No task is too small to track if that’s what it takes to get it done

A pen lying on a piece of paper with a checklist that says to do: Wake up Make coffee Drink coffee Make more coffee

One of the first and most enduring questions when you have a task tracking system is “should I add this to the tracker?” The answer varies based on the scope and urgency of the task. But — particularly for your personal tracking — no task is too small if tracking it means you do it.

I used to feel guilty about some of the tasks I’d put in Todoist. They were trivially small. Sometimes I’d even add them after I did them, just to get the dopamine hit of marking them off. Or, if I’m being honest with myself, to juice my stats. But, generally, if a task is on my todo list, it gets done. If it’s not, it may languish forever. So if putting “floss” on my todo list means I do it, then it was worth tracking.

Of course, the calculus changes once you’re working with others. Task tracking is a form of communication and so adds overhead to your work. This overhead is sometimes necessary and helpful, but can also be a burden. Ultimately, what to track is a policy and cultural question. There’s no magical formula. But if you need some help finding the line, here is some guidance.

Add it to the tracker if:

  • It matters if the task is undone. So much of what we think is important actually isn’t. If the task can be skipped without any lasting harm, you can still track it. But if the task can’t be skipped without calamity befalling you (or someone else), track it.
  • The task doesn’t need to be done immediately. Again, tasks that require immediate action can be added (this is useful for reporting purposes later), but definitely if it can wait, add it to the tracker. That way whoever needs to do it can do it on their own schedule. This is particularly important for open source communities, where people are available for irregular hours and are distributed across the globe.
  • The task has multiple phases. If a task has to go through multiple steps or get passed to multiple people, you should definitely track it. Otherwise, something will get lost in the handoff.
  • The task has complex requirements. In this case “complex” is a relatively low barrier. “Please add alice to the foobar repository” is not complex (assuming there are no policy checks that have to be satisfied first). “Please create a test database VM” is complex.
  • You need receipts. Sometimes we need to create a paper trail. The task tracker is good for that.

Notably, I did not include “submitting the task takes longer than doing the task.” I almost added it, but several of the other points could conflict with that. It’s true, though, that you should make the process as easy as possible. As I often say, the process is there to serve the community, the community is not there to serve the process.

When in doubt, add the task. It’s better to track unnecessarily than to not track something important. Over time, you will develop — and hopefully document — norms in your community about where to draw the line.

This post’s featured photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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