One of the more common questions I get about productivity tools is how to add more sub-levels (sub-projects and sub-tasks) or how to sync calendars with tasks.
Now I’ve been practicing productivity and time management for a very long time. I’ve been through the ‘add more’ phase (many times) and the stripped down minimalistic phase (as well as various levels in-between) and I can assure you that adding more hierarchical levels or tools does not improve your productivity. It destroys it.
Let’s step back a bit here. What is productivity all about? It’s to create more output with less input. Simply put, it’s to get more work done with less effort. Adding more steps to your productivity system adds more inputs, not less. It creates more work for you without helping you become more productive.
The more time you spend inside your productivity system the less time you spend doing work that matters.
In the pre-digital age, when we used paper-based planners such as the Franklin Planner, there was no such thing as sub-tasks. We did not need them. All we had was a list of tasks that required doing today. If you were a Franklin Planner user and followed the system, you would have an A1 task “planning and solitude” at the top of your task list where you gave yourself ten to fifteen minutes at the start of the day to review your tasks and projects, prioritise your tasks for the day and then began the day. It was simple, it worked, and we never craved the ability to create sub-projects and sub-tasks.
Digital tools offer immense advantages over paper-based systems. For one, we no longer need to carry round a heavy A5 binder or scramble to find our calendar or task list when on a call but digital tools have increased the level of complexity. In the competitive world of productivity tools app developers are trying to beat the competition by adding more and more features and that means there are more and more things for us to play around with and correspondingly more things to go wrong.
When Apple launched the iPhone back in 2007, the humble Notes app had no folder structure, all it had was a list of all your notes in one place organised by the date you created them. You could not search notes or arrange them in folders. It was simple and it worked. It worked because we didn’t know any other way of organising our notes.
Then came the App Store and developers needed to differentiate themselves from Apple Notes. So, we got folders, then tags, then the ability to create sub-folders and sub-tags and then checklists, and all sorts of ways to change the formatting, colours, pages and on it went.
Unfortunately, rather than support us in our endeavour to become more productive (less input for more output) we ended up with the opposite — more input and less output. We had to decide where a note went, what colour to make the text. Whether to use a traditional bullet point or a dash and how to tag it.
With all these options we had to use our precious decision-making powers (which diminish as the day goes) instead of preserving our decision-making powers for more important things.
So if you want to build a productivity system that supports you in getting your important work done and freeing up time to spend it on things you want to spend it on, you need to look at your system and reduce not add.
As I look back over my more complex projects and review how they were completed, I see that for the most part, projects tend to complete themselves. There is a task that begins a project and as you do that task you quickly know what needs to happen next.
In the past, when I spent a lot of time planning out a project with all the tasks I think will need to happen, more than 50% of those tasks turn out to be not needed and a lot added as I was working on the project. This is why these days I do not waste precious time thinking too much about the tasks. All I focus on is the outcome I want to get the project completed and ultimately that’s all that matters.
When we spend time organising, structuring and seeking apps to manage our projects and stuff all we are doing is practicing a covert form of procrastination. We are lulled into a sense we are doing something important when in fact you are doing nothing to move a project forward.
All a beautifully structured project hierarchy with elaborate sub-projects and sub-tasks does is show you what hasn’t been done. Rather than trying to keep that list looking beautiful you would get a lot more done, and faster, if you focused only on what to do right now. When you finish that, do what needs to happen next and so on until the project is complete.
If you really want to be more productive, focus less on structuring your list of tasks and more on doing the tasks. It will save you a lot of time and make collecting and processing the inputs a lot easier and less likely you will miss something important.
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