One of the things I've worked on in tidying up my lists is keeping the integrity of due dates. I discovered that I was looking at 8-10 tasks that were "due" every day, and mentally sorting through which ones were actually due, which ones were just things I'd wanted to be reminded of, and which ones were things I just wanted to get done today. I also found myself looking at tasks that were due in the future, but which, for whatever reason, I couldn't do anything about today.
So now, every time I create a task with a due date, I give it one of three tags: "expiration," "reminder," or "due."
"Expiration" is a date after which the task will no longer be relevant. Generally, this translates to a hard deadline - do it by this date, or it's gonna hurt. Sometimes this is clear-cut - a proposal deadline, for instance. Sometimes it's less so - what is the last possible day I can book a hotel for my trip to Cleveland? For the sake of integrity, I try to keep this realistic. I *could* book a hotel the day that I arrive in Cleveland - so I set the due date as the day I arrive. Now, I'd rather book it before then, and because of the way my working to-do lists are set up, which I'll get to in a second, I'll have ample opportunity to do that.
"Reminder" is just that - a piece of information I want to send to my future self. These usually have broader time frames - "Look into summer weekend trips" or "Send follow-up about fall application."
"Due" is a pretty narrow category - tasks that can only be completed on a particular date, not before and not after. "Pack for Cleveland trip" - I'm only going to do that the day before I leave. I also occasionally include things that, yes, I could do on a different day, but know for certain I'm going to do on a particular day. Today, for instance, is Valentine's Day. I've been planning on buying wine and presents this afternoon for a week. So while I could have done that any time before today ("expiration"), I mark it as "due", because I only want it to show up on today's list. (Is making plans for Valentine's Day on RTM sexy? I'm not sure. But do you know what is even less sexy than planning Valentine's Day on RTM? Failing to make plans for Valentine's Day.)
Which brings us to the point of all this - when and how I want to see these different categories on my list. Since my life will get significantly worse if an "expiration" task flies by without my noticing, I want to see those well in advance. "Reminder" and "Due" tasks, on the other hand, I don't want to see before the date that I've marked. So, among many other parameters (because I'm a closeted RTM nerd), my working list includes a search for, "(tag:expiration and dueWithin:'1 week of today' not tag:reminder not tag:due) OR dueBefore:tomorrow. " Together, these criteria mean that "expiration" tasks appear on my list the week before they're due, and "reminder" and "due" appear on the date they're due.
When a "due" task appears, I obviously need to complete the task. The "reminder" category is the one that requires some decision-making. If the task now has some kind of a hard deadline associated with it, I'll revise the due date and tag appropriately. More often than not, though, I remove the due date and add it to my general, un-dated list of things to do - because a very important factor in this plan was eliminating the "wishful thinking" due date. If it doesn't fall into one of these three categories - expiration, reminder, or due - I don't assign a due date, no matter how much my deadline-happy self might want to.
But - I've been using this system for a few months, and now that I'm in the swing of it, it rarely fails, and my deadline-happy self is even happier knowing that all of its deadlines are to be trusted.
Posted at 3:20pm on February 14, 2013