Every one of us uses a task management system. Whether you think you have one or not, you still use one. Many of us will keep our tasks in our head, others will keep a “to-do” list, more keep their tasks in their email inbox, while others will actually follow some sort of methodology. While I follow the Getting Things Done methodology, the truth of the matter is there is no one “right” way to manage tasks. What one person needs to keep their tasks organized can be very different than someone else’s needs.
But there are some fundamentals to follow. There is a framework with which to build your task management system. Let’s take a look.
You can’t keep track of everything in your head. And your brain is an exceptionally poor tool to use to remind you of something needed in the moment. So any task system has to externalize the tasks you need to do. Unless you get your tasks out of your head and into some system, you don’t have an effective way to look at your list, decide what is important, or see if your list is complete.
Before I knew anything about task management systems or methodologies, I had a single piece of paper, drew lines on it to make four boxes, and labeled each box — work, home, hobby, and other — and wrote my tasks down into those sections. It was the only way I could keep things straight — because it was out of my head.
This means that you need to organize your tasks into subjects. Different people organize their tasks differently. You can organize your tasks by project, by context (as above with my initial one sheet of paper method), time, effort, or priorities. Or anything else — as long as grouping them this way allows you to be efficient in doing the tasks.
The thing about grouping your tasks for efficiency is that the grouping will change over time. Sometimes it makes sense to group tasks by project. Other times by location. Other times by context. So a subset of grouping tasks for efficiency is to also look at if the groupings need changing because your work and life have changed and how you grouped things no longer make sense.
This one is very obvious: you should review your task lists to make sure they are still current, are grouped correctly, are defined well, and the list is complete.
Surprisingly, this is difficult to consistently implement. Friday comes and you’re burned out from the week. Monday morning comes and you walk into a firestorm of problems. Sunday night you don’t want to think about work. I can just say from experience, if you don’t do a weekly review, you will lose control and perspective in your lists.
The purpose of your action list is to execute taking action. Doing stuff. Not tweaking your lists, evaluating your tasks groups, or staring off into space. It’s “see the task, do it, come back and look at the next task and do that one.”
If you can’t sit at your task list and just start doing the tasks on them, then something isn’t set up right. It could be your definition of your next action (“Mom” does not constitute an action, but “buy Mom a birthday card” does). It could be the way you are grouping tasks doesn’t help you in the moment. It could be you spend all of your time reviewing your actions trying to find the right one to perform next.
Spending 90% of your time doing is a good metric to achieve.
Since you use a task management system whether you think you have one or not, it’s important to evaluate how you keep track of tasks. You need this not only to have an inventory of your work, but also to help you prioritize your work, know what you’ve accomplished (for performance reviews and resumes), and can point to what needs doing when your manager pushes you to do more work.
Task management is the essential engine of your performance. Treating it as such will help your control and perspective for what you need to do at work and life.
What are your principles that you follow for setting up a task management system?
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