A Simple and Life Changing System for Managing Tasks

11/22/2013 12:00 AM | Sky Stebnicki

Ever felt that sinking feeling that you are just one slip-up away from utter catastrophe because new tasks are coming your way faster than you can possibly process them? I have felt that stress far more often than I would like to admit. Some time ago I set out to find a practical solution to this recurring problem; the following is how I ended up addressing it.

Personal productivity is always a subject sure to peak the interest of the masses desperate to find a way to get and stay on top of the ever-growing list of things we all need to do. Fortunately, with a little careful thought and the forming of some new habits, the strain of juggling all those endlessly multiplying TODO's can be largely alleviated.

Managing work and time can be put into two broad categories: events and tasks.

Calendar events are pretty easy. The key is to just make sure you put any event scheduled at a specific date and time on your calendar. With the rising popularity of smartphones it has become easier than ever to quickly add events to your calendar throughout the day. If you struggle with your schedule, making this one change can dramatically improve your life. Just wait until you experience the mental freedom of not trying to keep track of every minute of every day - let computers do that; they're better at it anyway.

Tasks, on the other hand, are a bit more complicated. We will define a task as any action that can be completed in a day or less. If the task is large enough to take more than a day then it is what we call a project and should be broken into smaller accomplishable tasks and grouped together. We will discuss projects more in a upcoming post. This post will describe a simple process anyone can implement to stay on top of all those TODO's imposed on us by work, life, and other people.

Managing tasks, no matter how many, can be handled with three activities: (1) process, (2) work, (3) review.

Everyone knows about the "work" activity.  Whether we ever get to it or not, it's actually doing the work. In my experience, the primary source of chaos is due to neglect of the other two, equally important activities: processing and reviewing.

1. Process

It is Friday afternoon and it has been a very long day. You are in your last class of the day and it is taking every ounce of energy you have just to keep your eyelids open as the teacher goes on in her annoyingly enthusiastic manner. It is painfully clear to you that she is just trying to get under your skin. Okay, maybe not, maybe you're just tired. Then it comes, she assigns a task. Everyone is to go online and read an article before class on Monday. How do you go about processing this incoming task? 

Many will do nothing in hopes that their already scattered brains will somehow magically remind them at just the right time this weekend. They hope this despite the fact that earlier this morning they realized there was a paper due that they never got around to, and that was right before they bombed a quiz they forgot to study for. Still, somehow making an entirely useless mental note of "gotta remember to do that" seems to bring them comfort and peace of mind long enough to forget the unhappy business of yet-to-be-done work. If this is you, pretty much anything will be improvement over your current system.

Then there are some who are a bit more organized, they have a hodgepodge kinda sorta organization system where they scribble things in some notebook that they will conveniently forget to look at again until after the task is due. These well-intended organizers are usually just a little more effective in getting work done than the previous group, but the system is far from ideal.

What is needed is a repeatable process that is both simple and powerful enough to capture ALL, not some, not most, but ALL of our tasks as they come in. Below is a very simple workflow that can be used for any task, anywhere, at any time.

Every time a task comes in, one of three things should be done.

1. Do

If you can do the task in 2 minutes or less with what you have in front of you, do it right then and there and be done with it. The mental relief of not having this additional work to look forward to is extraordinary. You are done. There's no need to file or keep track of anything. You can just get on with loving your newly liberated life.

2. Delegate

There are times when either the task needs to be done by someone other than you, or you need additional information from others before you can work on the task. One of the most common ways to delegate a task is through email. The key here is to keep track of delegated tasks. Create a folder in your email called "Delegated" or "Waiting" or whatever will work for you. Then if you defer a task by sending an email to someone, copy the email into your "Delegated" folder so you can quickly see all your deferred tasks without too much work.

3. Defer

Any task that you cannot do right then or delegate to anyone else needs to be filed somehow. In netric, our productivity application, I create a new task to keep track of all deferred work. You can also use any other task management system including a simple piece of paper. The important thing is that you keep all your tasks in ONE place so that you never have to think about where to save tasks when processing or where to find them when reviewing. 

There are many ways you can go about organizing and categorizing your tasks, and if you are like me then your process will change and evolve over time. But there are a few key elements that are absolutely necessary to start tracking right from the start.

The first is Due Date if a due date exists. This is where software tools make life much easier.  But however you keep your task list, if there is a hard date that the task needs to be done by, record it immediately. All the remaining tasks without a due date go into a "Someday" category where you can prioritize them however you see fit.

That Was Easy

And that's all there is to processing your incoming tasks. The trick is to create a habit of always either doing, delegating, or deferring (recording on a list) incoming tasks. At first it will take a lot of work and discipline, but with time it will become second nature. Trust me, if you stick with it then your life will be dramatically improved forever!

Work

Now that you have a great task list you can begin working on your important tasks. Because your tasks are classified by those with due dates and those without, it will be easier to quickly look at your list and know what tasks should be worked on first. Obviously, address the time sensitive tasks as needed before the due date. Then work on the rest as you have time. In netric, on the home page all my tasks are categorized automatically into "Due Today", "Upcoming" and "Later" which makes it even easier to know what should be worked on next.

Review

At least once per week, take time to review your lists. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP because it is what will make sure your system stays organized and well balanced. Fortunately, it does not take too much work. With practice, it should only take a few minutes out of your day once or twice a week. The process looks like this:

  1. Go through your list of upcoming tasks for the next few days to remind yourself of what is coming and to see if anything needs to be changed.
  2. Review your "Delegated" list to see if you need to follow-up with anyone - like send them a reminder email.
  3. Delete items from both lists that are done or no longer relevant to make sure you can trust the information as complete and accurate. This is KEY!

I review every Monday morning and Friday afternoon at the beginning and end of my work-weeks. It takes anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes and the outcome is invaluable. Give it a try yourself for a week. If you're like me, starting this simple habit can change your life in ways you could never imagine.

Of course, this is not the ONLY way to manage tasks; it is just one that I know for sure works for me in any situation. This system is largely based on David Allen's fantastic book "Getting Things Done" which I highly recommend if you would like to dig deeper.

How about you? Do you have any systems or simple tricks you use to process your incoming tasks? Feel free to share them below.

comments powered by Disqus