Having a task management system is critical for success on the job. Your task management system keeps you sane in identifying your work and provides the critical inventory of work to get done that can help defend getting even more work. Almost as important, when you keep good track of your outstanding tasks and work to get done, you never wonder what’s lurking out there that can come back to bite you. Stuff that’s in those 153 unread emails in your inbox, for example.
I follow the Getting Things Done approach to task management. I’ve followed it now for about five years. It is the only methodology that has made sense to me — and I’ve changed approaches to task management since the time dirt formed. This methodology is the longest running iteration of tracking tasks.
Not to say I’ve followed all the rules or all of the steps in the process. Far from it. But even though I’ve fallen off the wagon once in a while, I’ve always gotten back on because Getting Things Done just works.
The original book that describes this approach is David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done.” When I read the first three chapters, it was the first time I found someone describing my dysfunctional work life. Right down to the letter. Even if you don’t choose to follow this methodology, the book is worth a read for seeing a professional, well thought out approach to task management.
The three big tenets of the Getting Things Done approach are:
1. Getting everything out of your head and into a trusted system
2. Assigning tasks to “contexts” – you can only mow the lawn when you are at home and not in the office, so “home” is the context in which “mow the lawn” is available for you to do.
3. Each task is stated in a “next action” format, using verbs. “Mom” doesn’t mean much as a task. “Call Becky to decide what gift to buy Mom for her birthday” is a clear definition of what needs doing with the task.
There’s more of course, but these three items, in my view, are the big foundational points of Getting Things Done.
I’ve followed the traditional “tool availability” contexts described in the Getting Things Done book. Recently, though, I’ve been persuaded that the access to tools that created contexts in the past are now almost ubiquitous. We can call from anywhere. We have access to the Internet from virtually anywhere in the working world, and home or office can be the same place. The key drivers of what we can now do in context relate more to time available and energy. It’s an approach advocated by Simplicity Bliss. I was at first skeptical with this approach, but found it surprisingly easy to work with.
With that, here’s my work contexts for Getting Things Done:
Brain Dead. Look, there are parts of the day where it’s really tough to do much of anything. I use this context to do administrative work (like set up meetings, expense reports) and maintenance work (clean out email, file stuff, get rid of unused items in the digital files). This time can last fifteen minutes or two hours. It’s work that needs doing, it just take a lot of thinking to do it.
Calls. Calls are still phone calls and match up with the traditional contexts. A useful context as you can make a lot of calls in a short time frame because the average length of a phone call is 3-minutes 15-seconds.
Full Focus. These are tasks to work where you are at the height of creativity and thinking ability. Usually you try and do these with a decent chunk of time available — an hour or more — and during the time of day when you work your best. Fitting these types of tasks into these blocks — especially scheduling them on your calendar — has proven to be a great way to complete tasks.
Planning. Planning is for those tasks where you need to research, lay out how you will complete a range of tasks, and thinking through work and tasks to get stuff to an actionable level. When given a new task from your manager, you need to think through how you will accomplish the work because you know as well as I do that the “singular task” is really a bunch of tasks. The Planning context is used to think this through and plan out how to accomplish stuff. Planning time can be as little as fifteen to thirty minutes for the vast majority of work that people do. Move it from planning to the task list with next actions.
Short Dashes. I love this context. You know how you end up having ten minutes between meetings? I’ve never done well with that little time frame. And outside of taking a needed break from meeting after meeting after meeting, the Short Dashes have really helped me get stuff done. Tasks like writing an email to follow-up on something. Collect relevant files for a Full Focus work period. Prep up an agenda for a meeting. Update someone on something you are working on. Short, quick. You can probably only do one of those types of tasks in ten minutes, but that could be five important tasks completed that day that really help out your work.
Waiting. Yeah, I’m waiting on you for something and I put it in the Waiting context. And I review it. That’s how I continue to remember what stuff you still owe me for work and end up pestering you for what you’re supposed to get done.
I’ve found that these contexts work almost all the time. Using this as the “time and energy” view of my work combined with a “project” view (I consult as a Project Manager) keeps me on top of my work inventory. Reviewing the tasks regularly means I’m constantly on top of what work needs doing. Then it’s just a matter of doing the work.
I hope this gives you a perspective of how to manage tasks. What task management system do you use? Why do you like it?
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