Charging up the IPad with a power cable, connector via USB.
Zero Tasks
Saturday, 19 November 2016 11:58 Hrs
❝ ZeroTasks: Maximum Six. Add new tasks to leftovers. Prioritise. Kill one task at a time. Repeat.


Distracted? Trouble finding the time to do things? Tired of looking at half completed projects? You're not alone. If you use the Internet for work, meet the ugly playmate of distraction, procrastination.

If you want to do things, you must stop procrastination and counter distraction with focus. That's what this post is about, reducing distraction with focus through software.

Addictive Internet

Why is the Internet so distracting? Even in it's infancy, the Internet was a time sink. Always "something" new to read, find and absorb. A computer hooked up to the Internet is one of the most recursive activities I can think of.

CAL NEWPORT, a software academic, advocates digital abstance. Quit your social media acccounts or your work and pay will suffer. I have my doubts about this binary logic. Quitting social media is a temporary fix. You'll probably find other ways to distract yourself and avoid work. The deeper problem is realising the technologists need to use the Internet as a tool and this tool has serious side effects. [0]


Distraction isn't a new problem. I hate shopping. This is how I tackle grocery shopping. It's one of those activities I try to avoid. Isles and isles of choice, advertising, confined spaces, bad lighting. But I have to do it. Then I think of the techniques I've adopted: Shop at odd hours, ten at night is a good time; Only take in the number of bags I think can fill; Make a shopping list; Select items; Checkout. Carry bags.

Shopping begins with a list. I work hard on the list. I give it a date. I write two columns, a plus column and a minus column. The first list I make is items "want" to purchase. The second, a list of items I "will not" purchase. I stick to the list carefully, only changing if I really need it. A shopping list makes shopping bearable.

I do the same to tasks. I have a note—book which I fill with tasks, ideas and notes. It's messy. I sometimes write in the wrong book. Pages fall out. I loose tasks. It is a simple and cheap solution. It works, sort—of. I want to adjust my work flow and make it better.

Aim, then shoot

What are you aiming at? Your objectives need to be clear. Understanding why, is something startup vet, STEVE BLANK knows well. [1] He tells the story of a group of young hopefuls, who thought the TODO list was just another thing to tick off a list. Failing to understand purpose drives the need for task making, not lists. Going shopping has a real purpose. I need food for the week. The aim is obvious. I need seven days of food.

❝ Big picture objectives drive the need for tasks.

You can't DO, without knowing WHY, first.


I gained a key insight about list management, reading about CHARLES R. SCHWAB. Schwab was person THOMAS EDISON describes as a hustler. The story goes, Schwab looking for an edge over his competitors, asked a productivity expert to help him. This is the simple task hack, presented: [2]

  • Specify six tasks you need to finish;

  • Prioritise them one to six;

  • Do each task, in order, till finished;

  • Work your arse off;

  • Left-over tasks are added to tomorrows list;

  • Repeat;

IVY LEDBETTER LEE is credited with inventing this simple technique. [3] It's a masterpiece of simplicity. I like to think of it as a Just—In—Time task list allowing you to work on what is important to you, now.


The Lees' task hack, makes a big assumption: Tasks are specific. Big tasks need to broken into small acheivable tasks. This is called decomposition. Breaking down complex tasks into smaller tasks is and important insight not mentioned in the article.

Say for instance I need to go shopping. I could just write down, "go shopping". I dare you then to explain "why" shopping takes as long as it does? Only by breaking down the big task of shopping into smaller tasks will you see why? How do I shop? First I go do a quick stock—take, not just in the kitchen. I also do a check through the house. Only now can I make a list of things I need to buy, followed up with a list of things not to buy. Then I mentally split the fruit, vegetable, the meat and sometimes bread into different lists. [4] So the simple task to go shopping, balloons out.

Decomposition increases the number of tasks. Decomposition also shows you what really needs to be done.

