For many of us, the pressures of daily life – particularly our working lives – demands that we have in place at least some rudimentary form of task management system, to help us juggle our burgeoning work-loads.
Without at least a semblance of a system in place, not only are we less productive – able to cope with fewer projects and tasks – we also risk affecting our personal lives, or worse.
Indeed, such are the pressures associated with a modern lifestyle that the resultant stress can itself be, quite literally, a killer.
In this article we take a look at a selection of 5 tips – all of which will help you better manage your time, get more done, and reduce your stress along the way.
Tip # 1: Capture all your tasks the moment they occur
With the ‘average manager’ these days accountable for upward of forty ‘live’ projects, and with each of these projects chock-full of tasks, there’s little wonder we all forget things from time to time.
The problem is a physiological one – humans simply aren’t designed for holding complex sets of interrelated (yet constantly changing) information in our short-term memories.
Trying to retain all of our projects, tasks, timings, their interrelationships, dependencies and other subtleties – themselves all constantly changing from one day to the next – is like trying to keep hundreds of plates spinning on top of poles balanced on shifting sands.
Without employing some kind of system, you’re setting yourself a daily memory feat even the most seasoned magician would be proud of.
Not only is it impractical and ineffective, it’s also incredibly tiring, physically. I’m sure you’ve come close to that burned-out sensation at least once in your working life.
Write it down, add it to your list, fire the task into your to do list software. Whatever system you employ, you need to ‘offload’ the responsibility of remembering your tasks onto that system. Make your system do the heavy lifting where it can, so your energy is reserved for the ‘doing’.
And do it as soon as the task occurs to you – don’t leave the task of retaining task data to your beleaguered memory.
Tip #2: Break larger tasks down into projects
Bite-sized pieces – that’s how you digest a large meal, right?
This may sound obvious, but a surprisingly high percentage of people make the mistake of listing tasks that are vague, non-specific items – often they’re more like ‘statements of intent’ than measurable tasks.
In effect, they’re trying to swallow the whole task down in one big chunk.
These overly-vague tasks are what David Allen (author of the bestselling book ’Getting Things Done’) refers to as “Amorphous Blobs of Un-Doability”.
‘Increase sales by 10%’ would fall into this category. You should be asking the questions: “How am I going to increase sales? What are the steps required, one by one, to get me to that end-goal?”
These steps are your tasks; the wider purpose is the project.
Take time to review your to do list and convert all of those ‘big hairy tasks’ into projects, with a series of baby-steps within those projects. When working through your projects in this way you’ll have a greater sense of purpose (and of achievement – you’ll be crossing lots of tasks off, rather than starting at the exact same entry, day in day out).
Once you’ve worked your projects down to more manageable steps, you need to do one more important thing…
TIP #3: Identify Your ‘Next Actions’
Once you have a list of tasks making up each of your projects, you need to evoke a shift in your mindset and completely ignore all but the next action for each project.
I say ‘change your mindset’ because, if you’re like most people, you’ll likely end up looking over and over your to-do list during any given week. Partly to see what’s coming up and, perhaps, partly out of desperation.
The point is, reviewing your list over and over itself doesn’t really get you anywhere. In fact, it can be quite demotivating!
It’s far better to make sure you are crystal-clear on the next actions for each project, and then do them – stick to only these tasks.
This one change in working will produce dramatic results if you adhere to it for a few weeks. You’ll be surprised how much more productive your work becomes (and how much more free time you end up with, as a result).
Tip #4: Be ruthless.
Does the task you’re looking at really need to be done, by you, right now, or at all? If it doesn’t then park it. Move on.
You need to be utterly ruthless about your time and energy. You already likely have too much to do, so when you’re looking at a pile of things needing doing start out with the attitude “No. You’re not getting on my list”.
Make it harder for tasks to get onto your list and/or to stay there.
Work to de-clutter your to do list; deleting things that aren’t important, filing things for future reference (if they can wait) delegating or outsourcing tasks that you (truthfully) shouldn’t be working on.
What’s left will be your actual to do list. The things that must be done, by you, now. These are your most productive tasks.
As well as being ruthless about what ‘makes your list’ you also need to be utterly ruthless about blocking unwanted distractions.
We all suffer endless interruptions in our day; phone-calls, emails, meetings, messages, colleagues. It’s frightening when you add all these interruptions up.
The best way to protect yourself from these distractions is to simply reserve a portion of your day for your most productive work. If your mornings are where you do your best work (and perhaps a couple of hours after lunch) then block those parts of the day off, metaphorically – and defend them vigorously.
During these ‘blocked-off’ periods switch off your mobile, refrain from checking your e-mail or messages and let your colleagues know you’re unavailable for meetings or water-cooler chats.
It may sound simple, but taking this one step will give you an instant, sustainable productivity boost.
Tip #5: Use a trusted system.
If you’re planning to use To Do List Software (generally a good idea since it makes keeping on top of your projects and tasks far easier than managing them otherwise) you need to make sure you can trust your chosen system.
Pick the wrong tool, one that doesn’t have the features you need (or one you’ll end up finding a chore to use) and you’re unwittingly setting yourself up for failure, further on down the line.
Whatever you choose (and the good news is that there are plenty of to do list software products to choose from) it should be simple and enjoyable to use – you want to be able to quickly add tasks to your projects – but at the same time should be able to competently handle prioritization of your projects and tasks in a logical fashion.
Only once you start ‘trusting’ your to do list software will you start to feel the positive benefits of reduced stress and pressure.
Hopefully, the five tips above will help you get more organized and work in a more productive manner. And with a healthier, more productive approach to your work you’re sure to find yourself achieving a better work-life balance.
To find out more about a great free tool you can use to manage your tasks, take a look at the ShoutDone To Do List Software .
Rich Butterworth is an expert in to do list software and task management. With a First Class business degree and 12 years doing business on-line and off-line, Rich’s driving passion is empowering others with the tools and knowledge to succeed.