Single-Tasking with Sticky Notes - Verbal to Visual - Doug Neill

Single-Tasking with Sticky Notes

In an effort to help me stay focused throughout my workday, I’ve developed a simple task-tracking system that’s completely analog.

The goal: to develop and maintain a single-tasking approach to my work. I want to give my full attention to just one task at a time.

The Tools & Process

These are the tools that I use: sticky notes and a marker.

The materials: sticky notes and a marker.

As I go throughout my day, each time that I start working on a new task, I grab a sticky note, create a quick sketch and title that represents the task, and I add a checkbox. 

Sketch out and title the task, and add a checkbox.

I then post that sticky note to the inside of the door to my office, which is not directly in front on me when I’m at my desk, but still in my peripheral vision. 

Post the sticky note somewhere you can see it while working.

Similar to Neil Gaiman’s advice about writing, at any given moment I give myself permission to do nothing (I can look out the the window or stare at the wall), but I don’t give myself permission to do anything else other than the task that I’ve identified.

Neil Gaiman on his writing process.

No Twitter, no Instagram, no checking of my email.

Just that task until it’s done.

Focus on your work (or doing nothing at all), until the task is complete.

Once I’ve completed it, I get the reward of standing up from desk and walking over to my office door to check it off.

Then I decide what the next most important task is, and that’s what gets the next sticky note, and I dig in.

A Few Examples

To give you a sense of what my sticky note tasks have looked like, here’s a sampling from a few weeks back (that span a few days):  

Examples from a few days worth of work.

I like that with each task I have the opportunity to practice drawing out a simple icon, which provides some skill-building for future sketchnoting sessions.

That visual reference also makes the task feel more approachable compared to what you get with just a bunch of text. The visual alludes to the action, which helps me move a bit more quickly to taking that action.

I’ve found that this process also helps me to switch more smoothly from one task to the next. Taking the time to quickly draw and write out the task, and then stand up to post it to my door – that’s an intention-setting activity, which helps the work that follows it come that much more naturally.

A typical day of work.

Oftentimes, at the beginning of my work day, I make a bit of a plan for myself, and maybe write down the most important tasks and their potential order on an index card that sits on the side of my desk.

But the freedom to choose the specific next step in the moment is helpful. After checking the box on one task, I do a brief mindfulness check-in to see what my brain and body might need before digging into the next task.

I add a brief mindfulness check-in as I transition from one task to the next.

That mini-break often helps me decide which task to tackle next. So rather than going through my workday with a mindless march of checking off boxes, I’ve got a deeper sense of agency and engagement with the work itself.

Wrapping Up the Workday

Another benefit of tracking my tasks in this way is that it supports the end-of-workday business log that I’ve been keeping, modeled after what Jim Collins shared in his podcast conversation with Tim Ferriss.

How Jim Collins tracks his days, and what he optimizes them for.

I call it my Daily Creativity Log – it’s a simple Google Spreadsheet in which I list out the creative work I did that day, jot down the total number of creative work hours completed (which I track with an upward-counting stopwatch on my phone), and rate the day from -2 to +2.

That running log is a helpful reflection tool, especially when it comes to noting what causes a -2 day compared to a +2 day.

The following day, I begin by removing all sticky notes from the door so that I can start with a clean slate.

The Quality of Your Attention

A recurring theme in my life over the past few years is this: the degree to which I enjoy my days is directly connected to the quality of my attention.

What’s the quality of the attention that I’m giving to the current work? What’s the quality of the attention that I’m giving to this conversation that I’m having, this book that I’m reading, this podcast that I’m taking notes on, this relationship that I’m building?

These simple sticky notes have helped keep the quality of my attention during work hours higher than it would be otherwise.

So if this approach to single-tasking sounds like it might be a helpful addition to your workday, then give it a try.

Dig Deeper

If you’d like to develop other visual thinking tools to help you become a better learner, problem-solver, and storyteller, check out our online courses, maybe starting with An Introduction to Visual Note-Taking:

Reconnect to making marks by hand as you learn to use text, layout, imagery, and color to engage your visual brain.

That course will walk you step-by-step through the process of developing all of the individual skills you need, and then you’ll get to bring those skills together into your own sketchnoting process.

You can also check out our full course library here.

Here’s to giving your full attention to the task at hand.