Saturday, October 17, 2009

Getting Things Done: Active and Passive tasks

Life offers far too many tasks to conceivably accomplish everything you want to in a day. And the one resource you can never replenish is "time". Yet too many people use these phrases as reasons/excuses to why they can't do something. In the end, the excuse "I just don't have time" is far easier to say (and guilt free) than to actually plan a way to do it. The phrase is even more dangerous because it convinces the person that they are being productive because they have no time left to use. After all, if there is a limited amount of time in a day and someone does not have enough time to accomplish a task then they must be spending their limited time on something important (and maybe they are). In my experience, the many people who say they don't have time for something are indeed busy but still have plenty of opportunities to accomplish what they are quickly dismissing as impossible. The easiest way make the most of the (limited) time one may have is by mixing Passive and Active tasks.

For this post, an Active task is defined as a task that requires your cognitive concentration and/or memory retention. Most forms of entertainment and creativity fall into this category (if we didn't concentrate on the activity it wouldn't be very entertaining would it?). Examples include reading a book, watching an important show on TV, practicing an instrument, vigorous exercise, intense cooking, talking to friends/family, etc. In many cases, tasks which require physical activity are not active tasks.

Alternatively, a Passive task is a task which does not require one's full attention, has frequent breaks, does not require new memory creation, or is an active task whose priority has temporarily shifted. Examples include most simple chores (laundry, dishes, cleaning, lawn work, simple cooking), light driving, traveling, light exercise (walking, jogging, sit ups, etc), or watching non-valued TV (commercials, background noise channels, etc).

The secret to productivity is to simultaneously complete Active and Passive tasks whenever possible.

Write down all the tasks you do (including your entertainment and wish list items) and categorize them into Passive and Active. One person's Active task may be another's Passive task depending on the complexity of the action (when I cook it doesn't take much thought/action [Passive], but someone else may need to cook 5 dishes at once which need their undivided attention [Active]).

Here is a partial example for me (you should be more specific than this, use your To Do List):

Read books
Practice Guitar
Call Family/Friends
Write blog post
Watch classic movies on my "must see" list

Exercise (jog, lift weights, etc)
Run errands around town (grocery store, post office, etc)
Chores (laundry, clean room, etc)

  • While doing chores (folding laundry, picking up rooom, washing dishes, etc) I can listen to an audio book, or if there is a lot of waiting during the chore I can read the book. If I am waiting for a pot to boil or the grill to heat up I can pick up a book and read.
  • While driving for my errands I can call my family or friends I haven't talked to in a while
  • During my animation, working out, or writing my blog I can listen to a new album a few times (I'm listening to the Dexter score while writing this)
  • While watching movies at home I can do sit-ups, push ups, simple cardio routines, or practice the guitar (quickly switching my active and passive tasks depending on which needs my attention at that moment)
Here are a few more ideas I have used in the past:
  • Buy a simple treadmill or exercise bike on Craigslist and do a slow, easy pace while watching your favorite shows or playing a game (I lost 30 lbs in 5 months doing this)
  • If you have no exercise equipment, try doing sit-ups, a set of push-ups, or jumping jacks during commercials or game loading screens. Doing 4-5 two minute exercises an hour really add up over the week and beat sitting on the couch.
  • Practice guitar while watching a sports game or TV show that doesn't need your full attention (the news, game show, etc). It may not be perfect practice but it is better than nothing. Try adding your own soundtrack to the show.
  • During your morning commute listen to a book, a new album, or call a friend (hands-free set of course). Designate a day in the week to call a different friend/family member!
Just make sure you really define if a task is Active or Passive before trying this, otherwise you may find yourself doing two constantly active tasks at once and not doing them well (ie listening to a book while animating, talking on the phone while writing a blog post, etc). Also, you may have an Active task which can be passive at different times (commercials, microwave cooking, waiting for washing machine to fill up, etc), use these breaks to try a short task. 2 minutes may not seem like a long time but every little bit helps. You would be surprised at how many books can be read or calories burned during a few two minute breaks over a week.

Finally, when writing your tasks down ask yourself if there is an alternative way to do the task. Most people have a reading list a mile long but can't "find the time" to sit and read, but many forget how easy it is to listen to the same books while doing their other tasks.

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