Task management: theories and approaches

I’ve been promising a series of posts about task management for a while now. Welcome to the first one, where I’m going to talk about some of my own background, and then some different basic philosophies. I’ll have links to resources as I talk about different approaches. (Next post will be looking at some different tool options, and then I’ll talk about my actual system.) I’ll also touch on some things we as educators are not really teaching students about these topics in various places.

Many task management systems were originally designed for use by business executives – or at least people with offices (and doors that close), appointment calendars, assistants, and who could plan on at least some chunks of focused time. As a librarian and educator, that’s not reliably a part of my work life (and it isn’t for a bunch of other professions, either), so one thing I’m going to particularly focus on is creating a system that works for those of us who are frequently interrupted, regularly have to switch priorities, or who have variable amounts of energy and focus for whatever reason.

As with other posts in this file and information management series, this series on task management is going to be about half general theory and things to think about, and half “here’s what I do, and why”. I promise screenshots when they’re useful, too!

A brief bit of background:

My work experience has all been in situations where I’ve had

  • some long-term projects (long-term planning, book selection and weeding, curriculum design, collaboration with faculty)
  • a lot of short term things (preparing a presentation to a class, creating a resource list, putting up a new display, selecting books for the current buying cycle, creating and sending overdue notices)
  • and a whole lot of time where my job is to be available for questions (“Where’s this book?” “Can you help me find resources on?” “The copier isn’t working…”) but where I need to do other things when people aren’t there needing help (because there are lots of things that need to get done.)
  • plus a bunch of housekeeping tasks – processing new books, shelving books that have been returned, things like that.

As a librarian, I love answering questions (it’s what I live for), but I also need some way to make sure I get to the stuff that takes more time/focus/lack of distraction.

All my life, I’ve been someone who is generally very organised. Normally, I have extremely good executive function skills. I track things I need to do without needing a lot of written reminders, and I’m really good at managing time and sequencing tasks to make the most of my time, energy, and location while getting a lot done. (I try to fit a lot into most days, and it’s the only way I can do it.)

But as you might guess from that ‘normally’, there have been times that wasn’t true. In the 09-10 school year, I had some health issues (now totally resolved) that among other things totally wiped out my executive function skills for about 9 months. I’d write a list of to-dos, and be unable to figure out which one to do first, or how to get started (everything felt too big and too overwhelming). I’d already been begun to use the system I ended up with (that will be described in these posts as we go), but I had to get a lot better at specific parts of it, especially how I wrote to-dos in the first place, and how I organized them. It also gave me a lot more empathy and understanding for my friends (and students I work with) with ADD, ADHD, and other conditions that affect executive function skills.

The good news for me is that these days, I’m back to my old self. I mentioned chairing a convention two weeks ago – all weekend, I had my tools handy (laptop, iPod), but didn’t need them at all to track minor things that needed to be handled during the weekend. That made me really happy (and made me feel a lot more confident about writing these posts in a way that might help other people.) I also had all the energy in the world to keep going from Friday around noon (when we got there to set up) to Sunday at 6pm (when I finally went home.)

Basic philosophies:

As far as I can tell, there are a few basic approaches to task management:

  • Hope you remember the important stuff and handle it without a reliable system.
  • Priority focused: Planning what you’re going to do in advance (daily/weekly to-do lists), focused on high priority, high urgency tasks. (Which, ideally, are also high impact/high reward).
  • Context focused: Working on what you can when you can, based on where you are, how much focus you have, etc.
  • Focused attention: You work on something (and only that something) for a period, then swap tasks.

There are a lot of other ways to break down approaches (Wikipedia has some other suggestions), but these will give you an idea of some of the most common.

Hope you remember:

This is the one we all sort of wish worked better, I think. After all, it’s so simple. We remember the important stuff, we do it, we move on to the next thing.