Hacking Distraction

I'm a technologist at heart. [5] Given the fact I have a work related problem I decided to look for a simple technical solution to solve my distraction blues. [6] So I wrote up a specification, some design docs and started hacking together a solution. [7] Making software tools tool solve your own problems is pretty common in hacking circles, [8] that is how ZeroTasks was born.

♬ too many distractions / got to get back home / get into something solid / get out of the zone ♬

The idea behind ZeroTasks is simple. Build those six rules "Ivy Ledbetter Lee" charged "Charles M. Schwab", twenty five thousand US dollars almost one hundred years ago, in software, for my own use.

♬ some roads bring renewal / some roads hide and wait / some roads promise everything / and steal your fuel away ♬

I've gone through a few code iterations. The complex one, the simplified complex version. The simple bare—bones version. Finally a simple command line version. I'm my own user, so as long as I remain a demanding user, the tool should be useful for me. [9]


Take a look at my current task list. It's nothing fancy, a bit complicated for the unititiated. There are no labels. I don't want to add more clutter. The first field is the task number; The second the date; The third, priority and finally the task name. Notice the top task? It's there to remove the redundent fourth column. [10]

ZeroTasks in Mac bash shell (flickr: 2016NOV192023.00)

My task list at the moment is full of ZeroTasks related stuff. I've finished everything else at the moment. What's left is just the stuff I have been avoiding. Take a look at the dates. I entered these tasks a week ago so either they need further decomposing or I'm avoiding them.

❝ ./ -f 6

If I focus on the tasks listed and focus hard it is possible to complete this in a day. The obvious question? Did it work? [11] I've yet to upload this post, but the story has been written and waiting for corrections.


[0] Cal Newport, "Quit Social Media, Your Career May Depend on It"

[Last Accessed: Monday 20th, November 2016]

[1] Steve Blank, "Strategy is Not a To Do List"

[Last Accessed: Monday 20th, November 2016]

[2] James Clear, "The Ivy Lee Method"

[Last Accessed: Saturday 19th, November 2016]

[3] wikipedia, "Ivy Ledbetter Lee"

[Last Accessed: Saturday 19th, November 2016]

[4] I split the fruit and veges, the meat and the bread into separate lists because I get them from different sources. Meat from the butchers, fruit and vegetables from the orchard and bread from the bakers. Not always. What's left, I get from the supermarket.

[5] I've used Palm Pilots for shopping lists, I've used online home delivery services. My default is a paper and pen. Technology for technologies sake can be a task distraction. So I'm well aware of the pitfall of tools for tools sake.

[6] Neil Young, Loose Change, (Broken Arrow, 1997)

[Last Accessed: Saturday 19th, November 2016]

[7] github, "ZeroTasks spec: Write a description of a TASK and TIME TASKER tool. The tool should be able to do the following:"

[Last Accessed: Saturday 19th, November 2016]

[8] mstijak, "Show HN: Tdo – keyboard driven, hackable todo list"

[Last Accessed: Saturday 19th, November 2016]

[9] zerotask, "ZeroTasks: A focused task system. Only displays latest things I'm working on. Six tasks allowed. Kill one task at a time, till ZeroTasks is achieved."

[Last Accessed: Saturday 19th, November 2016]

[10] flickr, "ZeroTasks: screen shot of zerotask on my computer in a bash console " If you look at this it's pretty simple. I spit out a TODO file that is called in my bash init script and shown every time I open a console.

[Last Accessed: Saturday 19th, November 2016]

[11] The command, ./ -p 6 for zerotask is to complete task number six, in this case #6 SA1211 2 N WRITEUP ZT BLOG POST.

[12] Paul Graham, "Distracting Distractions", Interesting to note that pg gave a thumbs down to the techniques described to beat distraction: "The strategy described at the end of this essay didn't work. It would work for a while, and then I'd gradually find myself using the Internet on my work computer."

[Last accessed: Saturday 19th, 2016]


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