I recently thought I had come up against my capacity limit for how many projects I could effectively work on at once. At least that is what it felt like. I was working all the time but still felt I wasn’t getting anything done. After stewing in my own sweat made of doubts and worries about my own incompetence for a while, I finally saw, that I wasn’t taking much action to use my time more effectively. I just did what seemed most relevant in the moment. While this may work for say housekeeping or spending a chill Saturday with friends when working on many projects that all matter to you at once, it has some pitfalls.
The pitfalls of “winging it”
You might be familiar with the experience of being super excited about a new project. It feels inspiring and like the greatest idea you ever had the privilege to work on. But as soon as you start getting into the real work things get tricky. You don’t know where to start anymore and everything seems daunting. This is perfectly normal but nonetheless frustrating. Especially so, if you are not making a plan for what to do next, in advance, but rather make it up as you go. When you decide what is most important “on the fly”, it gives that voice in your head, that tells you, that “this is too big”, or that something else is actually way more exciting or important, way too much surface area to attack and throw you off track.
Separate planning and execution
If you separate making a plan for what to do when and executing that plan, when you go to do the important thing that you are up to, there is one less decision to make, where doubts and worries could come up. This helps to stay focused on the actual work. It also gives you the opportunity to really look and see, what the most important thing to do next really is, because you don’t need to do it immediately. This makes it easier to put big and important things on your plate. You also don’t feel so much pressure, to “decide already and get back to work”.
Separate importance from urgency
This perspective really unlocked a whole new level of effectiveness for me. We often tend to think of “urgent” and “important” synonymously, where in fact, they are two completely different things. “Urgent” means, this thing needs to happen within a certain time frame. What “urgent” doesn’t tell you though, is how relevant a task is to your aspirations and goals. This is where “important” comes into play. An “important” task is one, that moves you closer to reaching a goal or demonstrating what you stand for in the world. To represent this difference there is a beautiful quadrant schema, called the Eisenhower Matrix. The differentiation of urgent and important is akin to efficient vs. effective, where efficient means you’re getting a lot done quickly and effective means you are doing the right things, that move you closer to achieving your goals.
I’ll explain how I use this for action planning in the next paragraph.
A fun system for managing tasks
So how to do this in practice? I would like to share with you how I’ve been planning my work week, in order to get the important things done with ease and not feel overwhelmed with mile-long to-do lists.
It all begins with a bunch of post-its: Throughout the week I write down tasks on per-project color-coded post-its and collect them on the backlog section of my wall.
On Sunday evening I take 20–30 mins to add any tasks that came to mind throughout the weekend. Then I sort the backlog into one of the four quadrants of my wall, according to the following algorithm:
- Is this relevant to any particular goal for one of the projects? OR: Would it really warm my heart to do this?
→ If so, put it into the “important” column, if not, put it into the “non-important” column
- Does this task have a deadline? Or should it have one?
→ If so, put it into the “urgent” row and write the deadline onto the post-it, if not, put it into the “non-urgent” row
Once all the post-its from the backlog are sorted into the quadrants, it is time to figure out what to do when.
In order to do this, I first write down all appointments I already know about in my notebook. I then look at the remaining time and block it into working sessions for the different projects, according to how many tasks I have for each project.
Now it is time to assign tasks to working sessions. I do this by the following algorithm:
- Are there any important and urgent tasks for any project?
→ If yes, take them off the wall and put them into my notebook next to the corresponding working session. Order them by their due date. If more than one has the same deadline, order by importance. Ask yourself: “What would be most relevant to my goal? What would move me forward the fastest?”
- Are there any important and non-urgent tasks? (There should be! This is the most fun quadrant to work in!)
→ If yes I take them off the wall and put them into my notebook, next to the corresponding working session. I order them by importance, like before.
- Are there any non-important and urgent tasks?
→ If yes, look at the deadline and size of the task. Often these tasks are small and easy to blast through at the end of a workday when you have already done the big important but scary things.
- Are there any non-important and non-urgent tasks?
→ If yes, I look at what I have so far. If it looks pretty easy to do, I might throw in some non-important non-urgent tasks where I still have space. If the week feels pretty full already, I just leave them on the wall. After all they're not that important and not urgent either.
I now order tasks for each day by how much they scare me. I put the scariest things first, because I know, that at the beginning of the day my capacity to go past doubts and worries is highest and that it will decrease throughout the day.
The result of this is a stack of post-its for each day, that I can put in my notebook and take with me. When I start a working session, I only see the first post-it. I don’t look at what is next until I finish the top one. This helps me a lot to focus on what I’m doing right now because I don’t see a whole long list of tasks right off the bat. Plus it is SO satisfying to rip off that post-it, once I’m done (already looking forward to that moment, once I’m done writing this article ;).
Go for “good enough” rather than perfect
As a rule of thumb, when working on anything, I go for “good enough” rather than perfect. This calms down that inner voice, that is always worried, if others will like what I do, if I am qualified to do what I do, if it is valuable at all if it is not perfect, and so on and so on…
A good way to evaluate what “good enough” means, is to go for the version of your work, that takes the least amount of effort, that is still worth putting in. For example, if you are writing a blog post: what does it really need to contain, to bring your point across? This way, I can make sure, that I consistently produce results and move forward with ease.
Honor slack time
As this article brilliantly describes, “slack” is super important for being effective. It gives your brain a chance to process whatever has queued up during an intense work session and get ready for whats next. It also gives you a chance to notice the state of your well-being and if you need anything to be well. For me it is this slack time, scattered throughout the week and days off on weekends, where a lot of the planning and laying out of next steps happens in the back of my mind. When I sit down to plan on Sunday evenings, a lot of the mental work has already happened in the background and I only need to let it flow out on paper. This is to say: With enough slack an experience of ease becomes more and more normal and my quality of work increases a lot.
What to do with unfinished tasks?
When I don’t finish a task, because I need to wait for something someone else is doing, or I need to find more information, I put it “on hold” next to the main stack. I may or may not come back to it throughout the day, depending on how urgent it is. If it is still there at the end of the day, I put it back into the backlog, if it can wait until next week. Sometimes I may put it onto the next day's stack if it really needs to happen quickly.
What to do with tasks that emerge throughout the day?
It is inevitable, that new tasks come up throughout the day. I usually write them down on post-its as I go and put them on the “on-hold” stack. In between tasks or at the end of the day, I decide if this needs to happen today or tomorrow, or if it can go in the backlog. But tasks that are generated out of working sessions, generally have lower priority, than the ones, I already planned for today. This way, I can make sure, that what I planned for is very likely to get done consistently and with ease.
What I love about this
I love this system because it is so tangible. I love laying out things on a wall, being able to rearrange stuff when I change my mind on something, physically feeling how full of a Tuesday I’ll have, when I hold the stack of post-its in my hand, ripping off completed tasks. Also, neon-colored post-its are really beautiful to look at. But most importantly: It allows me to do better work. I can focus much easier on one step at a time and don’t get overwhelmed with the totality of things to do, as often as I used to. I enjoy working much more and I produce better results.
Shout-out to Greg Reinauer and Mazin Jamal for supporting me over months and years to find a way to manage tasks effectively and for hooking me up with a lot of the resources I talked about in this post! Also thanks to Jeremy Blanchard for sharing the article about slack.
How do you manage tasks and time? Do you have any planning systems in place, that you really love? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a reply, send me an email, or find me on Linked-In or Twitter. I look forward to your message!