The reality is that life isn’t quite that simple. For many people, this method works until sometime into high school, or maybe into college – but it falls down eventually, once we start having to remember things that happen a long time from now, or that we don’t really want to do. It’s easy to remember an immediate assignment (turn in your homework on Friday), but it’s harder to remember that a big paper is due at the end of the semester, or that we want to review our financial planning every year, or that we need to remember to schedule another doctor’s appointment in 6 months.

There’s also the issue of ‘psychic clutter’ as described by David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. This is the idea that all the stuff that we’re trying to remember hangs out in our minds. Because we don’t have it stored somewhere we rely on, it tends to pop up at bad times – when we’re trying to go to sleep, when we’re in the car and can’t do anything about it, when we want to be doing something else. That’s both stressful and not very helpful.

Priority focused:

In this type of system, you figure out in advance what your greatest priorities are (for the week, for the day, for part of the day), and then draft a list of the stuff you’re going to do, and focus on the highest priority stuff first. Many people are familiar with this approach from Steven Covey‘s books and materials (starting with Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), and the subsequent Franklin Covey Planner system, but there are a number of other approaches out there. You can keep the list on paper, or on a piece of technology, both of which have pluses and minuses.

Many people graft a modified version of this – Most Important Tasks – onto other systems, as well. In that case, they one to maybe five things that they really want to accomplish that day, to help them focus their attention (while handling other tasks using other systems.)

This priority-based approach works well in some ways: you have a clear outline of what you want to do, and when it needs to be done. If you’re someone who can schedule uninterrupted time to work on a task, it can be a really great way to make the most of that time.

However, it can be a very frustrating system for those of us whose work or home lives involve a lot of rapidly changing priorities. If someone comes in and needs something this afternoon, you may end up needing to rearrange your task list, which can feel frustrating, and also take more time to manage.

I’ve also found that it doesn’t work very well for tasks that need to happen, but which are not urgent or immensely important on any particular day. For example, in a school library, shelving needs to happen sometimes, but everyone’s aware that it’s probably not the most important task on any given day. Yet, if it doesn’t happen for a long period of time, the library’s going to have problems.

In a priority-based system, these types of tasks can keep falling to the bottom of the list until they’re large and unmanageable, unless you make it a priority sometimes (which can be hard to explain. After all, “Sorry, I can’t help you with that question: I really need to focus on shelving these books first.” is certainly not the thing I want to say to people!)

Finally, priority based systems tend to work best for people who have or can arrange at least some periods of known, uninterrupted time so they can focus on the high priority tasks. They’re not nearly so good for people whose work flow may be frequently interrupted (tech support, librarians, customer service folks, etc. Or for that matter, stay at home parents of small children.)

Context based system:

A different approach is to focus on the context. Sometimes, these can be where you are (home, work), or what tools you have available (phone, internet access, a computer, commuting, etc.). There are some other approaches to contexts (how much energy/focus/attention you have) that I’ll discuss in later posts, too.

The best known of these is David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, which has been widely adopted especially among programmers, information workers, and other people in the tech industry (as well as many others.)

  • Merlin Mann’s initial summary (his site has a number of additional relevant posts and links to other resources).
  • Leo Babauta (who’s written a number of other resources on his Zen Habits blog about streamlining keeping track of what we need to do, so we can spend more time on the stuff we enjoy)
  • Colorado College Libraries also have a nice roundup of information.

This is the system I use, with some additional editing (mostly around how I define contexts, as I’ll get into with examples.) What I love about this system is that it really is flexible: my afternoon today took a side-step in a welcome direction (a really great phone interview this morning turned into an invitation to come for an on-site interview in two weeks or so by dinner-time), but it did throw a bunch of the rest of my day off kilter.

That’s okay: because I have a system I can rely on, it’s easy for me to shift some tasks to ‘Not today’, throw some others (researching flights) into today and tomorrow morning, and send some emails related to various pieces of this. Despite the shift in my day’s plans, I still feel on top of things, not just for today, but for tomorrow and Friday too.

