The single biggest challenge our team members at UIB have, is how to effectively manage tasks in an age where overload is the business norm.
- What is the basic nature of different tasks?
- How best to (and quickly!) prioritize them?
- How to become effective at deciding what is ‘urgent’ and what is ‘important’?
We discovered, that while individuals have different thresholds of how much of a “load” they can bear before they experience “task overload,” everyone eventually feels it.
Over the years, to combat and deal with this overload, I’ve tried many techniques myself. I used the pomodoro technique, applied the 80/20 rule and wrote a detailed blog about my personal approach to inbox management.
We’re all different, so what works for one, may not equally benefit the other. But understanding the core categories of tasks is a basic requirement for anybody who wants to increase productivity.
There are five different task types:
- Recurring tasks: Think of brushing your teeth – you do it daily. So regularity, fixed times and consistency are important qualities. Generally speaking – recurring tasks are habit forming, so we enjoy doing them more than others and have less to worry about missing them. They’re in our subconscious just like heartbeat and breathing, so they just tend to happen. Some things we shouldn’t change.
- Difficult tasks: They’re heavy to deal with and occupy our minds both consciously and subconsciously. We know we have to do them and that often they take time, but we’re quick to bury them under other tasks which is when they become a load in the back of our minds. This leads to a delay in these tasks, especially as they usually require a longer term or strategic approach and typically are of critical importance to our work success. While most important, they often give us the least (perceived) joy.
- Urgent tasks: These items have a deadline which is quickly approaching – it may be hours or days but not weeks away. But how they became urgent is what’s interesting – they could have been pushed in front of us by others, or we’ve simply kept prioritizing other work over time hence little progress was made on these tasks and when you finally find time to pay attention to these, they have eventually become urgent. Urgent tasks are very much known to us purely on a conscious level and the effect they produce is easily perceived as a positive stress. People are actually getting addicted to urgency as it affects their moods with positive stress and floods our bodies with the related endorphins once the matters have been settled. Completing more urgent than any other tasks is most misleading when it comes to measuring our real productivity. Minimizing the creation of urgent tasks therefore is good planning.
- Small tasks: There are many small tasks which really clock up our system. Often they may not even be important, but still, they just need to get done. The problem is that we seldom find the time to clear out a backlog of small tasks. This heavily affects our overall ability to manage, structure and prioritize the rest of the lot. Keeping one day a week aside to simply finish all these tasks can be a good approach.
- Unknown tasks: We may feel this category doesn’t exist but it always does. It’s when our estimates were wrong because we didn’t realize there was more to something than we thought there was or a task had multiple sub tasks which we didn’t see coming. Not knowing there is work to do is the most dangerous thing that can happen to you in an age of overload. Why? Because without proper thinking time, those tasks never appear in your mind while planning. And without proper planning, our lives are filled with work, but much of it is overlooked. Once these tasks suddenly become known – they have a tendency to immediately be urgent, an evaluation whether they actually are or not, seldom happens, simply because it’s embarrassing enough to admit they were overlooked.
How to deal with the tasks in each category? And how to prioritize them?
The short answer is that it is a personal choice. I myself tend to write down three, maximum four important tasks (#2 on the task list above) I want to complete tomorrow. In the morning, before starting work, I quickly complete my routine tasks (#1) while being aware of them and analyzing whether the situation has changed (is something else more important or less urgent now?).
Then I take a break after which I plan out the rest of my day between numbers two, three, and four. I will focus on #2 first, really question #3: Whether something truly is urgent? Who is affected if I delay it? And whether it affects just me, another person, or even the company itself? The moment I get tired and lose focus, I will apply discipline and move on to #4.
If there is a “mood situation,” health issue or anything else that truly blocks me on an emotional (not just an intellectual level), this is often the best moment to think about #5 for me. Because our minds go blank during that time and the usual thinking process is compromised. So possibly missed items can “bubble up” and suddenly enter our view. But we also have to set time aside exclusively for #5 — as otherwise the uncertainty which unknown tasks represent can affect all other management strategies we could possibly apply to get better at prioritizing our tasks.
Being efficient in performing tasks and also setting aside some time for daily thinking, planning, and carrying out an activity analysis, particularly the management of ‘urgent vs. important’ is required if we want to be in the best position to achieve our full potential.
What are the techniques you and your teams are using to manage tasks in an age of overload?