Being Deliberate with Task Wording

How we word our tasks can make a significant difference in how we approach them. For example, several rules of thumb may be:

  • Start with a verb
  • Maintain both simplicity and clarity when possible
  • Act as though you are delegating the task to someone else. (In fact, you are delegating to your future self.)

In the last post, Grouping Tasks by Session, I showed my Dashboard Perspective:

Dashboard Perspective - 2016-03-15


On Twitter, Brandon Pittman asked me what’s the difference between “Read book” and “Read: book”. I said, “not much,” but in hindsight, I realized that there is some rhyme/reason to the nomenclature. The syntax can also be useful to highlight my intentions in several ways.

A Structure of Task Words

The structure is a single verb followed by a colon, for example “Process: X”. I originally picked up this task-writing style from Tim Stringer at Learn OmniFocus. He tends to use it for working with perspectives.

There are several words I now tend to use to start tasks, each with their own cautions. I do not use this convention all the time. They do tend to show up more in the Dashboard perspective, or areas I visit with regularity. The following is a list of how I sometimes write my tasks and my intentions behind them:

  • “Develop:” or “Continue:” are useful words to continue a project where I do not know how long it will last. Most any creative work can fit in this mold. The task often is repeating with a link to materials of the work, a context, or a perspective dedicated for that project.

Example: “Develop: Music piece”

The task repeats. Every session that I feel I have done enough ends by marking the task complete.  The task then appears again at the repeat frequency. When the work itself is complete, I delete the task.

  • “Consider:” is useful for considering if I want to do something. I have a dedicated context for considered tasks, but I can also have considered tasks sprinkled elsewhere.

Example: “Consider: Continue arranging photos” (unflagged, repeating, in @File & Flow : Home context.)

Once the work is considered, whether actually done or not, it can be marked as complete. See also the post on the considered task for an in-depth look at its use and cautions.

  • “Process:” Indicates a series of tasks that are generally memorized and should be completed in one session if possible.

Example: “Process: (some track of music)” means to do all the editing, mixing, and transfer to a Dropbox folder marked for review.

Example: “Process: Communications” means to review the Waiting for list, clear my phone, emails, and text messages, and make all needed calls, emails, and text messages.

Caution: This term is most useful for fully practiced work, where you know the methods and materials involved. If it needs to be left incomplete before ending its session, consider writing an additional task to mark where you left off.

  • “Review:” is useful to look over a list. I can do none, some, or all of it.

Example:“Review: Office Filing” – flagged and repeats on weekdays. I have in mind the intention of clearing the list every few days or so, but I do not have to do all of it when I see it. I make that decision during each work day. If I feel I have done enough filing tasks for the day, I mark the “Review:” task complete. I anticipate seeing it again on the next workday.

Caution: One needs to acknowledge the intention of the list. If a list never completes, is too large to review in a single setting, or is completed too slowly, is this acceptable? If not, adjust the list so that trust for its use is maintained.

  • “Clear:” is similar to “Review”, “Clear” tends to refer to a list. However, instead of doing none, some, or all of it, my intention is to do all of it.

Example: “Clear: Home Filing” which is flagged and repeats on Fridays. I aim to complete the task by the end of the weekend.

Caution: Lists that we intend to complete in a span of time tend to take the greatest skill and finesse. For example, a daily list (like the Dashboard) is intended to be completed within the day. All of the skills of drafting tasks, setting repeats, acknowledging what can and cannot be done, etc. come into play.

  • “Practice:” is specific to the practice perspective. These are pieces of music that I am either composing or learning. I set them at some Defer Another interval, practice it on the day it shows up, and mark it complete. Periodically, I’ll change the repeat interval depending on how well I feel I know the piece.

Example: “Practice: Toccata in D Minor” unflagged, defer another set to q3 days, @Piano.

  • “Arrange:” means that I plan to re-arrange where the task sits in a project.  This is useful if I send a task to a project from the Inbox, but I know that I want to change its position because of sequential groups of tasks.

Caution: These tasks are best addressed as soon as possible.  Otherwise, the system decays quickly.

It should be stressed that, with the exception of “Arrange:”,  these terms are mostly useful for habitual tasks, usually representative of larger projects, areas of focus, or commonly visited lists.  They are also in an evolving state of use.

To Finish or Not to Finish (a List)

There is certainly overlap between some terms. For example, “Read: …” is just another version of “Continue: …” or “Develop: …”.

Other terms, though, such as  “Clear” and “Review”, highlight an important distinction of how we can approach our lists. Some lists are meant to be completed in a period of time. Some lists are not. But it is the acknowledgement of the intention that is most important. The lists themselves do not care.

For example, I have @Laptop as a context. There are presently 84 tasks in it. It would be ridiculous for me to actually work from the context directly. I know that.  But, I still find it to be a very useful context when paired with focus and/or workflow perspectives. If I focus on a particular project, I can see a small number of @Laptop tasks. Suddenly, clearing the tasks makes sense.

As another example, I maintain the @File & Flow tasks as a list that I wish to complete within the span of days. Any task that sits there longer is either poorly placed, not broken down enough, or I need to consider whether it is a larger task than I originally considered or admitted to myself.


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