Stop thinking about your work in terms of tasks

I recently came across a work of art in my home that really helps visualize one of the risks that are run by breaking work down into discrete tasks:

Emergen-C, Abandoned

We’re always liable to be interrupted during the completion of tasks. Despite the noble work task management does to limit this liability, the risk of interruption never quite goes away.

The Task Model

The task model for conceiving of and discussing work makes a good deal of sense–it’s rooted in our most common vocabulary for discussing the past and our role in it. This may sound reductive, demeaning, unpalatable or even rude, but isn’t life little more than the sum of the tasks you complete?

Break down a week, day, or hour, and the only way you can really talk about it is in terms of what happens and what you achieved. You, the world you experience, and the stuff you want to do and get done for the portion of your life that you’re conscious. The template is basically “I want this to happen by that time and here’s my plan.” True for big plans and small plans alike.

Tasks are pragmatic because they can be completed. And people clearly derive satisfaction from completion. But tasks are oppressive because they can sometimes persist in theoretically begun or partially completed states. Is there any more irritating experience than passing by your kitchen sink and discovering a pathetic pile of powder at the bottom of a glass?

The paradox of finding work more manageable when it’s not atomized

What alternative is there to conceiving of work in terms of tasks? Try to train yourself to think of work as a non-partitive experience of your priorities. In other words, conceive of work as a flow, like electricity or water, and not as units or modules in sequence.

After spending your entire life building lists and prioritizing items on it, a day of non-partitioned work may be liberating. Despite what you’ve been trained, it may be the tasks and not the work that’s overwhelming.

I think there are at least three elegant corollaries here:

Less compulsion. Tasks, like reducing your inbox, create the conditions of possibility for compulsive behavior. Tasks share attributes with one another and thus their successive completion forms a habit.*

No task abandonment. This can’t exactly happen if you have a fundamentally non-task based conception of work. The glass containing Emergen-c power is always about to find the spout.

The death of multi-tasking. What is multi-tasking anyhow? Aren’t we always doing this? ie, Are we ever doing just one thing? Or aren’t we never doing this? ie, Is it really ever possible to do more than one thing at once? Why do people like this concept?

Tasks feel oppressive because they are endless and they create the illusion that mastery is unattainable. The list, not the labor, is your enemy.

*Something similar is going on with today’s highly viral list-making online content producers. Their titles alone inspire clicks because, shit, there’s a list waiting for me and I can handle a list of ‘27 things people wish they told themselves / their parents / cats / twentysomethings.’


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