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Task typology - Dr Doug - A Wide Halo Of Ease And Leisure
January 27th, 2015
08:22 pm


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Task typology
I have read many productivity books and been to several training sessions. I'm not convinced they've made a massive difference to how much or what I get done, but they are diverting. Better than real work.

Anyway, I've realised I've accreted an eclectic set of ways of classifying tasks, or ways of conceptualising them. Some of these I have snappy names for, but not all. The classic two-axis urgent/important one is pretty helpful, as is the principle that you really need to focus on the Important But Not Urgent ones (you'll get the Important and Urgent ones done anyway). But that's not amusing as a concept. Some of my other ones are:
  • Elephant task: Something so big you can't do it in one session, or even several sessions. The only way to eat an elephant (or a monster aubergine if you prefer) is to eat a large chunk every day, or at least most days. Better to keep a long way away from it, so it looks manageably small.
  • Wasp task: A task I am unreasonably scared of, out of proportion to how bad it will actually be. A scary task is just a scary task, but a wasp task is that particular sort of task that is much more scary when you're not looking directly at it. (I have an irrational fear of wasps.)
  • Elephant-Wasp: This is your worst nightmare of a task. Big *and* unreasonably scary. At least with an ordinary wasp task you can, if you screw your courage to the sticking place for a moment, splat it out of the way and be done with it. This monster is going to terrify you for weeks.
  • Gravel: This is all the little jobs that have to be fitted in somewhere. Emails, followups, paperwork. The metaphor here is that you have a box (your available time), and if you fill it with gravel first, you won't get many big rocks in there. But if you put the big rocks in first, you can squeeze the gravel in round the sides.
  • See this rabbit? See this hat?: I'm going to have to do something quite spectacular in order to deliver this one, but I can do it. The idea is that it's the patter for a magician about to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
  • Automating it: Making a tool to do a task repeatedly is very satisfying. So satisfying that I often spend more time making such a tool than simply doing the task directly would have taken. (This one could do with a better name.)
  • Get other people moving/parallelising: Setting other people doing things. Even if the task I'm setting them isn't as important as my main task, it's better to set them off first because then they can be doing it at the same time as I'm doing mine. I also like to remember the theory of comparative advantage here: even if I can do a task better and faster than someone else, we'll still get more done collectively if we specialise. But this is getting in to the theory of delegating which is not what I'm on about here. (This one could do with a better name too.)
  • Shiny task: Something that shines out to you as a really exciting, fun task to do, that you instantly want to get hold of and start on ... but may well be a bit of a waste of time, or at least not as important or urgent as many other things.
  • Yak shaving: "what you are doing when you're doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you're supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you're doing to the original meta-task" (See here for description and origin story: http://programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/34775/correct-definition-of-the-term-yak-shaving)
  • I have no name for this one at all, but it's a concept that lights up in my brain vividly: That particular sort of job that will gain you great benefit for relatively little effort. Often crops up after the vast majority of the work has been done but a critical final step hasn't, and that will make all the difference. Often doesn't have a deadline on it. Like, for instance, sending the invoice to a client after you've delivered a big project, or finally submitting an application that you've spent ages drafting. But it's easy to procrastinate or defer. In fact this is a classic "important but not urgent" sort of task.

Edit: Remembered another couple overnight.

  • Heartsink task: A task, often a recurring one, that makes your heart sink. By analogy to the GP's term "heartsink patient", typically a frequent flyer with a laundry list of complaints.
  • Three-pipe problem: I have no idea what to do about this and will have to think about it, probably at length. From Sherlock Holmes.

There's also the Mark Twain-inspired idea that you should do the thing you least want to do first thing in the morning, after the dubious quote "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.". This has never quite worked for me. (Metaphorically - I've not tried it literally and don't plan to.) I've also heard it as "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning.", but I always think "If it's your job to eat a frog, you need a new job, as your top priority."

Do you lot have any favourite names for types of tasks? Or suggestions for better names for some of these?

This entry crossposted to http://doug.dreamwidth.org/284786.html, where there are comment count unavailable comment(s) not shown here.

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[User Picture]
Date:January 28th, 2015 02:05 pm (UTC)
> Automating it: Making a tool to do a task repeatedly is very satisfying. So satisfying that I often spend more time making such a tool than simply doing the task directly would have taken. (This one could do with a better name.)

That's what I call condiment-passing, after the XKCD comic.
[User Picture]
Date:January 28th, 2015 08:53 pm (UTC)
Nice one. I'd forgotten that:

Other automation-relevant XKCDs:
[User Picture]
Date:January 28th, 2015 02:19 pm (UTC)
The "great benefit for little work" one is called an "easy win" in my office, although I admit it's less picturesque than your animal names :-)
[User Picture]
Date:January 28th, 2015 05:39 pm (UTC)
(here via fanf and j4)
I'd call something an 'easy win' if it was easy from start to finish, sort of thing. In my mind if it's the last tiny step to finish something off, that feels different. Almost as if, because you've already done lots on it, finishing it off is something you almost can't be bothered to do - although you should, because benefit. Mentally you've already closed that task, even though IRL you haven't.

