To Do Distinctions

To Do Distinctions

I was getting ready to sleep at a normal hour last night, the first time in possibly months since I’ve done so. This was a notable event as far as I am concerned, and feeling good I leisurely checked-off the things I’d do tomorrow. However, I was also thinking about some comments I’d come across at Freelance Samurai on the latest version of Emergent Task Planner with regards to getting three tasks done being (in his words) “worth bragging about”. I had thought the idea that getting just three tasks done a day might not go over well, particularly in the productivity-obsessed workplace. And truthfully, I wasn’t quite clear myself why this was important.

As I drifted to sleep, it struck me that there are two kinds of to-do items I have, and there is a different mentality that goes with each of them. Allow me to be facetious and call them to do and to get done tasks:

  • To Do Tasks These are the activities that actually move me forward toward being in a better place. Personal projects, relationship building, research, and so on. By accomplishing a task in the “to do” list, I’m talking about creating a better future for myself than the one I’d have if I let the status quo reign.

  • To Get Done Tasks These are the activities that allow me to remain in the status quo. Project work that brings in revenue, doing the laundry, washing dishes, doing my invoicing and “budgeting”, maintaining my various servers, and so it goes. There are a lot more tasks in this category than in the first.


p>The reason I have chosen this phrasing—to do versus to get done—is that they reflect my attitude: “to do” is active voice, “to get done” is passive voice, which is kind of how I feel about it. Yeah versus bleah.

From a functional perspective, it would make more sense to say Tasks that Better Myself versus Tasks that Must Be Done. However, I must acknowledge that when it comes to doing things, I’d much rather be doing the ones that move me forward than just keep me going.

Another way of describing this functional split: development versus maintenance tasks. Development tasks represent new opportunities, whereas maintenance tasks keep you where you “are”; it goes without saying that we’d prefer not to lose ground, so making sure that this doesn’t happen is a big part of our daily regimen.

Part of the anxiety we feel comes from the feeling that we are losing ground, and this is part of the appeal of Getting Things Done. We can’t really address the development tasks until we have our maintenance tasks under some control, otherwise the gains made will be short-term. I’m in that cycle myself: I have bursts of creative progress which hint at future awesomeness, but this comes at the expense of having a clean house and creating a viable (read: profitable by process design, not luck) business methodology. What I have been missing, I suspect, is a methodology that incorporates dreams into the very fabric of the operation. The Concrete Goals Tracker, in hindsight, was my intuitive way of trying to give shape to that desire, but I didn’t realize that it was a dream visualization tool. That has interesting ramifications for future design work.

Note that I’m not talking about tasks I “like” or “dislike”. There are things in the maintenance pile I enjoy, such as my perverse interest in server administration. There are also lots of things in the development pile that I don’t particularly enjoy, or have trouble doing.

I’ve addressed the duality of how I make/create/produce in Impulsive vs. Methodical Action; what I’m talking about in this post is related in that there’s the sense that I’m expressing frustration with one of them. I certainly tend to favor impulsive (undirected) creativity over methodical (directed) creativity, but I perceive the world as desiring the latter. In terms of tasks, I much prefer tasks that seem to be about the future (dreaming, building) than the ones that are just maintaining my foothold (maintenance) in life.

I think I can now clarify my position that getting three tasks a day done is a noteworthy achievement: I’m thinking of those tasks that are about the future, as oppposed to the ones that just need getting done to maintain your place. Tasks that are about the future are the ones that will help you achieve your dreams, and yield (at least in our imagination) the richest awards. Getting even one of those done a day is an incredible accomplishment. Keep in mind also that when it comes to dreams, we’re talking big units of tasks. A dream is not expressed in terms of small sums accumulating over time. We reserve that language for talking about our maintenance tasks, and you can get many of those tasks done in a day. If you’re a dreamer, though, you sense that those aren’t the tasks that will light your heart on fire. It’s no wonder that you are procrastinating…what’s the point? And yet Life rewards those who maintain themselves.

And now, coming back to action: getting those maintenance tasks done requires the following of a methodical process, and an appreciation for “small sums” accounting. For me, those are all challenges. Framing this in the scope of a larger mission or perhaps a role may help me accept this, if the role itself embodies my dreams. For example, with the methodical stuff, knowing that this is part of the scientific process makes it palatable because now I’m not just doing gruntwork, I’m playing scientist :-)

This line of inquiry is leading to another process insight regarding Scientific Creative Process, but I’ll save that for tomorrow.