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The problem I have with all current to-do list and task management systems is that what I construe as being ‘tasks’ doesn’t seem to be compatible with what the software makers do.

In my definition of tasks – which perhaps is a bit closer to ‘stuff I need to tend to today,’ some can be completed, others serve mostly as reminders of current projects or even desired trends.

For instance, today there are a few things that I will have completed – read pp. x-y of z book, send this or that email, etc.

But there are also others that won’t be completed today – or perhaps ever. Moreover, they cannot be broken down into completeable tasks.

For example – work on ‘x’ song, edit ‘y’ video, etc. These are tasks that cannot be broken down into subtasks that you can schedule or complete. You can’t decide that once, for instance, you’ve worked on line 33–37 of a song, your work for today is complete. Nor can you assume that this is a task that at some point will get finished. Some creative works never do.

Or there may be, for instance, something you want to remind yourself that is neither an action nor a project: ‘Don’t suck so hard,’ for instance. Neither this nor the prior example is anything you can mark as done.

Shouldn’t there be a way to have these presented, almost as reminders, alongside ‘completable’ tasks?

So far I’ve been maintaining a list of notes in SimpleNote that start with xToday, then the date, then five tasks that I want to either complete or work on or otherwise direct my attention to on this given day.

It works but it’s not perfect.

Does anybody know of a software solution (preferably Mac/iOS with sync) that would address these concerns? If not, what are possible approaches to take?

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I don't understand the issue. The task systems I use (although lately it's just Google Tasks) don't require scheduling, and are simply shown as tasks. – Dave Newton Apr 21 '13 at 19:33
It's not about scheduling, it's about being able to display things that can't be 'completed,' (in a very crude sense: can't have the 'done' box ticked) alongside things that can. I suppose one can just leave them undone and get on with it, but leaving tasks in a to-do manager that can never be finished would be conceptually dissonant and psychologically wearisome. I suppose this is less of a practical question and more a conceptual one. – kamera Apr 21 '13 at 20:31
Again, I don't understand what the issue is--which task manager are you using that won't display un-scheduled tasks? Who cares if there's a checkbox or not? Nothing forces you to click it. – Dave Newton Apr 21 '13 at 20:32
they are not "tasks".. may be label them as "dreams" (jokin) ;) – Shaima Apr 22 '13 at 8:54

As Dave said, most organisers will let you list unscheduled tasks so that shouldn't be an issue.

The best solution for you though is to learn how to create the required subtasks in each task you have listed as uncompletable. For example, you state that breaking down "work on x song" is not possible. Don't treat it as needing to write one verse, but instead have a recurring subtask of "spend an hour on the words of x song" daily. Once the song is complete you can remove that subtask from your calendar.

"Don't suck so hard" is not a useful task is not measurable, has no definable goals and is very negatively worded. Try instead to identify actual things you suck at and fix those. For example, if you aren't a good public speaker, you could have a set of tasks on practicing, speaking to an audience, watching video of your presentation etc.

Simply put, you can identify measurable tasks and goals and use them, and even the act of identifying them can help you structure your thinking better.

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I often have tasks that can't simply be "completed" as well, for example "Learn this software framework" or "Make archery a hobby". In my view, these are really projects, and not tasks. So, while you can complete a project, you can't just "do the project". You have to break it down into elements which you can do. I have a few suggestions to use to help make these projects actionable:

  • You can make a task to spend an amount of time per day/week/whatever working on the project.
  • Keep a list of things that need to be done for that project, even if they aren't concrete, completeable tasks, for example, come up with lyrics to song X.
  • Work on whatever task seems to be the most important as you spend the time you set up with your task
  • Have a solid vision in mind of when you're finished with your project. Even if you have something that 'could' go on forever, you have to call it at a certain point, because you simply do not have forever to work on it. If you don't decide what it means to be 'done', then you'll just accumulate projects upon projects, never feel any satisfaction for finishing anything, and will wind up mired in endless tasks you can never finish.

I find that projects I have break down into two types. First, there are projects that are well understood and defined, and are easy to break up and 'taskify'. Second, there are less well defined projects, which don't have well defined end states and the path to getting there isn't clear. I struggle a lot with these, but determining a vision of the end and keeping a 'next action' type list like I mentioned above at least helps me to keep moving forward to figure out what I can do to get closer to the end. It sounds like you might be in the same boat as me.

Finally, avoidance goals ('Don't suck so bad') are harder to manage than approach goals ('Do this to be better'), basically because you can't check off not doing something, you can really only check off when you violate the prohibition. In those cases, I would try to reframe your intent in a positive, actionable way, if you can. For example, you might figure out practices, habits, or tasks that you can do, which by achieving them, naturally leads you away from the thing you're trying to avoid. I know I'm being vague here, but without a specific example and your specific life context, it's hard to be more solid that that.

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Unfortunately, most task programs require tasks that meet the SMART criteria. But to be really useful, they should accept non-SMART goals that let you enter something non-binary (such as "pretty much of task completed") which could be color coded for extra clarity. What you need to do is to reformulate your tasks (which probably means splitting them into several well-defined subtasks) so that they meet the SMART criteria.

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