I Change My Task Management System More Often Than the Oil in My Car

Neil Miller
Oct 24, 2018 · 6 min read
“white ceramic mug on table” by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

I just changed my task management system. Again.

This happens about every 4–6 months. I’m always tinkering with it and finding new ways to expand or shrink it.

I don’t necessarily like the fact that I’m constantly changing things, but it has given me a lot of time to think about it. I’ve tried lots of systems and a lot of them are great.

3 Essential Functions of a Task Management System

At its core, a task management system is a way of organizing what you need to get done in a given day. But apart from that, I’m looking for three big things:

1. A place to keep my thoughts and tasks when I should be doing something else

I get tasks from lots of places–email, chats, conversations, and the sudden bolt of memory when I’m working on a big task. My task management system has to be able to allow me to quickly write down the task so that I can come back to it later when it’s time to prioritize or work on a new task.

It’s important to not start a task as soon as you get it, but just to record it and then assign it a priority later on.

2. A tool to keep me focused on big tasks

Your task management system should support the ability to quickly prioritize the things that help your big tasks. If it organizes things just based on emergency or immediacy, it’s not really helping you.

3. A centering force when I feel distracted

We all hit that point during the day when we suddenly realize that our brain is a bit mushy and not thinking straight. It’s then that I need to be able to rely on my task management system to remind me what it is I’m supposed to be doing.

You Already Have a Task Management System

You don’t need to create one. You mostly need to decide if the system you are using is a good one or bad one and if you can improve it. Good ones fulfill the essential purposes of the systems. Bad ones make you focus on the system, invite distraction, and don’t let you prioritize your big tasks.

Good systems I’ve tried:

A piece of paper

There have been seasons when I just take a big piece of paper and write out everything that is top of mind at the start of the day. I might star the things that are top priority and then just work on mowing down the list.

This is what I default to when I’m stressed or when I really need to focus, such as right before I start packing for a trip to India. I’ve also used it around the office by just writing down 3–4 of my most important tasks and keeping that by me all day. You still need a way to collect all the other lower priority things that come through, but it can be a good system.

Flags

This was my most recent strategy (that I just abandoned). I have a bulletin board in front of my desk. Every time I had a task, I would write it on a little sticky flag and put it up on the board. Then, I would rearrange/reprioritize the tasks at the end of the day (to prepare for the next day) and maybe once or twice during the day.

The flags are really easy to move around (taking drag and drop to a whole new level), and I liked seeing them spread out. Plus, it feels damn good when you see a pile of flags sitting beside you of things you’ve accomplished for the day. It was also easy to quickly write a new task and add it to the board.

However, the flags I bought were a bit on the cheap side, so they would occasionally fall off the board. Also, I couldn’t link them to documents or emails, and I couldn’t take the list with me somewhere else, though I liked their ‘analog’ nature.

Spreadsheet

I used a simple spreadsheet for a long time. I had a column for the name of the task, a column for any links, and a priority column that autosorted. This was a very efficient system that worked well. However, the interface is pretty uninspiring, and reorganizing tasks seemed a bit depressing at times. No matter what system you use, there are always those tasks that hang around at the bottom forever, but it seems most troubling on a spreadsheet.

Continuing to level up your priority numbers (let’s make this one a 101, no a 110, no a 130!) also feels pointless and disturbing after a while. Also, the easiest way to clear a task is to delete it, which isn’t the best thing in case you need to track your tasks.

Dedicated software

I tried to use Evernote at least three separate times. I’m sure people aren’t lying when they say how awesome it is, but I just don’t get it. I used Remember the Milk for a long time with some success. And I’ve tried Todoist and Wunderlist. They are all fine, but usually are just a bit more complex than I want.

