If you constantly feel behind in your work, you may worry you have a time management problem. More likely you have a task management problem.
Your professional success depends on (1) achieving your top priorities; (2) making sure you don’t drop the ball on any other projects; and (3) keeping up with the basic communication expected of every employee. Time and attention are the knowledge worker’s most precious resources, and they are finite. To protect them, develop a task management system you can trust.
A sound system helps you prioritize your most important tasks and focus on your daily goals. It ensures you know everything on your plate before you invest your time. You wouldn’t use a credit card with no idea whether you’ve already maxed it out. It also helps you avoid distraction, which cripples productivity. Contrary to popular myth, you don’t multitask well, and you don’t work better under extreme pressure. Your system can help you build these two skills into habits.
There are many possible ways to manage your tasks. Ultimately you must find a system that works for you. This post walks you through the basics of one popular method.
Follow these steps to build a system you can trust.
1. Capture every single task in one place, leaving no stone unturned. Use software, index cards, or a notepad if you wish. Your method should be comfortable for you.
2. Clarify each task by rewriting it as a next action: the specific thing you will do to move the task forward. Break down larger projects into smaller actions. Assign hard deadlines to tasks that require one.
3. Organize your tasks. Prioritize them by urgency. Within each priority group, further sort them by task type (phone call, errand, etc.) so you can tackle like items at once.
4. Reflect on the top levels of your task list once daily, and review your entire list once a week. Adjust the priority order of your tasks as needed given new information.
5. Engage! Do the top task on your list and only that. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by incoming emails or other tasks on your list.
Once you have your system in place, maintain it diligently. Follow these steps for every new task or project that crosses your desk. If someone gives you a new task without a deadline, immediately ask for one.
Want to learn more? I recommend David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” on which this advice is heavily based.
Chad Wilcox is Chief Operating Officer with the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. This is the third of a five part series.