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Overcoming Overload?

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Posted by Chris Murtland
Mar 12, 2015 at 04:05 AM


I read something about military pilots experiencing “task saturation” in the cockpit - too many things competing for their attention at once. They overcome this by following checklists.

Of course, designing the right checklists (and how often to go through them) to get you past the overload is perhaps not as obvious with knowledge work as it is flying a plane.

Another tip, which I got from J. D. Meier’s “Getting Results the Agile Way,” but which I’ve also seen elsewhere, is to pick out the top three outcomes for each day and each week and to focus on these outcomes first rather than tasks. I also like his idea of “flowing value” rather than “burning backlog,” which means you focus on providing the most value to your stakeholders rather than just checking off as many tasks as possible.

Also, it may be unpopular, but I’ve found that if I get super overloaded, I simply ignore a lot of things (and especially the overhead of “processing” all the things put onto my plate by others), and the truly important and urgent will keep coming back to me.

Finally, I think the real productivity killer with overload is the increased decision-making overhead. You start to get the deer in the headlights syndrome where you can’t do much at all because you’re so worried about choosing the wrong tasks at the wrong times. There is something to be said for sometimes just cranking through as many tasks as possible in any random order (or any order that seems good in the moment) rather than spending any time deciding.

Theory is always easier said than done, however. I would agree that the tools used can also introduce time overhead and friction. You don’t want to have to spend a lot of time entering in a bunch of field values for each task. Actual paper or Workflowy would probably be best for reducing data entry overhead. In Workflowy, you could take notes in outline form in a meeting and simply tag the action items at the same time - all as fast as you can type.


Posted by MadaboutDana
Mar 12, 2015 at 10:40 AM


I sympathise, I must say. As the director of an SMB who’s also heavily involved in day-to-day production, I have a ridiculously full task list. And yes, I do find it helpful to run stuff in parallel. I have a main task list I keep for putting things down in a reasonably structured way, then I have a ‘daily’ list that is really more akin to detailed notes.

The apps aren’t really the point here, it’s the approach. My ‘formal’ task list has everything in it, more or less organised by priority, sometimes by due date. But I try and avoid putting huge amounts of detail in there – it’s a tracking system rather than a full-on management system.

Once I prioritise the tasks I’m going to do today, I jot them down in a separate note-taker (currently my favourite is Mindscope, but I regularly experiment with others - as you know!). This is where I keep details notes on what I’m doing during the day. But it’s also where I jot down fast-moving stuff that comes in during the day, so I can transfer it to my ‘formal’ list once I’ve reached a break in the flow.

It may sound a bit clunky, but being able to focus on a short list of tasks (not more than today + tomorrow) while you’re actually working is a lot easier than being overwhelmed by a vast list of every task under the sun - keep them apart, I say! I’ve found this approach makes a huge difference to my sanity and organisation.

Apps I’ve used/continue to use for the main list: 2do, OmniFocus, The Hit List, Things, Wunderlist et al. Apps I’ve used for keeping close notes: Workflowy, Quiver, Outlinely, OutlineEdit, Mindscope et al.


Posted by Dr Andus
Mar 12, 2015 at 01:00 PM


MadaboutDana wrote:
>It may sound a bit clunky, but being able to focus on a short list of
>tasks (not more than today + tomorrow) while you’re actually working is
>a lot easier than being overwhelmed by a vast list of every task under
>the sun - keep them apart, I say!

Your post reminded me of these two Gingko blog posts by Adriano Ferrari, which are well worth reading in the context of this thread:

“Two (silly) Techniques for Lasting Change”


“Decluttering your Extended Mind”



Posted by Marbux
Mar 12, 2015 at 01:21 PM


Some questions that might affect the recommendation:

1. Is this a temporary problem or is it expected to continue, even get worse?

2. Is there a budget for solving the problem?

3. Is assigning an assistant (human) feasible?

4. What operating system(s) are you using?

If it is expected to be a long-term problem, then redesigning office workflow is probably the optimal solution, which may call for company system-wide redesign and new role-based project management software that can automatically convert incoming emails to tasks.  I.e., you may be doing what has become the work of two staffers and your role could be split in two.  On the other hand, if the problem is expected to be temporary, then temporary assistance and delegation of tasks might be in order. Simply having someone to answer the telephone and to filter and convert emails into tasks by project can work wonders in freeing up time with further personal productivity obtained as the assistant gains experience with your work and can assist on specific tasks.

>> Work is not going to let me install any software on my machine, so I would need a web-based or portable, no-install app.  Ideally, this program would have folders, tags, and automatically place a date and time to any note.

If you are using Windows, you might take a look at NoteCase Pro. The Win32 version can be installed portably (and has more features than the Win64 version because some libraries have not yet been ported to Win64). It is also multi-platform, with builds available for Windows, OS X, Linux/Unix, and several mobile devices. Nodes are automatically date/time stamped for creation date and last modification date. It’s an outliner and features node tagging. The feature that most distinguishes Notecase Pro from other outliners is that it features an in-memory flat List View of nodes, a non-persistent sortable flat list view of any arbitrary group of nodes. List view can be filled using Search, double-clicking on a tag, several other user actions, or scripts. Once in List View, the arbitrary group of nodes can be sorted by columns, including the date/time stamp columns, task properties (e.g., due dates, expiry date, status, priority), tags, custom node properties, etc.

All of those properties can be searched using the NoteCase Pro Find dialog, which enables highly granular searches with text, regular expression, and boolean queries and a wide variety of search limiters (e.g., full document, branch, children, descendants, listed nodes, marked nodes tasks, node clones, titles and content, tags, titles only, content only, custom property/value, “Done” nodes, nodes with attachments, and date ranges, such as precise date, before, after, for date created, date modified, date task started, date task due, date task expiry, and date task completed. 

NoteCase Pro is highly extensible with Lua v. 5.3. I’ve written about 80 List and NoteGroup scripts, with about 40 scripts each classified as Choose NodeGroup to List and Process Listed Nodes, all in a hierarchical menu structure (along with about 120 other scripts). Those discussed are in my Cornucopia Scripts collection, all embedded in a single NoteCase Pro document. I put all of my scripts in the public domain and I’m happy to share.

There is a free plugin available that implements a complete Getting Things Done system (other free plugins too).

Changing a node to a task is as simple as double-clicking on a node title and hitting the Task button.  To convert back to a normal node, hit the Delete button on the Task Properties Dialog.

There may be other apps that are better for your problem. But this is the program I know backward and forward that appears to meet at least most of your criteria. http://notecasepro.com/


Posted by MadaboutDana
Mar 12, 2015 at 02:26 PM


Very sensible thoughts. Of course Notecase (being Java-based) is also available for Mac…


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