Monday, May 11, 2009

Staying on Top of Tasks

I come off as hugely process-oriented at times, but really I'm not. I've simply learned that trying to work without any kind of structure yields very bad results. I can be pretty organized when I set my mind to it; it's when I fall off the wagon that the trouble starts.

Over the years, I've come across and experimented with a variety of tools, both for myself and for clients and I've learned a couple of very important things.

First, whatever tool you use simply must be a good fit for your individual personality, taking advantage of your strengths and mitigating your weaknesses. Just because it works for someone else doesn't mean it's the best tool or structure for you.

Second, find a tool that will survive having you abandon it from time to time and develop a strategy for getting back into the game of being organized. A structure you don't use isn't nearly as helpful as one that you do.

To that purpose, I actually use two different tools myself, concentrating on whichever works best for me at the time. Ordinarily, I prefer electronic management of my task list because it gives me the most flexibility in terms of availability and in adapting to the fluid nature of my life and work. My favorite electronic task management system is still LifeBalance by Llamagraphics.

Unfortunately, my handheld device and my Vista 64 laptop aren't terribly compatible at the moment, so no synchronization these days. That's where my second tool comes in.

I've discovered that in times of great stress (or non-synchronizing electronic tools), it really helps to be more tactile about managing my tasks. Good list hygiene is important to me - I can't find what still is yet to be done if all of the other nearby items are crossed out - and I like to be able to re-order tasks as priorities shift, so putting my tasks onto sticky notes and managing them in a partitioned folder works better for me than a standard list.

My strategy is to continue using a system for as long as I can, then when it gets difficult for me to keep up, I switch to the other system - sometimes just a change in scenery is all it takes to stay organized. If I fall off both systems and have trouble getting back into either one, then I give myself a short break of a week or two and hope that I don't miss anything too important. I practice being kind to myself when errors occur and use whatever problems arise as motivation to get me back into becoming process-driven again. What doesn't seem to work (for me, anyway), is guilt.

I find it also helps to work higher-priority tasks first, but have been known to shift to focus on easier tasks from time to time when I just need to get myself unstuck. Getting stuck, however, is more likely an indicator of tasks that are too big. What works then is to break the larger tasks down into smaller component tasks.

When I do abandon my systems or get hopelessly stuck, I look for reasons for why. More often I find it is the failure of a system to accommodate my needs than it is a general system failure or something I did wrong. If I can discover the source of the incompatibility, I work on addressing that for the next iteration and then I get back to using some (new and improved) system as soon as possible.

As with anything else, it's a mistake to believe that one will become 'organized' and then have nothing else to do to remain in that state. It's even a mistake to believe that one can become more organized and simply remain in that state even with a huge amount of effort.

The truth is that we capture the state of organization only periodically and then the pendulum swings through or back the the other way and we must start the process all over again of regaining a lock on organization. The best we can hope for is to stretch out the time we spend being 'organized' and reduce how wildly the pendulum swings away from it.

If you've experienced problems or successes with organizing your to-do list, I hope you'll share by making a comment. Perhaps we can help each other.

What keeps you on task?