I̵ ̵e̵n̵d̵e̵d̵ ̵u̵p̵ ̵u̵s̵i̵n̵g̵ ̵G̵o̵o̵g̵l̵e̵ ̵T̵a̵s̵k̵s̵ ̵a̵ ̵l̵o̵t̵ ̵b̵e̵c̵a̵u̵s̵e̵ ̵i̵t̵ ̵w̵a̵s̵ ̵s̵o̵ ̵e̵a̵s̵y̵ ̵t̵o̵ ̵t̵r̵a̵n̵s̵f̵e̵r̵ ̵a̵n̵ ̵e̵m̵a̵i̵l̵ ̵t̵o̵ ̵a̵ ̵t̵a̵s̵k̵ ̵w̵i̵t̵h̵ ̵j̵u̵s̵t̵ ̵a̵ ̵c̵l̵i̵c̵k̵.̵ ̵T̵h̵e̵ ̵T̵a̵s̵k̵ ̵i̵n̵t̵e̵r̵f̵a̵c̵e̵ ̵w̵a̵s̵ ̵p̵r̵e̵t̵t̵y̵ ̵h̵o̵r̵r̵i̵b̵l̵e̵ ̵f̵o̵r̵ ̵a̵ ̵l̵o̵n̵g̵ ̵t̵i̵m̵e̵,̵ ̵b̵u̵t̵ ̵r̵e̵c̵e̵n̵t̵l̵y̵ ̵g̵o̵t̵ ̵a̵ ̵n̵i̵c̵e̵ ̵u̵p̵g̵r̵a̵d̵e̵ ̵a̵n̵d̵ ̵h̵a̵s̵ ̵i̵t̵s̵ ̵o̵w̵n̵ ̵m̵o̵b̵i̵l̵e̵ ̵a̵p̵p̵.̵ ̵T̵h̵i̵s̵ ̵i̵s̵ ̵a̵c̵t̵u̵a̵l̵l̵y̵ ̵m̵y̵ ̵c̵u̵r̵r̵e̵n̵t̵ ̵s̵y̵s̵t̵e̵m̵,̵ ̵a̵n̵d̵ ̵i̵t̵’̵s̵ ̵w̵o̵r̵k̵i̵n̵g̵ ̵w̵e̵l̵l̵ ̵s̵o̵ ̵f̵a̵r̵.̵

̵Y̵o̵u̵ ̵c̵a̵n̵ ̵g̵o̵ ̵t̵o̵ ̵h̵t̵t̵p̵s̵:̵/̵/̵m̵a̵i̵l̵.̵g̵o̵o̵g̵l̵e̵.̵c̵o̵m̵/̵t̵a̵s̵k̵s̵/̵c̵a̵n̵v̵a̵s̵ ̵s̵o̵ ̵t̵h̵a̵t̵ ̵y̵o̵u̵ ̵o̵n̵l̵y̵ ̵s̵e̵e̵ ̵y̵o̵u̵r̵ ̵t̵a̵s̵k̵s̵ ̵a̵n̵d̵ ̵n̵o̵t̵ ̵y̵o̵u̵r̵ ̵e̵m̵a̵i̵l̵,̵ ̵w̵h̵i̵c̵h̵ ̵i̵s̵ ̵v̵e̵r̵y̵ ̵g̵o̵o̵d̵ ̵f̵o̵r̵ ̵n̵o̵t̵ ̵b̵e̵i̵n̵g̵ ̵d̵i̵s̵t̵r̵a̵c̵t̵e̵d̵,̵ ̵b̵u̵t̵ ̵t̵h̵i̵s̵ ̵i̵n̵t̵e̵r̵f̵a̵c̵e̵ ̵i̵s̵n̵’̵t̵ ̵a̵s̵ ̵n̵i̵c̵e̵ ̵a̵s̵ ̵t̵h̵e̵ ̵o̵t̵h̵e̵r̵ ̵u̵p̵d̵a̵t̵e̵d̵ ̵o̵n̵e̵s̵.̵

I stopped using Google Tasks for one main reason–they shut down the desktop version. The only way you could see it on your desktop was if you had it up on a sidebar with Gmail also open. Talk about distracting!

So, now I’m onto a new system–Kissflow. I used to only use Kissflow for automating processes, but now they have some project and case management features on a Kanban board. I’ve never dedicatedly used a Kanban board before, but I really like being able to quickly prioritize things into columns. The bad side is that there isn’t currently mobile support, but I’m hoping that this gets released soon.

Bad Systems

Email

I’ve grown to hate the idea of people saying they are “working” when all they are doing is checking their email and responding to things. Email is where you go to get distracted or collect new tasks. Do not keep emails in your inbox to remind you to do them later. Pull them out and put them somewhere else.

Letting other people rule your schedule

You should start each day with your own plan for what to do. If you are constantly reliant or open to other people dictating what tasks you work on, you will hopelessly be adrift.

When I just do a task as soon as someone asks me, it makes them feel good that I helped them, but it also delays me from working on what I know I should be doing.

Why I Change My System All the Time

I don’t really know, but I think it’s related to the Hindu concept of creative destruction. Sometimes you have to completely wreck something to build it back up again. Each time I change, I pretty much wipe out all the tasks I previously had and start fresh. There’s something about a stale to-do list that I can’t stand. If it’s been on that list for 3 weeks, it’s probably not getting done. So it either needs to get off, or I need to forget about it.

Sometimes also, my desire for productivity works against me and I waste way too much time designing my own system to not waste time, so I won’t pretend it’s a holy exercise every time.

Having a good task management system is essential to being productive. There are lots of good systems out there, but most of us are stuck using sloppy ones. Be intentional and create your own system that works for you.

WorkMinus

Prepping humans for the future of work

Neil Miller

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Trying to find a good place to land

WorkMinus

WorkMinus

Prepping humans for the future of work

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