How a task management system simplifies your work

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exposed to some discussions not around “organizational tips and tricks” for getting organized, but more around what types of things are causing us to get overwhelmed with information and the impact that has on us to try and get organized.

The basic premise is that life has simply gotten more complex and more tasks that used to be done by employees are now done by us. For example, in The Organized Mind, we get this piece:

Companies large and small have off-loaded work onto the backs of consumers. Things that used to be done for us, as part of the value-added service of working with a company, we are now expected to do ourselves. With air travel, we’re now expected to complete our own reservations and check-in, jobs that used to be done by airline employees or travel agents. At the grocery store, we’re expected to bag our own groceries and, in some supermarkets, to scan our own purchases. We pump our own gas at filling stations. Telephone operators used to look up numbers for us. Some companies no longer send out bills for their services—we’re expected to log in to their website, access our account, retrieve our bill, and initiate an electronic payment; in effect, do the job of the company for them. Collectively, this is known as shadow work—it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the customer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it.

Then there was a discussion on Mac Power Users with psychiatrist, musician, geek, and author Kourosh Dini where all of the different types of overwhelm were talked about and the conclusion that life is more complex.

And our mind isn’t ready or able to incorporate all of the complexity.

How to deal with the complexity?

Fortunately, or not, how you deal with complexity is to use some form of technology to capture your tasks.

The underlying principle here is that your mind is a terrible place to store what you need to do. Your mind can only hold a limited amount of tasks and cannot prioritize. Getting milk at the store and buying a house have the same priority and both of those thoughts, kept in your brain, will constantly intrude on whatever you are doing now.

Thus, the key is to get your tasks externalized into some sort of task management system. And clearly define what the successful outcome of the task is so that you can cross it off your list.

You can’t say, “Mom.” You have to define some actionable, physical thing to do so that it can be done. “Call Mom about setting a weekend to come and visit.” That works.

If you don’t have a task management system, you need one

I won’t go into the multitude of tools available to you to track your tasks. All of them have their merits and their disadvantages. The right task management system is the one that works for you, whether it is simply paper or some electronic tool.

For the longest time, I used a single sheet of paper, drew lines to have it show four quadrants and then put tasks in there divided up by “work, home, personal, and other” that didn’t fit into one of the three categories.

The thing is, that system worked for a very long time. But as life became more complex, I needed to shift tools into something that would handle the complexity.

Task management works

And being faithful to reviewing your tasks can keep you sane. As David Sparks notes in “Task management when the bullets are flying,”

While both of these tips are useful every day, when things get hard the temptation will be there to ditch them. I certainly have in the past. With this latest scramble however, I have made a conscious decision not to do that and in fact commit to myself to keep up with daily reviews and forecasting. It’s working. Life is nuts right now. I’m not.

“Life is nuts right now. I’m not.”

That’s when you know your task management system is working.

  • Definitely so! I think you’ve made a really interesting point that dividing things by tasks is often a very organized, structured, and efficient way to keep everyone accountable and on their feet. It’s a great way to be transparent with the work that you do, but also understand how everyone else is doing so you can push forward initiatives and ideas when most appropriate. A new frontier in productivity!

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