4 Task List Antipatterns

The software development world has the concept of the antipattern – a code structure that one commonly finds in failing software. Antipatterns are worth studying because they help us learn from our mistakes (or, even better, from other people’s mistakes). But antipatterns are not confined to software alone. Stare at any activity deeply enough and you’ll find that some people are more successful with it than others.

Take the humble task list, for instance, much beloved of web workers. Almost all of us have one, and yet it’s undeniable that for some people the task list is a vital and useful tool, while for others it’s a sea of forgotten notes and a waste of time. If yours falls into the latter category, check yourself for these four task list antipatterns.

1. The Non-Actionable Task. Anyone who has bumped into Getting Things Done has run across the word “actionable,” but have you actually taken it to heart? If a task isn’t something you can sit down and do, in a reasonable block of time, it doesn’t belong on your task list. “Get PhD” isn’t a task; it’s an albatross that will sit on your task list for years. “Research PhD program entrance requirements” is a task that you can actually perform and remove from the list.

2. The Eternally-Postponed Task. Do you have a task that’s been on your list for months, because you change its due date every time it gets to the top of the list? For heaven’s sake, get that puppy out of there. If a task is so unimportant that you can just postpone it whenever it’s “due” it has no business cluttering up a space that should be for important things. Keep a separate text file or outline or mindmap for long-range planning and brainstorming, if your task list is also serving as a general holding pen for “stuff I just don’t want to forget.”

3. The One-Minute Task. If your system for tracking tasks has a lot of overhead, you may find yourself spending more time managing a task than the task takes to complete. Enter the task, set its due date and category, fiddle with the color and context, prioritize it, decide where it fits on various lists…and then it only takes 30 seconds to actually file that invoice in the proper folder in the filing cabinet. While you may get a warm fuzzy feeling from checking “completed,” next time just file the invoice without the overhead of creating and managing the task. (You might also consider switching to a tracking system with less overhead).

4. The Task That Can’t Be Done. This is a special case of the non-actionable task that deserves its own category. Sometimes you can’t do a task, not because it’s too large, but because something else is blocking you from completing the task. “Make birthday cake” might be stalled because you’re all out of eggs in the house. In that case, you’d best add the necessary preliminary task to your list (“Buy eggs”) – unless you prefer to only manage some random selection of your tasks in one place.

What other task list antipatterns have you overcome in your own life?

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