Task BATL: The Balance-first, Approachable To-Do List
Wednesday December 4, 2019
Illustration by Marc Carson.
In 2019 I started work on a new productivity method: Task BATL. (BATL stands for “Balance-first, Approachable To-do List”.)
The goal of Task BATL is to maximize the effect of smart, balanced productivity while preventing productivity exhaustion.
In Task BATL we intentionally combine traditionally productivity-opposite aspects like personal values, enjoyment, relaxation, energy levels, and overall clarity, all within the to-do list itself.
Task BATL is also modular: You can pick and choose from various add-on modules to make the system more fun and effective.
While using Task BATL…
- Your to-do list should feel more attractive or interesting to you
- Your to-do list should be more approachable, especially while “procrastinating”
- Your to-do list should be way more fun to work on
The energy or motivation you feel at the end of the day should also be more fulfilling, since you made progress, kept yourself comfortable, and pushed forward in living a life which is calibrated to your values.
A New Style of Notation
The Task BATL To-do list is composed of three different types of to-do list items. Each type of item is an important part of achieving a balanced and fulfilling life.
The Three Types of To-Do List Items
- SQUARE Items: Daily productivity, errands, and “meh” or “groan” items. Examples: Pay water bill; reply to so-and-so’s email about work meeting.
- DIAMOND Items: Values-driven items—related to personal goals, personal development, and the development of personal interests over time. Usually results are satisfying in the mid- to long-term. In the short term, organized or planned conscious effort may be needed. Examples: Purchase tickets and watch a new film by a favorite director; Finish first aid certification process; Schedule campground for this weekend; Practice the piano.
- CIRCLE Items: Immediate play, interest, relaxation, comfort, or enjoyment items. Examples: Watch new James Bond movie trailer; Play a round of computer golf; Change into pajamas; Use the restroom; Get something to drink; Surf the app store and try out a new app.
Since there are three item types, I call this the Task BATL Trigram.
Graphical Symbols (for use when writing by hand)
These are the graphical trigram symbols. The digital / typing symbol equivalents are also given below.
- □ Hollow rectangle / square
- ◇ Hollow diamond (this is drawn as a rotated square or rectangle)
- ○ Hollow circle
These are then shaded or filled up, bottom to top, as you make progress.
Example 1: As you complete the sign-up for an online course you’ve been wanting to complete, perhaps you fill in your hollow diamond by about 10%.
Example 2: In reviewing your list, you realize that by changing out of your running clothes and into something more comfortable, you already completed about half of your “Get comfortable” circle—an item that felt really good when you wrote it down. You fill in the circle halfway and add a note next to it: “Turn on the fan and play some music,” clarifying the final steps.
Non-graphical Symbols (for use when typing)
When typing, you can use the following symbols:
- Rectangle is expressed as T (from “To-Do”)
- Diamond is expressed as V (from “Values”)
- Circle is expressed as F (from “Fun”)
Since these letters cannot be made hollow and filled in as we go, we add a dash and then a number indicating how much progress we’ve made, from 0-9 and including X, with X meaning “task complete.” Additionally, brackets are used to set these items apart in your text editor or writing software.
Example 1: [T-5] Activate new debit card. With card in hand, call (800) 555-1212. (The number 5 indicates that the first 50% of the task was completed when the debit card was brought from the kitchen counter to the desk workspace; now only a phone call remains).
Example 2: [F-X] Turn on a favorite TV show to watch in the background. (The show is now on, and this task has been marked complete with an “X”)
Bad Example: [V-2] Complete University Course on Calculus. (This task is lacking clarity. The verb “complete” does not illustrate any next steps, and is more like a goal, rather than a task tied to a goal or value.)
Beginner Tips for Best Balance
- A beginner’s list should have more circles (F) and diamonds (V), than rectangles (T).
- A beginner’s list should have more circles (F) than diamonds (V), especially if they have experienced productivity exhaustion.
- A list should be rewritten and reorganized whenever a new day has come or when the list is over 50% complete, whichever seems appropriate. If typing, you may wish to start putting completed items in a separate area of your file.
- If a list does not immediately seem to offer you positive energy, look at adding more circle (F) and diamond (V) items first.
- Another helpful exercise is to re-rank items either most-interesting-first, or easiest-first.
