Taming the Task List Monster
By Mike Raia Posted June 8, 2021
Task lists are great but they can grow unwieldy and become more of a hindrance than a help. Here's how to fight back.
We've all been there. We start using a task list to keep track of the things we need to get done each day and each week. We have the best of intentions: get things done but keep it simple. This isn't full-on project management after all, it's about creating a list of short task descriptions and maybe a due date.
While our simple task lists may start off lean and mean, they can start to grow cumbersome and imposing. We start to resent the task list, only picking at its contents periodically to determine what to do. Or, worse, we may go back to working "on the fly" and avoiding the task list entirely.
What happened? Here are some possibilities:
Lack of Prioritization
Keeping a task list simple, with just a series of items listed out on a journal page, Excel, Google Keep, etc., seems like an efficient method for managing tasks. And it can be.
However, a simple list of items conveys nothing about priority. You can try listing items in order of priority but we all know that priorities can change, which means you end up moving tasks around in an attempt to show prioritization. In the process, you may lose track of context and priority because of daily demands and constant list editing.
One solution is to assign Priority numbers to each task. The Priority can be based on whatever you choose. For instance, we prioritize tasks by Impact and Ease to Complete on a scale of 1-3. The next thing in the task list is the highest number. For instance a task that has a high Impact and a high Ease to Complete would score a 6.
This is similar to the Eisenhower Box method of task priority and assumes that if something is both easy to do and highly impactful, you should just get it done.
To allow for urgent tasks to be taken care of, we also include a checkbox called "Urgent" and use it sparingly. Anything marked as "Urgent" floats to the top, avoiding the priority rating system. Typically we only mark things as urgent if they are tied to an event or deadline of some kind. Obviously, this is easier to do digitally, rather than using pen and paper.
We use Notion to manage tasks for Marketing at Integrify but you can use any tool you're comfortable with. Here's what it might look like in Excel using a two-tiered sort (1. Urgent and 2. Priority score)
Not Enough Cleanup
We all have a tendency to live in the moment. This can affect our task list dramatically. For instance, you come out of a meeting that generates numerous tasks and ideas. You quickly parse out the actions needed and throw them on your task list before you forget the details. Perhaps you then start in immediately on a task or get back to your daily plan. Either way, there are now three shiny new tasks sitting on your list.
Days go by and you start your day with some coffee and a quick look at your task list. You ask yourself, "Where did all these tasks come from?" In some cases, the tasks didn't belong in the list to begin with. They were transitory thoughts that may belong in a separate list of ideas but hadn't become actionable or high priority. But there they are, mucking up your task list.
Other tasks may have lingered for weeks and even months. Consider why you never get to them.
You can handle these kinds of tasks by doing a weekly task purge. Go through your list on Fridays, review each task, and decide to either delete, reprioritize it, or park it elsewhere, perhaps an Ideas/Backburner list.
Also, if you're using a prioritization system like the one mentioned earlier, you may prevent some tasks from ever making the list because it forces you to consider the impact and ease to complete.
The Wrong System
Task tools are plentiful these days. From paper-based bullet journals to Web-based applications like Trello, Notion, and Todoist as well as the ever-popular spreadsheet options, there is no shortage of places to put your tasks.
As someone who task-app hopped for years, I've come to realize that you can usually tell within a few weeks if you're using the right application. The easiest way to tell is if you feel good using it and it doesn't feel like your forcing a square peg in a round hole.
Even if you have all the other task management problems solved, using the wrong tool might torpedo your efforts so try out several and decide which one felt best. It could be the interface, the functionality, the simplicity/complexity, etc. but consider which tool you genuinely want to return to after several trial runs.
Of course, none of these suggestions handle the elephant in the room, which is that your inability to manage and complete tasks to your expectations could have nothing to do with your task list.
Problems may exist that won't be fixed by a better task management system and require a different set of approaches we don't have room to cover here. These may include:
- Too much focus on email and instant messages.
- Too many meetings.
- Poorly outlined boundaries/responsibilities.
- Delegation issues (we did cover this a while back).
Task lists are meant to break down your work into manageable chunks that can be completed as efficiently as possible.
If you're finding your task list isn't everything you hoped it would be or you realize you've been avoiding using it entirely it may be time to rethink your task management entirely.
This may mean changing the way tasks are created, organized, and prioritized. Hopefully, we've provided some actionable guidance for this. Let us know in the comments.
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