Change your task management habits and you will transform your life.
I like being organized. It makes me dependable. But it’s hard to maintain when the tasks pile in. They seem to pop up from the forgotten corners of my life and derail productivity and focus. Mix the onslaught with competing priorities and being dependable and organized really hard, and sometimes feels impossible. But becoming more capable, organized, and dependable is completely worth all the pain of changing your habits.
I’ve been learning a framework that lets me cut out the stuff I shouldn’t be focusing on and get to the tasks that matter. All the while setting up a to-do list for days and weeks ahead. It’s been a no-brainer.
These steps may need to be tackled one at a time – even spread over weeks – but they should help you put more structure into your task management processes.
1. Identify Inboxes
Inboxes are all the ways tasks come to you: texts, emails, physical snail-mail. You get the picture.
Here’s the rule: Have as many as you need, and as few as possible.
The fewer you have the easier it is to manage. You might have to ask people to change the way they work with you. Ask for an email, or a direct message if it removes an extra thing you have to check.
Create a “Task” Inbox
I know, I know. I just said, “As few as possible”. And yes, it’s a rule. But you need a place to dump things on the fly.
Download a to-do list app on all your devices – phone and computers – and log in with the same account on each. Todoist works well for me, but I also liked Microsoft To-Do and seen others use larger tools like Notion.
Use the “inbox” or default task list for your dumping ground. This is an inbox for you to come back to for processing. Toss things in during meetings, ad hoc conversations, and phone calls – literally anything anytime.
This is a huge change in habit. We’re talking about getting all your tasks out of your head and into this task inbox and living by it.
2. Process for Actions
This is when we start the steps in the workflow, pictured above. The first step in the flow is identifying action items and non-action items.
No Action – Trash, Archive, or Set a Reminder
Most of what you get isn’t telling you to do something. When there’s nothing to do you have three options – trash it, archive it or set a reminder. Then move on. This might be 50-70% of items in your inboxes and it’s just that simple.
Think about it. Commit to this and you will have an empty inbox at least once a day!
Yes! There’s an Action
The real work begins. Check out the left side of the workflow.
If a task is small, do it now. Small tasks for me are anything that can be done in under 2 minutes. Change it to 30 seconds or 10 minutes if you want. Find what works for you, but smaller tends to be better so you don’t spend all day on this step.
I process my inboxes at least once a day. As you practice, you’ll have a better idea when and how often you need to do this.
3. Organize Tasks Greater Than 2 Minutes
You’ve limited your inboxes, archived and deleted non-actionable items, set quick reminders, and crushed all the little tasks (if it took too long, lower your “do it now” threshold). Doing work!
Now we’re left with maybe 15% of what was in our inbox to start with. We’re narrowing things down.
Let’s talk about the things done best by others. If you think, “Wow, I think they should have sent this to ______, not me” Then send it to that person. Talk to them in person if you need to because projects are better with teamwork. The right people on the right tasks makes a huge difference.
Schedule Your Tasks
This part is the gateway to freedom, where “current self” makes things awesome for “future self” by scheduling when you’ll do the work.
Time for a moment of transparency. If you’ve never done this before you’ll probably hate it. When I started, thinking ahead and trying to imagine when I’d have time was very difficult, even anxiety-inducing. It’s been painful, but as it becomes more of a habit it’s easier and easier to fill my day with planned work. This is helping me spend time on meaningful work instead of being attacked from all sides by forgotten tasks.
I don’t set these as due dates. Instead, it’s the day that makes sense to do the task. I call them “do-dates” (it’s lame, let’s move on). Also, I rarely time-block for tasks. The purpose of scheduling is to build to-do lists days in advance without having to think about it.
Categorize Your Tasks
Every task needs to be assigned to a project list. If there is no list or project, start a new one. Some can be work-related, others can be personal. Organize them however you need.
I like my projects to be labeled as an action. Instead of calling it “New Fence” I call it “Build the fence”. It’s a physiological game for me, but it motivates me to see the larger project I’m doing.
Make big things smaller
If you have a task that you don’t want to do or that’s rolled from day to day, it’s probably too big and maybe intimidating. Break it into smaller tasks. Make them micro tasks if you have to and spread them over a few days. The goal is to irradiate stress. Make each task manageable.
Celebrate when you do it right
When you have an amazing day make sure to pat yourself on the back. You can also share your new goals with someone who will celebrate with you.
It Might Take Weeks
Getting started might take awhile. Just getting to the bottom of your inbox can be a long grind in the beginning. Making habits is very difficult. If you know this is the right thing, don’t give up. Stay focused and push forward and keep recognizing the little moments of progress.
It’s not just for work
Do this with daily life also. Track as much or as little as you need to keep your head clear to work with confidence and bring your best to those around you.