Tagging your daily todos: When MoSCoW is not enough

Sébastien Dubois / August 27, 2019

5 min read

Picture courtesy of @kellysikkema

For the last 10–12 years, I’ve been applying the Getting Things Done (GTD) “techniques” such as Inbox Zero, the 2-minute rule, etc.

I’ve collected and organized my todo items (both personal and professional) in never-ending prioritized lists.

These techniques have helped me keep a great level of control over everything that crosses my radar and that I need/want to take care of.

Here’s what I do!

Evolution

Thanks to GTD techniques and motivation, I’ve been able to be very productive most of the time, which has helped me make great progress in my career as a software engineer and as a manager, as well as in my personal projects (e.g., starting my own company, writing a book about the TypeScript programming language, etc.)

But in recent years I’ve kept feeling more and more overwhelmed by the amount of things to do, which recently motivated me to take a good hard look at how I organize my days and to try and find ways to feel less overwhelmed and more in control of my time.

Make time

To reach that goal, I’ve read quite a few interesting books, but the one that struck me the most was “Make Time” by Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky (https://maketime.blog/), which I definitely recommend.

I could definitely recognize myself in many of the stories in that book.

Since I read it, I’ve started to experiment and I now define my highlight (most important task) each day, whether it is something for work, leisure, a boring chore or anything else. All that matters is that there’s just one major thing that I want to try my best at and dedicate my energy to achieve / make progress on.

The approach, techniques and tricks proposed by Jake & John are quite simple and intuitive, but they are really effective and act like a nice toolbox to hack our way around the busyness of modern life (which Jake and John refer to as the busy bandwagon) and the constant and infinite distractions around us (Facebook, mailbox, Netflix and the like: https://maketime.blog/article/distractions-are-a-nuisance-but-infinity-pools-are-the-real-problem/).

MoSCoW method revisited

Unfortunately, I (like most of us) can almost never limit myself to a single task each day. My highlight is my center of attention, but quite a few additional tasks make it to my todo list each day, whether I need to make a call, make an appointment, go to the groceries store, etc.

Since I have a rather bad short term memory, I like to think on paper and write down my todo list the day before.

What I like to do is clearly organize my daily todo list. The first item is of course my highlight. Then, I list the remaining items by decreasing order of priority, using a variant of the well known MoSCoW method.

With MoSCoW, all elements are tagged with Must, Should, Could or Won’t, which is a great way to distinguish the priority of the different groups.

Here’s the variant that I use to tag my todo list items:

  • H: Highlight (Hours)
  • M: Must (Minutes)
  • S: Should (Seconds)
  • C: Could (Milliseconds)
  • D: Delegate

My highlight is the only thing that I really can/want to dedicate hours to.

Next to that, I might have to spend (quite a few) minutes doing other things, and I know that I’ll have to take care of those.

If there are “Should” items on my list, then I’ll try to take care of those if I manage to free up some time/energy, but I won’t go the extra mile to complete them all. I’ll rather push back (procrastinate even!).

The “could” items are ideas more than anything else. Sometimes I’ll pick one of those to change my mind a bit, but they certainly don’t deserve much of my attention.

I usually prefix each task with the tag and don’t add any numbers; the importance is determined by the order of my list items.

For example, my list for today looks something like this:

  • H: TS Book, review chapter 6 comments
  • M: Prepare upcoming team meeting
  • M: Walk the dog
  • M: Make an appointment with…
  • S: Order on Philibert (I love board games… ^^)
  • C: Watch the new Star Wars

My daily list serves as my guide throughout the day. I actually go a bit further and usually try to estimate how long I’ll spend on each task and imagine my day’s agenda, as proposed in Make Time.

Note that the initial list is just a route plan, I usually course-correct as the day goes by and review in the evening to identify what went wrong, whether I felt productive, had enough energy throughout the day, etc

Finally, since you don’t know what you don’t measure, I also keep track of how I actually spend my time. I’ll post another day to explain the approach that I’ve taken to re-imagine how I spend my time, made up “ideal days” and defined a time/attention “budget” for everything in my life ;-)

That’s it for today ^^.

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