4 Easy Steps to Task Management Mastery
Work is busier than ever and the demands can often seem unreasonable. Do your employees voice concerns over workload and lack of time? Are they constantly stressed and in crisis?
You might be asking yourself if these symptoms are the result of underlying issues relating to time management, priority management, and task management. Maybe it's a combination of all three.
In this blog post, I will offer some suggestions for integrating email management, to-do lists, and calendars that can significantly reduce stress and prevent feeling overwhelmed by work.
As you know, there is no magic bullet or 'one-size-fits-all' approach to how we learn or how we work best. As a manager or human resource professional, the best you can do is offer some good options.
David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) and Michael Linenberger's Total Workday Control are highly regarded and used by many. While these systems offer some great suggestions, they take a considerable amount of time and energy to learn. The good news is that many of the steps in each of these systems stand alone and can be combined with methods you may already be using successfully.
So, rather than present an entire system, I will share some of the individual steps that I think are most effective and can help employees feel in greater control of their time and workload.
Email is a source of great stress. Here are my top 4 suggestions for email management:
- DO NOT CHECK CONSTANTLY - This study from the University of British Columbia proved that reducing the number of times we check email each day reduces our stress levels as well as significantly reducing how long it takes to process.
- USE THE 4 Ds WHEN PROCESSING - Start by DELETING unwanted emails, then DO anything that will take less than 2 minutes, DELEGATE work that needs to be done by another by forwarding the email to them, and DEFER more thoughtful replies that require some time by adding the task to your To-Do list.
- INBOX ZERO - This is by no means a must, but if you are interested in achieving Inbox Zero, you can. Once you have processed emails and added the tasks required by them to your To-Do list, put all of the emails into a Processed Email Folder. This will enable you to search them, if needed, while un-cluttering your Inbox.
- EMAIL FILING - If you are uncomfortable grouping all emails in a processed email folder, create an email filing system that is similar to your paper filing system. Once you have processed emails and added the tasks require by them to your To-Do list, file emails in their appropriate folders.
Removing processed emails from your inbox reduces visual clutter and saves time you otherwise waste re-reading emails you have already seen.
There are many ways to effectively manage your To-Do list. Your To-Do list needs to capture EVERYTHING. This is my favorite part of GTD. If ideas and thoughts are not written down, they continue to float around in your head...kind of like a snow globe. This makes you less effective at truly focusing all of your brainpower where it is needed most.
Here are 4 different task management systems:
- PAPER - The most basic To-Do list is simply pen and paper. The margin can be used to indicate urgency or priority. I strongly encourage paper users to take a snapshot of their list each day in case the paper gets lost. The downside to paper is that it's more difficult to update without re-writing and losing it can be devastating.
- SPREADSHEET - Some companies restrict the use of cloud-based apps. In these instances, employees will often use a spreadsheet for their To-Do list. The benefit is that sorting and updating are easy. You can also include deadlines and priority status. The downside is that it is more difficult to share with others and it's not visually appealing.
- APPS LIKE TODOIST OR WUNDERLIST - I use ToDoist (love it!) and have also heard great things about Wunderlist. This is my To-Do list of choice because it is easy to learn and use, it syncs across platforms but is also a desktop app, you can share projects with others, and it is visually appealing. They also offer "karma points" which are meaningless, but somehow you feel good about earning them when tasks are completed.
- NOTEBOOK - Many paper-users like to carry around a notebook that includes both their notes and To-Do list. I find this a little confusing. Even if it's limited to To-Dos, the thought of a notebook filled with tasks would make me want to run in the opposite direction...way too overwhelming! I also find it problematic if a task has aged and is many pages away from what you are currently working on. If you are a notebook user, please let me know how you make it work!
Regardless of the system you use, it is helpful to estimate how long a task will take when you add it to your list (just put the time in parentheses).
Using a calendar pulls together everything you have going on. Here are 4 steps to maximize your calendar's performance:
- ONE LIFE, ONE CALENDAR - You should have everything on one calendar (both work and personal.) If your colleagues can access your calendar, create a separate calendar in Outlook (or the system you use) that shows that you are unavailable without providing the detail. This will make it easier for you to get the big picture of your responsibilities and obligations.
- USE TIME BLOCKING - This is a great tool for protecting your window of peak performance by blocking out time on your calendar to get your most difficult work accomplished. It can also be used for personal routines that you value (family dinners, exercise, date night, etc.) When items are in your calendar, they are more likely to get done.
- ASSIGN A TIME TO A TASK - A follow-on to time blocking is to set aside the last 10 minutes of each day to assess what you did (or did not) accomplish. Look at the calendar for the following day and be sure to include all set meetings by blocking off the time. Then, schedule in the tasks that must be accomplished, being sure to allow extra time (you can't end a meeting at 11 AM and start one at the same time.)
- FOLLOW IT - Putting everything in your calendar is the first step; then you need to follow it! Use your calendar like a map to get you through the day in the most productive way possible.
The suggestions above will reduce stress by enabling your employees to feel in greater control of their time. Implementing these strategies will also make them more productive.
Did I miss a system or strategy you find successful? Please let me know!
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For more productivity tips related to email, check out these blog posts: