Do you feel that your life has become an endless to-do list with tasks? And it gets longer and longer no matter how much time you spend working on those tasks? Are your tasks like the Hydra from Hercules – once you finish one, three new ones come in its place? Do you spend most of your day getting one urgent task done after the other? If yes, then you badly need better task management skills.
Task management means managing a task through its life cycle – planning, testing, tracking and reporting. It helps individuals to achieve their goals and groups to collaborate and accomplish collective goals. Tasks have different complexity (from low to high), different priority (from low to high) and different urgency (from low to high).
Most Important Tasks (MIT) is a method for task management of selecting the most important tasks for the day and making sure that they get done. This way you can concentrate on the tasks which would bring the most value to you.
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The first aspect of task management is describing your tasks in detail, so that you could evaluate them just by looking at their parameters.
In this section I will describe the different dimensions of tasks that I am using in my task management system. This step is important, because once you have a system running, you would be able to pick your tasks for the day just by looking at their properties.
I use the following definitions of tax complexity:
- Trivial – all tasks that you can accomplish under 2 minutes. Writing, prioritizing and tracking such tasks is more expensive than just doing them right away.
- Easy – minimum brain power needed. Such tasks usually are: replying to an email; reviewing emails; tracking and updating the To-Do list and so on. Most often, they require no or low coordination.
- Moderate – some brain power needed, but not so much as to put you in your flow state. Those task require coordination of more than one skills to accomplish. Examples for such tasks are: writing the CRUD methods of a new class (for the IT nerds out there); copy/pasting cells from Excel and controlling the values; analyzing a balance sheet.
- Difficult – coordination of more than a few skills, with a creative element. Usually you have to reach beyond the known to accomplish these tasks. Examples: inventing a new algorithm; writing an article; drawing a house with AutoCAD.
For the different people, the complexities of the tasks listed could differ. What is important is to define the different levels for yourself.
You will probably notice the influence of Microsoft Outlook, but I have the following urgency values:
- Next week – everything that could be done next week (this means it should not be done during the current week). The consequences of not doing the task during the current week are negligible.
- This week – everything that should be done within the current week. Those tasks could slip to next week, but it is not desirable.
- Tomorrow – these are the tasks that would be urgent tomorrow. If possible, you should also try to do them today.
- Today – the tasks due today.
- NOW – I was tempted to leave that out, because there should not be such tasks if using MIT. These are the “hot potato tasks“, that should be resolved immediately.
Be honest and realistic in your estimations. If you plan to do everything today, do not expect to get everything done.
This dimension measures the impact of a task on the others (your colleagues, partners, customers).
- Minor – minor or low impact on the project. For example: fixing typos in variable names; rename a file to follow a convention and the name is not important.
- Major – tasks that have a big impact on the project. Fox example: writing documentation; submitting the drawings on paper after the design phase is done; deployment of a product.
- Critical – critical for the success of the project to which they belong. For example: optimization task (to make the product run faster when this is a priority); publishing a new article on a blog; helping a customer prepare for a meeting.
- Blocker – those tasks block another individual or group from doing what they need to do. Doing them would allow your colleagues to do their jobs. For example: preparation of testing environment (before that you cannot deploy the project or test it); database design and implementation (before that you cannot work on the upper layers); review and approval of the foundations layer of a building (before that you cannot go on with the other floors).
As you can see the impact of a task is rather subjective and depends on the task, the project and the other people involved in it.
Tasks could also have other dimensions, like for example the project to which they belong, the type of task (personal or work related).
Task tracking is an important part of task management. It includes:
- Writing down new tasks as they come. If possible, also evaluating their dimension values (complexity, urgency and impact).
- Updating old tasks and adjusting their values.
- Deleting or otherwise marking the completed tasks.
Below you could see an example of how I track my day-to-day tasks.
Task register – work tasks
I usually use Jira for tracking my work-related tasks. It is lightweight and easy to administer task management tool. In Jira, I track tasks by project, type (research, bug, task, dev task) and by priority (from trivial all the way to immediate). I also use it for reporting the time I’ve spent doing those tasks and for issuing time-sheets and invoices.
