Task Management

Posted on Tue, 16 September 2014 in productivity

I love to read and try things out. I love to be productive and I love to make order into the chaos. Since there are hundreds or even thousands of books, blogs, methods, gurus and opinions on this subject, how ever could I find the one that suits me? By trying quite many different ones, such as the famous Getting Things Done (which is way too laborous for me to use continuously), I have combined the best parts of them and honed the perfect one for me.

In this blog post I will explain my task management methodology and share my own thoughts on this beloved subject. I think this is going to be a subject on my blog which will evolve and be revisited several times in the future. Let this be the introduction to my method of task management.

Task Management is not Time Management

Time management as a concept is something which to me sounds impossible. We all have the same exact 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week and so on. I am not aware of any successful attempts to slow, or even stop the time. So please, do not talk about time management, since that does not exist.

Time Management is hokum.

Okay, now that we have that sorted, I can focus on things we actually can manage, which is our tasks and how we use our time.

Various things to do

We all have numerous different things to do at work, at home, and of course with family and friends. They vary in length, difficulty, urgency, attractiveness, location, company, and so on.

In this blog post I focus mainly on work related tasks, since that is the part, which needs most management and thought in order to succesfully deliver on time and keep the clients happy.

At work my tasks consists mostly of

  • process, data and system related architectural design
  • coding
  • data munging
  • documentation
  • tender commenting
  • problem solving
  • studying
  • email correspondence
  • and of course meetings

and they are devided between various projects, ad hoc and repetitive tasks.

All of these require time to complete, and almost all of them have some sort of deadline. The ones that don’t have a deadline, are the best, since I really don’t have to do them at all! I will come back to this a little bit later. (Actually, I’m just gonna put it in here; task with no deadline cannot ever be late, so effectively you never have to actually do it.) Since most of the tasks do have a deadline, they need to be dealt with somehow.

Breaking the onslaught to pieces

As I wrote above, tasks are not all the same. The first thing to do is to sort them out and break them up into manageable pieces.

My method of task management says based on my experience, that the optimal task size is between 30 mins and one full working day. If one task gets any longer (larger) it should be split into further pieces with subgoals set. Anything over one working day is quite difficult to fit in calendar and anything under 30 mins is doable straightaway in most cases.

One thing to bear in mind, is that not all tasks are ment to be done at all. This is relevant especially to the tasks which I create to myself, and sometimes tasks given by others too. If I cannot understand the reason to do the task, I will ask for the it and at most times, the task can be justified to me so well, that it will justify the effort.

Task Management is all about the choices.

In short, my task management consists of the following activities:

  1. Identify the tasks
  2. Prioritize and schedule
  3. Reserve time to complete
  4. Report, analyze, learn, iterate.

More on these in the next chapters. Do keep reading!

Running The Process

Yes, I think task management is a process, which needs to be run continuosly. Making the process as automated and lightweight as possible is crucial, because I do not want to burden myself with yet more tasks to run any more than I absolutely have to. The following describes the optimal scenario, without any add hoc tasks. These can be added at any time and stage of the process as needed.

This is how I run The Process.

In the beginning of each quarter

I start each quarter of the year by summarizing the past quarter. I try to find the highlights and the things that did not quite work out the way I wanted, while keeping the level high-enough. I try to analyze, why those highs and lows went how they did, is there something to learn. What to repeat and what to change or avoid altogether.

Then I focus on the forthcoming quarter. What are the most important goals in the big picture, which I should pay attention to? What do they have in common? Are those only my goals, or are part of some other, wider vision? This will create the skeleton to my quarter plan.

When the big picture is clear, I write down the most important bits and start to envision the tasks which are required to complete in order to reach the goal. At this point the tasks can be at relatively high level. These tasks will form the basis of my task pool for the forthcoming quarter.

In the beginning of each month

I start each month basically in the same way I start each quarter, only the level is at a lower level with more close and concrete goals. I break the big tasks in smaller and manageable pieces, with the maximum length of one working day. I also try to add deadlines for these tasks the best I can.

This is also the first stage of my process in which I start to reserve time from my calendar to complete the most important tasks.

In the beginning of each week

I end each week with a short retrospective to the past week with the same reasons as I describe above.

Then I start each week by going through my open task list and prioritize those to the top of the list, which I need to complete during that week in order to reach my monthly goals.

For the most of them I schedule my calendar to make sure, I have reserved time to complete them. Some tasks may already have time allocation, thanks to the monthly planning. As I add the time reservations, I will also make sure to leave enough room for various meetings and ad hoc tasks, since they will come anyways. As a rule of thumb, I try not to reserve more than 60 % of the whole week.

And as the ad hoc tasks keep fying in at all process phases and times, this is the place, where I can try to manage them too, the best I can.

In the beginning of each day

I start each day by briefly checking my email for any acute matters. I know, this is not recommended by many productivity guides, but I like to do it anyway to get it out of my mind. I also go through my daily schedule, to remind myself who to meet and how the day is supposed to run.

After the initiation sequence, if you will, I can start with my first scheduled task or ad hoc task if need be, and there are not any meetings straight away.

After a good start, next to nothing can stop me from completing the rest of my tasks for that day!

And as a reminder,

Deadlines are the best motivators!

Reserving time for the unexpected

Just as a reminder, I only reserve around 60 % of my weekly hours for scheduled and planned tasks, to leave enough room for various ad hoc meetings, discussions, tinkering and tasks.

First-come, first-served?

The question of prioritization. Priorities play a big role in my task management routine. Some tasks are more important than others and completing the ones that serve bigger and shared goals and help a colleague, take priority almost every time. Deadlines naturally have effect too.

Tools of the Trade

Just a few words on the tools that we (and thus I) use to manage various projects and tasks.

For project management we use Scrum.

For individual tasks, which have no straight connection to a development project, I use Kanban board to manage my tasks.

My Kanban board has four stages:

  • To Do for waiting tasks
  • In Progress for tasks which are, well, in progress
  • Follow-up for tasks which I have completed, and are waiting for customer approval or comment before I can continue
  • Done for tasks which are completed.

Inbox Zero

Final major part in my task management method has to do with email. We all get them. Since this rightfully deserves its own blog post, I will only describe this very briefly.

I am a firm believer of Inbox Zero.

This method means what it says on the label, you should keep your inbox empty at all times. Suprisingly, after some time of practicing, I actually manage to keep it this way!

Notes, who needs them?

Where did I put my notebook?” “I remember we discussed this a while back, but I cannot remenber when and cannot find my notes since I changed my notebook.” Sounds familiar?

This was the case for me too before 2011. After a longish period of testing various methods and tools, I moved to fully digital notes in the beginning of 2011. Maybe I should write a blog post on my tool and technology independent notetaking method some day?

Conclusion

This come out to be quite long post even though I tried to keep things brief!

In short, it boils down to this:

  1. Gather all your goals and tasks in one place.
  2. Sort them, label them and brake them up in manageable pieces.
  3. Schedule them.
  4. Complete them in time.
  5. Iterate.
  6. Oh, and have some fun too while doing so!

What do you think? Do drop me a line via email, or in the social channels!