How do you decide what to work on next? Do you have a system for task management? Do you just do whatever you feel like in the moment? If you have a system do certain aspects of it help you more than others?
You may have read the post where I set goals for 2014. One of my goals for this year, well every year really, is to improve my task and project management. I’m always seeking ways to be more productive in my business.
Over the years I’ve read several books on productivity and specifically about task management. The most recent was David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which I read and reread a few times over the last few years. I quickly saw the logic in Allen’s system and began adapting my own system to incorporate many of the ideas and principles of GTD.
GTD isn’t a perfect system for me. The book was written pre-internet and sometimes seemingly pre-computer. There’s a lot of talk about organizing papers where my business is mostly paperless. I also think the system geared more toward individual tasks and less toward projects, especially creative projects, which don’t seem to lend themselves to the same workflow.
I still think it’s a good system with lots of good ideas and I’ve been working to incorporate many of GTD’s ideas over the years. Since I started I do feel like I’m getting more done.
Around the same time I read Allen’s book, I looked for To Do apps and decided on Things. It’s a Mac only app and at the time my choices were mainly Things or OmniFocus, both of which are good apps. I don’t want to go into my reasons for choosing here, though if you’re interested leave a comment below and I can share those reasons in another post.
I mention Things because using it I find GTD harder to put into practice than I first thought. In fairness Things isn’t sold specifically as GTD app, even though it can be used as one. There are just a few missing features that would have helped me.
It’s also hard to make such large changes to long followed habits. Instead of jumping head first into GTD all at once, I’ve been incorporating its ideas here and there over the years.
The major change I made this year was to devote time to a weekly review of what I’ve completed and what still needs to be done. GTD strongly urges a regular review, usually every week.
It’s something I haven’t been doing even though I’ve seen others say it’s the most important part of the system. In my mind I thought the time would be better spent completing a task, but I thought I should at least give it a try.
On Friday afternoons I’m now committed to the review. It’s a good way to wrap up the week. By Friday afternoon I’m ready for the weekend and winding down for the week. The review is a low energy task that doesn’t require too much focus and concentration.
I won’t go into everything I do, but the gist is I add tasks to an inbox all week long. During the review I first move these tasks to appropriate projects or areas to organize them. Then I begin reviewing active projects. I’ll add tasks, remove others, and rearrange the order based on where I am in the project.
The review reminds me of what needs to be done and I usually end up reworking my schedule for the following week and what tasks will be most important to complete. The review reminds me what needs to be done next week, next month, and six months from now.
In the end the review gives me a big picture view of how much I’ve been getting done and how much I still need to do. It’s been working well so far and I think I’ve been more productive this first part of the year.
A Visit Teaches Me the Importance of the Review
Not too long ago my brother came out to visit me. He arrived on a Thursday night. I should have treated that Thursday as Friday for the purpose of the review, but I didn’t. I spent it doing as much of the work I would have done the following day and skipped the review.
It threw me off the following week, which I wasn’t expecting. I hadn’t been using the reviews all that long and didn’t think I’d come to depend on them, but I had. I realized how quickly I had come to rely on getting that big picture view each week and how much it helps me prepare for the following one.
When Monday rolled around I wasn’t quite sure what to work on next. I still had all my tasks organized in Things. They were there telling me what to do next, but I was less confident in which to choose at any given moment.
Once I got back to the weekly review I felt more productive. It was an interesting discovery and it made me think more about the value of the review. I specifically want to mention two things that should sound familiar if you read here often enough. I want to talk about context and constraints.
A Big Picture View Provides Context
The reviews reminded me of the importance of the big picture. It showed me how important it is to understand context when deciding what tasks were more important and which I should work on at any given moment.
The review helps me see the context for where my business is and where I want it to go. It lets me see the context for every project I’m working on.
It’s easy to lose track of the context while working in the details of projects and more specifically tasks within each project. The review helps me maintain contact with the big picture. It helps me see where I’m spending too much time and where I’m not spending enough.
The review gives me an opportunity to reset the context on each project if I want. I can add new tasks, remove others, and generally reorganize tasks. It lets me consider projects at a structural level, which I don’t get to do while working in them. I might see two projects that share a set of tasks. These shared tasks might get pulled out as a separate project that needs completing before either of the projects it was pulled from.
Again this works at both a project level and an overall business level. It works on a personal level as well.
Constraints Help You Choose What’s Next
In addition to context I realized the system is also about constraints. In organizing tasks you add meta information to them in order to be able to later find the best task to do under your given circumstances.
You might add meta information about:
- What type of work is the task
- How much mental energy is required
- The time a task will take to complete
- What information is needed before doing the task
- Do you have all the necessary tools to complete the task
GTD asks you to tag things based on location. Are you home? In the office? Running errands? Say you’re out running errands. You check your system for other tasks you’ve marked as errands and get them done while you’re already out.
Say I have to make a call in 15 minutes. I can search Things for those tasks I marked as needing less than 15 minutes to complete. In the past I might not have done anything useful, thinking I wouldn’t have time to get into a longer task. Now I can find something that can easily be completed before the call.
It’s taken me awhile to understand the right kind of meta information I should add to tasks. You might use a different set of meta information than I would. I don’t find it useful to distinguish between home and office tasks since my home and office are the same place. For you the distinction might be useful.
What’s Important in a Task Management System?
I think it’s interesting to consider task management in terms of context and constraints. It’s like designing your work life or your task life. You don’t have to follow a GTD system or any other kind of system someone suggests, though I suspect most of us would do well to put some kind of system in place.
If you do try to implement your own system here’s what I think a good system boils down to.
- It provides a place to collect tasks
- It provides a way to organize tasks
- It provides a way to add constraints to each task
- It provides a means to choose what to work on next
- It provides for a regular review
Once you learn to trust your collection system it keeps you from forgetting, since anything that comes to mind goes into the system. This was the initial insight I picked up from David Allen’s book.
With everything collected your system should allow you to organize your tasks, whether they’re stand alone or part of a project. You should be able to tag each task according to the different constraints you find yourself under in the real world.
Your system should be able to search for tasks by their constraints and there should be an easy way to review both completed and upcoming tasks. The regular review and organization will help you keep the big picture in mind.
I’m probably talking more about the specifics of GTD and even Things than I meant to here. Again if you’re interested leave a comment and I’ll find a good way to share how I chose an app and how I use it with my GTD-like system.
For now just think about task and project management systems in general and how the guidelines for improving a design also apply to designing a task management system and other aspects of your work and life.
Whatever system you use I urge you to add a review. It might not seem important, but it shows you the context within which you work. Your system should also provide a way to add constraints to tasks so when you’re looking for something to do you can match the constraints on the tasks with the constants you find yourself under at the moment.
For me skipping the review for a single week threw off my productivity for the following one. It was an interesting surprise and discovery that let me to think about how a system for getting more done relies on some of the same principles we apply to the design of a website.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.