Task Management


stressed out

As my wife and I prepare for baby number two (Irish Twins, pray for us!), I have been noticing a particular todo being relegated to the backburner each week. Even though I clearly know the importance of this task as we prepare for a larger family, that knowledge seems to have no impact on the priority. As I stopped to think why, I discovered four ways in which we often get stuck with getting things done:

Home Field Advantage

"One of these tasks is not like the other," is what I noticed when comparing the lingering todo with all the other tasks I was hammering away at day-after-day. In the end, home field advantage goes to the task with the greatest simplicity and specificity. The reason why I was delaying an important todo was not because I was procrastinating, but rather because of the task's lack of clarity and specificity. All the surrounding tasks were vying for my attention with their clarity of direction. If I'm rushing through my list and I see one task suggesting to "Mow the lawn," and the other one suggesting to "Build a Dog Run," I'm no soothsayer, but I'm sure I'll be picking "mow lawn."

If we want to be most effective with our day, we need to ensure that we do our best not to create favoritism between tasks. To do this we must regularly examine our todos, giving serious attention to the lingering ones. Generally, the reason why we get to some tasks and not others is because the unattended tasks weren't tasks to begin with, but rather projects. The golden rule is that if the task takes more than one step to complete, then it ought to be converted to a project. When I did this with my hanging task, I immediately began seeing progress. Rather than "Clean Basement," tasks like "clean out desk drawer," or "label bins on shelf" became much more appealing, and were thus quickly flagged for that day's list.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Founder

Sometimes our initial passion for a task quickly wanes. If that is the case, it is no longer necessary to keep these tasks in the foreground, taking up mental real estate. The best way to remove these tasks from sight is to either defer them out to a later date, or to send them to a maybe/someday list which is reviewed much less often.

Task Hoarder Anonymous

People ascribe more value to things simply because they own them. This has become such a well known reality that it has its own label: The Endowment Effect. This "endowment effect" can also make a mess out of todo lists. As soon as we write down a todo, we "own it." Now that we own it, we ascribe unprecedented value to it. Eventually some of these tasks become old and outdated. Rather than deleting them, we keep them lingering around just in case, never really having an idea of what the case might be for needing them. My two rules are these: If that task did not exist today, would you add it to your list knowing what you know now? If not, delete it. In addition, if the added/created date is a year old, seriously consider deleting it unless it is an active recurring item. Some people will include ideas in their task lists. I'm strongly against using any task management system for anything other than actions. All ideas, thoughts, inquiries, notes, and resources should be stored someplace else. Keep things clean, keep things tidy, keep things going.

S#*@ or Get Off the Pot

Sometimes the task is specific, clear, important, timely and relevant, yet we still are not making room in our day to get it down. When this is the case, we are left with two options:

  1. Is this something that can be delegated? If so, delegate it and document the delegation accordingly in your task management system for regular check-ins.
  2. If the task cannot be delegated, yet it needs to be done, then it is time to take more drastic measures. Get out your calendar, and find a block of uninterrupted time that you can formally designate for this task. Block it out, and make sufficient notes in your event to ensure that there is no question what this block of time is meant to be used for. Now, GET-IT-DONE.

Reading this was the easy part. It's your turn now. Open up your task list and take a serious look at those lingering tasks. Now increase clarity and specificity, defer them, delete them, delegate them, or do them. Good luck!

Eight Tips For A Day Worthy of Being Called Good

Do you know for certain that what you are doing today is the best use of your time? If not, here are eight tips to ensure every day is a day worthy of being called good.

  1. Don’t Look At Your List — You read that right. A todo-list worth doing is a todo-list worth deferring. Let your first hour of the morning be todo-list free. This time is exclusively reserved for establishing the proper foundation to approach the day. Consider spending time in meditation and/or prayer, journaling, and exercising. Every morning is an opportunity to embrace the gift of life anew. Life is not about getting stuff done, but rather about leaving the world better off from when it began that morning. What is the one thing you can do this morning that will leave someone you will encounter feeling as if they are better off for having spent time with you?

  2. Clarity is Key — Ready, Set, …. Wait, What am I suppose to do? If your todo-list is full of vague cryptic todos, you’re starting out on the wrong foot. Your todo-list should present clear and concrete steps to success. Begin each task with a verb like, “Pay medical bill,” or “Research Audi A4 on Consumer Reports.” Tasks like, “medical bill,” or “Audi A4” give no direction, and without direction the mind will naturally gravitate toward skipping it. The clearer you are with your todos, more likely it will be for you to do them.

  3. Simple is Super — If you had two tasks on your list, one being to take out the trash, and the other to do your taxes, which one would you most likely choose? While tax evasion is pretty scary, taking out the trash seems more appealing. The reason why we avoid doing things is because the defined action is not concrete enough. Home field advantage is always to the task that requires the least amount of deciphering. To give every task equal weight, ensure every todo is a single step action, relegating multitask todos to projects. Instead of “do taxes,” a better action might be to “Scan all receipts to QuickBooks.” Now this task competes nicely with “Take out the trash.” Heck, I might even do both!

  4. Ready the Resources — If the task needs any additional resources to be completed, add them to the task itself. If you have to call someone, add the number to the notes section of the todo. If the todo refers to a document, either add the document directly to the note section as an attachment, or give the precise location of the document. Research has shown that if we have to search for anything to finish the task, we will naturally skip it for a less complicated one. By placing all todos on an equal playing field, we have the freedom to choose the best one rather than the simplest one.

  5. Overcoming Optical Overload — Preparing for your day by looking at a list of 150 todos is like finding inspiration through meditating on your educational loan. It just won’t happen! Simplify your list by filtering it. Defer what can be responsibly deferred to a future date, delegate what you can, delete any old irrelevant tasks, move wish-list todos to a “maybe/someday” list, and group the rest according to contexts. Have an “Office Only” list and “Home Only” list of todos. Consider having a separate list for errands, calls/texts, communications, et cetera. The goal is to break things down into bight-sized pieces to make your list more manageable. After all, what is the point of seeing what I need to do at home when I’m at work? All that does is reduce my focus, making me think of things that are outside of my control. Stay focused, stay clear, stay happy!

  6. Start — You have a clear, concrete and filtered list. Now what? Start! Rather than aimlessly checking off todos, block off a period of time each day to work on that which is most important to you. Ask the question, “What is the one thing I could do today that would make everything else in my life easier, or unnecessary, and make me happier?” Do not stop until this question is answered concretely with a single action step. Now start! Everything else can wait until later.

  7. Breath and Be Better For It — Amidst all of this, remember to breath. Take a 15-20 minute break every 50-90 minutes of your work day to remain focused and creative. Get outside and take a short walk if the weather is nice. Connect with co-workers, friends, and family. Meditate, pray, journal. Set an alarm and make sure to stick to these breaks, and know what you are going to do before the break. Do this and you will have greater creativity, more focus, but most importantly you will embrace your humanity. Times of solitude are life-giving but isolation is life-draining. Connect with others regularly, and you will be more connected with yourself.

  8. The Prepare Protocol — To ensure the mornings remain a time of todo free mental and spiritual renewal, plan your tomorrow tonight. Take 15-20 minutes each evening to look over your calendar and todo-list. This is a time to confirm appointments, select the one thing you will work on during your designated block of time, and to simplify your list to a more management size. Your tomorrow is now ready to work for you rather than you having to work for it!

Good luck and here’s to a day worthy of being called “good.”