How I Use TaskPaper: Objectives, not To-Dos

TaskPaper is a simple and smart note-taking tool made by Jesse Grosjean of Hog Bay Software. I’ve been using it for years (along with TaskMator, its counterpart on iOS), and I haven’t found anything else like it.

It’s been about ten years since I ditched a dedicated to-do app in favour of TaskPaper, and the big reason for the switch: I’ve been writing objectives instead of to-dos, and TaskPaper was great for that.

I Got Picky with my Productivity Tactics

When I got into productivity tricks, the Getting Things Done methodology gave me the boost I needed. Next steps, projects, areas of responsibilities, contexts, those concepts gave me what I needed to get organized.

But I stayed curious.

I learned about the productivity trick to join together the Pareto Principle and Parkinson’s Law (a trick I learned from the 4-hour Work Week book by Tim Ferriss). How I understand it:

Pareto Principle + Parkinson’s Law: find out the smallest thing that’ll give the biggest impact, and give yourself a short deadline to do it (use a “time box”).

Then I was thinking of how to combine two other tricks from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Starting With the End in Mind and doing the First Things First. Here’s an exercise for using these two concepts together:

Starting With the End in Mind + First Things First: Imagine yourself having finished an activity, and you’re celebrating what you accomplished. Imagine which of the accomplishments you’re most proud of celebrating, snap back from the visualization, and then do that thing first.

And there was also the prioritization technique that Dick Bolles detailed in What Color is Your Parachute. A recap:

How to find the priority: Out of all of the elements in a list, if you could pick only one and none of the others, which will it be?

By combining all these ideas, all these go-to questions, two thoughts came up:

  1. I could use these ideas with just a note-taking app that indents and lets me re-order stuff (TaskPaper), and;
  2. What if everything was written as an objective?

Everything as Objectives

What if we were to replace to-dos with objectives?

Instead of writing things to do, could I write things I will have done? (beginning with the end in mind)

A to do list re-written as an objectives list

With this method, could I find the smallest thing that has the biggest impact? Could I determine the real priority?

The objectives list re-ordered by asking the question “What if I accomplished only one thing completely by the end of the day, and only accomplished partially all the others, which one would it be?”

Could it work on short timelines as well as on longer timelines?

Two objectives lists, one with a shorter time frame (the end of the day) and another with a longer time frame (the end of next month)

Pretty quickly, objectives lists were becoming the main way I planned my next steps — and my bigger goals too. And they worked!

The more I used these, some questions started becoming second nature to me:

  • Before 11 am, if I work real hard on the essential stuff that makes the most difference, what will I have achieved?
  • If I could only have nailed one thing before noon, and only have advanced a little on the other ones, which one will I have nailed?
  • By the end of that meeting, what will I be able to say I’ll have obtained? And what about the others? What will they have gotten out of the meeting?
  • What if I were to park this list of objectives, and start again from scratch? What would a second version look like? What do I really want to have done?
  • What if I stepped further out? Let’s say I imagined the end of the week. What will I be celebrating having knocked out of the park?

Objectives lists worked because they tricked me to prioritize, they fed my mind with words describing a future situation I could aim for, and they made it obvious to get stuff done. They converted cliffs into staircases.

TaskPaper Fits Naturally

TaskPaper (and TaskMator on iOS) were a natural fit for writing these objectives lists. That’s because, in TaskPaper:

  • It’s easy to re-order lists
  • It’s a breeze to indent items — no need for bullet points
  • Headings and notes are all you need to add a minimum of structure
  • When making a heading, you can focus on it to just see its sub-items
  • If you want to drill down in more detail on something, make a new file for it
  • Tags are cool too, they give you a quick way to filter all lines matching a tag

So that’s the main thing I use TaskPaper for. Hope this helps.

These objectives lists might come just at the right time if you want to change a situation you’re in. More than to just replace to-dos, this objectives writing approach helps to change your mind, to re-wire the options you perceive. By displacing myself in the future with this technique, and by prioritizing ruthlessly, I’ve sped up some important changes in my life. And now I’m running an online email-based course to help you adopt this thinking system. It’ll be like practicing a new habit, learning a new language, something that’ll last a long while and help you change your situation for the better. Learn more about The Objectives Course here.

To see an objectives list being built, here’s another article on the subject:

And more on why I think that it’s not everything that matters that fits as a to-do:

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