I’ve been on a productivity kick lately, and have shared my tips for getting more done in less time, finding extra time in your schedule and dealing with information overload. The task list is another area where most of us can improve our productivity: Better task management allows us to get more accomplished, while spending less time managing the process.
Here are a few suggestions to help you focus on completing tasks rather than managing your to-do list:
- Pick a tool and methodology. I’m not going to dictate a specific tool, because the tool you use has to fit your needs, work well with the type of job you do and make it easy for you to get things done. The important thing is to pick a tool that works for you. For years, I used the task list in Microsoft Outlook because it was convenient, and when I switched to a Mac, I tried a bunch of different tools before eventually settling on Hiveminder. When I was consulting, I found a task list wasn’t suitable, so I used shorter lists of the next three things I needed to do. Experiment until you find a tool a and methodology that you like, and then stick with it!
- Keep it visible. The advantage of having a task list that is integrated with your email, like Gmail Tasks or Outlook’s task list, is that every time you look at your inbox, you have your tasks right where you can see them. With my web-based task list, I keep it open on a tab all the time, and I can quickly glance at what I need to get done. If you use a standalone task manager or a simple text document, you can keep it open on your desktop and easily accessible. By keeping your tasks visible and easy to access, you’re much more likely to see them and complete your tasks.
- Create tasks from email. One of my favorite email productivity tips is to get task items out of your email and onto your task list; having an efficient process to create tasks from email content is important. In Hiveminder, I can forward email to a special Hiveminder address with a subject line that includes commands for things like due date and priority, and the email appears as a new task in Hiveminder right away. Other task list software lets you drag and drop email onto your to-do list, or is integrated into email clients. The important thing is to have some kind of process that allows you to quickly create new tasks from email using a method that works for you.
- Prioritize. You’ll want to use prioritization to distinguish the tasks that are critically important. I tend to use three categories — high, medium and low — which lets me quickly scan down my list for the highest priority items. While some people argue task priority should be based on the importance of the task alone, with a due date to signify urgency, I take a more pragmatic approach and set priorities based on a combination of importance and urgency.
- Due dates. I give every task a due date. Even when I need to arbitrarily pick a date, it helps me make sure I don’t lose track of anything. I sort my task list by date and then priority, so all of my tasks for the day are at the top of my list, in a rough order of importance. This helps me stay focused on what I need to accomplish today, and it helps me get more done. For those tasks that have arbitrary due dates, I can at least look at the task on the day that I’ve marked it as due, then decide whether I should do it right away or look at it again in a few days or a few weeks.
- Daily reality check. While you should look over your task list throughout the day, spend a minute or two every day doing a quick “reality check” on the tasks you have scheduled. First thing in the morning or at the end of the day are good times for this. What you want to focus on during the reality check phase is how much time you really have to work on your tasks and which ones are the most important. For any tasks that you know you won’t be able to do, you can bump the due date for that task out into the future or just move it way down the prioritization. Some tasks will have increased or decreased in priority relative to other tasks, so you’ll want to adjust those priorities, too. The important thing is to get rid of the clutter so that you can more easily see which tasks you need to focus on now.