You cannot carry more than one bucket at a time

Here’s a pattern I’ve seen different people using, and I’ve used it myself: establishing multiple buckets for each of one’s areas of responsibility and prioritising tasks within each of these buckets.

At the face of it, it does make sense: we have responsibilities at home, at work, towards ourselves, our health for example … lots of things to do across our many areas of responsibility. Establishing buckets, or backlogs as I call them, for each of these areas makes intuitive sense. But what is happening is that by putting tasks in these different buckets, you avoid making choices. You avoid prioritising if you approach your life as the management of a set of buckets. Let’s explore this further.

You are one person and you have the capacity to handle one responsibility, one task at a time. Studies have shown that multitasking for a person does not work. Worse, the idea of multitasking, which is in reality high frequency task switching even reduces effectiveness. The COVID pandemic has made the point about the multiple buckets clear: under lockdown, work and private life started to mingle and interact even more than they did before, and what used to be tasks in separate buckets became one intermingled web of stuff to do, with little guidance on what to do first. You, like everyone else, are one person with one linear timeline … and the way you fill that timeline, the order in which you execute what you want and need to do comes down to the choices you make, or the choices that are imposed on you.

Someone I know was working for a director with little regard for the personal life of his collaborators. This person was asked by his wife to care for their newborn after having spent the previous 10 hours working, but was asked by his boss to participate in an urgent video call. His wife, exasperated, put the newborn on his lap and left. Three conflicts right there: relationship, child and work. Three buckets. No clear priority.

If you want to be effective at what you do and efficient in doing it, you will need to commit 100% to what you are doing now. If you have not established your priorities across your buckets, if you have multiple buckets, it will take you additional time and energy make the right, the most appropriate choice at that moment. And you cannot, in any absolute manner, establish priorities between buckets. That makes little sense because prioritisation between buckets means that you will decide that work will always be more important than your relationship … which makes no sense. It makes more sense to decide that after 10 hours of straight work you will spend time interacting with your spouse … or at least, that would be my clear choice. See, one bucket.

Another example: Today, when I am writing this, I am on holiday, but I know there is an urgent work related question I need to ask of an external provider. If I had multiple buckets, I’d ignore that urgent business related item because I’m not opening my work bucket today. We all know that that is not how things work. The email will go out today, because it is a time critical item … again one bucket works best. But, I will have no issue whatsoever to prioritise an urgent and important personal item during a working day, in case that personal item warrants it.

It may interest you to know that in the past, priority did not have a plural. Consider any emergency: what are you going to do if you are confronted with an emergency? As a person, you have now, and now allows you to deal with tasks in a serial manner, and you need to make your choice about what you are going to do now.

The question then becomes on what basis you should make your priority decisions. Due dates of specific tasks are a factor to be considered in that decision, as in my business email example above, but you may want to use your values as an important set of guiding principles. I’ll get back to that in a later blog post when we talk about yearly themes and theme based prioritisation. I want to point interested readers to the work by Mike Hurley and CGP Grey in this area, because it is their work that influenced my thinking.

It is important to realise that any choice you haven’t made beforehand will drain your limited decision resources … and the less you drain these, the more energy you will have to manage the myriad of other choices coming your way during a typical day. Barack Obama, for example, was strict in the application of the principle to avoid making unnecessary choices. More on that in this Fast Company article.

Now, how do I personally do this? I have two buckets in my to do system which I currently manage in Roam. I have an inbox, where all tasks I capture but have not yet decided on what to do with land, and I have my backlog, which is my bucket of tasks I have committed to doing.

I prioritise the bucket, both on due date and on my values and yearly theme. Again, more on that later, I’ll include a link here once I’ve written that article.

At any given time, I know what is on my plate today across all my areas of responsibility because there is only one bucket. Yes, there are tags for work, for health, for relationship I can filter on, but the bucket, the backlog, is one large list. Filtering on today, I’ve filtered out everything I should not be looking at, and everything that needs to be done today is available to me. During the day I work through my list and I execute following the order, which is indicative of the priority. It is not that I am not thinking … but I am not thinking about task prioritisation unless I absolutely have to, because that work is already done. On a working day the tasks will mainly relate to my work, but I will foresee time to connect with the people I love or to do the tasks that I need to be doing for home. During the weekends, the tasks will mainly focus on home-related work, but I will likely do work related thinking during a weekend.

As to due dates, I do pay attention that the due dates are real due dates, not just a date I impose on myself but then let slide because the due date was not really the date it was due at all, but something I imposed on myself. If you start doing that, you are gaming the system and your trust in it will diminish quickly.

Where does this leave us? Rather than circumventing prioritising across all your tasks by using separate buckets, realise that there is one you, who is both collaborator and partner, husband and worker, small business owner and spouse and mother … and there is one thing and only one thing you can be working on right now. Do it with all the commitment you can muster, without having a nagging thought in the back of your mind that makes you wonder whether there may be anything in another bucket that is more important than what you are doing now. Then move on to the next item on your list. Good luck.