When I work as an employee, I will most certainly use the task tracking system of my employer for the bulk of the job. But for optimization purposes, I will keep a local copy of the task in my personal “task tracking system” so that I can assign priorities to the different tasks. I will usually create one project for every project on which I am working.
Task backlog – personal tasks
I will show an example of how I track my tasks in a notebook (or a txt file). Following the principle Keep It Simple and Stupid (KISS), I have weekly notes for the tasks that need to be done during this week and daily notes for the most important tasks (MIT). There will be more on the subject later.
In practice, I have evaluated many task management tools that could simplify the process. Some of that do the job, other do not. Some of over-complicated, other offer everything that I need, but lack a certain feature that irritates me. I may do another post on the apps that I am using in the future, but in the moment it is not important.
In order to be as productive as possible, I am using the Pomodoro method for time management. For more information you can check out my post about that method: Time Management: Using Pomodoro Technique.
The Most Important Task method
A Most Important Task (or MIT) is a critical task that will benefit you the most and its results will contribute the most to your goals. You can have any criteria you want for selecting those task, the key it to be consequent and true to yourself.
Usually, you have higher energy at the beginning of the day than at the end of it. For me personally, my energy levels somewhat decline after lunch and completely disappear after 4:00 PM. So it makes sense to aim at the most important, complex and highest on the priority list tasks in the morning. If you follow this pattern, you should never have an urgent and complex blocker task, because you should have already taken care of it.
Select 2 or 3 MIT-s at the beginning of each day and you will really see a productivity boost after just a few days practicing the method.
Example of my task management system
In this section I describe how I use my task management system to increase my productivity.
The task pool
All possible tasks that need to be done, regardless of their dimensions or properties, are written in this list.
- [project 1] Task (this week – easy – major)
- [project 1] Another task (tomorrow – complex – minor)
- [project 1] One more task (next week – moderate – critical)
- [project 2] Task (today – complex – blocker)
- [project 2] Another task (tomorrow – moderate – critical)
- [project 2] One more task (this week – easy – major)
I keep the list sorted by project and ordered by urgency within the project. In brackets I also keep the complexity and the impact of the tasks. Once again all these dimensions are subjective. The could and should change in time.
I review the list at least daily, but most of the times several times a day and I look the tasks filtered by project. I could rearrange the tasks several times a day.
When looking for daily MIT-s, I make a judgement call and pick the most “important” tasks. I see this as a mixture of priority, urgency and a subjective factor – importance.
When all my daily MIT-s are done, I usually go through the projects from top to bottom and pick tasks from there. If I do not have time for a full pomodoro, I just get an easy task.
At the beginning of each working day, I pick up 2-3 tasks from the list. I choose those tasks that would have the biggest impact on the way to achieving my goals. Sometimes that means getting the urgent tasks done, without which my reputation would suffer. Sometimes that means getting the complex tasks done, so that I can move forward on my project. On other days, I might pick up only tasks that would help me relax, but still get some work done. It is a judgement call!
Here is an example of my daily MIT list:
- Project A: add activities, implement caching
- Project B: verify vpn access, verfiy db access, verify app server
- Work on the “Task Management” article: research, initial structure
The list is prioritized from 1 to 3. The first item is the most important task at work, depending on project schedules, stress from the management and so on. The second item is when two projects need to run in parallel and also depends on project schedule and other factors. If there is no second work tasks, I put my first personal task as the second item. My third task is always personal and is aligned with my long term goals.
Like everything else in life, the list is not immutable and could be changed. Tracking those changes is another part of task management. I use another simplified list below my MIT list to track any changes or generally to write notes.
- I demoted the Prio 1 item to Prio 2, because of an email with urgent request
- The Prio 3 item resolved itself, so I swapped it with a new item
Even if I make changes, I keep the old value with strike-through formatting (
example) so that I know which task was there before the change.
Tracking the results
Another very important part of task management. I always update a third list in my daily MIT note in Evernote with results.
- Did not have time for that, because of the other tasks.
I revisit my daily MIT-s at the beginning of the next week and draw conclusions and optimization proposals.
