Every day we are faced with too much to do. There are urgent requests, long term goals, and lots of small tasks that must be done along the way. How can we decide what to work on, so we are doing the best thing at every moment?
In my short presentation, I have three main points:
- The power of asking the question: “What’s the next action?”
- The importance of keeping things out of your head, using a trusted system that can capture the next actions.
- How to avoid firefighting.
1. What’s the next action?
First I will give you a quick tip that will improve your effectiveness immediately at making progress towards achieving your goals. Have you ever sat in a long meeting, and at the end of the meeting it is not clear if anything is going to be done or who is going to do it? Or have you ever looked at a project or a UX design spec and wondered how you will ever reach the goal of a working product or feature?
Any time you are feeling stuck or confused about not making progress or a project that seems daunting, there is one question that you can ask that will immediately set you on the path of progress. It is simply to ask “What’s the next action?”.
Let’s take a simple example. I had a problem where the windshield wipers on my car were streaking across the window. What’s the next action? The next action was to go onto Youtube to research how to replace the wiper blades. Then what’s the next action? I called the car dealership to see if they have the new wipers in stock. Then what’s the next action? I figured out when I would have time to go pick up the wipers. Then what’s the next action? I set my alarm so that I would wake up in time to get to the dealership before lunch. Then what’s the next action? I got the wiper blades and installed them.
By always asking the question “What’s the next action” you will always be heading in the right direction to achieve your goals.
2. Keeping things out of your head.
It’s important to use a trusted system that can capture the next actions. This will reduce your stress and allow you to manage your ideas better.
I’m always curious to learn how my colleagues manage the tasks that they are working on. I’ve met some people who are using post-it-notes, and they put a task name on each post-it and then arrange them all over their desk. Other people use Outlook tasks or their email inbox (such as emailing themselves a message) to keep track of their tasks. Some people with a lot of brain capacity may hold all the information in their head and use their intuition to figure out what to do next. I’d rather reserve my brainpower for my actual work and not waste my brain’s CPU on task management.
I used to use a “daily todo list” where I wrote down everything I needed to do on a piece of paper, and crossed out the stuff that I finished, and when it got too messy, I would copy it all to the next page. The “daily todo list” system was very inefficient and took about an hour a day of my time. I also had a great resistance to taking on new work and being flexible to adjust my priorities, because I had already invested so much time and effort to plan out my work for that day.
In general, if you have a way to manage your tasks and priorities easily, you will have much less resistance to new tasks or changes in your priorities.
I’ve since adopted a new tool for managing my task lists, and it’s called TaskUnifier. It’s very customizable with many options and works for me much better than Outlook tasks. It has the ability to create hierarchies, and has a good way to organize and sort tasks by priority and due date.
There are also a lot of other apps, websites, and software available for productivity tools, and I’d encourage you to find one that works for you, if you are not happy with your current way of managing your tasks.
I noticed my productivity and overall happiness increased, and my stress level decreased a lot when I started using Taskunifier.
3. Avoiding firefighting.
Don’t get stuck always doing work in the order that it shows up. Instead, it is better to do more planning (identifying the next actions) and choose things to do from your list of next actions.
When deciding what to do, sometimes it’s easiest to do the task from the most recent email that showed up. But sometimes the most recent request you have received isn’t the best thing to do right now. Doing work as it shows up is only one option — which is necessary sometimes if the request is very urgent. But many times, if you have done proper planning and task management, you will have some other task that you have planned that is a much better choice to do right now.
If you have asked the question “What is the next action?” for all of your projects and goals, and you have collected all of these actions into a task management system that you trust, you can make the right decision whether it is necessary to do the most recently arrived work, or do some of the next actions that you have already planned.
Also, by doing the planned work, you are being more pro-active and are making better progress towards achieving your goals. If you get a request to do something, it is better to put that request into your task management system, with an appropriate date on it when you feel you should address the issue, so on that date you can be notified about that task and then work on it at that time.
By following three key principles,
1. Asking the question “What’s the next action”
2. Keeping things out of your head
3. Avoiding firefighting
you will be much more in control of your daily tasks and the many demands of a complex work environment.
Additional supporting information:
How to plan for any sized project:
-Goals — Why are you doing something? What will the outcome look like?
-Brainstorming — what are all possible actions to take, in any order?
-Organizing — Organize, prioritize, group all the actions, set dates.
-Identifying next actions