(last edited on April 5, 2019 at 2:17 pm)
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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.
p>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.
Hey Dave this is pretty sweet! I just printed a couple out and I’m going to give it a try with some larger internal projects to start, but I have a feeling this will eventually replace my traditional to-do list totally. This feels more like a game than a task list.
I have a digital egg-timer that sits on my desk and this will be perfect to keep track of 15-30 minute intervals. I think I’ll also use different color pens for each day of the week. That way it’s visually obvious when I did the tasks. Might even be useful over time to look back and asses what days of the week are more productive for me personally, not that I don’t already have a pretty good idea.
This idea is appealing because nothing deflates my momentum (and attitude) more at the end of the day than seeing only 1 out of 15 things crossed off my list. Even though that one thing was a big project that took me all day, it can be psychologically demotivating. Looks like this changes that.
Thanks Dude, I’ll let you know how it goes!
Dude, awesome! Let me know how it works out…and if you don’t tell me, I know where you live :-) Speaking of which, I need to plan a road trip up your way sometime.
The colored pen idea is great!!! I should try that too. Darn water-based inkjet inks might bleed; maybe it’s time to buy that new printer :-)
Yeah! I’ve just been transferring my current client to-do list over to it. And DAMN YOU, you’re tricking me into thinking everything through!!
I enter my major projects in the object fields and use the notes section below to list the quick tasks, like post office trip, send an invoice, reply to an email, etc. Stuff that’s under 15 minutes.
And by using the hash-marks to estimate, it automatically maps out right in front of me all the time I think I need to allot to projects. And I haven’t even thought about this in regards to it helping me estimate projects more accurately in the future.
This seems like the solution you were looking for back in our time at AE.
I also like the idea of keeping my internal projects totally separate (on their own special sheets) from client work. This is going to be even more satisfying with my personal projects because those tend to be more long term and the process can be much less gratifying.
As for the roadtrip, I know! I’ve been trying to figure out a date but it seems like every year I underestimate how quickly the holidays come after the summer. I’m now thinking it might have to be in January unfortunately, I’ll follow up when I know for sure.
Thanks for investing some time in investigating this method. I am open to trying all new productivity increasing techniques. And your system looks to be rewarding and avoids many of the pitfalls of simple to-do lists or other “nag style” planners.
I think this may be especially useful as projects go on and become more stagnent (from a devs point of view). On a project that could take 6 months for example, usually the first 2 at least are fairly easy going, exciting and fueled with energy and anticipation (the creative part). Later when you need to finish that project, it can feel more chore-like, especially if your mental energy is running low from the project itself. Intergrating your method at this last 3rd stage of development may kickstart a new productivity – useful because you have the “major” work already out of the way and are just looking for incentives.
So, Thanks for the article, I will print out some sheets and see how I get on with them.
Thanks for the insightful comments…I’m curious to see how the sheets work out in the scenario you described. I wonder if adapting the bubbles toward something more completion-oriented would help; one of the unspoken assumptions I’m making for the current sheet is that “time invested pays off”. In late-cycle development, the focus tends to be (at least in my experience) on adding the last minor features, populating the remaining assets, and closing issues in the bug database to ship ship ship, so “time invested” may not be quite aligned with the “finish remaining chores” task. It’s an interesting problem.
BTW, cool site!
A couple observations after another day of using the new forms:
(1) I gravitated toward creating separate sheets for different areas of activities. Just trashed my old ones, and created “CREATIVE”, “PROGRAMMING/TECH”, “BUSINESS ADMIN”, and “PERSONAL” sheets. I put them all on a clipboard to keep them organized. I’m using it like a working version of my Pickle Jar
(2) There’s something missing still, “vibewise” from the sheet. I think compared to the original PCEO, that splash of motivational “color and creedo” with the “When is something Worth Doing?” added something. I’m not quite sure what…the reassuring voice of a mentor or peer? Personal voice needs to be re-injected.
(3) Now that I have two different developed forms, I’m starting to notice an issue with differentiation between them. You can tell that they’re related, but they serve different purposes, and that isn’t being communicated in a visceral, visual manner. An interesting design problem!
(4) With more paper, the need for the binder system has increased one more notch. My desk is getting a little cluttered, because my actual notetaking system is based around 11×17 sheets and manilla folders. I’m doing some prototyping with a large legal-size binder and some clamps, but it’s a little ungainly. The ideal system would be buildable out of stuff you can get at any office supply store and Home Depot and not cost an arm and a leg.
