Another day, another task added to the to-do list; a list running in an infinite loop. At times the list is straightforward and your goal is clear. At others it is overwhelming with the sheer size of it freezing you into a state of inaction.
Here is the thing about tasks though; there are only four possible actions to take on any one item, and only one action applies to a task. When you are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work you must complete the 4D’s can be a helpful filter to help narrow your focus and regain control over your list. Item by item go down and assign it one of the following Next Actions.
If it is a task that only you can do, and the time to do it is now, then make like Nike and Just Do It.
The trouble with to-do lists is that the scope of work is often not captured effectively in a single line item. It can be fine for something like “Call Mom”, where all you need to do is pick up the phone and dial, but tasks like “Write annual report” or “Create presentation” are too large and have too many moving parts to be adequately represented by a few short words. With no clear direction it becomes easier to procrastinate and soon the deadline is fast approaching yet the work hasn’t been started.
The key in situations like this are to break the task down into manageable pieces and focus on them one at a time. This gives you a second list that is specific to that project. These steps are called Next Actions in David Allen’s seminal work Getting Things Done. Make a second list specific to that project to track these steps if you need to, or just use the single line item on your list as a cue to ask yourself “What is the next step?”. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a large paper you then only need to focus on a portion of that job, such as completing the outline.
Your list will probably have a number of “Do It” items that require attention and figuring out which ones to focus on is as simple as determining which is the most time-bound and working from there. If that paper is due tomorrow then you’ll be better served working on that project then one due next week.
A second tip from David Allen; if a task on your list will take you less than two minutes to complete, finish it right then. This helps to ward off procrastination and builds momentum in the right direction. Knock out a few easy tasks early on to get primed up for working on the larger ones.
Finally, it can be very productive to batch together similar items and treat them as a single task. Emails and phone calls in particular can really mess up the flow of your day if handled when they come up. But if you block out a section of time then focus on just those tasks you’ll finish up faster and more effectively.
The second option when it comes to completing a task is to Delegate It. The more responsibility you carry, the more effective this option can be. As you move through the ranks in your chosen profession you will become responsible for personnel in your department and will have colleagues who work alongside of you. Tasks can be delegated to either of these groups.
When delegating work it must be with the understanding that you are still responsible for the final result. Just because you have given the job to somebody else to complete doesn’t mean you can totally forget about it. After all, it started out as your task and whoever gave it to you will ultimately hold you responsible for ensuring that it is done well. *Clear Communication is required to ensure that the job gets done to your satisfaction, including:
- Communicating your expectations of what completion looks like
- Choosing a time frame in which the task needs to be completed
- Setting followup meetings to gauge progress and assist as required
Who you select to do the job is very important as they must have the appropriate skill set in order to do the work properly, with minimal guidance. You must trust in your people that they have the ability to do as good a job or better than you yourself would. If you don’t have that trust then your immediate task as a leader is to invest in your team and train them to a standard that is acceptable.
While you should retain oversight when delegating you must ultimately relinquish control. When you give something to someone to do, they are going to do it the way they think is the best. During your progress check-ins you can give advice and help steer the direction, but you need to empower people to figure out how to complete things on their own. Communicate the intent of what you are trying to accomplish, then stand back and let them do it. Anything beyond that enters the realm of micro-management.
This option is about priorities. With a finite set of time and an infinite set of tasks you’ll need to triage your to-do list and ensure that you are applying force where it will be the most effective. In order to tackle this proactively you’ll need a filter that you can apply to your tasks.
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited for the “Eisenhower” method, a decision making matrix with “Urgent” on one axis and “Important” on the other. Important tasks are those directly related to your own goals and will typically have a longer time frame. Urgent tasks are usually time-bound and are often associated with achieving somebody else’s goals.
By evaluating tasks using these criteria, the task will fall into one of the four quadrants:
- Urgent and Important – these items to be completed immediately.
- Urgent but not important – good candidate for delegation.
- Important but not urgent – these will be differed.
- Neither Important nor urgent – either differed long term or ditched entirely.
When deferring a task it is important that it is still managed properly so that it doesn’t get forgotten entirely. An email or task reminder on your phone can bring it to your attention at a later date, a post-it note, or if you have a task management system then file it appropriately.
One last point; as deferred tasks are often Important ones for your long term goals, you should try to do a little work on it every day. Things in this category tend to be long term projects such as writing a book, and a little progress every day will make for great success in the long term.
The final ‘D’ of completion. If a task has no urgency and no importance then it should be ditched entirely.
You may wonder how tasks like this make it onto your to-do list in the first place? They end up there for two reasons:
- It seemed important at one time.
- It WAS important at one time, but circumstances have changed.
When making a task list it is important that you don’t filter anything in your head. Everything should make it on to the paper in the beginning. This is discussed at length in GTD, with the theory being that you only have so much RAM capacity in your memory. Putting things onto paper is like putting it on a hard drive, which frees up your RAM for more immediate tasks. The human mind hates open-loops and there are whole segments of psychology built around this.
So the task makes it onto your list simply to get it out of your head. Upon later review it is determined that it is not important and it is deleted. But this closes the loop on it which has had the net result of increasing your performance.
The other situation in which tasks will be ditched is when the circumstances have changed. The boss no longer needs that report, a job is cancelled, or a different task was completed that made this one irrelevant. This is great news as the more tasks you can cross off your list the better, as this leaves you with more time to focus on the truly important ones.
Putting it in practice
The key to successful completion is active management of your to-do list. This means having a system in place and reviewing it frequently. Situations are fluid and ever-changing so need to be managed actively. Start by getting everything outstanding out of your head and onto a piece of paper, then filter them through the Eisenhower Matrix. This will give you a clear direction and help to avoid becoming buried by unimportant work. In the words of Eisenhower himself:
“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”