Evaluating your task management system in a time of crisis

GTD and The Now Habit

When I went to visit my Mom in the hospital in Arizona in April, I flew in on Saturday and left on Tuesday morning at 4 AM to fly back to my home in Wisconsin. The bad thing? She passed away on Sunday night at 11:30 PM local time.

I was left with having to make all sorts of arrangements...on Monday. One day to do a ton of work after a mostly sleepless night. If you use a task management system to manage your entire inventory of work (I use the Getting Things Done methodology by David Allen), you quickly discover what works. And what doesn't.

In retrospect, I was in shock that Monday. Fortunately, on Saturday when I saw my Mom, I realized that things were a lot worse than I had thought before I got there. She was supposed to move from Arizona to Wisconsin (she is what we call a snow bird here in Wisconsin) and it quickly became clear that she would be fortunate to make it out of the hospital, much less back to Wisconsin. Because she was in such bad shape, I started to write lists of what things now needed doing: not moving to Wisconsin, but what it meant to have her stay in Arizona.

I just dumped everything in my head onto my lists, without regard to priority, whether it made sense at the time or anything else. Just get it out of my head. I did the same thing the very first thing that fateful Monday morning after I got up.

Looking back at it now, it really saved me on Monday. There was not a lot of thinking going on, just looking at the list and doing the next possible thing that needed doing in Arizona. Because I only had one day.

A crisis exposes weaknesses in your task management systems

When you get hit with a crisis, whether it is something major in your life or simply the "emergency du jour" at work, your ability to move from task to task -- making the right decisions along the way -- is key to keeping sane and getting things done.

Looking back at it, here's what I found about my task management system:

Defining the "next action" is critical

Most people don't really define the next physical action to take to get something done, nor do they define what the successful outcome of doing the task is so they know the task was completed successfully.

Writing down "funeral home" doesn't cut it as a task. "Call Jan at xxx-xxx-xxxx for a recommendation for a funeral home" is a task that can immediately be completed without doing anything more than looking at the task. Even the phone number is there so you can do the work without thinking. Or re-thinking.

Defining that task right up front saves endless angst about what can be done next.

Finding information tests your tools

Where did you put your flying schedule for Tuesday? Where is the phone number for the hospital? Where is the checklist for packing?

When you are in crisis mode, you don't think very well. You don't put two and two together to get to four; you often get to five. Or three. Having your reference stuff easily found and formatted for immediate use is a tremendous improvement to help get things done.

Just think about searching a thousand emails to find what you need. It wastes an incredible amount of time and, quite frankly, usually doesn't work. No, you need a system and one that serves your needs to easily find material. (I store all of my reference material and checklists in Evernote).

My contexts didn't work right

A "context" is where you place a task so that when you are in the right context -- I can make a phone call versus needing to be in front of a computer to do the task -- you can immediately do the task. Most of us can't make a phone call from an airplane. But we can work on a computer -- as long as no Internet connection is needed.

Your task, then, needs to get put into the right context so when you look at your list you aren't looking at the "weed the garden" back in Wisconsin task when you are in the desert in Arizona.

My contexts and the placement of the tasks in them needed some work.

Review, review, review

Best practice says you should, at minimum, review your tasks weekly. In a crisis, or in my case when I was in Arizona, I was reviewing all of my tasks every couple of hours. I built lists around what needed doing in Arizona so I wouldn't see those "weed the garden" tasks back in Wisconsin. And I reviewed those sets of lists every couple of hours. It was surprising how much of what needed doing changed over the course of the one day.

For example, I knew I would need death certificates and I knew I needed to get them in Arizona. That was a task on my list. Turns out the funeral home takes care of contacting the hospital for the cause of death and the Arizona Health Department to get the actual death certificate. Because of that, I could take that item off my list.

David Allen says to review as often as you need to in order to have a clear inventory of your work. On Monday, reviewing as often as needed meant every couple of hours.

It worked.

Review your task management system after a crisis

Your productivity -- and stress level -- is directly related to knowing the full inventory of your work whether that work is at home or on the job. After a crisis, do a review of what worked well with your task management system and what didn't work well. Then fix what didn't work well so that your task management practice (and it is a practice) works for you.

What's your best way of handling tasks in the midst of a crisis?

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