- If it doesn’t make sense to keep track of an item’s status (for example, a short-term item), use a / slash instead of a number. For example: [F-/] Go to the bathroom
I also like to use a little “i” to indicate that I have in-depth time and task clarity on an item: I know how long the item will take to do, and I have guesstimated the time it will take to perform the sub-tasks, which are listed as sub-items. For example:
- [T-8i] Install the new messaging software (5m)
- DONE Decide which messaging software to use; Telegram, Wire, or Signal (Research each one, 5-10m)
- Look up Ubuntu repository for Telegram (2m)
- Decide if the respository is sketchy at all (1m)
- Either install from repo or from basic download (2m)
What to Expect as a Beginner
Remember that your energy and perceptions may jump to, or swing quickly between, positive / negative as you evaluate or study this from a beginner’s point of view. Not only is this a new type of list notation, but it’s also a new and more inclusive way of looking at productivity for many.
Pay attention to initial, inner criticisms like, “it looks complex.” Ask yourself: Have you tried it yet? For how long? How does it work for you in practice? What do you like / dislike? A good beginner’s goal for any new undertaking should involve developing a nuanced, multi-dimensional point of view.
This is new information, and to your introverted side, new information is sometimes easily interpreted as an enemy. But please give it a try. I’d love to hear your feedback.
Other Important Principles
Task BATL is Modular
You can add “modules” to be used with Task BATL. I have listed several modules below, under the “Task BATL Module Catalog” heading.
Task BATL is Flexible
There are no set rules in Task BATL (believe me, I’ve broken each and every item or guideline that may seem like a rule here, in the name of learning), and its modular approach makes things more flexible.
Always start with the item that seems most attractive right now, regardless of the type of item. Even if you feel some guilt, it’s usually wisest to go where your energy leads first.
Use the energy from that activity to lead yourself into the question: Where am I with these other things?
Hard tasks require lots of energy. They also tend to include emotional barriers. To break through a hard item, it usually needs to be clarified. Also, some point of emotional release must be reached before we can find ourselves moving forward. Solutions to these issues are given in more depth below.
Do not rank or prioritize tasks, unless:
- The task is immediately urgent within the next hour or so, and you feel you currently have energy to accomplish it.
- One of the modules below uses a form of prioritization.
If you’re just getting ideas down quickly, feel free to list them without using any of the Task BATL symbols. Don’t feel pressured to apply these special terms or symbols until you have the items listed.
This is a first step in Clarity—allowing the raw information to flow whenever it needs to flow.
Rebase Your List Whenever You Like
“Rebasing” means starting a new list from scratch. This can be really helpful if your main list is getting long. Once you’ve started on your new list, I encourage you to:
- Integrate the new list with the main one
- Reorganize things so that the main list is shorter or clearer. For example, if you had three tasks for the same person on the list, you could make them into one main list item for that person, and then list out the details in a separate file or indented list. You may also wish to integrate a calendaring component, noting a day in the future on which you’ll attack a given section of the list. You can move that mini-list in your calendar, or mark those items with a W (waiting) on your main list.
If you’re not doing Diamond / V items, they typically need Clarity or more specific values-enjoyment work
Diamond / V items can be very tricky. They can be focused on the future to the degree that it’s easy to skip them…every day. Some solutions:
- Find a way to integrate Fun. For example, try a new project management software package to help you manage the project. Or a new text editor. Or a new spreadsheet you designed from scratch.
- Get clarity as soon as possible. Lay out the first 5-10 steps so you know exactly what is needed next. Don’t let your memory prevent you from moving ahead, when things get too vague and fuzzy.
- Re-sync with your intuition. Is this still a valued item? Why? What would make it more interesting to work on? Sometimes you may need to ask other people who have done it—“was it worth it, and why?” That can rekindle the excitement.
Task BATL is Linked to the Three Points / Three-C Model
The concepts here will help you link your To-Do list with the Three Points of the Productivity Triangle, also known as the Three-C Model. They do this by establishing Clarity and helping you find Comfort. Further concerns about Courage should then be easier to address, as needed.
Task BATL Module Catalog
Since Task BATL is modular, you can attach and use these modules whenever you’d like, if they seem helpful.
Module 1. Anarchy Module
Productivity has a strong emotional component which is usually ignored in other productivity methods and books. Task BATL addresses this directly, and the Anarchy Module is a great example. This module can be useful if you ever feel like…
- I hate my work
- I hate this project
- I’m so sick of procrastinating
- I’ll never finish this stuff
- I hate myself for not being more productive
- People probably hate me for being a procrastinator
With the Anarchy Module, the steps are as follows:
- Put FU next to every task item, or Put FUUUUU next to the most annoying items on your list.
- Immediately Rebase (see “Rebasing,” above). Go to some other paper or digital file or notebook.
- This module introduces BLEB items: Bitching and Lamenting on our Emotional Burdens.
- Add Doodles, random phrases, or swear words to your list. This should aid in emotional release.
