A key to success on the job is a task management system that works for you. Whether that task management system is a methodology like Getting Things Done or a 25-notes-on-the-whiteboard approach that you invented, knowing your workload and your work inventory is key to accomplishing your tasks.
Until it all gets out of whack. Then you feel overwhelmed. Maybe intimidated. And you stop completing tasks because you bounce from one thing to another listening to the fast and the furious about what to do next. You get paralyzed.
Okay, well maybe you don’t get paralyzed. But I do. I lose my way and it takes a while to get the mojo back. Every time I go down that dark lane, I always find it is because I fail to do three things with my task management system. Take a look at my failings and learn from them. I do.
None of us like to follow a structure all of the time, but the rules you have about your task management system need consistent following. If your system says to open up email the first thing in the morning and process it, then that is what you should do. (By the way, there are tons of pundits out there that tell you to NOT check email first thing on the job in the morning, but I’m too afraid of bombs falling from the overnight hours. Thus,
I check my email first thing on the job, thank-you-very-much.
If your task management system says to write your to-do’s from your meeting right after the meeting is done no matter what, then that is what you should do.
When you don’t consistently follow your own rules for your tasks, you get into trouble in two ways:
Consistently work your task management system so you don’t get unhinged and you can analyze what works for you. And what doesn’t work for you so you can change it.
In the Getting Things Done methodology that I follow for my tasks, David Allen talks about two dimensions of task management — control and perspective. If you don’t have control, you will never have perspective of your work. If you don’t gain perspective, you will never know if you are working on the right stuff.
Reviewing your tasks, your projects, and what you want to focus on consistently (there is that word again) allows you to prioritize your work, to see what no longer needs doing, and shows you the traps coming up on your schedule if they are not addressed today. That’s perspective.
Whether you review your work weekly, daily, or every two hours doesn’t make much difference to me. The key is to review your task lists, ensure you have all of your work inventory down and out of your head, and gain perspective about what is important right now.
You know those days where you walk in the door thinking everything is fine? Then you open your email to discover multiple crisis situations that need dealing with and you have meeting after meeting after meeting (after meeting) and in two hours you are completely out of whack? Yeah. Those days.
Did you know I have a task category called “Panic Mode?” I do.
You need a task plan for those days. It’s how I came up with the Panic Mode category. When I walk into those situations, I essentially go for a couple of hours and then I pause for fifteen minutes and then write down everything that is in my head, work or not. Everything. It’s a mind dump. Get it all on paper — I don’t even use my electronic systems — I just get it out of my head.
Then, when I can see the ten or fifteen things that are getting my attention, I can look at the list and prioritize what can get done first and what I can control.
That process gets me back to a safe place. A place where I’m not weaving down the highway, flirting with the yellow line and the ditch. Getting control back in those situations is key to not going crazy.
I don’t want you to go crazy. Plan for what you should do when you have those crazy days at work. You’ll be glad you did.
Having a complete inventory of your work is a necessary evil for success in your work. Unless you are clear in the commitments you have for your work, you will always have surprises and ticked off people coming in on your day.
When your task inventory gets out of whack, it’s usually one of these three tenets of task management at the root cause of the problem.
What’s your best way to deal with keeping your work inventory up-to-date?
Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations. In 2005, Scot started sharing these hard lessons at CubeRules.com, a site devoted to Career Advice for knowledge workers, whom he calls Cubicle Warriors.