The summaries linked above give a more detailed overview, but the basics of this system are:

  • You realise you need to do something.
  • You write it down in a reliable system (could be a notebook, a pack of index card, a computer-based tool – whatever works. I’ll come back to tools later).
  • You do some basic sorting by context (more in later posts)
  • Then, each time you’re in a given context, you look at your list for that context (and only that context) and do stuff until you need to switch contexts.
  • You also do a regular review (weekly for big stuff, and many people do a quick daily overview to find things they particularly want to do), but tasks are context-based, not date based. (So, for example, you don’t say “Here’s the list of stuff I’m going to do Tuesday” except for appointments and other hard calendar dates.)

As noted, this is a great system for people who are regularly interrupted – for example, while working, I keep a context list for when I’m at the library desk (frequent interruptions). I put things on that list that I can do easily¬† even if I’m also helping with various questions and other conversations. (Creating resource lists, putting together a display, editing catalog records, some kinds of preparing presentations.) I keep another list of things to work on when it’s quiet, and I can focus for a longer stretch (detailed writing where I need to focus while editing, going over the final notes for a class presentation when I’m timing it.

It’s also a really good system for those of us who interact with lots of people (though this bit can be adapted to other systems): GTD (as it’s commonly called) uses a system of agendas, where you can keep notes for each person you talk to regularly. Next time you’re getting ready to meet with them, it’s easy to look through the list of stuff that affects them and figure out how much time you need, and what to focus on.

It’s also a system that’s particularly well designed for technology support – many people use a combination of tags and other grouping approaches to label contexts, projects, and other ways to sort information that allow you to get very specific about what you’re focusing on when.

The downside is that you really do have to keep up with it – it’s not a system that works well if you do it some days and not others (because you won’t trust that everything is in the system.) You also – and this is the one a lot of people struggle with – really do need to regularly review everything in your system, because otherwise it will either become overwhelming, or pieces fall through the cracks.

It is also a system that can take some work to get used to if you have some tasks that have hard deadlines, some tasks that have loose deadlines, and some fixed appointments. (This combination is pretty common in my line of work: I need to pull together resources for a teacher by a given date, but I don’t necessarily have fixed time to work on it. I have a meeting, but I need to figure out how to coordinate the rest of the day to get things done around the meeting in a way that works for me and the people I’m interacting with.) Again, some of my ideas about these will show up in later posts.

Focused attention:

The last category of time management is focused attention: setting out to work on a single tasks for a set period of time, then taking a break. Two well-known versions of this are the Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit [review and summary] and the Pomodoro technique. They take some different approaches, but both can be good with breaking through procrastination, in particular, and they both offer some real benefits in cases where reaching ‘flow state’ (such as in coding, writing, creative work) is particularly important.

The downside, of course, is that you need to have a fair amount of control over what you’re doing when – this method is not one that works well if you’re in a position where part of your job involves helping other people who show up at unpredictable times. I do use pieces of these techniques at home, when writing or working on music or art or other creative projects, but they just don’t fit with my work life.

Next time:

I promise a return of the links post on Friday, and I’ll also be aiming to get the next part of this series up either later this week or early next week. It’ll focus on some different approaches to tools (both paper-based and digital).

If you hadn’t guessed by now, my own system is context-based – basically, GTD with some editing for specific circumstances. I’ll be talking in more detail about how that works, and how I manage it in later posts.

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3 comments to Task management: theories and approaches

  • I’ve certainly found in the Writing of the Thesis that the focused attention stuff really works for me. I was skeptical at first that the Pomodoro technique was going to make any difference, but even when dealing with massive writer’s block, I can get myself to go “Well, I’ll just do one unit and see how things go”, and I find that’s all it takes to get me into the flow.

  • Jen

    I’ve found the same thing for focused writing – just that it so doesn’t fit in a work day where I’m also helping people with other things. (The “just get started with this” does work really well for me in some other places, too, like shelving or working on things like inventory.)

    (I’ve also found some very useful things with the Now Habit’s Unschedule in figuring out how my overall life is balanced, and I’ll talk about that somewhere in these posts.)

  • [...] two in the task management series: figure out which tools are going to work for you. (Part 1: a summary of theories and approaches is a good place to [...]

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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