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> Monthly Tasks

Monthly Tasks

I don't remember exactly how it happened, but a year or two ago I accidentally found an excellent solution to an organizational problem, and the more I've used it, the more I've come to appreciate how excellent it is. So, let me tell you about it, and maybe you'll like it too.

First I should explain the problem. There are some tasks that prompt you to do them. If you're hungry, you should eat, and if the trash is overflowing, you should take it out. There are other tasks that you remember to do because they're routine. If it's a weekday, you should go to work, and if it's bedtime, you should brush your teeth. There are some tasks, though, that don't fall into either of those categories. You don't remember to do them, and they don't prompt you to do them, and as a result it can easily happen that you actually don't do them, even though at some level you want to. For example, it's easy to forget to pay the rent.

So what's the solution? I have a metal index card box, and some tabbed dividers labeled with the names of the months (JAN–DEC), and whenever I think of a task that needs to be done at some longer interval, I take an index card, write the task across the top and the interval in months in the upper right, and file it away. Then, at the start of each month, I take out the tasks for that month and do them over the next few days. As I finish each one, I file it away again under the month it should next occur in, which is the current month plus the interval.

That doesn't completely solve the problem, because I still have to remember to take out the tasks at the start of each month. Having one thing to do every month is a huge improvement over having many things to do at many different intervals, but I still can't make a routine of it. A month is just too long and too abstract. So, instead, I rely on association: I keep the box by my calendar, and when I turn the page, I also take out the tasks.

That's the idea, the rest is just details.

It's possible the original inspiration came from the new appliances I got after the fire. I'd never bought appliances before, so just to be thorough I read all the manuals, and I discovered that there were some maintenance tasks I hadn't known about that were supposed to be performed every few months. You know, changing the furnace air filter, running the washer cleaning cycle, scrubbing the dryer lint screen, exciting things like that. I figure most people probably don't do those things as often as they should, but as long as I've got the organization and the energy, why not? (Although, I do wonder if the recommendations take into account the fact that people aren't going to do things as often as recommended.)

Another good maintenance example is changing the oil in a car every three months or however many miles. I haven't made a card for that yet, but maybe some day I will.

Roughly a quarter of my index cards are for maintenance tasks. Another quarter are for cleaning tasks. That may seem strange, since cleaning tasks are usually tasks that prompt you to do them, but in some cases it's better if you clean more frequently. Cleaning the shower is the prime example—if you wait until the gunk is noticeable, it can be hard to remove. Also, you might not have time to clean right away, and then you'd have to look at the gunk for a few days.

Also, a cleaning task can't prompt you unless the thing to be cleaned is something you see fairly often. That's a disadvantage of the principle Out of Sight, Out of Mind! As an example, my apartment has a small balcony, but until recently I didn't like to go out on it because it was always covered with dust and pollen. Now that I've added a card for sweeping it, though, it's fine.

Another quarter of my cards are for inspection tasks, things like testing the smoke detectors and checking the thermostat battery. There are also inspection tasks for financial infrastructure, things like checking the current rates on adjustable CDs.

There aren't sharp boundaries between cleaning, inspecting, and maintaining. If you're inspecting something, you might find that you need to do some work on it, and if you're maintaining a piece of equipment, usually that's just a fancy way of saying that you're keeping it clean and maybe oiled. “Maintaining” is a good general word, but it's usually too general—for example, it would sound weird to talk about maintaining the shower. “Changing” in the sense of “replacing” is another good specific word.

The other quarter of my cards don't fit into any nice categories, but we'll run into a few of them below.

Next I'd like to point out some of the features that make the index card system excellent.

  • If you feel a task is coming up too often, or not often enough, it's easy to pencil in a different interval, and then over time you can home in on the right value. If there's an official interval, as with the appliances, it's nice to write that down in pen for reference.
  • You can write notes on the rest of the card. That can be helpful since the tasks are by definition ones you don't perform very often.
  • Since the cards are physical objects, you can sort them and group them and put them in different places as reminders. In that way they're better than any computerized calendar or schedule.
  • Having the interval right there provides motivation and reduces procrastination. I often look at a card and think “wow, has it really been that long since I did that?”.
  • In spite of that, I do still procrastinate, even sometimes for most or all of a month. The card system can handle that too, though! When I do eventually finish the task and put the card away, I just file it under whichever month I feel is appropriate, usually the current month plus the interval so that the schedule slips permanently by a month. A computerized system could have the same feature, but it's the sort of thing that could easily get forgotten in a first version, be hard to find in the UI, or be slow and inconvenient to use.
  • Another case that's easy to handle in the card system but that could be problematic in a computerized system is tasks that occur on a schedule rather than at fixed intervals. The only example I have so far is that I have to pay estimated taxes in January, April, June, and September.

There's one more thing that's excellent about the index card system, but it's not so much a feature as an unexpected way it can be used. Basically, any time you want to remember to check on something that's slow, you can make a card to remind yourself. The thing could be a one-time event, like a book coming out in paperback or a movie coming out on DVD, or it could be a continuous process that just happens to be really slow, like new material arriving at the used book store or new batches of essays being released here (as discussed in New Content). The system can even be used for pure reminders. Any time you think “this is great, I should do this more often”, you can make a card to remind yourself.

Speaking of checking on things, let me point you to the essay Routine. The description of my routine is way out of date, but the problem of checking is still very real. Fortunately I think it's safe to say that checking something once a month is not compulsive. (Or at least it's compulsive in a different way.)

Finally, I'd like to share some thoughts about the different time scales at which tasks occur.

  • Once per day, or on a schedule of times within a day. Daily tasks like brushing teeth and feeding pets are easily handled by routine.
  • Once per week, or on a schedule of days and times within a week. Weekly tasks like attending meetings and going to classes are also handled by routine. It's amazing, if you think about it—people can keep track of which day of the week it is and remember to do different tasks on different days. What a great invention the week is!

    Note that just because it's possible to do things once per day and once per week doesn't mean it's possible to do things at any interval in between. It would be hard to do something once every five days by routine.

  • Once every two or three weeks. Tasks of this sort are not handled by any system we've discussed, but it's mostly academic since the only examples I can think of are accounting tasks like payroll and billing. If we wanted to, we could extend the card system to handle semimonthly tasks by adding more tabbed dividers, but that approach wouldn't work for true biweekly tasks.
  • Once every N months, or on a schedule of months within a year. Monthly tasks are handled by the index card system.
  • Exactly once per year. Yearly “tasks” like holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries are handled by the calendar, another great invention.
  • Less than once per year. Tasks of this sort are also not handled by any system we've discussed. I think they're rare, but I wonder if maybe we make them rare because we don't have any way to handle them.


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@ January (2013)