5 task management habits to get more done

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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…


  • Based on what I am seeing there, the site doesn’t provide specific enough information to do a task. (See point 2). I had not seen the site before, though, so thanks for pointing it out!

  • Do you find that listening to a podcast/radio while working, is a distraction that kills productivity ?

    • This is a really good question. The answer is really dependent on the person.

      For example, when I’m writing, like for posts on Cube Rules, I like to listen to music — instrumental music. If I listen to music with people singing words, I can’t concentrate on the writing. So in my case, instrumental music is great for my productivity, but music with words in it is not productive at all. Everyone has their specific great productivity enhancer than another person would find totally nuts.

  • Helpful post Scot. I usually miss the 3rd point here. Thanks for giving a heads up!

  • Nice post !! Thanks.
    Just surprised that you didn’t mention about Twitter and Facebook which are 10,000 times more distracting than emails:
    – your time lines update faster than you can read,
    – subjects are random and unrelated to what you need to get done.
    But it’s at the same time very powerful tools to get informed and learn.
    So I guess these tips apply to managing your time lines as well.
    It is becoming a huge challenge to be active on social media and email AND at the same time, not be sucked in and get things done.
    Oups by the way I just realized I got distracted by your post and need to get things done. So I guess the first point on my to do list should be to apply your tips…

    • I’d note that employees rarely get to-do’s from their managers via Twitter and Facebook — but they get them all the time via e-mail. That’s why the e-mail component is so important. But, yes, not handled well, Twitter and Facebook can suck up time big-time.

  • Interesting blog – Recently I’ve found myself running round in circles, appearing busy but not actually achieving very much. Perhaps its because I’m always looking for distractions. Picking up the easy tasks and not cencentrating on the more important tasks. Point 2 was releveant.

    Thanks for the photo credit.

    • Rob,

      Thanks for the comment. I have to tell you how wonderful it is that such great photography is shared on Flickr. Plus, how difficult it is to find plugins that provide the RIGHT license attribution to the great people who take them. I have only found two and the current one is Photo Dropper. Thanks for all you do.

  • There are many posts online that claim to suggest ideas to increase productivity. Most of them are just ‘ideal lists’ which are too good to preach, but not easy to practice. This is NOT one of those posts. I like the practicality of the ideas suggested.

    Manish šŸ™‚

    • I have been accused of being the “nuts and bolts” career blogger…glad you found this useful.

  • Nice post Scot! One thing that works for me is prioritizing my tasks into Groups A (must get done today) and B (it’d be nice to get done today) on my “to do” list, then re-setting my list at the end of the day for the following day.

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