Ultimately, you're the one that makes the priority call at any given moment, not "the system." The phone call you got five minutes ago may totally reorganize what you thought your priorities were half an hour ago. However reassuring it might be to look back an ABC-coded list after that phone call and avoid acknowledging that priorities have now changed, real life is dynamic, not static.

                  GTD is more like surfing than bulldozing. Just because you have a cell phone and could conceivably complete every call on your @calls list in the next hour doesn't mean you should. You may be in a public space and need privacy. You might have a five-minute window before your next appointment but need a more conversational length of time before you talk to Joe. It might be 11:37 pm, and you're not willing to risk waking up Joe. Or at 11:37 am you might intuit that Joe isn't psychically "there" just before lunchtime, and it might be better to call him in an hour. Only you can know whether delaying the call is procrastination or good triage. No priorty list can tell you that.

                  Being able to change focus from moment to moment, being able to look at an action list reponsively and say, "No . . . I think I'll do that instead," is out of the comfort zone, because it means having to choose and accept responsibility for being the one making the choices. It's easier to blame "the system" when things blow up.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Gameboy70
                    "Priority" has become such a loaded word in time management that we need to recover some of its lost nuances.
                    To me, it means one and only one thing, and is nuance free. Here's my definition:


                    "pri·or·i·ty
                    n. pl. pri·or·i·ties

                    Position in a list of tasks arranged in the order in which they are to be performed"


                    So, in deciding which of two tasks to do, I should always do the higher priority task. If they're the same priority, I can flip a coin. Simple.

                    What's not so simple is *assigning* those priorities - then the more slippery notions of "significant", "important", "urgent" etc come into play. And so in that sense, my simple use of the word priority hasn't actually *solved* anything. It still leaves open the question as to whether an urgent-but-low-"significance" task is higher priority (i.e. "should be done before") a not-so-urgent-but-high-significance task.

                    But I think my definition of priority at least makes it clearer what is The Point of all the faffing about with the slippery terms.

                    --

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Hold it!...

                      Even in an airline, there are only so many seats in the plane. There comes a point where even if you want to book a flight, there is no more room. It is more subjective in my personal life, but the principle is the same: there are limits to what can be done. Secondly, since when do tasks land on your lap with absolutely no influence from YOU. YOU are the person who allows the lists to constantly increase. That is a failure to understand your own limits.

                      What GTD does for me is allow me to see that I have more to do than I can do, AND allow me to choose, on the basis of that knowledge, what I am going to focus on over the next week. GTD helps me get a handle on how many "seats are available on my plane" so to speak. It is not uncommon at all for me to look at my Someday/Maybe list and cross off a number of things that I have come to see will never get done. Over time my lists have actually shortened due to knowing what is on my plate. I think that is the point. GTD helps you to say no, by giving you a solid understanding of what you have on your plate, along with growing understanding of what you are capable of. GTD helps your *personal* management skills to grow. Yes there are "seasons" where you might grind it out, but you will at least know why you are doing it and what you are putting off, and when it has been put off long enough.

                      I really like the airline analogy, but I think that you have more control that it implies.

                      Regards,
                      Gordon

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Option: Delegate

                        It seems to me that capacity issues can only be managed effectively using three 'D' options: Delegate, Defer, or Decline (a/k/a Just Say No). I've found that it helps to view each as follows:

                        - Delegate: Look beyond those I'd normally hand tasks for completion - who else might be able to manage this that could realize a benefit in acting on my behalf? Consider any and all stakeholders, whther immediate or potential.

                        - Defer: Will I EVER see this as a top priority, date driven or otherwise? If not (or unsure), it becomes a 'Maybe' and I frequently review it to decide if it should be purged. I seldom put a 'Maybe' in priority over a 'Someday'.

                        - Decline: Unless I immediately see some personal benefit (including actions that benefit othersor goals I may wish to support/help), the answer is initially "No". If there's a compelling, yet hidden reason I should accept the task, it ususally makes itself known after the initial refusal.

                        - MB

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          So, in deciding which of two tasks to do, I should always do the higher priority task.
                          If attending to this forum is a higher priority for you than doing anything else, and it was on your list of tasks to be performed, then I agree.

                          There's nothing slippery about prioritization. Basically you have two way of determining priorities: in real time or a priori. If you work in a fairly static environment (e.g. a farm, a monastery), then there's less need to reassign your priorities in real time. In environments where new inputs are constantly coming in, there's more of a need to evaluate priorities from moment to moment. If I have a bid to work on and finish by the end of the day, but I suddenly get a call requesting information from a vendor that's going to close in 30 minutes, I'm going to suspend work on the bid for the few minutes it's going to take me to get the information. That becomes the priority, whether or not I assigned it as such on my list.

                          To paraphrase DA, GTD turns the old time management model on its head. Instead of keeping the "unimportant" incompletions off the list and assigning only top priorities on the list, you put every incompletion on the list and make priority decisions from moment to moment. It's a different paradigm than most productivity systems, and many people philosphically disagree with it. I bring it up not to convice you that it's correct, but to point out that it can't solve the problem of assigning priorites because that practice isn't built into the system.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Gameboy70
                            Instead of keeping the "unimportant" incompletions off the list and assigning only top priorities on the list, you put every incompletion on the list and make priority decisions from moment to moment.
                            I think in general this is a good approach. However, let's look at a specific example and see how it pans out.

                            I have an NA on one of my lists "Read paper X". I added it when I spotted the paper, and thought it would be a good thing to do. I didn't add it as a Someday/Maybe, because to me those are more "out there". An example of a "Someday/Maybe" for me is "Read Darwin's Origin". It's an idea - I'd like to get around to it - it'll be nice if I do - but it's not something I *expect* (or not) to do. It's just a ... well, a Someday/Maybe.

                            The problem is, my "Read paper X" is now further from being done than when I first identified it. It's no more nor less "important" in absolute terms. But relatively speaking, I now have more NAs that are higher priority than the paper than I did one, two and four months ago.

                            So, what should I do?

                            I could demote it to Someday/Maybe - but that's not how I see Someday/Maybe. They're not meant to be a lower priority list. They're more a cauldron of thought-provoking ideas, wishes, musing potentials and so on. My paper doesn't belong there.

                            But I'm now pretty sure it isn't going to get done. I can't say with 100% certainty, but all the evidence says that I won't get around to it. It's not because I couldn't/shouldn't. It's not because the paper has dropped in value. It has nothing to do with the paper. It has everything to do with the other tasks in my life.

                            So, what should I do with it?

                            --

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Why not delete it? I have a lot more productive time since I dumped my cable subscription and my daily paper....

                              Gordon

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