When I started working in the productivity training industry almost 20 years ago, email had not come into the corporate workplace yet, and most people used a paper diary to manage their schedule and priorities.
A few years later, email arrived, and along with it tools like MS Outlook. Over the next few years, I worked hard to convince clients of the value in switching from their paper diary to an electronic calendar to boost their productivity.
To me, it was a no-brainer. All of your meetings in one scheduling tool, the ability to collaborate with other people’s schedules, and the ability to link agendas and documents to the event. Today, most people barely remember using a paper diary.
Yet, a funny thing happened with our task management. We did not make the same quick shift to electronic task lists that we did with the calendar. In fact, in my experience, most workers still use paper tools to manage their priorities.
Unfortunately, as the pace of business has increased, and as more and more of our work now arrives via email, these paper tools are not cutting it anymore. To be truly productive in the 21st century workplace, we need to leverage the power of 21st century tools.
The first step to increased task productivity is to consolidate your tasks into the one list, preferably next to your calendar. If you are trying to manage your priorities using several lists, such as your Inbox, a to-do list, piles of paper or meeting actions in your notebook (I could go on), this will lead to fragmentation.
It is very hard to prioritise your time when your work is fragmented across many tools. MS Outlook, Lotus Notes and Google Calendar all have the ability to show your electronic tasks next to your calendar. This will help you to bring everything together, and to plan and prioritise more easily.
The next step for effective task management is to schedule your tasks within the context of your time. Creating one big task list can be overwhelming, and not very efficient.
You are better served by creating a date-based task system that allows you to schedule your priorities for today, but also schedule tasks for future days. Tomorrow, later this week and next week are all appropriate times to roughly schedule your work.
Again, tools like Outlook and Notes will allow you to create a date-based task list and get in control of doing the right work at the right time.
A task list is most powerful when it has some sense of priority. Sequencing your daily task list in order of importance is a simple way of getting really clear about what is critical in your day.
This will help you to focus, as well as negotiate incoming interruptions and work. Highlight your top three tasks each day and try to get to these first.
I believe that the real power in using the electronic task list in a tool like Outlook or Lotus Notes is the ability to convert emails into tasks.
So much of your work arrives via email these days, and unfortunately most people tend to just use their inbox as a messy and ineffective to-do list. You already turn meetings invitations into scheduled calendar events by accepting them.
You can apply the same thinking to your task workload. Emails that are a priority for you but cannot be done now, will be better served if you schedule them as tasks for the appropriate date. All good email systems have this capability built in. You just need to learn to use it.
Your desktop tools are great for getting you organised when at your desk. But what about when you are away from the desk? Fear not as nowadays, most of us have a smartphone that will sync to our scheduling tools.
This means that your task list will also sync, providing you with full mobile access to your priorities. Capture thoughts on the go, or check your task list for the day between meetings. Either way, you are taking advantage of all of those micro-moments in your day, and working smarter with your technology.
Dermot Crowley is a productivity thought leader, author, speaker and trainer. Dermot works with leaders, executives and professionals in many of Australia’s leading organisations, helping to boost the productivity of their people and teams. He is the author of Smart Work, published by Wiley.