Weekend Upgrade 21: Task Horizons

published11 months ago
6 min read

Happy Friday!

Mind like “who knows what”

In Getting Things Done, David Allen uses the Zen phrase “Mind like water” to describe his comfort using Next Actions in his system. For each of his projects, he defines a Next Action. Then he combines those Next Actions with a context—where he is, who he’s with, etc. From there, he can confidently choose what to work on, straight from his Next Actions lists.

The problem is, for people other than David Allen, Next Actions more often lead to “Mind like molasses.”

Maintaining a Next Action in every project—while good in theory—generally causes our systems to gum up. Part of that is lack of trust. We’re never sure if we have all the Next Actions correctly defined. But it’s mostly a mechanical issue: It’s inefficient to keep Next Actions accurate and in sync, so we let it slip.

Scheduled chaos

If we take away Next Actions, though, what are we left with? Obviously we can’t work from a pile of unstructured tasks. Nor do we want to sift through every project every day.

Perhaps we could schedule tasks? Do this today, do this tomorrow, do this on the 9th, and so forth.

Some tasks should be scheduled, of course. If something needs to be done on a given day, schedule it for that day. But if we use scheduled tasks as our only mechanism for bringing work to our attention, that’s a recipe for disaster. “Today” becomes meaningless if nothing really has to be done today. And if we postpone that “Today” work (and we will), junk piles up.

Which raises the question: If Next Actions are inefficient, but scheduling everything is chaos, what’s the alternative?

💡 Put your tasks on the Horizon 💡

👆 That’s your weekend upgrade.

Let’s stop to define a term: Surfacing. Surfacing is when your system brings a task (or idea, project, procedure, etc.) to your attention. Ideally we want our tasks to surface at the appropriate time. A task system where nothing can surface will accomplish nothing—and a task system where everything surfaces at the same time will also accomplish nothing.

Our goal is to reliably surface appropriate tasks. The solution that complements scheduled tasks—and replaces Next Actions—is Horizons.

Horizons: Tasks coming into view

As the image above suggests, Horizons are a “z-axis” for tasks. As a task becomes more immediate—i.e., it approaches you—you track it with different labels.

Here are the labels I use for tasks as they approach me, starting with the nearest and working toward the distant horizon.

Scheduled Tasks

Tasks that are scheduled will surface on the day they’re scheduled for, and I include them in that day’s Agenda so I can complete them. I might postpone them if necessary, or even “demote” them to a different Horizon, but they come to my attention on the scheduled date so I can make that choice.

This Week Tasks

Tasks labeled This Week will surface as options every day. I may schedule them for completion by including them in an Agenda, or I may leave them alone and see them again the following day. The capacity for This Week has to be kept very low. I don’t want to be inundated daily with options for today’s Agenda. If a task stays on This Week for too long, I shift it to Needs Review—there’s a reason I’m not doing it, and I need to figure that out.

Available Tasks

My tasks are labeled Available by default (though I can change them when I create them, of course). I review Available tasks every week and choose what, if anything, to promote to This Week. I also review Available tasks as needed. This is the closest analogy to Next Actions in my system: if I finish planned work and need something else to do, I can use Available tasks plus my current context to complete an additional task or two.

Deferred Tasks

Like Scheduled Tasks, tasks labeled Deferred also require a date. They’re scheduled in a sense, but the date indicates when I want them to surface for further consideration. This is useful for the first task in a new project that doesn’t start right away. I don’t want to see that task, or any of the others in that project, until the actual start date of the project.

Delayed Tasks

Tasks labeled Delayed are on the backburner. I review them periodically, once every month or two. When they surface to my attention, I can promote them to Available (or another Horizon), leave them as Delayed, or cast them off entirely into Abandoned.

Archived, Abandoned, and Needs Review

Archived Tasks are completed and will never surface unless I intentionally review my archives. Abandoned Tasks are—you guessed it—abandoned. I won’t review them unless on some whim I look at my task graveyard. I look at my tasks labeled Needs Review once a week and work through what’s holding me up on them, then reassign them as needed.

How are Horizons better than Next Actions?

“Tell me, R.J., how are these eight designations better than the one designation ‘next’? Aren’t Horizons more complicated?”

Horizons are simpler, for two reasons.

First, Horizons operate at the task level, while Next Actions operate at the project level. When I define a task, I can set the Horizon (or stick with my Available default). That task retains that designation until it comes up for me to review. Next Actions require constant updating, because it defines what is next relative to the project. That changes every time you complete the “next” task. (Granted, of course, that some task apps manage this for you. Many task apps don’t, and no Tools for Thought do!)

Second, Horizons don’t operate alone. Indeed, by themselves, they’re useless. But when you have Recurring Tasks that prompt you to review the Horizons, you have a powerful system.

Rather than one all-encompassing “GTD-style weekly review” where you slog through every project to maintain all those Next Actions (because you undoubtedly let some slip during the week), you have daily reviews of “This Week,” weekly check-ins with “Available” and “Needs Review,” monthly or bi-monthly examinations of “Delayed,” and so forth.

Spreading out these reviews makes the Horizons far less daunting, and much easier to keep up with.

How can Tools for Thought help?

If you’re new to the Weekend Upgrade newsletter, I explore how processes can be created in Tools for Thought (TfTs). TfTs are apps optimized for linking your ideas, thoughts, notes, etc.—apps like Tana, Amplenote, Roam Research, Logseq, and Obsidian.

In Roam Research, Logseq, or Obsidian, you could set up tag for each Horizon. Then, when a recurring task prompts you, you can have a query ready to perform your review and update tags as needed.

In Amplenote, you could use [[page references]] for [[This Week]], [[Available]], etc., but you could also build out a similar system by hiding tasks to “delay” them, using priority settings to approximate Available or This Week, and then relying on Amplenote’s built in Task Score feature to assist in surfacing.

My favorite implementation is in Tana—in fact, I’m about to release a course about task management in Tana (see the P.S. below for details). Within my #todo supertag, I have a field called “Horizons” with Scheduled, This Week, and so forth, as the options. Then it’s simple to set up a query dashboard to work through the various required reviews when your recurring tasks tell you to. With this approach, Horizons are straightforward and not in the least overwhelming.

What do I do next?

(1) Take 2 minutes and answer this question: What’s one thing I learned in this newsletter that I can put into practice right away?

By committing to a specific action, you make it much more likely you’ll do it.

(2) Implement Task Horizons in your system, as a field (Tana), tag (Roam, Logseq, Obsidian), or by adapting something similar in Amplenote.

Be sure to schedule regular reviews for your This Week, Available, Delayed, and Needs Review tasks!

If this was valuable for you:

Share the newsletter with someone you think would also get value from it! https://rjn.st/weekend-upgrade-newsletters.

Until next time, friends:

Ditch Next Actions and hop onto Horizons!


P.S. My new course, Tana for Tasks, launched in early access today! It’s a simple, easy-to-understand course that helps you set up robust task management in Tana. The price is $97 for a limited time. If you already have access to Tana, buy it today! If you’re waiting for a Tana invite, Tana for Tasks COMES WITH AN INVITE! But, I won’t have them until (likely) Monday. The early access price will extend well beyond Monday, so it’s safe to wait until I have invites if you want.

Weekend Upgrade (by R.J. Nestor)

Weekend Upgrade provides tools to improve your productivity and communication, especially if you use Tools for Thought like Roam Research, Amplenote, Logseq, or Obsidian.

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