Hey thanks Dave for the comment on the comment ;)
I actually posted about it in my blog
If you didn’t see it. Hope you don’t mind me using your picture? (not hotlinked ;) )
About your comments, I suppose I over simplified what I meant by the later third, and that always depends on the size of the project. The things you mention in my case would be more towards the end of that third – more granular if you like. I think maybe “Half way” if a better point and actually closer to where I am on this current project if I am realistic. I.E everything is “known” and designed, it just needs FULLY implementing. The bug fixes and polishing comes after that of course, some time down the road. Obviously by that point I feel the developer would already be into his stride again.
The halfway “sticking point” when most of the exciting features are in but need finishing is what I meant.
Don’t get me wrong though, it would be equally handy to use from the start of a project – but I won’t know that for another few months until I finish the current one. :)
Have been using the PCEO this past week and it has dismayed me how little I seem to accomplish at the end of the day.
Will be trying the TaskMaster (or whatever you’re calling it) today on various projects that have been sitting around and need attention. I like that I can break out sub-projects on the sheet and track them in parallel.
I take your point about the PCEO being more motivational than the Task Sheet. As you say in this post, though, the Task Sheet is bottom up (the trees) whereas I see the PCEO as being top-down (the forest). Or, put another way, goals (big-picture) and objectives (the steps). Or strategy and tactics. I seem them as complementing each other. I’ll try them both out next week, but I think starting and ending the day with PCEO but using the Task sheet in the middle might be the way to go.
When I adapted the PCEO Excel sheet to my situation (I’m a contract tech writer for a federal agency), I had to really think about what constitutes a successful or productive day for me in a place where project deadlines are “end of fiscal year 2006” and there are myriad little chores—like sending emails to clarify agreements and expectations—that take time and have communications payoffs but don’t result in a tangible product I’ve created. (Sometimes, sending an important email feels like a +2 because it stops a problem from forming later. Pre-emptive actions are important and I feel I need to account for them.)
It was a very good exercise to really think about how I want to structure and move through my day, and I have the PCEO “coaching” prompts at the top of the page to remind me of what my high payoffs should be (they’re still being refined, though).
I don’t see myself needing to do that with the task sheet. Just list the hot projects or jobs that need to be done that day and get cracking.
You can’t think and do at the same time. So the PCEO helps with planning and long-range thinking, while the Task sheet helps with actual execution and doing. And then calibrate at the end of the day—do these Tasks add up to nice PCEO score?
Some people may want a charge-code or project-code blank so they can enter a project ID on PCEO and map it to tasks on the Task sheet, but that to me adds another layer of information that clutters everything up. But that depends on the time-accounting you have to do; we’re not that strict. I feel that if I’m moving back and forth between the two sheets (and reviewing my more comprehensive GTD projects lists) then I’m refreshing the links in my brain often enough so that I don’t need to do more accounting by hand.
Enough brain chaff! Thanks for sharing this work with the world at large. I’m really enjoying watching your projects evolve.
Great observations on what the two sheets represent for you…the top-down of the PCEO, and the bottom-up of the—-I should really come up with another name—-PCEO2. Thanks for pointing out the duality. The Printable TaskMaster is a good possibility. I was avoiding “Manager” because that term has so many weird connotations (like, time tracking for efficiency and so forth…can’t have “Manager” without “Man”, as in “THE MAN” :-)
I originally DID have a tie-back to the PCEO point system in the second worksheet, but like you I thought it just cluttered things up. You’ll know what tasks are worth what points.
You’ve hit on something important to me to when you mention “refreshing the links in my brain” by moving back and forth. One reason that I haven’t yet moved on a software version is that the “computer information channel” is ALREADY saturated. If you’re using the computer as your primary working tool, the last thing you need is another piece of task-management software that you have to click on that interrupts your workflow. By using a piece of paper—-which is persistent, high resolution, and impervious to accidental modification if not, as I’ve discovered, to energetic cats—-you create an ADDITIONAL information channel that complements workflow.
Some efficiencies could be realized through adding a second monitor (check), using multiple computers (check) with some kind of useful software KVM (check…I’m using this ). Or through use of “widgets”, like Mac OS X Tiger’s implementation…it’s brilliant because it has its own contextual space and persistence. However, it still interrupts task flow.
