Task Mangement is Time Management

Surely by now you have developed some system of keeping track of the multitude of items jockeying for your attention at any given moment. Some of you may be quite successful at this, while others are constantly “putting out fires” or simply dealing with the biggest problem at the time. Although this might serve you well now, being constantly reactive leaves you no time to be proactive.

Being organized means having a system that can capture tasks, needs, and items, as well as having some effective way of execution. So many systems and products focus on the first part. You get a great feeling when you see all the work in front of you in nice orderly lists and there are so many choices for list building applications it’s almost overwhelming. But how many applications help with the next step – actually doing the work?

Before we get into doing, lets talk about collection.

I’ve been using GTD as a great framework for much of my organization and task collection. Being someone who tends to have a lot of irons in the fire, GTD helps me clear my mental space to focus on the task at hand. I complete the weekly planning sessions reviewing the items that are active, I keep a note pad by my desk and a dicta-phone in my pocket to capture any new items that arise whether I’m at my desk or in the car. This system has worked for me and continues to be the impetus behind the collection of tasks and ideas. Task collection is critical to task and time management because you need to be working on what matters. And you will not know what matters until you have it all in perspective.

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Now for the bread and butter: task execution.

Executing tasks is where we have to fold in one more dimension that is not present in task collection. This dimension is time, and it has two parts.

  1. The time it takes to complete a task
  2. The time in which it is due

Many popular applications and methods only focus on the latter. In college, I was guilty of this method and fell victim to Parkinson’s Law on may occasions. This happens when you only think of the deadline, and tasks end up taking as much time as you have available before that deadline. So you may surf the net, get coffee, or take a few more glances at your inbox, knowing or subconsciously knowing you have more time to complete a task than it generally would take. The issue arises that you are allowing your allotted time to stretch beyond what it actually takes to do a task. Confronted with this stretch, you may not gravitate toward other meaningful tasks on that list since you are still focused on the deadline. So rather than finishing up and moving on, you loose time in limbo.

There is no such thing as “extra time”, time is quantifiable. Everything you do can be measured by the time it takes to complete it. Making coffee, taking the dog outside, driving from your house to the store – all of us can very easily assign approximate durations to these events. Now most of us do not care how long it takes to walk our pet because we are not pressed by any given deadline. But as soon as we have a deadline, those durations become more important. Most of know how long it takes to drive to work, or get to the train from our house in the morning, because we have to be at work at a certain time. So when you look at managing these deadline oriented tasks, the concern of task duration becomes a critical part.

So why are lists not enough?

About six months ago, I started doing something new with my task lists. I started putting them into my calendar. Not just in the nice little task bar you have in Outlook, but as blocks of time designated for an event. In fact, part of my weekly review on Friday, is to plan out in blocks of time my tasks for the next week. I started this because I would put meetings into my calendar as blocks of time, but not much else. So every morning I would fret about the large list in front of me, and the one or two hurdles in my event calendar.

So I started estimating how long tasks would take as “events” and putting them into my calendar. And after a few weeks I saw some positive results:

  • Completed more projects ahead of time or on time at the latest.
  • Knew my real availability for immediate needs.
  • Could schedule in every aspect of work, including self promotion and long term projects.
  • Had complete focus on my task at hand, not “the list”.
  • Increased creativity and mental space.
  • Became more than 90% accurate at estimating the time to complete tasks.
  • Had more time to get things done and spent less time shuffling and editing “the list”

This approach may not work for everyone and the best laid plans will always be faulted by life’s unexpected emergencies. But where would you rather be when it happens? With a list and no plan, or a list and a plan? And you have to be realistic. The chart below shows what I do and do not schedule.

Do Schedule

  • Meetings / Phone Calls
  • Writing
  • Checking/Composing Email
  • Work (Programming, Design, Consulting)
  • Lunch
Don’t Schedule

  • Breaks – Just take them!
  • Inter-office Conversations
  • Fun – That is not very fun!
  • Anything that is not on a deadline

I recommend that you stop thinking of your work as a series of deadlines.

Work is a series of events, prioritized by when they are due. Hopefully you will start to feel the freedom and energy of having your day in front of you and removing the over-arching task of keeping tabs on the list. It’s working for me, and I know it can work for others. Its a work in progress, but working very well so far.

If you have questions, ideas, or additions please feel free to post below in the comments to contact me on twitter @tobinlehman.

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