I like this typology and found it good fun. But - do you find it helps you to conceptualise them this way, as well as being more fun than not doing it? I could imagine for instance that realising something is a wasp task could help because then you can think 'well, it is scary, but it's only small and I am being disproportionally scared'. Do the other classifications actually help you fall into heffalump traps (at least sometimes)?
[User Picture]
Date:January 28th, 2015 09:04 pm (UTC)
Yes, an easy and/or quick win for me is something that's not hard at all. You could also call that low-hanging fruit, but I'm not sure I could live with myself if I did that on purpose.

>Mentally you've already closed that task, even though IRL you haven't.

Yes, this is precisely the feeling: the hard bit is done, it's just the final closing off process.

> do you find it helps you

The wasp task concept certainly does. I often find myself thinking "that's not actually very bad, and it's not going to take long to deal with" which helps me to steel myself to swat it and feel a lot happier.

"See this rabbit? See this hat?" is a comforting thought in times of crisis, since it helps reassure me that I have completed similarly implausibly difficult challenges in the past.

Yak shaving feels like it ought to help as a concept but I'm not very got at spotting when I'm doing it.

Gravel vs big rocks is useful when I remember to do a proper plan for the week's activities. Also slightly consoling when I have spent hours just on email - especially when more comes in while I'm still dealing with it - and I can say to myself 'I'm drowning in gravel here'.

Getting other people moving is a big one as well. When I'm going over my task list and prioritising, that's something I usually try to do. It doesn't have a snappy name but it's a key concept for me. Related is the pure project management idea of making sure you're off the critical path for all the things where you don't need to be on it.

Heffalump trap seems related to what I've been calling a shiny task - you get drawn in by your love of honey and then find yourself stuck.
[User Picture]
Date:January 28th, 2015 09:33 pm (UTC)
In academe , the last task you have to call it a Day but is easy to put off is called fixing the footnotes:-)
I found this useful. My book is the elephant- wasp writ large. That was why I had to go to Australia to make it look even vaguely approachable. Big country,little book. Back here I,m scared iti becomes too scary again.

Edited at 2015-01-28 09:34 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2015 02:05 pm (UTC)
Yeah, books and theses can easily be elephant-wasps. In fact I think I may have coined the elephant-wasp idea when I was writing up, partly as a way of avoiding writing up.

'Fixing the footnotes' is called 'doing the bloody references' in my lexicon, but I think it's the same issue. :-) I find this particularly frustrating because I had a system that Just Did It Right 20 years ago (LaTeX/BibTeX) and all of the shiny new reference management systems since then have been less good.

And also, since 1995 we have had the way to do academic references right (URLs linked from the text that refers to it) but no, we still have to do the whole ludicrous song and dance with issue numbers and ISBNs and whether there is a full stop after the year or not. Because academic publishers have a massive interest in not making it as simple as clicking through to see references.

(There's some really cool stuff going on about archiving scholarly web publications (something like 25% of URLs in papers have link-rotted before publication!) that can fix the broken reference problem.)

Sorry, pressed a button there!
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2015 09:31 am (UTC)
I like these!

I think my problem at work is that most of my tasks are Regrowing Elephants - huge, and by the time you've finished one bit, another bit has grown back, so you never actually finish.
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2015 01:57 pm (UTC)
Is a Regrowing Elephant Task like Painting the Forth Rail Bridge (used to be)?

That reminds me of two other key concepts in my task management mental toolbox: Cupboard Doors tasks vs Washing Up tasks.

The Washing Up we have always with us, a bit like your Regrowing Elephant, only smaller scale. You can do the biggest, monster wash up you like ... and there will be more washing up within four waking hours.

Cupboard Doors is the opposite. The concept dates from when I first bought a house, and in the week we had between getting the keys to the new house and having to leave the rented place, I made a built-in cupboard in the niche next to the fireplace. Except I ran out of time before I could put the doors on. Long story short, we lived for ages without the doors, because hanging custom-sized doors is one of those surprisingly-difficult DIY jobs. I was avoiding it because it was tricky, and in fact it turned out to be even trickier than I thought. But once it was done, it was done, and stayed done, and never needed doing again. I fully expect that they are still up, nearly 20 years later.
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2015 08:57 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed these! I have to stop myself from doing shiny tasks in order to get other people moving quite a lot of the time.

Towards the end of today I was actively looking for gravel because I didn't really want to do any actual work!
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