indiantinker's blog

[Generalist] The Exploratory To-Do List

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To-do lists for when you do not know what to-do

The other day I was walking past the desk of my friend who works as a UX designer. It was pretty clean. Pristine and in order. He listens to complex political discussion while creating beautiful layouts on the screen. He had a To-do list and he is clinically productive.

A few aisles to the right, My desk is pretty but un-organised. The office manager keeps complaining about it, "How can you ever find anything in this mess?". The abundance of prototyping wires on my desk has led the HR to introduce me as "Oh! He does the wires". 😅

In reality, my nature of work if different. I am an engineer and a designer. My job is exploratory and involves experimenting with ideas, tools, and platforms to bring things to life. Most of what I work on is undefined with a general sense of direction. Neither I nor the client has done it before.

In such a scenario, how does one define the tasks? How do they navigate the tasks and off-shoot? As a generalist, I have to adapt existing tools to my work. This is my version of a To-do list and I shall be discussing it in this post.

The rhizome, as philosophical concept, was introduced by Deleuze and Guattari in their book - A Thousand Plateaus. Rhizome is something that grows from different points. It can connect any point to any other point. I consider my to-do lists match this structure more than the conventional arborescent or tree like structure.

With that context, an exploratory to-do list is not linear, it is a complex connection graph that tries to get through the larger goal. It Is like a termite colony breaking through. Each node is a to-do task.

It embodies the true exploratory nature of work and helps keep track of "If this does not work, then this, if not that, maybe try that?". In the image below, the pink line is a typical to-do list where we know what path we are going on. The blue line is a rhizomatic list. It keeps track of what was known at one point and what was discovered and then back propagated. It helps with documentation too. In some ways, it is like a git branch line that adapts to my complex projects. Often times, both are required.

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I know, at the starting point a lot may not be known about the path we are taking, and designs change when you prototype and show to people. The idea behind the list is also to represent the amount of uncertainty we have at each and every moment and steps we are taking to minimise that. I have been using this for the past year or so and I kind of helps to structure the thoughts in my brain when someone asks me to "go and explore" this idea.

How to make an exploratory list

  1. Separate the exploratory bits from the defined bits. Make a standard to-do list of the defined tasks or things that you know you have to do without any more information needed on them. These could be like : Schedule weekly catchup with client,

  2. Now make a list of all the undefined tasks that need a lot of exploration. Example could be : Reduce battery consumption. Then the sub-options could be : explore deep-sleep mode, figure ways to reduce server waiting time, check battery quality. Then when you figure out you did something with deep sleep modes that worked. You can keep it and integrate it later. That might add knowledge (information or constraints) to other tasks on the list.

    • It is important to work through the list like an explorer, always aware of what we know now and what we need to know.
    • It is good to have a general direction defined and the list acts as a compass. If the tasks are not where we want to go them. Deprioritise them. This really helped me getting all caught by in doing something when it was actually not important. It might have been fun, but not important.
    • The list acts like a work-guide for the project manager. I work alone on my tasks and often have to explain what I am doing to the rest of the team so they can provide inputs. The list helps them highlight what we have explored and what
  3. When traversing through the list keep taking note of things that worked. Things that did not work? Things that you 'figured it out' without the documentation. It is important to reduce inertia when capturing learning so I just send myself a message or scribble next to the list itself. For elaborate things, I prefer using PKM tools like Logseq. You may review it all later, create new knowledge for the world (like this one) and even send pull-req to repos to add support for new things.

I feel, as undisciplined professionals/generalists, we are often combine several disciplines, ideas together and it is important to leave behind some documentation. The list provides a more chalkboardy and loose structure to our rabbit hole spider webby explorations.

Happy exploring.

Cheers, Rohit

#design #generalist