Weekend Upgrade (by R.J. Nestor)

Weekend Upgrade 35: Surface Tension

Published 9 months ago • 6 min read

Happy Friday!

Capture is too easy

In the world of productivity and notetaking, few topics receive more attention than the concept of capture. For the uninitiated, capture is the act of writing down something important: a task, note, idea—any bit of valuable information or imagery.

Capture is an essential component of GTD (Getting Things Done) and BASB (Building a Second Brain), two influential approaches to productivity and notetaking. In fact, one of my friends (and Action-Powered Productivity Pro member!), Felipe Fraga, led the Capture section of the most recent BASB cohort!

When I say Capture is too easy, I don’t mean it isn’t essential. It is! But capture in itself is not the primary problem for most of us. The problem is that we capture too many things, and we don’t have a corresponding way to surface what we’ve captured. We’re like cowboys who never brand our cattle—pretty soon we don’t know which are ours and which aren’t, and all we’ve got to work with is a whole bunch of cows.

Capture hoarders

Let me define that word, surface. In Action-Powered Productivity (APP), surface is a verb, and it means to bring an item to your attention. For example, a scheduled task will surface on the day it needs to be done. A meeting note will surface when you next meet with the client you took the note about. Or, at least, theoretically they will.

That’s the problem: loads of what we capture never surfaces again—or, perhaps worse, surfaces only in the chaos of a million other things surfacing at the same time. When that happens, we never want to look at our task lists again.

Here is the key point: Without a surfacing method, capture is useless. I can capture every task that comes into my mind, but if the only time I see that task again is when I’m blankly staring at my entire task list, it’s never getting done.

If we can’t surface effectively, stuff piles up. We can’t find what we need. We stop trusting our Second Brains. And when we stop trusting, we stop capturing. In short, if you can’t surface what you capture, you’ll stop capturing too.

So, how do you sidestep this capture problem?

💡 Capture tasks with their Surfacing method attached 💡

👆 That’s your weekend upgrade.

Once upon a time, when we only took pen-and-paper notes, it was a lot of extra work (and time) to sort every task onto its correct list. It’s doable—Bullet Journaling, for example, is a pen-and-paper workflow that tackles the capture/surface problem.

But with our digital tools, we can get even more leverage over the process, and that’s what we’ll dive into now!

Surfacing methods

To make the most of our capturing skills, we need to understand the variety of surfacing methods available to us.

1. Scheduling

This is the easiest and most obvious. A task scheduled for June 5 will show up in my Agenda on June 5. Simple, reliable.

Scheduling can be overdone, though. For one, many tasks do not have a particular deadline, and even when they’re scheduled, we know in our heart of hearts they’re not actually due that day, which makes them harder to tackle. For another, if I wind up with 65 tasks scheduled for today, that’s not happening. And I have to take extra time and energy rescheduling some of them.

2. Recurring Tasks

A Recurring Task can serve as “batch-scheduled tasks” and remind us to engage with information in our system.

Say you have a monthly review of your task management system that involves several steps. You have a few options. You could just hope you remember to check it out once a month. You could take each step and schedule them one by one as separate tasks. But the first method is unreliable, and the second can quickly get overwhelming.

What if, instead, you have a procedure for the monthly review, and then use a Recurring Task to surface the whole review? Used this way, a recurring task becomes a pointer—it tells you where to go, which surfaces what you need to see.

3. Dashboards

A well-made dashboard is an implied procedure. If I have a dashboard for, say, helping me keep the tasks in my system organized, the dashboard itself can serve as the surfacing mechanism.

Once a week I review the “Available” tasks (see below) in my system, and I also ensure all my tasks are correctly configured, and review any tasks that I’m stuck on to help get unstuck. All of those are part of a dashboard that shows me the tasks I need to see and work with.

Dashboards work best with Recurring Tasks. I use a Recurring Task to surface a Dashboard, and then within the Dashboard, whatever I need to engage with is surfaced to me.

4. Create a new dimension (e.g., Horizons)

I mentioned “Available” tasks above. It’s one of five Horizons I teach in Action-Powered Productivity (and provide a template for in the upcoming Tana for Tasks 2). If scheduling tasks is a plane with an x and y axis, horizons add a z axis.

By assigning a task a horizon of “This Week,” “Available,” “Prospective,” “Backburner,” or “Abandoned,” I can create a new dimension for surfacing. Queries that draw on those horizons will surface tasks that aren’t scheduled for a specific day.

Of course, this still links to the Recurring Tasks method of surfacing. A Recurring Task points me to the appropriate Horizon query, which then surfaces tasks.

5. Projects, Events, Locations, People

Tasks can surface because they’re tied to a project or event, or to a context like a specific location or person.

It’s easy to conceive of tasks tied to a project, since lots of our tasks live inside projects. To surface tasks from a project, something needs to lead you to the project (perhaps a recurring task or dashboard), and then the tasks are surfaced to you there. And contexts like locations and people are old GTD standbys that many of us will be familiar with.

Surfacing with an event is less obvious. It is a variant of scheduled—rather than the tasks themselves being scheduled, it’s the appointment to which they are tied.

I have a friend in my APP community who set up an Apple Shortcut that scans his calendar for the word Zoom, then creates a set of tasks for Zoom prep in OmniFocus scheduled for 10 minutes before the meeting. That way the tasks don’t show up until they’re needed—which is to say, they surface at the appropriate time.

6. Serendipity

Many of my friends in the Tools for Thought (TfT) space employ randomness to surface different notes for review each day.

This isn’t a bad idea for tasks, either. If you have tasks that are of the “can do anytime” variety—especially if you have quite a few of them—having one or two, at random, added to your Agenda is a useful way to surface tasks that otherwise you’d rarely see.

If you use a tool that includes randomness functions, give serendipity a try!

How can Tana help?

The key to leveraging these different surfacing approaches is setting them up to surface correctly at the moment of capture. Because I use Tana, this works seamlessly for me.

When I create a task, scheduling it is simple. Assigning it to a project takes two seconds. If I connect it to a Horizon, the Dashboards to surface those specific Horizons are already established and tied to Recurring Tasks that point me to review them at appropriate times.

When I create a task, the logistics required to ensure it surfaces correctly take less than five seconds to finish.

Tana for Tasks 2

If you like the sound of that, the system I built for task management in Tana is just about to launch as a template! On Wednesday, May 24, I’m releasing an upgrade to my Tana for Tasks course that includes a ready-made template. All you’ll have to do is paste the template in your own Tana workspace and every feature will be available immediately. The accompanying course will teach you, in a simple and easy-to-understand approach, exactly how to use it.

It’s like having a tasks app inside Tana, except you can update and modify it for yourself! And if you’ve never used Tana, Tana for Tasks 2 comes with a Tana invite and the course is a great way to learn about Tana in general, not just how to manage tasks in it.

Between now and launch, I’m offering Tana for Tasks at a 25% discount ($72.75 instead of $97). Buy it now and you’ll automatically be upgraded on Wednesday!

Here’s a quick video showing some of what’s possible. (Click here if the video doesn't load.)

video preview

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) Audit your task management to see where the breakdowns between capturing and surfacing are.

Then, using the surfacing examples above, look for ways to shore up those gaps!

If this was valuable for you:

Share the newsletter with someone you think would also get value from it!

Until next time, friends:

A task isn’t captured until you know you’ll see it when you need it!


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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