Getting the Most Out of Your Task Management System

After writing about the Astrid task management system yesterday, I wanted to expand on a couple of thoughts about "to do" systems. Whether you're using a pen and paper, a mobile app, or something more sophisticated for group tasks like Basecamp, there are a few ideas that can help you get more return on your efforts.

Keeping Up with Your Own "To Do" Lists

I used to avoid "to do" lists like the plague when I was younger, but I find that I rely on them more and more as life comes with more moving pieces these days. I could list everything that keeps me busy, but I'm sure your list is just as long or even longer.

Whether life is crazy busy or not, we all have a number of tasks that are just basic maintenance for life.

  • We have to mow the yard.
  • We have to pay bills.
  • We need to clean out the fridge every once in a while.
  • We need to pay taxes.

Not all of our tasks need to be done daily or even weekly. My refrigerator doesn't need to be cleaned out every week (at least in my house), so I might schedule that task for every two or three weeks. Balancing the checkbook is a monthly activity for most people, if we remember to do it.

The point is, not every task comes at weekly or monthly intervals. Life's not as simple as remembering that on the 27th of every month I always check the air pressure in my tires (random task, but hey, it's important). Digital tools work well with scheduling out more complicated intervals, but it can be done on pen and paper, too.

Avoiding Superman Days

It's important to keep from overloading a day's list based on what we think we can accomplish. I find that if I schedule more than a few items per day, I'm going to struggle to get them all completed. Your work environment may completely differ, but I work in an office with an open floor plan during the day. At home... I have kids. So trying to accomplish too much is a foolish endeavor that just leaves me frustrated.

But if I space out those tasks over several days, I can still get just as much accomplished. The key is writing down all of the tasks that need to be completed. If I had a full day with no interruptions, I might be able to remember everything, but those days never happen in my world. And I'm sure they don't happen in your world, either.

Make Specific Tasks - For Yourself and For Group Projects

One major difference I've seen in how effective my task management can be is that I've started to make that my tasks are very specific. The task cannot be something like "work more on a blog post," but it needs to be smaller, more clearly defined tasks: "find pictures for Thursday's blog post," "find a stronger title for Thursday's post," and "edit Thursday's post for grammar."

This way, I don't have to do a bunch of research to figure out what all I was supposed to do. I can get straight to the task at hand and spend more time accomplishing instead of wasting time trying to remember all of the details of what I wanted to do in the first place.

If you work with others, this sort of specificity is invaluable. Don't make other people come to you to figure out what the heck you're talking about. Give laser-like focus so others can help you and then move on to whatever else they have going on in their day. People are busy; don't make helping you more difficult than it needs to be.

What About You?

What other thoughts would you add about task management systems? Specific software aside, have you come across a breakthrough idea recently? I'm always looking to find ways to be more effective with what I do, so I'd love to hear your thoughts.