Management Random moments of high potential

The Trickle List

There’s a gaping hole in The Taste of the Day. Yes, it’s a handy task management system, but it’s incomplete. It describes a process for constant scrubbing of a task list, as well as a handy place to keep distractions out of your way via the Parking Lot, but at the end of the day, what exactly is it helping you do?

Here are three tasks from my current list:

  • Headcount Asks
  • David Lunch
  • Move EU Trip

These are tasks for today. They are well-defined, measurable, tactical, and they need to be done today. While it’s professionally terrific that I’m actively making sure that nothing is falling through the cracks, these are still just tasks. What am I accomplishing when I complete them? I’m getting things done.

Is that what you want to do all day? Things? Stuff?


You’re a Sr. Development Engineer or an Engineering Manager or a Project Manager, and while things and stuff are part of the gig, if it’s all you’re doing, you’re productive, but you’re vigorously running in place. You’re tactical, but not strategic. Tasks are an incomplete picture of what you do and what you need to do.

The curse of any effective task management system is that you get really good at capturing, prioritizing, and executing tasks. To the point that you start to believe that merely completing a task is helping your career. After a solid decade of rampant task management, I realized I needed to augment tasks with a system that would strategically guide and remind me that my job was not to do things, but to remember the interesting words in my title: manager, engineering, and products. That’s what I do.

What I needed was a guiding force behind these tasks, a way to remind me that I was pushing towards a goal and defining and refining a strategy.

I call it a Trickle List and it looks like this:

Trickle Header

Trickle Creation

My first excursion into the word trickle was a productivity article called Trickle Theory. The argument was simple. You can do more than you think with small, consistent investments of your time.

To understand the Trickle List, you need to first look at the headers at the top of the list. These are the heart of the list and how you define them is how you define what you want to do.

A good place to start is figuring out what your current job is. If you need a reminder, go scrub that task list again. The question I want to start the Trickle List with is: “What should your job be?”

Ok, got it? You want to be a manager. Good, we can work with that. What simple, regular tasks are going to point you in a managerial direction? Do you need to network? Do you need to file more bugs? Write more specs? Strategically, I don’t know who you work for or where you’re headed or what your company values, but here’s the good news with the Trickle List: you don’t have to be perfect. In fact, imperfection is a great place to start.

Here’s my current list:

  • People — Have a random chat with someone in the hallway
  • Rands — Doing something Rands related
  • V — Take a vitamin
  • Biz — Learn a part of the business
  • Book — Reading something in a book

“Rands, these are simply recurring tasks.”

No. They’re not. You’re doing more than stuff and things with your trickles; you’re designing moments of high potential. I’ll explain.

Having a random hallway chat usually isn’t going to be a career changer. 9 out of 10 of those conversations are lightweight, but those are 9 conversations I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Plus, it’s hallway visibility, and in a gig where 90% of the days are spent holed up in meetings, that’s time well spent. And there’s the 10th conversation where I learn something huge:

Wait, the project is HOW FAR behind?

Hold it, you’re thinking about QUITTING?

By choosing to create a moment where I leave my structured day to have a random conversation, I’m creating informational opportunity, and while these moments may appear to have low initial return on time investment, you’re playing a numbers game. You’re counting on the fact that, over time, over many moments, you’re creating unexpected potential.

The items on your Trickle List don’t need to be huge, in fact, as we’ll learn in a moment, the bigger they are, the less likely you’ll do them. What they need to be is aligned with where you’re headed. However small, they need to be a daily reminder that you’re headed somewhere. The size and the impact of the trickles will come from repetition. Here’s three months:

Trickle List

That’s not just 90 vitamins I remember to take, it’s 47 random hallway conversations that not only increased my hallway visibility, but also resulted in the discovery of some sweet gossip, gave me a chance to deliver some quiet career advice, allowed me to unearth an impending, avoidable disaster, and, oddly, taught me a lot about high definition TVs.

