Maintenance va Active Tasking

There’s a distinction I use quite often in my planning of tasks and controlling my diary. I differentiate between tasks I identify as Maintenance tasks and tasks which are more Active. It’s not a perfect distinction but no system is perfect. It’s designed to help me figure out when to do what.

First things first, let’s have some definitions

Pretend that the world is as simple as I’m going to describe: it’s easier to learn that way…

Active tasks are those tasks that move your project forward. You can see an end result. Some people might call them the ‘glory jobs’! They tend to be pretty easy to define and you can usually point at the outcome saying “I did that”.

Often – in fact usually – Active tasks will consume resources and use equipment.

Maintenance tasks, on the other hand, are more background-related. They don’t have a specific, sexy outcome but (and here’s the important bit!) they facilitate subsequent sexy outcomes. Often, a Maintenance task will involve creating resources or preparing equipment.

It doesn’t have to be literally maintenance of a piece of hardware or software, but that would be included in this.

Some examples will help (I hope).

  1. Filling the car with petrol is a maintenance task, but driving to a specific appointment is an Active task. Importantly, having to stop to fill the car when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere is irritating, frustrating and can lead to you being late.
  2. Writing a report on your computer is an Active task, but de-junking and defragging the hard drive so that it isn’t full and works quickly is a Maintenance task. Trying to write a report on a sluggish and full hard drive isn’t fun (trust me on this and don’t ask how I know!).
  3. Playing a game of competitive tennis could be considered an Active task, but training, practicing and getting fit to play that game would be Maintenance tasks.

What are Maintenance tasks at work?

It's easy to forget that maintenance is part of productivity too
It’s easy to forget that maintenance is part of productivity too

To be honest, that rather depends on what you do. For me, tidying up my office is a Maintenance task. So is doing filing and removing old versions of documents so that the version I open is the one I want.

Writing this is an Active task, but learning how to use Google Documents and Google Drive is a Maintenance task. (I’m writing it as a Google Doc – if I was using a different word processor the principle would still be the same.)

Cleaning out my old, un-necessary and irrelevant emails is a Maintenance task, but writing fully structured, detailed and well thought out replies to the important emails is an Active task.

No prizes for guessing which I – and most people, I think – prefer to do! 🙂

What’s the relationship between Active and Maintenance tasks?

Active tasks require there to have been enough Maintenance tasks. If it’s not happened, the Active task has to stop while the necessary Maintenance happens. To go back to my driving analogy, if I’m out of petrol on my journey to my appointment, I’ve got to find a filling station, pull over, fill up, pay for it, and start to drive again. The loss in time can be the difference between getting there on time and not.

Similarly, when you’re in the middle of an Active task, the last thing you want to have to do is stop in mid-flow and do some Maintenance. It’s unbelievably frustrating to have to stop writing a document in order to find the particular image I want to use as it stops my thought processes in their tracks and grinds everything to a halt. I’m much (much!) more productive in Active tasks if I can do them for as long as I like, not as long as I can keep going without being forced to stop.

But there’s a critical distinction between Active and Maintenance tasks that I’ve not mentioned yet, which is this. Active tasks are best done when you’re on the top of your game; full of mental energy and focussed.

By comparison, Maintenance tasks can often be done when you’re not in full flow.

How do I use this distinction?

There’s been a lot of build up here for what is pretty darn simple at its core. I know I’m not at my best first thing in the morning but I’m much more mentally alert early in the afternoon (all other things being equal).  Remember that I said that Maintenance tasks can be done when you’re not totally on top of your game but Active tasks needed me to be the best I can be? The implications are obvious.

To be maximally efficient, you should schedule your Active tasks for the time of day and days of the week (or month or whatever) when you’re generally at your best.  Given that we know that Maintenance tasks are necessary so that Active tasks can go ahead uninterrupted, the obvious time to do them is when you’re not at your best.

In my case, because it takes me a long time to get going in the morning, I should generally consider scheduling time for Maintenance tasks from when I get into the office in the morning until (say) coffee time. Active tasks should be popped into my diary for late morning at the earliest.  (You might be the other way around of course: it’s not about time measured by clocks, it’s about the time of day as measured by your body-clock.)

What this means, potentially, is that I’m doing Active tasks when other people, and the convention of offices, means that it’s unusual and that I’m also doing Maintenance stuff while everyone around me is busily being productive – that is, doing Active tasks.

It takes a bit of emotional courage to fly in the face of what convention, expectation and tradition drives us to do, but if you have the guts to stick your neck out, the results can be very satisfying!

So what about you?

Over to you!  What are your Maintenance Tasks? And your Active Tasks?

When are you at your most mentally strong?  What’s your pattern? And do you have the guts to do your Active Tasks at the right moment, even if it means doing your Maintenance Tasks when other people are being all ‘look at me, I’m super-productive‘? 😉

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