Most days, modern professionals are lurching from one urgent task to the next. A stream of non-stop distractions and commitments demands your attention.
Sometimes, it feels like your wheels are spinning.
You’re not the only one.
One study found employees only spent 45% of their work day on tasks listed as their primary job duties. The rest of the time was wasted on unnecessary meetings and activities outside of their job description.
It’s no surprise many of us are constantly overwhelmed, falling further and further behind.
On top of that, we’re living in a culture obsessed with “busyness”, fuelling the need to squeeze every last second out of every single day.
But you know effective task management is about much more than ticking off items on a to-do list. It’s about planning for the future and achieving your vision.
Here we’ll provide proven task management skills for a more productive way to manage your workday.
Audit Your Tasks
Regularly taking stock of everything you need to do is an important task management skill.
Once you define your responsibilities, you’ll make sure you don’t overlook important tasks.
And whenever you are assigned a task at work, get firm timelines, so you’re able to plan and schedule your tasks.
There are a few methods you can use to take inventory of your tasks.
The Kanban method is a popular task management system. Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, developed the Kanban method to increase efficiency. Kanban - signboard in Japanense - is a set of ordered cards that track the progress of tasks. Research shows the approach improved Toyota’s productivity.
Since then, Kanban has been used to power more productive ways of working for several industries. Microsoft’s David Anderson adapted the method for software development.
There’s a lot more to the approach, but Kanban lets you visualize your tasks.
Use boards to order your pipeline of tasks:
- To do
Each board has a list with a set of cards - these are your projects. Customize your board to suit your needs, by attaching to-do lists or checklists to cards. As you complete projects, drag them from one board to the next.
Trello is a project management popular tool built around Kanban.
Here’s an example of a Trello board for growth marketing.
Get Things Done
Another popular task management system is David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
The concept behind Allen’s method is simple:
“Your mind is for having ideas not holding them.”
You can read the full method here, but it begins with capturing all the tasks you need to do or have been thinking about. Here’s where you document everything you need - or want - to do; this covers small or large and personal or professional projects.
To achieve success with any of these methods, find one that works for you, adapt it to your needs, keep it simple, and use it regularly.
2. Prioritize Tasks
“The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities,” Stephen Covey.
Now, for the hard part.
You’ve taken stock of all your priorities, and it’s time for execution.
Where do you begin?
Prioritizing your tasks is a vital task management skill.
Several task prioritization strategies have sprung up in recent years - below we examine three that have stood the test of time.
Ivy Lee Method
Back in 1918, Charles M. Schwab owned a large shipbuilding and steel production company. Schwab was successful, but he wanted to improve the way his team worked. That’s when he hired productivity expert, Ivy Lee.
Author James Clear writes:
“As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, “Show me a way to get more things done.”
This is the method Lee proposed:
- After each workday, write down six important tasks you need to accomplish tomorrow
- Write them down in order of importance
- Tomorrow, complete the first task before moving on to the second task
- Repeat every day
According to the story, Schwab was so happy with his team’s performance, he wrote Lee a $25 000 check.
Eat That Frog
Eat that Frog is the name of a task management skill by Brian Tracy. It’s similar to the Ivy Lee method and focuses on frontloading your day with high-value tasks.
Here is Tracy’s explanation:
“Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.”
Once you tick off key tasks early on, you gain momentum that sets the tone for the workday; you’re likely to leave the office with increased feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction.
Some days you may feel like your plate is full of urgent tasks, but are you doing the work that matters most?
In fact, many people feel like their day is dominated by low-value tasks.
If you can relate, consider the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Urgent-Important matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a productivity system named after its creator - Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States.
Here’s his philosophy:
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
It’s a mantra that served him well.
By prioritizing tasks based on urgency and importance, Eisenhower mastered productivity during his time in the military and later as the first Supreme Commander of NATO.
Eisenhower’s strategy separates tasks into four quadrants:
- Urgent and important tasks for your life and career. Maybe it’s preparing that presentation you need to deliver in a few days. These tasks must be done today or tomorrow.
- Important but less urgent. Put these tasks in your calendar. Things like signing up for the gym or planning that vacation should go here.
- Urgent but not important. These tasks can be delegated. Do you really need to attend that 1-hour meeting when you have no action items to address? Perhaps it’s as simple as getting the minutes afterwards.
- Not urgent and not important. Eliminate these tasks from your life, e.g., pointless internet surfing.
The Eisenhower Matrix offers the following advice when using the method:
- Limit the number of tasks in each quadrant to 8.
- Complete one before adding another.
- Use the same list for personal and professional tasks.
3. Tackle Multiple Tasks
Do you ever feel like you’re trying to get several tasks done at the same time?
Here’s the bad news: multitasking doesn’t work and will wreck your ability to focus.
Research shows “heavy multitaskers” are easily distracted and less likely to be able to filter out distractions.
This study found people who constantly switched between different types of media were “more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli”.
And even if you’re concentrating on a single task, you’re probably still fielding emails and instant messages throughout the workday.
In a field study with Microsoft employees, researchers found staff received an average of 4 emails and 3 instant messages each hour. The combined time of responding to the alerts and getting back to a focused state on the disrupted task was up to 25 minutes.
For most modern professionals, getting an eight-hour workday to focus on just one task is almost possible.
The good news is there are tactics for managing multiple tasks in a fast and effective manner.
Try working in batches where you focus intensely on one task. If you need to switch contexts during the same day, take a break.
Schedule a different type of task for after lunch or a walk. For instance, you may check emails every hour. Discuss your strategy with colleagues and management. Suggest setting autoresponders with times for when you’ll respond to emails.
Research has also found that a ready to resume plan eases the transition when switching tasks.
If you need to leave one task incomplete and begin work on another, your ready to resume plan is a brief note to self: document where you left off and what actions you needed to postpone and will resume later.
4. Use Digital Tools to Automate Repetitive Tasks
How much time do you waste on time-consuming routine tasks?
A survey by HubSpot found marketers spent 16 hours each week on repetitive work, including collecting and analyzing data.
Investing in the right technology lets you automate tedious tasks.
For instance, instead of posting social media updates manually, spend a few hours once a week planning your updates ahead of time. Use a social media automation platform to publish your posts automatically throughout the week.
Boost Your Day to Day Productivity with The Right Task Management Skills
Task management shouldn’t be about sorting through a never-ending to-do list. It shouldn’t be about overloading yourself with piles of random responsibilities, either.
Leading a productive professional life means doing the tasks that matter most.
What task management skills help make your workday less stressful and more rewarding?