3 minute read

While sharing some advice with a friend, the concept of capacity for work to come up. I wanted to preserve these thoughts and share them with you.

When we do our own task management and, critically, self-evaluate our productivity we tend to overestimate what we should have gotten done. We might count the completed tick boxes in our to-do list and be angry that we got 15 done yesterday but only 5 done today.

This is wrong. First, we are making the mistake of assuming all tasks are equal. While some systems, such as Kanban, can advocate that all tasks should be the same size, reality isn’t built that way. “Empty the Dishwasher” and “Paint the bedroom” are both legitimate tasks. One will take a lot longer. Sometimes it comes down to happenstance as well. One week my task might be “send the emails about the new initiative” and another it might be two tasks, “send an email to my team about the new initiative” and “send an email to finance about the new initiative.” There will always be two emails written from two different perspectives about the new initiative, however one is a single tick box and the other is two.

Second, the world is what is happening to you while you’re trying to get your work done. Some days I have 6 hours of meetings and some days I have none1. Some weeks have holidays, some don’t. Some months include vacations or children getting sick, some don’t. Your availability to do work is not uniform.

Third, you wake up in a particular state of health every day. Some days you’re doing great and ready to do. Other days you wake up in severe back pain or with a low-grade “ick”2 and unable to focus or do as much.

When you put all of these together you are approaching your capacity for work. This is what will really let you know what you can do on any given day. To manage this, I use a slightly modified form of the Time Sector System that Carl Pullein created for task management. (I have not taken his course and currently do not intend to. I have gleaned this from his YouTube videos.). I bring it up because it has a novel, to me at least, daily planning component.

Every day you have to categorize tasks into one of 4 buckets:

  • Important and must get done
  • to be done in the morning
  • to be done in the afternoon/evening
  • to be done if there is time

Doing this, both in advance and during any daily planning I do, in conjunction with my calendar and my assessment of my mood and fitness has been great. It makes it easy to defer without guilt and to understand when I am overcommitting myself. It also requires some real honesty about how long something is going to take. For me, this works better than other ideas like, schedule everything on your calendar.

This has a secondary benefit of highlighting tasks I keep deferring. I can really revisit if I am ever going to do them or not. As an example, it made it clear to me that I was NEVER going to get a meditation habit because I kept deferring meditation because I didn’t want to do it. Meditation isn’t bad, it just isn’t my jam.

I strongly encourage you to go simplify your task management and highlight just those things you will commit to doing today. Carl’s system is great, but use what you want. The point is to hold yourself accountable for realistic and achievable efforts.

  1. No, I will not tell you when I have a meeting free day. You won’t be able to resist scheduling a meeting on it. 

  2. Low-grade ick: (noun) the gift your kid brings you home from school.