Task management tools are one of the great bunny trails on the Internet. The volume of information about task management tools is staggering. And all of it, while interesting, misses the point: the tool you use to track your tasks doesn’t make you do the stuff on the list. Only you can do that, not the tool.
While the tools are interesting, I’m more concerned about the habits we use to work our to do list to actually get things done. While I subscribe to the Getting Things Done methodology and use OmniFocus as the tool for doing so, developing these five habits will help you get more work done regardless of the tool you use to track your work. Plus, you won’t drive yourself crazy in the quest for getting more work done…
1. View e-mail as an inbox that needs processing
E-mail and meetings are the two biggest time-wasters on the planet. People span the spectrum of checking their e-mail every time a new one pops up on their computer screen (get rid of those pop up reminders; they are a total distraction…) to reading e-mails and not doing anything about them.
The habit you want to develop is to open your e-mail box and process all the new e-mails in there. By process, I mean to do something with each one as appropriate — respond to it, delete it, file it, or add the tasks associated with it to your to do lists. What you don’t want to do is to open it, read it, have two minutes to go to a meeting and then close the e-mail without doing something with it. All that does is help you redo all the work all over again and add hundreds of e-mails to your inbox.
If you open your e-mail, commit to processing it and then get it out of your inbox.
2. Define precisely what physical action needs doing on the to-do list
Defining the “next action” is a Getting Things Done term, but it applies to all to-do lists. You can’t do a list, you can only do some physical action on a list. There is a big difference between putting “create the team meeting PowerPoint” on a to-do list and putting “create three slides that covers current expenses, current budget, and next month’s outlook for team meeting on 9/27” on the list.
When you don’t define down to a physical action on the to-do list, you end up rethinking what you need to do for every item on the list instead of just doing it. (This happens to me all the time; it is one of the biggest areas of improvement for me…).
Think of writing this post: if I just had the idea for the post and put that on my “Cube Rules” list – write on task management habits — I still have to create, again, the habits that will help. If I include the five habits right with the to-do, I can just sit down and write. This requires you to think about what precisely needs doing before it goes on your list — but you only have to think about it once, not every single time you look at your list when you are trying to decide what to do next.
3. Look at your to-do list regularly
Regularly means “after you complete a task.” When you always look at your list for what’s next, you will tend to place more emphasis on working the physical actions on the list, putting everything that needs doing on the list, and being more precise on what, exactly, needs doing. This is a great habit to develop in our attention disorder work world; this habit provides stability to what needs doing.
4. Develop a key list of two things to do today
There are days (or weeks if you have the right manager…) when the whole work world is one kaleidoscope of tasks coming at you that had nothing to do with what you planned for the day. Keeping up with the fire hose is challenging, no doubt. One of the ways you can still move forward is to put a note up that gives you two things to complete that day, no matter what. Getting into this habit will help you continually move forward in what is important to you for that day, for the job or not.
I’ve found that I rarely can get two things done on this kind of a day; one completed still gives you a sense of moving forward.
5. Work in batches
If you have five phone calls to make, do all five. Then move on to another batch of work. Our brain gets into a groove for whatever you work on; we should make use of it. Instead of phone call, e-mail, PowerPoint, Word document, phone call, PowerPoint, e-mail…just do all or as many of one thing as you have time to do right now. It provides a bigger sense of completion and keeps you knocking stuff out.
Distractions kill productivity
You knew this already, though, right? While getting rid of distractions is important, more important is getting back on track and recovering your focus so you can complete your work without going crazy. Developing these habits will help you stay focused and keep you in control while chaos reigns around you.
Ooops…I have a new e-mail. Excuse me while I go check it…