Every Cubicle Warrior needs a task management system to know what tasks are out there for completion. Task management is all about understanding your inventory of work, your prioritization of work, and your ability to understand the impact of new work coming into your task management queue. Having an effective task management system also gives you the ability to rationally push back against additional work or help your manager re-prioritize the work you do.
Most regular readers know that I use the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology by David Allen. The methodology is not tool dependent; you can pick any tools you want and implement the methodology. But what people use for task management tools and how they are implemented can give you a useful insight into improving your system as well. What follows are the tools I use for my task management system.
I use Outlook for both my personal and work system and is the primary tool to use for task management. Here’s how I implement each of the Outlook modules.
The calendar has only three items of importance on it. The first is the schedule of appointments and meetings for the day. No surprise there.
Secondly, the calendar has on it the tasks that must be completed by the end of the day. While there is no specific time the task to be done, the task needs to be done by the end of the day. If it doesn’t matter when you call Joe during the day, but you must talk to Joe before the end of the day, you have a perfect example of an “all day event” in Outlook.
Third, the calendar has information that I may need for the day even there is no specific work to do because of it. If it were important to me to know when one of my team was on vacation, I enter it as an all day event (but showing time as “free” in the all day appointment). This way I never have to remember who is where; I can just look at my calendar.
This is where the bulk of my organizational work for tasks is done. In the GTD system, tasks are organized by “context” — you can only do work on your list using the context you are in. If you are at work, you can’t do tasks you can only do at home. If you don’t have access to the Internet, you can’t do research on the Internet; it isn’t the right context.
So, my lists are broken up into categories that match up with my contexts for work. All of my phone calls go into my “calls” category. All of my Cube Rules work goes into my “Cube Rules” category.
My complete “context” categories are: agenda, calls, computer, Cube Rules, errands, home, horizons, projects, read watch, someday, and waiting for.
The cool thing about using Outlook as a tool is that most work comes to you via e-mail. Outlook allows you to right-click and drag your e-mail to the Task icon and an option will be presented that allows you to both turn the e-mail into a task and place the e-mail into the task itself. This preserves the e-mail and allows you to later work the task and reply to the original e-mail. This feature alone is the major reason I use Outlook for task management — seamlessly moving incoming work via e-mail into the right category of tasks.
Outlook Notes is a highly under rated function. The way I use Notes for task management is to place my “checklists” into the Notes area.
For example, whenever you run a meeting, especially larger meetings, it is useful to have a checklist. Do you need a projector? Screen? Laptop for the PowerPoint presentation? Refreshments?
You can create a checklist in Notes for setting up a meeting — or any other continuously done set of tasks where you want to consistently perform a set of actions.
Notes can also be used for “reference” material. For example, Outlook itself can get unhinged from the enterprise servers and won’t connect. There is a solution for that problem that you can use to reset Outlook for the connection. I saved that solution as a Note in the category of Reference so the next time it happened I wouldn’t have to call support to fix the problem.
Thus, the flow of work is this: work comes into play either as an e-mail or a direct conversation. The work then becomes a task (or a project, still stored as a “task” in the category of “projects”) and is assigned a context for the next action that needs doing to complete it.
If there is no work to do from an e-mail, the e-mail is deleted. If the e-mail or other file within an e-mail could be useful, it goes either into a task as in the “someday” category or is entered as a note for reference.
Once a week, all the tasks and notes are reviewed to make sure the system is current. If you don’t review all of this weekly or so, you will not trust your system and all of this will fall on your head. So review this weekly!
If you truly want to use Outlook as your task management system, I’d highly suggest you buy the Outlook and GTD set-up guide from the David Allen Company. The guide uses all those hidden set-up features in Outlook to get your system designed right for inputting your tasks.
The world is moving mobile. You need to take your task management system with you wherever you are. For me, I use the iPhone. Many use a Blackberry or Palm. In any case, the key to mobile use of your task system is the ability to synch your mail, calendar, tasks, contacts and notes with your system. Since I use Outlook as the primary driver of my system, I need tools on the mobile side to synch Outlook to my iPhone.
The iPhone naturally does mail, calendar and contacts with Outlook. What is missing from the native iPhone applications are synching the most critical tools of tasks and notes. To synch tasks and notes, I use Chapura software. Chapura makes software to synch Outlook to your mobile device whether it is Palm, Windows or iPhone based operating systems.
By consistently syncing my iPhone with Outlook, I’m always in a position where I can know what my inventory of work is for me no matter where I am.
Now, this set-up may not be right for you. But, using a task management system to understand your work is critical to producing accomplishments in your life. There are hundreds of tools out there — pick a set and work with it for three months and then evaluate your system again. You will get to what works for you.
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