A key step to being productive is to establish your task management system.
One of your limitations as a human is the number of things you can keep in your head at any time. The human brain is capable of remembering lots of things, but we can only keep so many things front and center.
Thoughts about tasks come in and out of our head very lucidly. You get to work first thing in the morning and try to focus on your weekly report. But before that, you have to close down some tabs you have up that remind you that you really need to finish off the slides for a customer demo.
You clean up the slides and start to move back to the report, when a nagging feeling hits you that you are forgetting something. You check your calendar. Shit, is that webinar scheduled for today? You quickly sketch out an outline, but then remember that Andrea had said something insightful in one of your chat groups that you wanted to include. You open up that application, and then all hell breaks loose and that report has no chance of getting done.
This is your brain
This is how our brains are built. We can focus on what we are doing right in the moment until some emergency presents itself and then we have to shift all of our attention. Tasks randomly jump to the top of our consciousness like one of those old school lottery ball machines.
This might have been a good system for the old hunter-gatherer trying to stay alive, but it’s pretty horrible for the modern office worker who has dozens of things to remember and prioritize.
What is a task management system?
A task management system externalizes all of these random thoughts and relieves your brain from having to constantly store and sort them. Instead of being constantly distracted by emergencies and thoughts that pop into your head, you can quickly capture and later sort through them later.
The two essential functions of a task management system
At its core, a task management system must do two things.
- Capture and store task reminders
- Prioritize tasks
Good productivity recognizes that your best ideas may come to you when you are already being productive at something else. You don’t want to ignore that idea, but you don’t want to indulge it either. You need a tool that can nearly instantly let you take those distractions, and put them in a system where you can organize them later. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.
Ideas come randomly in your head, or from action items at a meeting, or when you are working on something else, or when you are sifting through your communication.
Your task management system is the place where all of these ideas sit in one place. But if it is just a dumping ground of ideas, it’s not enough. You also need to be able to quickly look at all your tasks and arrange them based on their relative importance and urgency so that you get the most important things done first.
Qualities of the best task management systems
You don’t want one list in your email, a bunch of sticky notes on your desk, and then a separate app on your phone to handle your tasks. You need one master system that holds everything.
Let’s face it–some of your best ideas come when you are on the toilet. Or at the park. Or riding in the car. That said, your task management system shouldn’t be exclusively mobile. When it’s actually time to work, you probably don’t want to pull out your phone and risk being distracted.
When sorting through your email, it’s nice to be able to just click a button and have it immediately go to your task management system. Or when you schedule a meeting, for you to have a quick option to assign a task to prepare for it. Or when you are having a discussion online to quickly pull a task out of it. At this point, there are very few systems out there that have this deep of an integration will all your tools, but just having the ability to capture the URL of where that work needs to happen is enough.
Benefits of using a task management system
You know where to go when it’s time to work
When it’s time to sit down and work, you don’t load up your email or messaging app. You look at your task management system and start hitting the big stuff. Work is what happens when you are moving through all of your tasks, not just sitting in your chair.
For me, a great task management system is a centering tool. I can relax knowing that all of my ideas and reminders are safe in one place. When it’s time to work, I don’t have to go through the anxiety of wondering what I should be doing. I know what I need to do and I can sit down and do it. This is especially useful when I hit that afternoon slump and am easily distracted and need something to pull me back in.
Your task management system is the boss
A good portion of what you probably do at work is controlled by other people through meetings, notifications, emails, and more. Another large portion is all of the internal distractions you face. Even if you are focused on a task, your brain is still on high alert mode and aware of other things you could be doing. Like going to finish off that cheesecake in the break room.
So, who is in charge of what you do? Other people? Or your lizard brain?
Instead, when you let a task management system be your boss, i.e. determine what you work on, you get to take advantage of trusting that your higher brain knew what it was doing when it prioritized your tasks.
You make a barrier between communication and getting shit done
Many of us confuse communication with accomplishing tasks. When you are talking with others about work, you are rarely getting tasks done. Communication and dialog is a vital part of work, but it isn’t everything. If most of your day is spent switching between your email and messaging applications, you aren’t likely getting much done.
When you do your communication, it’s like going out to check your mailbox. It’s an important part of the day. But you don’t spend your whole day sitting at the mailbox and continuously checking to see if anything new has come. You visit only a few times, check what’s there, and sort it appropriately. Then you get back to work.
You are already using a task management system
You don’t have to create one or go out and spend a lot of money on technology. You mostly need to decide if the system you are using is a good or bad one and if you can improve it.
Good systems I’ve tried
A piece of paper
There have been seasons when I just take a big piece of paper and write out everything that is top of mind at the start of the day. I might star the things that are top priority and then just work on mowing down the list.
This is my default system when I’m stressed or when I really need to focus, such as right before I start packing for a big international trip. I’ve also used it around the office by just writing down 3-4 of my most important tasks and keeping that by me all day. It’s still my preferred method on weekends when I have a wide variety of tasks to choose from.
The down side of a single piece of paper is that you can lose it, it’s hard to change priorities, and can’t last for more than a few days until you need to make a new one (not always a bad thing to clear it all out and start fresh).
To help with prioritizing things, you can use sticky notes or flags to keep track of tasks. This solves the prioritization issue because it creates a kanban feel where you can move things around.
You get some bulletin board and then write your tasks on the flags and arrange them on the board in order of priority. The flags are really easy to move around (taking drag and drop to a whole new level), and it feels damn good to see a pile of flags sitting there of things you’ve accomplished for the day.
The downside of flags is that they don’t link to your digital tools like email, and you can’t take them with you easily if you are working in a different location for the day.
You make a simple spreadsheet with the name of the task, a column for any links to quickly access the work, and a column to set the priority. If you auto-sort the sheet based on the priority column, you’ve got a nice system that can capture, prioritize, and integrate pretty well.
The downside of spreadsheets is that, well, it’s a spreadsheet, and is destined to make you depressed at some point in your life. The user experience is lacking a lot, and it can be hard to keep a record of everything you’ve done if you are deleting rows.
Everyone’s got some tool they’ve tried at some point. This is where you realize that it is a very personal thing what tool you want to use. I tried to use Evernote at least three separate times. I’m sure people aren’t lying when they say how awesome it is, but I just don’t get it. I used Remember the Milk for a long time with some success. And I’ve tried Todoist and Wunderlist. They are all fine, but usually are just a bit more complex than I want.
I used Google Tasks for a long time and its integration with Gmail was great. But just when they cleaned up the UI, they also forced you to only be able to see the tasks on your desktop when you had your email up, which is horrible for distractions.
Bad systems make you focus on the system, invite distraction, and don’t let you prioritize your most important tasks.
Ever sent yourself an email as a reminder to do something? Stop that. Email is built for distractions and should only be used as a tool for communicating with people outside your company. Do not keep emails in your inbox to remind you to do them later. You are not working when you are going through your email. You are only sorting your communication.
Apps that you fiddle with all the time
It will take 2-3 days to create a new task management system and configure it to your tastes, but after that, you should pretty much never work on it again. If you find yourself constantly messing with it, it’s not a good system for you. Spending time on your task management system itself is not being productive. Don’t be deceived.
Now, get back to work
Having a good task management system is essential to being productive. There are lots of good systems out there, but most of us are stuck using sloppy ones. Be intentional and create your own system that works for you.