We’ve all been there. You start your day with the best intentions. You follow your project and task management software to the letter, ticking off things one by one. At the end of the day, you realize two important things.
- You’ve checked off everything on your list
- You haven’t really accomplished anything
If this is you, it’s because you are staying busy working on the wrong things. I know. I’ve been there. There are several ways this can happen.
- You are too wrapped up in the process of task management
- Your goal is to check things off of a list
- You have been too far behind for too long
Getting Things Done Instead of Doing Things
There are whole libraries full of books, weeks worth of online seminars, and an endless array of YouTube videos on project management.
You could spend the rest of your life, implementing and fine-tuning a task management process without ever actually managing a task. I’ve been in this hole several times. I get so wrapped up in a new method that creating the process becomes the goal. Imagine this scenario. You call the fire department to report that your house is on fire.
“I’m sorry, but today we have to do our weekly review. I’ll put you down tomorrow with a #1 priority, a red flag, a gold star, and a reminder. How’s that?”
Far fetched? Certainly. But how often have you failed to put out a fire because you are twiddling with your system? Today I changed all my priorities from colored flags to numbers. Tomorrow, I’m going to build a six-layer Gantt chart.
Stop screwing around with the system until after you have finished your tasks for today. Want to play around with flags and priorities? Make that part of your planning for tomorrow if you have time.
The goal is the task, not the task management.
This one is related to the first but involves the desire to check things off our lists. Don’t get me wrong, tasks lists and even simple checklists are essential.
But putting things on our list just for the sake of checking them off is time-consuming for no benefit. If you need that validation to stay motivated, fine, but that’s not the same as being productive. A checklist that looks like this is to make you feel good, not track progress or make sure nothing is forgotten.
- Get out of bed
- Put on pants
- Brush teeth
I’ve fallen into that trap many times. I slowly add inconsequential things to my task list until managing the list becomes a chore in itself. Then I swing the other way and delete everything but the most critical and vital.
I’ve talked about balance and this is an excellent place to ensure that balance. Task management shouldn’t become the goal of task management. Task management should only be about making sure the right thing is done at the right time. That’s it.
So when should you add daily repeating things to your list? I usually weigh the chance that I will forget to do it against the consequence of forgetting. I’m not likely to forget to get out of bed, even though there would be little consequence on most days. I probably won’t forget to put on pants until I get much older, even though the consequences could be dire.
Unless I’m going to Walmart.
The other time I’ve loaded my list with recurring tasks is when I am doing time blocking. So, I either have to account for everything that takes time or leave gaps in the timeline to allow for the trivial items.
Digging Yourself Out of a Hole
This one has never been a problem for me. I remember the first time I heard the term inbox zero. I didn’t understand what they were talking about, because I didn’t know why anybody would ever leave anything in their inbox. It was just like the inbox on my desk; several times a day, I took everything out of it and did something with it.
Then part of my job became supporting task management and email systems for other people. Yikes! What were they thinking? I guess they weren’t thinking, that ‘s the problem.
One of the first users I had to support was my manager at a new job. On the first day, she brought me in and showed me the task list for my position. It had about 50 things on it. I asked her about timelines and priorities, and she told me they were all critical, and I needed to get them done ASAP.
I then scanned the list again and noticed the dates were months, sometimes years old. I pointed one of these out and asked, “So, this is important and needs to get done ASAP, yet it’s been on this list for two years?” With no guile or irony whatsoever, she replied that yes, that is true. I thought she was a bit nuts, so I told her, with all due respect, that I would handle my own task list, thank you very much.
I only thought she was nuts.
A few weeks later, she called me in to work on her computer. She said it was very slow, and she needed to get to her emails faster. I went through standard diagnostics and then did a reboot. The first thing that popped up was the reminders from her MS Outlook.
You have 671 overdue tasks.
I could only stare in disbelief. She asked what was wrong. I said, “You have 671 overdue tasks.”
“You have six hundred and seventy-one overdue tasks?”
Yes. That is why I need my computer to run faster so I can get to them.
Lady, the problem is not your computer. I then cranked up her email system. Her inbox contained over 27,000 emails, two-thirds of which were unread.
I tried unsuccessfully for years to get her to understand where her problem was, but she was still in that shape when I (gleefully) retired ten years later. During those ten years, I rarely knew her actually to finish anything.
Since you are reading this article, I assume you care about productivity, so I hope you aren’t in that shape.
But it’s easy to let tasks and emails pile up. After a while, it seems easier to just live with it than deal with it. I had another user who just created a new inbox once a year and let the old ones become useless filing cabinets. I tried to explain to him how filing cabinets worked, but that fell on deaf ears also.
If you are in a similar shape where you have an inbox full of old email, here is what I want you to do.
Add two more things to your task list.
First, commit to, starting right now, to never leave anything in your inbox again. And never leave an unfinished task in your overdue list again.
Next, once a week, set up an hour to work on your inboxes. Put it on your task list with a high priority. Add it to your calendar. Carve it on your desk.
Once a week shut the door and turn the phone off. Do nothing but go through your old inbox and clean it up. Don’t read anything more than you have to. Delete anything you don’t need. Everything, and I mean everything, that you don’t delete and is over one month old, put in an archive folder. Everything else, add it as a task, file it in a folder, or delete it.
It may take some time, but eventually, you will have inbox zero. It is a very liberating feeling.
If you are too busy to get anything done, you are spending time doing the wrong things. Stop maintaining a broken system.
Fix it. Today.