9 tips to improve your productivity
And at the end of the article, you can find a list of tips to organize and follow your own system.
1. Start each day by reviewing and updating the task pool
As I already said, I have a list with weekly tasks, that I use as a task pool or a ToDo list. I update that list at the beginning of the day or during the day by crossing out the completed tasks. Then I update the urgency of the remaining tasks. Those that were labelled as “tomorrow” yesterday, are now “today”. Hopefully there are no tasks labelled as “now” that are still not finished or at least started.
2. Select your MIT-s at the beginning of the working day BEFORE reading email
I usually start the busy part of my day with defining 3 MIT-s of the day. If you want to learn more about my whole morning routine, please check this article: Practicing Discipline – The Ultimate Daily Routine for Entrepreneurs.
I select my MIT-s before checking email so that I don’t let others influence my choices. Remember one more time, the MIT method is all about getting the most important stuff done first! That stuff that is going to have the highest impact on you, your goals, your team or anybody that depends on you.
3. ALWAYS pick a personal task aligned with your long-term goals
Start by selecting 1 or 2 work-related tasks from the task pool , those that would benefit your work situation the most (customer, current employer and so on).
I ALWAYS select at least 1 personal task that would help me move forwards with MY current goals. I find this step very important, because even during the busiest of days, I keep focus on my long-term goal(s). And I make sure that I spend some time on tasks that are going to contribute to MY goals.
4. Review your email, prepared to make changes if needed
Others usually communicate their desires toward us with emails. After you have selected the MIT-s for the day, you could take a look and see what is required of you. It would be wise to reserve a time slot for that process or even add it to your calendar. If you want to explore the topic of how to organize your email go to this article: Email Organization – How To Organize Your Inbox.
Do the minor tasks immediately. Add every other task to the pool. And last but not least, adjust the MIT list accordingly. Resist the urge to drop your personal task!
5. Start working on the priority 1 item but work smart (not just hard)
Remember to take regular breaks. If needed schedule your time with a watch. I would once again recommend the Pomodoro method for time tracking.
6. Switch to the priority 2 or 3 item
If you finish your priority 1 item, update the MIT list and the task pool and switch to the second item. Consider doing the personal MIT (priority 3) before the priority 2 item, depending on the time it would take you and the properties of the personal task.
If you could not finish the priority 1 item and if you could afford it, update the progress and postpone it for the next day. Sometimes this is not possible, but most of the times it is possible. If you do that, you would have time for more than 1 task and you would accomplish more.
7. Use visual aid to reduce stress
Even if it is really tempting, do not select more than 3 MIT-s for the day. Research shows that constantly looking at longer lists with tasks, least to increases stress and depression levels. You would also achieve less, if you have that long list hanging at the back of your mind.
Mark a task as completed as soon as you can do that. This would work as a small “reward” for your efforts so far and the list will diminish in size.
If you manage to complete all three tasks on your MIT list, then you could go to the task pool and start searching for other tasks. But not before that!
8. Congratulate yourself at the end of the day
After you are done working and (if possible) before going home, take a look at what you have done and congratulate yourself! Write or just think about a summary for the day.
- Did you follow the list?
- Why did you diverge from it?
- Are you happy with what you have done?
- What went good?
- What can you do better?
- How can you improve the list
9. Send a message to your future self
Also at the end of the day, try to “predict” the MIT for the next working day. Create the MIT list for tomorrow as you see it today. Tomorrow you can end up totally rewriting it, but you will get a feeling of continuity just like two paragraphs or chapters in a book linked together.
You are not living in the ages of the conveyor belt (invented by Henry Ford) where you only have one repetitive task for the day. You live in a world of constant demand, constant change and among tens of tasks which demand your attention. Learning and mastering task management leads to tremendous productivity boost that you will feel not only in your work life, but also in your personal one.
One of the most useful methods of task management is the MIT method (or most important task). It urges you to concentrate all your effort on those tasks that bring the highest value for your life. The method presented in this article goes one step further and instructs you to pick at least one of your MIT-s that directly contributes to your personal long-term goals. This way you ensure that you will be getting a few hours closer to your goal each day.
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