Part 1 — Behavior-driven design

How to get things done.

I recently started learning programming and one of my projects is to design and develop a to-do app. This is the first in a series of posts that document my design and development process.

Seeing that there is an abundance of to-do apps available, I had no problem doing research. Plus, productivity is one of the topics I am truly passionate about and I have spent years researching the behaviors around productivity and to-do’s.

Purpose

I decided I wanted to take a different approach to the traditional to-do apps and not design yet another one that is the same as everything currently available.

The outcome is a beautiful app designed to help you reach your goals called aptly the done app.

Done.

This is not a typical to-do app. It’s rather a tool to help cultivate more discipline to help you achieve your goals. It mimics a real-life process I have fine-tuned over the years and use daily in my daily life.

Remembering things is one thing, but getting things done is something else. That’s the challenge I want to solve with done.

Pain points

The majority of people have a big list of things to do, but they rarely get things done. From a behavior, rather than a functionality perspective, here are the top pain points that stops most people from getting things done.

1. No clear goal

Most people I’ve met, including my younger self, don’t really have clear goals. They just do things because someone asked them to. Usually a boss, a friend or a parent. When you ask them why they are doing what they are doing, they can’t give a reason.

I strongly believe that being busy is the biggest enemy of being productive. You can only be productive if you have a goal.

Not having a clear goal is the root of not getting things done, and it results in the remaining 4 items on my list. So let’s spend just a little more time on goals before moving on.

A goal is not an end destination or a thing. It could be, but a good goal is something less tangible. It’s a vision, a dream, an image of an experience. You want to have that car so that you can feel more powerful and free. You want that promotion at work so that you could feel more heard. You want to become a graphic designer because you want to better communicate your ideas.

Your goal can never be a check-list item. All the check-list items are those things that will move you closer to your goal, but your goal in itself is an ever-changing, complex, intertwined idea far too complicated to write down as a simple to-do.

The best exercise that I’ve come across to help clarify a personal vision or goal is to write down an imaginary diary entry of your ideal life. You could also ask yourself what you would want people to remember you for when you die one day.

With this goal in mind, everything you do will either move you towards your goal or distract you from it. When, however, you don’t have any goal, you are probably just running around in circles not getting anywhere.

The first and most important aspect of getting things done is to have at least a rough idea of where you want to go in your mind.

2. Too many to do’s are overwhelming

Most people have a lot of things to do. Some important, others urgent, yet others something they want to do one day. When I started using a to-do list to keep track of all my ideas and things I want to do, I felt overwhelmed with the long list.

Simply looking at it caused me distress and I would go into a state of paralysis, leaving without doing anything. Too overwhelmed as I didn’t even know which one to pick first.

3. Overestimate ability and effort

Another reason why most people never get things done is because they overestimate their ability to get things done. They will put a few things on their to-do list thinking they will finish it this week, and at the end of the week there’s always a few items left over which is carried over to the next week.

While in itself this isn’t such a big problem, the problem begins to manifest when this becomes a habit. When it becomes normal for you to carry things over to the next week, you are starting a snowball of not getting things done that is very hard to change.

Most people put too many things on their to-do list than what they can realistically achieve.

4. Conflicting priorities

Another common problem is prioritization. Everything seems important, or you will just starting focusing on what you think is most important when someone will remind you of something else that’s even more important.

Most people attempt to multitask by juggling these different priorities. The negative effect of multitasking on productivity is, however, immense. It’s always faster and better to focus on one thing and complete it than multitask.

5. Too big to-do items

Another impact that causes conflicting priorities is that tasks are too big.

When tasks are too big it naturally takes longer to complete and the chances that another item becomes important is large.

It is also really hard to estimate how long something will take when it is a large task, which makes tracking your progress so much harder.

6. Not enough time

By far the most common complaint why people don’t complete things is that there’s not enough time. This, however, is not usually true.

There is enough time, it’s rather a problem with prioritization or a lack of goals that cause you to believe you don’t have enough time. If you are clear on your goal, obstacles become much easier to navigate.

In a traditional project you plan things linearly based on the best case scenario. In reality, however, there’s always unplanned events or obstacles that stop you from following a plan. The answer to these unplanned events are usually to add more money, resources or time.

When, however, you know what your goal is, you can find alternative solutions that will allow you to still finish on time. You might use an existing library or illustrations than creating all the assets yourself. You might reduce the scope and only build the most crucial parts of the system, leaving out the nice-to-have features and potential clutter. Or you might change the designs slightly to use existing technology and tools you are familiar with rather than having to figure out how to properly do it with the intended tools.

5. Distractions

Society is designed to distract us. In a connected world these interruptions are everywhere. There are email notifications, a WhatsApp message that comes through, a reminder on your phone, and so every app on your phone thinks the most important thing in your life is this app.

Distractions cause you to stop and start tasks and each time you change your attention, it takes time to focus on the task at hand and remember where you were.

Looking at these pain points that stop us from getting things done, it’s clear why most to-do apps are useful to remember things, but not that useful in helping you to get things done.

Objectives

Evaluating these pain points and going back to my initial purpose, the key objectives I want to achieve with the done app are:

  1. To create calm and simplicity that help people focus on what’s most important without losing context.
  2. To help people do what they planned without the need to carry-over tasks.
  3. To motivate people to complete their to-do lists.

Solution

Get things done.

A simple, but beautiful app that feels calm, using productivity best practices from software development as foundation.

Rather than having a long to do-list, break tasks into a kanban-like board similar to a Scrum board where the backlog can be very long, but only the top items that you plan to complete this week is displayed in your main feed as committed items. This makes the list shorter and more realistic, but still allows you to add everything you want to remember.

Weekly cadences start with planning on Mondays, when only the most important and realistic tasks are moved to the now tab. The next most important items are moved to the next tab which will only become active once the now tab is empty. The rest of the items remain in the later tab.

You can optionally set a deadline for a task to ensure it doesn’t get lost in the later tab. You can also create recurring tasks easily.

Using the now, next, later format used in Product Management.

The current week’s calendar is displayed at the top of the screen to help you keep track of your weekly progress. Once you have a number of tasks added a dashboard will show up on the top panel and a progress bar below the task list as can be seen below.

At the end of each week you get a chance to reflect on your progress and your goals before starting again next week. Monthly statistics will show how you progress towards your goals and what you’ve achieved.

Next steps

The designs are done and validated with a paper prototype that has been tweaked over the years. The next step is to build it and start using it personally for a first layer of feedback. Only once the prototype works for me and is something I find useful, will I get feedback from others to see whether they also find it useful or not.

My first step in building it starts with completing a few tutorials, which I’ll write about next.

Part 1 — Behavior driven design (this post) looks at an initial design and the problem with existing to do apps.

Part 2 — Prototype one retrospective takes a first step to build a prototype and critically re-evaluate the initial designs.

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Kate Dames

Kate Dames

A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Integrating technology, agile, gamification & lean to make workplaces more human, productive & fun. www.funficient.com