- STOP working on any T / Sqaure or V / Diamond items. Focus on BLEB or F / Circle items ONLY.
- F / Circle items should feel attractive and interesting—otherwise feel free to ignore.
- More on BLEB:
- BLEB is an art.
- BLEB is expressive. Scribbles, art, writing, getting up and punching & kicking at the air, randomly dancing…it’s all OK.
- BLEB is what YOU want and shuts others out to some degree. That’s OK.
- BLEB may look crazy to people who don’t understand what you’re doing.
- DON’T DO IT AROUND OTHERS—KEEP IT PRIVATE unless you are experienced. Public displays of BLEB can disrupt the reward system.
- BLEB should feel good at a fundamental level (not necessarily to beginners)
- Give the Howl at the Moon Hack a try.
- When you reach a point where you’ve had enough Anarchy, review your main list for any to-do list items that need more Clarity. See if the anarchy has helped you identify an on-ramp back to traditional productivity.
Anarchy is an extreme. The point of the Anarchy Module, in contrast, is to use extreme thought to balance out the opposite extreme of productivity-overkill. It should lead you to a more balanced mode of thought in which you are more resilient and effective.
Please don’t mistake this module with a philosophy or “way of being.” Treat it like an optional activity, a brief trip to the dark side in order to capture more of the positive energy life has to offer.
Note: If you are experiencing these types of feelings naturally, on a regular basis, you may be very close to productivity exhaustion. Please set firmer boundaries with people, and work with more attention to the quality of your personal experience. Ask yourself to whom or what you are giving so much of your power and energy. Make more time to enjoy life and seek out the big-picture view.
For more on that, see the Debriefing Module.
Module 2. Debriefing Module
Do you feel:
- Lost in the details of your day?
- “dry,” detached, emotionally unavailable?
You might have overworked yourself. It’s easy to do.
- Immediately rest. Find a comfortable place to sit down or lay down, if you haven’t done so for a few hours.
- Switch to the big-picture view.
- Debrief yourself by talking out loud or writing as you think.
- How are you feeling?
- What is still ahead? (If you need to sit up at this point and look at your list, that’s OK of course)
- What have you just done, and what did you learn from it?
- Is there anything you can re-use for next time you need to do this kind of work? Code, organization of information, tips on how to do things, etc.?
- Gradually bring your focus back to your list.
- Update any modified list items.
- Re-order the list if it seems appropriate.
The result of this effort should be a clear, updated view of what’s ahead. And hopefully some of it should be fun, interesting, or even energizing.
Here are some advanced options for debriefing:
- Try a meditation or self-hypnosis activity. You may also wish to give Frontdooring a try.
- Use a concept map to sort out the various ideas in your head.
- Ask yourself how much energy you really have left for the day.
- What can you do about it? Is it appropriate to plan on a nap, or a reschedule of certain items?
- Make sure you are attending to F / Circle items.
- Do things feel enjoyable at all? If not, you may be spending too much time on T / Square items.
Debriefing can feel like an interruption. However, building fluency in switching between high- and low-level productivity is a key goal of a good productivity system. Debriefing can help you become a more resilient problem-solver, who neither gets sucked too deeply into their work, nor floats along with their head in the clouds for too long.
If I have a lot to do, I aim for a simple debriefing about once every hour. If I have to do more than 5-6 debriefings in a given day, this is typically a sign that I’m overworking myself no matter how many debriefings I do. It’s a good idea to decide how you’ll slow down, reward yourself tomorrow with a day off, etc.
Module 3. See the World Module
The See the World Module is meant to provide positive energy from the outside world, and build fluency with work-area sensitivities. If you have to have things “just right” in order to get work done, the See the World Module can help you build more flexible boundaries.
See the World is meant to be a very flexible module—make it what you need it to be, but keep an open mind. Here are some of the various possibilities:
- Hijack some of your list entries to include a change in location.
- For example, “I can do this one from bed in the morning, or “I’ll do this task at the public library,” or “I’ll try doing this one from a bench in the city park.”
- If possible, choose an appropriate time and weather condition, if needed. This can make a big difference.
- Go to that place at the appropriate time.
- Dedicate some portion of the time to F enjoyment activities. Maybe take your shoes off and feel the grass on your bare feet. Or eat your favorite homemade sandwich.
- Keep notes on how it goes. Does anything frustrate you? Too windy? Fingers too cold? Tell yourself what you could do differently next time.
- Gradually build up a system of fluency with regard to working from different locations. This makes you a more versatile problem-solver.
