The Printable CEO Part II: Much To Do About Task Tracking
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About 6 weeks ago, I had some downtime and wanted to get focused on business-building activities…that’s how The Printable CEO came about. Since then, I’ve been a lot busier, so now I have a different problem: how to keep track of everything I’m doing and still keep moving on important personal projects that tend to fall by the wayside. In other words, I need more than task direction: I now need good old-fashioned task management, with a dash of motivational goodness.
The traditional approach, which I use with clients, is to break down the project into major phases for a production plan that details all the dependencies, dates, and deliverables. From this I create what is essentially a glorified To Do list, and get to work.
Now this works just fine, because maintaining a high level of client communication forces you to have some kind of progress to report! However, when it comes to my personal time, I’d rather be more free-form. Unfortunately, I tend to think of projects that are way too big for a single person to do in one free evening, so I…don’t do them. And this, my friends, is procrastination.
Intellectually, I know that it just takes determination: putting one foot in front of the other over and over again, until victory is just over the next foothill. But any procrastinator worth his salt has the uncanny ability to previsualize all the minutia that goes into a project, estimating with astonishing candor every bit of time, effort, heartbreak and disappointment it takes before anyone gets to sip from the Chalice of Higher Achievement. So taking that first step is awfully hard. When my faithful Tivo is stuffed to the gills with good TV and is just a remote-control click away, my resolve falters; laziness, as they say, always pays off right now.
I almost fell out of my chair when I realized that this was also the key:
Make achievement pay off right now, not later!
So I flipped the To Do List psychology upside down, applied bubble tracker methodology, and am trying something new. The first part of Printable CEO, The Concrete Goals Tracker, was all about establishing the right mindset. This second part, which I’m calling the The Task Progress Tracker, is about motivating you to invest time into specific projects in as unstructured a way as possible. The magical part is that it appears to help me create structure from the bottom-up, as a byproduct of using it. And that’s the ingredient that’s been missing from my regular To Do list.
- get that sense of progress buzz…
- maintain “check…done!” functionality…
- provide continuity of tasks…
- maintain a record of accomplishment…
So here’s what The Task Progress Tracker looks like (see right). Each sheet holds up to 10 items; these are the write-in “To Do” items, with checkboxes on the right. Just like a regular checklist.
Additionally, each item also tracks the amount of work put into the task, in 15-minute intervals. For a procrastinator, getting that first 15 minutes done is absolutely key to breaking the curse. It won’t earn you the coveted checkmark, but it almost doesn’t matter: here is the proof that you’ve actually done some work, and it never goes away.
You’ll notice that that there’s a challenge box, with five small fill-in bubbles. This is for those tasks that have become unexpectedly difficult, like that drawing that should have taken 15 minutes but dragged on for 3 hours. I think that’s worth some kind of bonus, so you can “increase the difficulty rating” up to five times, every time you hit an unexpected snag. Then you can explain it in the notes section.
Timewise, you get up to 4 hours to complete each task. This is not arbitrary; I find that 4 hours is usually enough to get a solid task out of the way, and the limit sort of forces you to think about what you can get accomplished in that time frame. Constraints are often a great help when being creative; it’s no different here.
But What If…
In the event that a task takes longer than 4 hours, you have the option of using the extend task marker. You don’t get to check the DONE box, but you can make a mark that indicates that you’re continuing the task on a new line. In the example, I’ve drawn a little arrow that says P1 next to it, then started another entry with P1 in a circle. Since they’re placed on the outside edges of the form, it’s easier for your eyes to visually scan the page to find them.
If I know for certain that a task will take more than 4 hours, I just pre-allocate the appropriate number of rows and link the extend task markers. When a task will take less than 4 hours, I draw a vertical line marking the estimate; this is one of the ways where this sheet might be useful for project estimating.
If you need more than 10 items, just print out another one and check the additional sheets checkbox. It’s up to you to somehow note how many there are, but there’s plenty of room to write that information down.
I’ve just started using the system here at home, so I am still playing around with the number of bubbles and items on a sheet. Here’s what I’ve discovered so far:
I’ve found that the urge to fill in that first, 15-minute bubble is quite palpable. When I have some time, I consult the project list to see if there’s something I should be working on. I see the task. I know I want to do it. The bubble is right there, and wouldn’t it be good to fill it in? And wouldn’t it be nice to know how much time things take, that every bubble filled in is a blow against procrastination? That I’m harnessing energies that to now, have remained dormant? Come on…it’ll just take 15 minutes…
Like the original PCEO, this tracking tool emphasizes what you did, not what you didn’t do yet…
Another really cool thing is that it supports bottom-up workstyles. I can write a very non-specific goal, and still mark progress while I’m still figuring out what the hell I’m trying to do. Try that with a regular To Do list. It doesn’t tell me if it’s an efficient use of time or not, but as with the original PCEO I don’t want to make a tool that nags you about your work style.
As your thinking clarifies, you can just check DONE and fork a new task with a more specific description. As subtasks become evident, just write them in; you’ll tend to fill in items from top to bottom, and this can be a useful way of keeping a record of how you approached the problem. Plus, you’ll know how long it took, and that’s useful information to know for next time.
If you count up all the bubbles, you’ll see that there are 40 total hours possible. That’s not entirely a coincidence…an earlier version of the form had 11 items because I wanted to say “This list GOES UP TO ELEVEN”…
Anyway, this property might come in handy for informal on-the-job time tracking. If you need more than 40 hours, print two sheets and split your daily tasks up among them. For example, I have one list that’s entirely code projects now, and one that’s related to everything else.
If you’re a freelancer tracking job time, and you don’t already have Quicken, Quickbooks, or some other time tracking system, you could use one sheet for each job. I already have my own time tracking system, but I’ve been tempted to use it for quick projects.
By laying out the hours in a line like this, you get a clear visual sense of how much time you have to play with. For the competitive gamer, finishing a task in the fewest number of bubbles might be an incentive. For other tasks like “Exercise”, accumulating the most bubbles might be the point. It’s up to you.
If you’d like to give it a try, the download link is below. Enjoy!
» Download Task Progress Tracker PDF
» There’s also a Black & White Power User Version that I’ve added.