Most Tasks Do Not have Deadlines: Excerpt from New Third Edition of Outlook Book

May 23, 2011

One thing GTD (David Allen) and I agree on is that nearly all tasks you put on your task list should be Next Actions. Using next action tasks leads to this fact: most next action tasks on your list do not have firm deadlines—they are intermediate steps to larger outcomes and it’s the larger outcomes that have the true deadlines.

Here is an excerpt from my new Third Edition of Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook about this topic (page 75):

Somewhere during the history of task management training, someone created a rule that says, “If you do not assign a due date to a task it won’t get done.” That rule sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds so proactive. That is why nearly all automated task systems include a due date field. But as I mentioned in the Introduction, this is not a good rule. Why? Because the way the rule is usually used, which is to set artificial due dates on most tasks, it is an attempt to trick yourself, and you are not so easily tricked. It reminds me of the people I once knew who set their wristwatch ahead ten minutes thinking it would help them be on time to meetings. In reality, it only worked for a couple days and then the person just mentally adjusted and started being late to meetings again. You do the same with artificial due dates; you just start to ignore them.

Also mentioned in the Introduction is that artificial due dates can actually lead to more missed deadlines, because as you start to skip deadlines that you know are false, you suffer from the “cry wolf” phenomenon. Since most of your tasks have fake due dates you get used to skipping them, and then you may not recognize a true due date when you see it, and you may skip it. Like Little Red Riding Hood, you get eaten alive, but in this case by missed deadlines.

That does not mean you should not apply a true deadline to those tasks that really have them, particularly those imposed from the outside (from your client or boss for example); there are appropriate times to set true deadlines. But you will not be using the Outlook Due Date field to do so; you will use other approaches. I will show you how to do that just ahead. For now, note that the kinds of tasks you should put on your Now Tasks list are small, next-step or next-action tasks. These are small actions toward larger goals, and these kinds of intermediate-step tasks usually do not have hard deadlines; so please don’t set them artificially. Instead, use the next technique: set a start date.

So putting a due date on all or most tasks is just not a realistic strategy. I go on to emphasize in the next pages of the book why the start date is a powerful (and realistic) way to manage tasks, and why all tasks should have a start date assigned. And then show other ways to set deadlines.


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