A pile of papers to read on the side. A stack of notes for several unrelated projects. Assignments to prepare. Questions to answer by email. Inbox full of unclassified mails. Lectures to prepare. Cluttered office desktop. Cluttered computer desktop.
A few weeks ago, Friday, this was what I saw when I looked at my office desktop. And I decided it was too much to bear and filed my first Task Bankruptcy.
What is Task Bankruptcy? Task bankruptcy is a way to start over again, with a clean slate as your to do list and your old projects under control. It feels like a breath of fresh air when you see so much in your pending piles that you want to scream.
An example of task bankruptcy
That Friday, my pile of research papers to read (because they were interesting, related to my field or needed some results as references and I had to check them) was of roughly 18 items, ranging from 10 pages to 60 pages (with a probable mean of 30 pages). And I was just in the middle of preparing a new paper, thus needing to read something around 5-10 new references, to see if someone else had done something similar, of I could improve my result by some tool I didn't know at the time. Too much. I filed for research paper reading bankruptcy.
What did I do? I picked a folder, put all old research papers there and marked it with Pending to read. Now I could concentrate on the new references. I printed one of them, the intention was to read it during the weekend. I also picked one of the Pending to read folder. This would also be read during the weekend (more on how I have been dealing with them quickly to appear soon).
This is the simple way to proceed after a task bankruptcy. You remove all pending tasks and start processing new task in such a way that they don't overwhelm you. In my case, whenever I have a new reference I have to read, I print it out and add it to tomorrow's to-do list. This avoids the will read one day syndrome, moving some day to just plain tomorrow.
Can be applied to all types of tasks that tend to pile up
This procedure can be applied to all tasks that get piled up. Like icons in your Desktop folder, mails in your inbox or files in your downloads folder. Just create a new folder marked as Pending and make a dent on it daily, until it is solved.
Of course, for this to work you have to keep on processing new stuff in such a way that the pile does not grow again. Removing or filing your downloaded files, removing unused icons from your desktop or archiving or removing emails as you read them or act on them.
Prepare a plan to deal with individual items
After you have prepared your old stuff folder, you need a plan to deal with new, incoming tasks. And you need to stick to it. Assume there is a penalty for declaring bankruptcy twice in the same month!
There are several tactics you can follow to deal with stuff that tends to pile up.
Weekly clean up: This works best with small number of items. Filing bills and credit/debit card receipts, check your accounts or whatever does not have more than 10-15 items on it.
Leave it for tomorrow: This works best with items that may take more than 15 minutes to process individually. For example, reading (or even skimming) research papers, long newspaper articles or answering to long, non-urgent emails. Works better for stuff that may or may not happen daily but will take a while to work out.
Do it as you go/Batch all in a day: This works for daily chores. Like reading your email or downloading files. Every time you download a file and install/read it, classify (or trash) it. Or as you read an email/answer an email, archive or trash it as you go. This works best for daily stuff that can easily run out of control. Keep in mind that if you are receiving 15 mails a day (I do, and I am not a heavy email user), this adds up to 105 mails a week. Hard to cope, fail two weeks and you are already overwhelmed. You can also batch all mails to be archived at the end of the day, to keep with the workflow without stopping to think where it fits during your day.
Remove all your piles and start over again by declaring task bankruptcy now!
Postscript: @nochiel asked for a higher resolution image of my office. Here you are (click to enlarge)
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Book Review: The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield (highly recommended book)