Thanks for the comment, and the compliment! They’re both really great :-) Good luck with work!
Thanks for this great tool, Dave. I’m horrible at staying focused! So far I’ve found this to be a very simple, useful tool to help keep me on task. I’ve tried dozens of other systems and for whatever reason, yours is clicking with me. Thanks!
One thing I’m curious about is the “action, object, content syntax” you refer to on the form for the tasks. I am not familiar with that. Could you give me a pointer to some information about that labeling system? Thanks!
Sorry for getting back to this so late…the “action, object, content” syntax is a personal thing I do to make all my to-do list items results-oriented and consistent, so that was sort of a reminder to myself.
The idea comes from command line interfaces from adventure games…you always started with a verb like GO or CLIMB. The next word would be the object/noun you were interested in. The context part are the salient details.
So it’s nothing that earth-shattering…I should probably just replace that line with “task” :-)
Ah, got it. I was overthinking it. Thanks for the clarification. I really like this tool!
Wow, very nice. I am going to give this a try, I may use the destro one instead because I love silly fun things. One thing I think would be cool would be a reminder between each segment to do something fun, and be able to fill it in. SO I fill in 4 work bubbles, I reward my self with 15 minutes of playing guitar or mandolin, and then I go back to work, fill in the play-time bubble and then start cranking on the work bubbles. Anyway, just a thought. I love your site.
Thanks and Kind Regards,
Donald C. Foley
Any thoughts on making the progress tracker in larger sizes? I don’t know what you use to design the pages, but I’m thinking the progress tracker is great for teams as well as individuals.
I think I am going to try to blow it up to wall-sized and use it for team tasks. Different color per team member – each getting to fill in bubbles as they go. Might even lead to some reward system, although that worked in 1st grade, don’t know about now.
I don’t know good dimensions off the top of my head, but good sized so it could be seen across a small room.
Brian: Hey, that’s a great idea for team progress charting…very cool! I’ll see what I can come up with. What are the dimensions of the room, and how big can you output?
Found a link to you site from lifehacker. I’ve got to say PCEO and this new one are two really inovative systems for time managment. Trying to run a company myself and manage all the employee’s I often get lost in the small details and find it very difficult to keep up with all the critical stuff that I need to do to ensure the company continues to grow and prosper. I usually get it done, but its is often at 3am… So i’m going to give you system a try and see if it helps me to work a bit more efficiently. Thanks for the sharing you system. I’m definatly excited to give it a wirl.
One request though. Can we have an editable version of the Task Tracker?
Cool! I’d be really curious if it works for you, someone with a greater responsibility load than myself as a sole practitioner. Please feel to write anytime and let us know how it’s going, and how it works / doesn’t work!
I’m not sure what you need in terms of an editable task tracker. What do you need to edit?
Wow, this is such a cool idea :)
I’m going to print this one tomorrow! Thanks!
Where’s my coloured pens. Bring em on!!!
Very nice idea, this would go perfect with our timesheet application (1time: http://www.1time.ie )
Defo going to start using this though.
I’ve been printing these out on a monochrome laser, and the lines and extend task circle are impossible to see. Is there another version optimized for B/W people? I’ve run into the same scenario with the ETT.
Todd: Someone showed me some laserprinter output the other day, and I see the problem! I’ll set about making some monochrome versions soon.
any luck with the B/W optimization? or would it be possible to send them to me for me to convert and send back?
I actually did make one and posted it a while ago, but didn’t add it to this particular page. Will do that now!
That looks great! Very helpful!!. Do you have the ETT done also? I use the ETT more than anything else.
I’ll do that one next, Todd! Will queue that up :-)
The hotlink for the 2007 pdf file is not working. I would love to get a copy of this!
Dave – I am the QUEEN of list making. Except the lists get too long, I waste my morning “getting organized”, I feel overwhelmed … and don’t get a darn thing done because by that point I’m hiding under my desk. Classic.
I just printed out 4 of these Task Progress Trackers for my 4 major projects at work. I popped in my tasks for each. Now it’s 3:30 and I’ve got little filled in bubbles all over the pages! Normally if I’d spent 15 minutes emailing back & forth with a client it wouldn’t “cross anything off the list”, but now it’s a bubble!
I think of it more like a “Making progress” list, rather than a “Things to be done with” list. Much more gratifying. Woo! Thanks!