Module 4. FiTe Timer
(Pronounced: Fight Timer)
This module involves using a timer to ease back into a productive mindset, while also forcing in some balance, rest, and big-picture thinking. Specific timers are set for F / CIRCLE (or V/ DIAMOND) activities, for planning, and for T / SQUARE items. If you use Linux you can use my talking timer script for this (Beta).
Here’s how it works:
- Decide if you are really heavily T / SQUARE item-biased in your list, and likely to flirt with burnout.
- If so, use the timer with extra length on Circle items to help you force in some Circle items. This could include a nap, meditation, using the restroom, watching a favorite Youtube channel, playing a video game, etc. Sometimes 45-10-15 works best: 45 minutes of Circle items, even slacking off, then 10 minutes of planning / debriefing, and then 15 minutes of work, repeated.
- Otherwise, use a normal-length timer such as 15-5-25 to ease into your productivity. That’s 15 minutes of goofing off, 5 minutes of planning / debriefing, and 25 minutes of work, repeated.
- Use the planning time to try the Debriefing Module, above.
- If the timer length needs to be adjusted, do it! Don’t try to force yourself to stick to a timer length that’s not working.
- Use the timer over again if you are experiencing productivity exhaustion symptoms. It is time to force in Circle items.
- Otherwise, if the timer is getting in the way, feel free to turn it off for now.
Module 5. Task Infiltration Medium Exploitation System
TIMES, the Task Infiltration / Medium Exploitation System, is a system designed to get you into a task and working on it as quickly and efficiently as possible. TIMES accomplishes this by opening your mind to the variety of ways in which you can get started.
First, identify a task.
Next, shuffle or review the media below. (A medium in this context is “a way of getting involved in a task”) Pick your top 3 or 4 media.
Starting with the medium that seems most appealing, try it out and see if it gets you working fast. If it doesn’t work within a given time period (say, 5-10 minutes, usually less than an hour), move to the next medium.
List: Media for TIMES Module
- Reviewing past emails or communications about the task or project
- Creating software, shortcuts, or tools to help with it
- Looking at examples of others’ work that is similar
- Acquiring supplies needed to do the work comfortably
- Visualizing or designing the conceptual outcome or final look
- Organizing your workspace to prepare for this work
- Scheduling an upcoming milestone so you can stay on track
- Contacting someone involved to check in and share where you’re at
- Organizing files and folders
- Organizing information in a document or spreadsheet that helps you know where things are at
- Contacting someone about the task or project, even just to prod yourself to dive in and commit
- Picking and testing the technology to use
- Creating an overview process: Zooming out and describing or charting the project or task, showing where you are at
- Naming outcomes you want to avoid, and how you’ll avoid them
- Starting to work on the very easiest step on your list
- Identifying the minimum amount of time needed to do only what is absolutely required
- Identifying the minimum score, grade, or reaction needed regarding this work
- Venting about the people involved who are annoying or challenging to work with
- Venting about the project itself, its condition, or the environment in which it is needed
Please note that venting is very important to the core productivity theory within Task BATL. Expressing emotion, annoyance, or frustration can surface important roadblocks, or just help clear the decks so that more logical, task-focused energy can take over. This is based on Jungian theories of human psychology.
Module 6: Rangefinder Module
(Also known as the Executive Distance Module or XD Module)
The Rangefinder Module is deployed to increase leverage by measuring how long it’s been since any executive work (i.e. doing stuff) or communicative work (i.e. talking about stuff) has been done on a task or project.
Knowing this distance can help you understand:
- Maybe there’s a task or project that needs my attention now, or before any other.
- Am I over-committing to one project and neglecting another?
- Am I paying any attention to my values or comfort (if Circle or Diamond items have a longer distance)? Perhaps these are weak points.
- Do I need to design a better way to stay in touch, or review project milestones?
- XD: Executive Distance
- CD: Communicative Distance
- AD: All Distances (Combines XD and CD, if desired, for quicker note-taking, especially if the distance numbers are the same
Place the term, plus distance estimation, on the same line as any task item.
- XD1h+ = It’s been over 1 hour since anything was done on this task (time increments of less than a day are usually reserved for times when there’s a very important project deadline or emergency)
- AD2w+ = Both distances: Over 2 weeks since anything. This is crying for attention! Get some clarity and see if there’s an informational block. Or do some venting, and see if there’s an emotional block.
- If the numbers differ, generally list whichever one is furthest out, first.
- Example: CD1d, XD20m (Communicated one day ago; acted on the task 20 minutes ago)
Please keep in mind that the goal is not to clutter your list. The goal is to use this module as a tool when it seems relevant or interesting for the tasks you are working on.
If you use Task BATL, I’d love to hear how it goes! My email is in the sidebar.
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