21 Days to Ultimate Task Management

Productivity methods remind me a lot of programs for health and weight loss. There are a million of them out there and most will probably work - if you actually do them. By that rationale, it makes sense to drill down on any mechanisms that make the program simple and easy. These attributes aren’t necessarily synonymous, but need not be mutually exclusive either. Cutting out sugar and running five miles a day is dead simple, but for most people, it is exceedingly difficult. The transition from difficult to easy occurs when these efforts become habits. Some of the most effective ways to form habits are to ease your way in, celebrate little wins and regularly activate the pleasure center in your brain that reinforces the cues. 

In the world of task management, one of the deepest reward centers you can tap in to is the great feeling of accomplishment when you get the shit done that your set out to do, in an effective and efficient manner. We'll start with the assumption that you have a ton to do and no idea how to move through it. Beginning with the very basics, we'll then start layering in enhancements. Each step you add will sharpen your efficiency, focus and output.  

1. The TDL. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, stuck or just complacent, getting the to-do's that are floating about your melon out onto a list is the best first step to take. I’ve used a dozen versions of recording these ranging from paper to project management software. The one I’ve come back to a couple times is Wunderlist. Here’s why:

  • It will seamlessly sync across your phone, tablet and desktop
  • Each task supports notes, attachments, reminders and due dates
  • You can slide the order of tasks up/down on your list
  • You can assign tasks to other people
  • When you complete a task, it makes a very satisfying “ding” sound, and shows up in your completion list with a strikethrough
  • All the features you’ll likely need are free

2. Prioritizing: Order your daily tasks in sequence of importance. Sometimes this is very challenging because everything might feel equally needing of your attention. If you feel stuck, look for tasks that if completed, will make other tasks go away. For example, if you are trying to find administrative help and complete that task, how many of your other items can then be delegated to your helper? Another good place to start is by prioritizing your list by what you are least looking forward to. These are also often the most important and subject to the most procrastination. Make sure you are still able to get to a few that aren’t so bad before the end of the day. You’ll have something to look forward to and experience for the day will end up being less taxing on your reserve of will power. 

3. Work Sprints: The traditional Pomodoro Technique is a method of breaking down a day of work into 25 minutes sessions, each followed by a five minute break. The supporting studies show that the average human attention span starts to fizzle out around this time. Thanks to television and social media, 25 minutes might actually be a very generous number by today’s standards. When taking a short break and refocusing, you put your brain back on point and can then get back to being effective. These sprints are intended to be spent working on one thing and one thing only.  Right now I’m on a Pomodoro sprint to work on this post. That means no tabbing over to email, Facebook, nor picking up incoming calls or text messages.  Here’s a simple desktop Pomodoro timer that I use.   

4. Break Optimization: Energy is everything. The more energy you have, the more focused and effective you will be. You're more than welcome to thumb through Instagram on your breaks, but if you’d like to supercharge your output, try some of the following in those five minute windows:

  • Stand up. If you need to check your text messages or make a call, stand up to do it. I have a sit/stand desk and do at least every other 25 minute sprint standing up. 
  • Walk around. If you can get outside for even a few minutes for some fresh air and Vitamin D, it will serve as a powerful rejuvenation. 
  • Drink Water. Most people are chronically dehydrated. This has all sorts of nasties attached to it such as increased sugar cravings, high blood pressure, fat gain and even bad breath. These little breaks are the perfect time to chug down at least a cup of water. 
  • Movement: There are hundreds of bodyweight exercises you can do, even in the confines of a cubicle. Planks, air squats, burpees and lunges are just a few. I even have a few kettlebells sitting under my desk, but then again, I’m really weird.  

5. Time Assignment. Now that you have a to-do list and some focused work sprints, it’s time to tie them together. Start by assessing how many 25 minute work sessions you have in your day. If you are starting at 8AM sharp and are leaving at 5PM, remove an hour for lunch and another for unexpected shit that might derail you. That leaves you with seven hours, or fourteen Pomodoro sprints. Then take your prioritized list and make your best estimation of as to how many 25 minute sprints each will take you. If you think it will take you about 20 minutes to send off that package, give that task a P1 prefix. If next up is writing that proposal that could take up to an hour, give it a P2/P3 prefix. And so on. Do yourself a favor and be conservative. A good rule of thumb is to add 50% onto whatever your gut estimation is. If you think something will take ten minutes, give yourself fifteen. You’ve now taken a daunting list of tasks and honed them into an actionable plan that is completely supported by the amount of focused time you have available for the day. This is a game changer. 

6. Protecting Your Sprints. Even with prioritized tasks and the provisioned time to accomplish them, getting distracted is still quite easy. When attaching a task to a sprint, the idea is to do nothing else for that 25 minutes. The big idea is to go on offense. You take control of shaping your day the way you see fit. Conversely, being on defense means spending your time on the things other people are asking of you. While this is also a necessary part of the day, here are some tricks to keep you eye on the offense game: 

  • Put your phone on do not disturb and log out of instant messenger clients. You can check them on breaks, or better yet, assign a sprint to do only that. 
  • Block distracting websites. You could just not go to them, but I’ll find myself opening a tab for Facebook without even thinking about it. I use a free Chrome plugin called Stay Focused
  • Close That Client. Email is the ultimate pitfall for getting stuck in a perpetual defense vortex. You can start down that rabbit hole only to realize your entire day has been sucked up on the reply treadmill. It’s still a daily necessary evil for most of us, but assign the time for it instead of letting it sneak in the back door and disrupt your sprints. 
  • Clean Workspaces. This means both physical and digital. People’s environments are often a mirror of their inner state. When it comes to honing your focus, less is more. On your screens, only keep the task at hand up on your screen. 
  • Reward Yourself. Remember that integral part of habit reinforcement? Although the reward of actually getting your shit done will be quite satisfying, sweetening the pot with some extra incentives will help strengthen the habit. This feedback loop is one of the most important parts of reinforcing the system. You’ll need to decide on your own goals and rewards, keeping mindful of striking a balance between what's challenging, yet achievable. Remember that becoming more effective with the things you have to do bare the fruits of more time to do the things you want to do. Hopefully, some of those are one in the same, but make sure to partition some of that new availability of time for things that you truly enjoy as opposed to backfilling it with more work. 

Try working into these one step at a time, giving each step a solid few days before implementing the next. After 21 days, it will be interesting to see how it not only affects your productivity output, but your outlook on work and your increase of available free time. Please send me a note to let me know of any findings or suggestions! 

-Elijah Szasz