We’ve covered task management a few times here on WWD – notably in our roundup of 20 different ways to track your task list. But picking a system to track your tasks isn’t the only prerequisite to getting them done. Even more important is creating good tasks in the first place.
If you just toss things at your task list whenever you think of them, you’ve made a start at not forgetting to do things. But that sort of non-system is likely to lead to one of the task list antipatterns: your task list will gradually fill with things that you can’t really get done, because it’s been used as a dumping ground.One way to make sure that your tasks are really tasks, and not memoranda or vague aspirations, is to use the SMART system. A term that started out in the project-management world in the 1950s, SMART is an acronym that gives you five guidelines for creating useful objectives:
Specific – The task has to be specified well enough that you know what it is. One way to think of this is that when you decide to tackle something on your to-do list, you shouldn’t first have to figure out what it means. “Revise web site based on client feedback” isn’t very specific. “Change to new color scheme and headers” is more specific.
Measurable – If you can’t measure your progress, how do you know when you’re finished? A simple done/undone task, like “Take out the trash” is measurable; you’re done when the trash ends up at the curb. A task like “Make sales calls” isn’t measurable (unless you’ve got a fixed list of contacts to call). Better would be “Call ten new prospects.”
Achievable – It doesn’t do you any good to have tasks like “Make a million dollars this year” unless you are in a very high-paying job already (or don’t mind staring at a task that sits on your list for years). There’s no reason not to have life goals – but these aren’t the sort of thing that should clutter up your task list. Save the list for things that you can knock off.
Realistic – For a task to be realistic, it needs to be something that you will actually do. This is another bar to putting stuff on the task list just to have it sit there forever. For example, if you never prepare your own taxes, “Prepare form 1040” is not a realistic goal – “Send tax paperwork to accountant” is the realistic equivalent.
Timely – If a task doesn’t have a deadline, will you ever do it? Probably not. A timely task is one that you’ve assigned a deadline to, whether as part of the task (“Finish design comps by Tuesday”) or by entering a date in your to-do manager.
If you end up with task list sludge – stuff that’s sitting there forever, undone – take a moment to review the problem tasks through the SMART filter. Likely you’ll find that they can be improved so that you actually do them – or that they shouldn’t have been on your task list in the first place.