An issue of task management appears when we do not wish to do a repeating task on a particular day. Without modification, we can either:
- Check off the task, without actually completing it
- Change its start date
- Delete the task
In fact, several months ago, Chris at pxldot.com1 wrote a post called “What’s Eating OmniFocus?” in which he raised this very point, noting that without a “muffle” option, we would introduce a dishonesty into the system by any of these above solutions.
I believe he is correct in that, with the exception of deleting the task, these solutions would introduce a dishonesty to the system. As trust is the central pillar upon which we build our systems, this would be not only unacceptable, but likely damaging.
However, there is a solution that has little to do with OmniFocus, so much as our own agency:
Agency is the degree to which we may create and decide upon intentions non-reactively.
The Considered Task
We can introduce agency with a simultaneously very simple and advanced technique. It is simple in that it is easy to implement. It is advanced in that there is caution to its use.
To create a considered task:
- Place the word “Consider” before a qualified task
- Change the starting verb to end with an “…ing”
An Example in Filing
As an example, we could have a daily repeating task such as:
The task would be used to visit a context which holds a series of filing tasks.
In my own use, the task links to a perspective that consolidates several filing contexts as an adaptation of Sven Fechner’s “Brain Dead” context. It’s great for gathering those short organizational tasks that would otherwise derail me in the middle of a session of work.
However, I do not wish to file everyday. Therefore, I convert it to a “considered” task:
- “Consider filing”
Here it is in action:
That’s it. That’s all there is.
But as simple as it is, it can be more powerful than first appears. That it bears caution, may even indicate its potential as a powerful tool.
Before addressing its advantages, let’s consider important cautions.
The caution required should be apparent. To highlight the concern, take the example:
- “Exercise” (repeating daily)
- “Consider exercising” (repeating daily)
Writing “Consider” before a task is very easy to do. It almost seems to be a gimmick or “cheat” potentially fraught with thorns of procrastination. The word can be abused, allowing a rapid and easy path into doing nothing. We could simply add the word “Consider” to every task and eventually find ourselves in some form of Youtube-silly-cat-video-watching-induced] stupor.
Example – Caution in Filing
For example, returning to the filing example, a fear may be that I will continually check off the task and not visit it. The tasks within would then pile up with many Filing tasks, effectively clogging it. My trust in that part of the system would then be lost.
However, this has not happened. I know when I have and have not visited the list. I can look at it and decide in the moment as to whether I should do the tasks resting within it now or not. If I sense that the list of undone tasks is growing large, I also sense that I will lose my trust in that list unless I do the work.
Therefore, the test of its use is continual. If ever the context becomes stagnant or fills faster than it empties, then I know it will no longer work. I would know that I could not trust it and therefore would need to do something to change it, whether it is doing the work itself or changing the system. The same is true for any aspect of the systems we design.
The guide is our trust:
Trust is a belief, developed over time, that something will continue behaving as it has in the past, such that it may be relied upon.
Example – A Non-Considered Task
Just to show a contrast, if something is important to do daily—for example,
- Play piano
I leave it as “Play piano”. Such a task would not receive the “Consider” term. I mean to play the piano daily, honoring the habit to the greatest degree that I reasonably can.
Work tasks, agenda items, etc., also would not receive the “Consider” phrase. In other words, we can and need to use the phrase quite deliberately.
There are at least several advantages that a “considered” task has to offer. It can:
- Function as placeholder and reminder of decision
- Help assess a task’s necessity
- Apply a buffer to a task system
- Reduce the necessity of completing a task, while maintaining our awareness of it and its accessibility
- Reduce an overall “compulsive” sense to a task system
- Help us maintain honesty with, and therefore trust of, our systems.
- Improve general integrity of system via our enhanced trust
A Placeholder and Reminder of Decision
In the case of the filing task, I do not need to file daily. But, the task functions as a placeholder and a reminder of the decision I can make to file. It is easy to get to the filing perspective by selecting the link should I wish to do so. In addition, I can think about whether I want to file today or not, rather than be forced to compromise myself in order to maintain the system.
A Means to Assess Necessity
We can use “consider” to assess how necessary a task is. For example, if we have a task of checking a certain site daily, but that information is rarely if ever useful, adding a “Consider …” phrase allows the task’s review. After a period of simply checking off the task without actually doing the work, we can realize that the task is redundant or would otherwise drain better spent resources of time and attention. The task can then be deleted.
Meanwhile, the task is not cluttering the system. It appears, is considered, is checked off and ultimately deleted without compromising the system’s integrity.
A Buffer for the System
We may have time to complete some tasks and not others. The “consider” clause adds a mild prioritization component. In this way, we can do tasks that do not have the “consider” clause first, and return to the ones we do wish to consider later.
By moving the task’s action from its content to our decision of doing it, the compulsion to do the action in order to maintain the system’s integrity is removed.
Agency, Trust, & Habits
In this way, the “Consider” technique is both very simple and advanced not because of some technology or our finesse in its direct use, but from our ability to be attuned to our own sense of experience and our habits.
It is important to note that our habits themselves are a part of our systems of trust. The more we trust ourselves, the greater is our confidence to impose the demand of agency at a point that it would be useful to do so:
Confidence is a trust in our ability. It is a developed sense of our own capacity to meaningfully decide and act, such that it may be relied upon.
We may desire our programs and environments to do the thinking for us, but this is not their role. They only hold onto, more or less, our stored intentions. We, then, process them at their points of relevance.
The attempt to front-load a system with as much decision as possible is certainly helpful, but it can only be relied upon to the degree that we trust it. As we do not know the future, the process of developing the system is continual.