The secret task management problem no one tells you

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Nov 05

Pundits will tell you that maintaining a task management system is necessary for productivity. If you go out and look on the Google machine, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of hits on how to improve your productivity — usually using some task management trick or tip.

To be fair, there is a great deal of good task management methodology out there that will help you structure and organize your tasks and projects into something that’s workable. Almost all of the good ones will have the task management framework I’ve talked about earlier. Almost all of those will tell you that you should organize your tasks around certain contexts (home versus work, for example), subjects (financial versus health, for example) or projects.

None of them will tell you the dirty secret about task management systems: there is no right way to organize yourself. And the corollary: how you organize yourself will change drastically over time — and not much time at that.

There are fewer contexts

Not so long ago, especially before ubiquitous Internet availability, it was a lot easier to organize your tasks around contexts. There were things you could do at home and things you could do at the office — but usually not both. You could do things on a computer. You could make phone calls.

Now there are far fewer contexts — most knowledge work is done on a computer and most of us have a computer (read: smart phone) with us all the time. The line between home and office with VPN networks and Internet access to work is blurred.

Where contexts used to give us discreet chunks of tasks to attack, today the lines between contexts are blurred and our task list looks like a blob.

Projects are fluid and changing

Whether your definition of a project is like David Allen — “anything that takes two or more actions to achieve” — or more like a work project with milestones, how you organize and track projects changes over time. And while I’m a Project Manager (“Every manager’s favorite Project Manager”), the truth of the matter is that the last four years I haven’t used Microsoft Project for one single thing I’ve done. It’s like a priest not using a Bible.

But Microsoft Project hasn’t helped me stay organized or track what needs tracking.

Instead, I’ve used check lists. I’ve used Mind Maps. I’ve organized tasks around geographic locations, subjects, sites, people, and straight lists — sometimes changing how the tasks are organized within weeks. And then changing them again.

The ultimate test is if your task management system helps you get things done and helps you manage the communication about the project to others. And if it means rearranging how you do your task groupings, well, that’s what you do.

Change happens way too fast

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working on projects that have moved thousands of widgets from one place to another; one operating system to another. What’s happened with both those projects is that they both started off reasonable enough, but then had the objective change to “get it all done in a more concise time frame.”

Moving 50 servers in a weekend transformed into moving 150 servers in a weekend. Migrating 100 PC’s a week transformed into 450 PC’s in a week across three continents.

None of those situations allow your task management system to stay the same. You have to change, often on the fly, and needing to deal with a great amount of ambiguity in order to succeed.

It isn’t some tip or trick to make that happen. It’s a fundamental shift in how we need to manage our work. And I don’t think anyone has figured it out yet.

How’s your task management system working out? How often do you change it?

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About the Author

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.

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