Some people love them.
Some people hate them.
Some people have never thought about what their personal definition of a task is.
For simplicity’s sake: a task is any form of work that you need to complete for yourself, the team or a boss. It is what makes money magically appear in your pocket at the end of every month. But hang on a minute! It’s slightly more complex than that.
Let’s take a step back, put our strategy heads on and think about tasks from a few different angles first:
1. Emails are not Tasks
People use their inbox as their task list. Emails are not tasks. Some emails may contain tasks but they are not tasks in and of themselves. Email is a form of communication. Communicating may be a task but it seldom is the most important task on any given day.
2.Understand Different Types of Information
Because people use their inbox as their primary task list, it is important to dissect what is flowing into an inbox. Email is a communication form so what fills up an inbox up is information. The information found in an inbox can be split into three main categories: tasks, thinking or brainstorming strategic information and push information.
Tasks are any types of information where a specific action and outcome is required from another person.
Thinking or brainstorming and strategic information is any type of information that needs to be referred back to.
Generally information needs to be referred back to because it is administrative in nature such as processes or passwords or because it is an idea or a strategy that needs further exploration and breaking down into actions. It is important to note though that it has not yet reached an actionable state. Push information is where the receiver is being informed of something but no response is required. The majority of email is task related, yet ironically the majority of people’s time is spent on push information within the inbox. This is of course the least important type of information in any workday.
3. Different Types of Work
Every business has different levels. Each of these levels is dominated by different types of information. Executive teams mostly deal with strategic information. Management teams mostly deal with strategic information in relation to task-related information. Tactical or implementation teams mostly deal with task-related information. All levels of the organisation deal with push information which is mostly classified as unnecessary. It is important to remember that simply because executive teams do not mostly deal with task-related information that it is not important or visa- versa.
4. Juggling versus Completion
Work is no longer completed in isolation as it was pre-internet. We now work on work together, all the time. This creates a subconscious pressure that did not exist before because someone else is always waiting on you and you are always waiting on someone else. As workers, we are still very much of the mindset that all tasks need to be completed. Yes they do, but this is the very final stage of the work. Between starting and ending there is a lot of juggling and ping-ponging happening where work-in-transit is being bounced between two or more people to get it to a state of completion. Emotionally we will continue to feel a sense of overwhelm at never completing work if we do not alter our mindset around how work is actually performed in today’s working world. It is necessary to see work as in-progress 99% of the time, rather than incomplete or complete.
5. Gift Yourself with Flow
“Flow” is that state in which you are fully absorbed in any given task and you are not distracted by anything else. We crave this without realising we are craving it. Our brains are built to work in flow mode yet we deprive them of this state on a daily basis. We juggle inboxes, tabs in internet browsers, chat apps, our phones, meetings and every other possible disruption we can handle. We reach the end of the workday feeling frazzled and wonder why. Switch off. Focus. Take a break. Allow the interruptions to come in. Pay attention to them. Switch off. Focus. Rinse, repeat. It really is that simple and it will transform the way we work.
6. Give the Big Picture
The assumption is made that some people are tactical and some are strategic. It is true that some people’s working styles and strengths lend themselves to strategic or operational tasks but everyone is more highly motivated when they see the big picture and understand how their small spoke of a contribution fits into the larger wheel that keeps everything turning. Communicate the big goal often.
7. Tie Work back to Goals
Because some people are more operational in their thinking, tying their specific tasks back to the big goal is not necessarily something that everyone can do. It is important to visually show people how their work accumulates along with many other people’s work to achieve specific goals. These actions should form the basis of performance management in the organisation. Many people are rated on their effectiveness by how much they do, when in fact this is only 60% of the picture. The other 40% is how what they do contributes towards actual goal completion. Many people are busy fools and nobody stops to align the team into doing the really important stuff.
8. Task-Orientated Thinking
Coming up with a list of tasks that need to be completed away from an inbox is a very difficult activity for many people to do. Thinking about work in terms of: the big goal, the milestones to reach the big goals, the task areas that feed into the milestones and each of the tasks within a specific task area is a type of thinking which individuals need to learn. It is not something that comes naturally to most people. Ensure training measures are in place if you want to increase the productivity of your team.
9. Master Task Lists
Every person needs a space where they can empty their brain out on a daily basis. We have a hundred million pieces of information flying at us on a daily basis. Our brains get full. They need emptying out. A master list that is neither date, time or category specific fulfils the brains need to be cleared perfectly.
10. Weekly Task Lists
Master lists can get “messy” because they are offloading territory and they’re not prioritised in any way. A transfer needs to happen where items are taken from the master list and placed onto the weekly list. This ensures that important tasks are prioritised and that distractions in the form of non-urgent tasks are dealt with in the correct time and space. As mentioned in the time management 101 post, it is important to ensure that our weekly task lists match our calendar schedules.
11. Project Specific Lists
Some work is optimised when handled as a project and not as a group of individuals working on a bunch of tasks. Optimise task lists according to the work being completed. An example of this would be a magazine edition or a rebranding project or an e-book. It has a set of very specific tasks and it is easier for all the people contributing to the project to refer to one specific list instead of trying to fish through their larger list of tasks for the tasks related to this project.
12. People Specific Task Lists
Some work is better managed with people-centric lists. General tasks that arise randomly and recurring tasks related to someone’s job function are best handled on a standard personalised task list that is for that individual’s personal reference. The team know to refer to it to add any tasks they want completed and the individual knows to refer to it for their general list of tasks that need to be completed.
13. Task List Clutter
Task lists very quickly become overcrowded spaces and this overwhelms people. To prevent this work paralysis, task filtering by project or date is useful to keep people focused. Currently to the best of my knowledge, most task management systems handle the prioritisation or focus element of tasks quite poorly. Stars and the green, red, amber priority system is mostly used along with drag-and-drop re-ordering but these functions seldom give the necessary context to really handle lengthly task lists. It is a management responsibility to ensure that individual team members understand where their focus needs to be from week to week.