Managing areas of focus with Remember the Milk

Lets kick off with explaining what areas of responsibility are? In the GTD methodology your primary focus is on next actions and projects. These two elements reflect the tactical level of the productivity system i.e. the things you do now or as soon as possible.
A one level above that sits areas of responsibility which define different aspects of life. Rather than show a specific outcome, they point to an ongoing activity or quality that you want to achieve like job responsibilities, family, health, finances etc. Their main purpose is to act a reminders for all the different strands of life that you’re engaged in. Because they rarely reflect finished state they help with spurring ideas about things so each may spur new project or action ideas. Regular review of areas of responsibility can assist in bringing some balance or surface a need to look at an area that was neglected for a while.

Depending on your choice you can either track your areas of focus more intuitively and keep them on a list in your notetaking application or you can embed them right into your system. I happen to go for a mixed solution where I have list of areas of responsibility created in Evernote but I also like keep an eye on where my attention goes and for that purpose I’ve leveraged Remember the Milk. This approach allows me to analyze my tasks and really see what has my attention and where my time goes.

For the tactical element of my task management I rely on tags and smart lists to create context based next action lists as well as keep track of project and waiting fors. For monitoring of the areas of focus I’ve decided to use static lists.

If you haven’t defined your areas of focus now might be a good time.

Simply pick up a pen and piece of paper or open new document in your program of choice and start thinking about different areas of your life. Think in broad and generic terms, what are you responsible, how depends on you etc.

Jot these down and refine further, look for emerging common themes. Most likely you will have between 8-12 items but less is ok too. A higher number might be too big and you may need to refine things further or seriously reassess your commitments and obligations.

Static Lists

Static lists are the foundation of RTM application. They allow for creation of all the different lists that you may need. You can create unlimited number of lists, any task can only belong to a single static list i.e. if you add task to your HOME list than it will not show up in the WORK list.

This is significantly different from smart list which can show you any task that meets the search criteria regardless of the static list it belongs to.

Once task is assigned to a static list it’s in a separate silo which makes it excellent tool for analysis of how many task are created/completed in list. If you name list your lists based on your areas of focus you gain immediate access to understanding what has your attention. Simply the more tasks you have in any given list the more important the area it represents.

Managing static lists happens through the Settings panel and the Lists tab where you can create, archive, merge or delete lists. Because of the additional steps required to manage them they are less likely to be useful at the tactical level where a more rapid list creation occurs. Yet this makes them good tools for managing areas of responsibility as these don’t tend to change very often.

A small note on deleting lists, even if you delete a list your tasks will remain intact and they will simply be added to your default list. This is useful if you are still in the process of redefining your areas of focus and things are yet to settle.

How it works for me

My system relies on three primary static lists of which two reflect the focus of my personal system (Note I have a separate system for work tasks).

INBOX – this is my default list which mean any new task added which is not assigned to a static list will be in my inbox. When I’m in the processing mode each task in this section will be looked at assigned to one my other two lists.

ME – this list reflects all the actions and project related to my personal life and will include pretty much anything that is not related to my BLOG list.

BLOG – this is my third list that I heavily rely on and it reflects all of my endeavours related to this very blog, anything that is related to work that I put here will be assigned to this list.

I always make sure that tasks are processed every couple of days. At that stage I apply relevant tags, due date etc which define which smart list will pick it up. I also assign the static list name to indicate where a given task belong to.

This setup allows my to keep an eye the primary areas of my life. Every time I’m completing a more in-depth review of my stuff I look at the number of tasks and projects completed under each list. Since I use A bit better RTM extension I can see this number right next to the list name.

You may ask, so where are the other areas of focus? As I mentioned a more detailed list is included in Evernote which I review on regular basis. However in my personal experience these two are enough.

You circumstance may be different and you may prefer a bit more granularity. It that’s the case simply set up additional lists which reflect your areas of life in greater detail.

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