Before working through your task list, you need to have a good strategy behind actually creating and adding to that list. You can’t just put any old thing on a task list. Creating a task involves a number of subtle steps, which, with practice, will become so natural you won’t recognize that you’re actually doing them at all. In assessing a potential task your mind does a number of things. Some take time. Some are practically instant.
1. Identify the Objective
When you’re given a task or a project to do, it’s usually pretty vague. It’s up to you to understand what it means and how to get it done. Identifying the objective is understanding what the end result should be. How will you know when you’ve finished the project? This is more complex than it sounds. If the project you’ve been handed is, for example, “write a report on X”, it would seem like the object is to simply write the report. But, there may be other factors to consider before the project can be considered “completed”. Does the report need to be reviewed by someone? Do you have all the necessary information to write the report? Is the deadline reasonable? Only after these questions have been answered can you move on to the next step. Most of the time, our minds ask these questions internally in a split second. If we get stuck in identifying the objective, it’s time to ask the person that handed you the project, or if you created the project on your own, you’ll need to reconsider what the expected outcome looks like.
2. Identify the Tasks
Once you know what the end looks like, you’ll need to break the objective down into manageable pieces. These become your actionable items, your tasks, your to do list. The basic principle behind this step is to make each task small. One of the biggest causes of un-productiveness, is the fear of never ending. This happens when the task is to big and complex that just looking at it strikes you with the feeling of never being able to finish it, and so you probably don’t bother even starting it. Make the task small. And, like the object, make it something that has a definite end – you want to be able to easily recognize when you’ve finished a task.
Don’t think about each task for too long though. Just write them down, either on paper, or in a task management system. They don’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Just make sure that you’ll know what they mean if you don’t look at them for a few days.
3. Make the Tasks Real
Writing down the tasks you’ve identified is a critical step. It helps you to further qualify and better understand each one. There are no real rules to this step apart from, you guessed it, writing them down. You can use whatever method you like to do this. Some prefer pen and paper. Sone prefer software such as Wunderlist or Evernote. Just make sure the tool works for you, and not the other way around. Don’t worry about too much detail for each task. Just capture the basics, usually only a few words is enough.
Now that you have a list of tasks, it’s time to find out which ones you need and which ones you can get away without acting on at all. After all, we want to be more productive by working more efficiently, not putting in more hours. Weed out the tasks that are of very low importance, or that simply won’t impact the end result (the objective). Either delete them, or put a big line through them.
The tasks that are left are the ones that will get the job done. Don’t be concerned with the order these tasks are in, that’s not important – it’s the objective that we care about, not the way in which we get to that objective. When you’re ready to start working through your tasks, scan through all of them. One of them will just feel ‘ready’ to do. Do that one. It’s the one that you have the most drive to do, the most enthusiasm, the most energy. When you do this you’ll get the task finished quicker and with more quality than you would have if you tried to put the tasks in some kind of order.
5. The Importance of Measurement
I’ve mentioned this a few times already, but it is very important that each tasks can be measured. If you don’t know when the tasks has been finished, then it’s time to reevaluate it.
Don’t set a task like “Work on report for 2 hours”. It’s too easy to star the clock ten get distracted by facebook or twitter or google+ or any other millions of things. Instead, set the task like “Write executive summary” or “Build and add chart based on data X”. These types of tasks are measurable. Even if you get distracted by an email that just popped up in your inbox, you know that once that section or chart is done, that task is complete and you’re one step closer to your objective. You will feel so much better when ticking off that task than you would have if you had “worked on it for 2 hours”. And, you won’t have to add the same task again to the end of your list!
With these simple steps in place you should be able to really get to know the tasks you need to do in order to get the job done. Make the tasks achievable in a relatively short amount of time and you’ll gain momentum and a sense of accomplishment by ticking them off your list, no matter how long your list might be.
As always, comments are welcome below.