The Trickle Process

With a couple of defined trickles, let’s talk about how to work them into the day. Remember the Taste of the Day process. The Morning Scrub, the creation of the Parking Lot, and finishing the day with an Evening Scrub. The Trickle List integrates with all of it.

After I’ve done the Morning Scrub and after I create my fresh, new, legal-sized Parking Lot, I pull out the Trickle List for a look at the previous day. Anything that didn’t get checked off yesterday day gets brief consideration. Any clue why it didn’t get checked? Offsite all day? That makes sense.

This is not a guilt-inducing list. I’m not beating myself up when I’m looking at unchecked items. I’m looking for data. Didn’t check anything? So I was buried, right? Haven’t checked off one item for a week? Is this a trickle I should be trying to do? Yes? Okay, why isn’t it happening? What larger thing do I need to change?

If your Trickle List becomes a Must Do List, you’re going to stop looking at it. The weight of Must Do will slowly transform into “I didn’t do it, so I suck, and I don’t want to suck, so I’m going to move my Trickle List out of my line of sight, like, say, to the trash.”

The last step of the morning is adding a fresh new line to the list, starting with today’s date, and then I put the list somewhere where I’m going to visually stumble on it during the course of the day. We’re off.

Hopefully, during brief moments of calm, I glance at the list and it gives me a motivational shove. “Now is the time to learn something about the business and I’ve got the bookmark right here.”

The Evening Scrub shenanigans, like the morning’s, involve assessment. It’s the end of the day and what’d I get done? “Hey, I haven’t done this trickle in a week? Why?” Again, the point is not guilt, it’s assessment. I want you to add and delete from your Trickle List with glee. In fact, if you’re not regularly adding new trickles to the list and removing others, I’d argue that you aren’t really using the list. What you need to do as part of your evolving career is, well, evolve. Perhaps you no longer need to focus on the hallway chats and that’s why you haven’t checked it off in a week. Fine. Remove it. Move on.

Maybe your trickles are too meaty. I keep trickles deliberately simple because tasks that take more than a few minutes to complete don’t get checked. You need trickles that you can easily do. I design trickles more for likelihood of completion, rather than perceived impact. Again, impact is going to come from repetition.

Lastly, as you can see from my Trickle List, I often use letters and glyphs as my column headers. My thought is that by giving them less definition, I make more room for me to be creative about how I complete them.

Structured Improvisation

My constant struggle with productivity and task tracking systems is a struggle with structure. My natural tendency is to build systems that track everything, and that’s a silly goal. There’s no way I’m going to keep track of and complete everything. I can look at my calendar and tell you what I think I’m going to be doing tomorrow, but the fact is, I won’t actually know what I’m going to be doing until I’m doing it.

This is why I’m particularly choosey about the structure I use in task tracking. I need just enough structure to not lose important tasks, but never structure that collapses when the sky randomly falls.

Because the sky always falls. There’s always a crisis. If two days pass and I don’t feel blind-sided, I start to worry that I’m not paying enough attention. This is my other requirement for my productivity system: it needs to encourage improvisation.

There’s a reason I’m scrubbing my task list twice a day. There’s a reason I’ve got the Trickle List taped to my white board. I want both lists front of mind all the time not only because I want to constantly seek opportunities to complete a task or tackle a trickle, but also because I want to be aware of the larger themes present in both my lists. This 360 degree awareness is going to improve my ability to improvise, and that’s where I’m really going to kick ass.

Your job is not to check off one thing on your list. It’s to cross three things off — at once. It’s to have an epiphany so big that you add a column to your Trickle List in the middle of the day — I MUST DO THAT — A LOT. The only way you’re going to come to massive strategic realizations is to have a sense of your entire task list and Trickle List in your head. I’m not talking about memorization, I’m talking about a complete feel of things you need to do and the ability to improvise odd strategic conclusions.

It’s the moment in a meeting where I see a hint of opportunity in that thing Phil said. I see the opportunity because I know I’ve got 12 Phil-related tasks and 2 trickles that, in a way I can never describe but only feel, intersect with that thing Phil just said.

Strategic holy shits only come from well-informed chaos, and you can take a stab at building a productively ephemeral perspective with the tactical information you gain from a structured task list combined with hopeful strategy provided by a slippery, healthy Trickle List.

The point of your productivity system is not to keep absolute track of your tasks. The point is to keep the important information in the front of your brain where it will improve your improvisation and inform your whims. A task tracking system gives you just enough information to calculate your chaos while reminding you to create and act on random moments of high potential.

13 Responses

  1. Duncan 16 years ago

    Excellent as always. After a certain amount of swimming it’s healthy to step out of the water, analyze your stroke and talk with the other swimmers. Maybe even see what the runners are doing out on the track.

    Then again, maybe I’ve got the Olympics on the brain.

  2. In a similar vein, somewhere mid-day every day I ask myself: Have I learned something new today? If not, I do so. About half the time I eat lunch at my desk, so that’s a good time to learn something, since my eyes and brain but not my hands are free.

  3. This is going to seem random, but this post reminded me of a gameplay aspect of the latest Grant Theft Auto. It has the usual collection of blood-soaked missions and quests, but you are also expected to use your in-game cell phone to maintain an active social life. You do this by taking your friends or lovers on dates around the city: darts, pool, drinking, etc.

    As long as you do something with each of them more-or-less once per session, they leave you alone the rest of the time. But if you forget to call them for a while, they call you–often at a very inconvenient time! If you don’t drop everything when they call, or you are too far away, you lose their respect and potentially their crucial help on missions.

    The player is essentially forced to create and manage a trickle list, with an entry for each friend in the game.

    Random, yes, but I like that video games are now teaching valuable time-management techniques.

  4. “and you can take a stab at building a productively ephemeral perspective”

    Nice line. Ephemera tracking is a good part of what you’re getting at here. And yes, it’s when people get too stuck with the same old things that trouble always builds up.

  5. You may even say that the Taste of the Day is a trickle? Or is that just my programmer normalizing brain squeezing a square peg in a round hole?

  6. Howard Fine 16 years ago

    I enjoy picking up tips on time management. Thanks for the article. I’ll reciprocate sharing… I just found another new tool for helping one prioritize projects, lists, any group of choices based on multiple criteria. I watched this flash presentation and was then able to sign up for a beta.

    I was impressed, Howard.

  7. Thanks for this article Rands. This is a subject I’m REALLY struggling with at the moment as I’m not doing well with the right prioritization of projects simply because I’m trying to just throw things out the door. I begin working on building a system like your Taste of the Day, but then this kicked in…

    “If your Trickle List becomes a Must Do List, you’re going to stop looking at it. The weight of Must Do will slowly transform into “I didn’t do it, so I suck, and I don’t want to suck, so I’m going to move my Trickle List out of my line of sight, like, say, to the trash.”

    My overall project list is seemingly out of control due to the volume, but I’m sure that much of it is self-imposed.

    Anyway, thanks for the continued focus on these topics. Every little suggestion helps (or at least is a different idea to try).

  8. Well played on how you dealt with the second column of your trickle list. Very subtle. 🙂

    The way your organizations handles the dissemination of corporate information continues to impress. The training, from what I understand, is surprisingly effective. It’s something most of the organizations that you folks compete with just don’t focus on.

  9. Neil Richards 16 years ago


    One of the best pieces of advice of yours I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something.


  10. Congratulations: you have created in parallel a less modular, more complicated, higher-stress version of Getting Things Done. 😉

  11. Reminds me of an Aristotle quote I like, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

    Figure out the habits you need to get where you want to be, then keep them in the forefront of your mind.

  12. Rands, you have become an android. You need a list that reminds you to take a vitamin pill? Geezus mate.

  13. I think this is quite brilliant.

    I have a feeling this might be one of the greatest pieces of career advice I have ever read.

    Thanks Rand.