Thoughts on the Task List
I have a fondness for software. I use software for basically everything: writing code, analyzing data, writing reports, running Windows applications on my Mac, emulating an iPhone, and more. However, I use a very low-tech tool to manage most of my daily work — a simple task list. The task list defines my priorities, manages my time, and acts as an accountability tool. But, at least once a day, I find myself completely ignoring the task list.
For years I have followed one productivity rule: Complete the most important task first each day. Any potential distractions wait until after the most important task is completed. Emails wait. Phone calls wait. Even my second cup of coffee usually waits.
Without the habit of finishing the most important task first each day, I know I would stress over decision paralysis. I’d obsessively check my inbox and feel guilty about not being productive. Even on seemingly productive days, I would complete less meaningful work. So, each evening, I update my list for the following day, with the most important task on top.
However, after the most important task is complete, I loosen my approach. I stop doggedly following the task list. I add flexibility and spontaneity. I allow notifications, unexpected messages, or incoming emails to distract me. Sometimes I spend hours on a task that wasn’t originally on the list. Other times I find myself in the zone and ignoring uncompleted tasks. Ironically, I’ve found abandoning my original task list increases my effectiveness in a variety of ways.
My customer service is one benefit of ignoring the task list. I can join impromptu conversations instead of ignoring the request in the name of getting things done. I often complete deliverables ahead of schedule. When priorities change, as they often do, I can adapt and address them naturally.
This approach also introduces margin. I used to block each hour of the day to a specific project or task. This “time blocking” approach might have worked, except for two small inconveniences:
- I am terrible at estimating how long a task will take (just me?)
- Sometimes I am not in the mood for this task at precisely this time.
So, I try to leave enough margin for tasks to take as much time as they need. And the order I complete tasks no longer matters. Some days I complete all the small tasks together. Other days I spend most of my time and energy on one project.
There have been benefits for my mood as well. No matter how seemingly unproductive my day feels — especially by counting the number of completed tasks — I know the most important task was already completed. I have met the most critical deadline or moved the most important project forward. No reason to feel defeated about not emptying the task list.
I still enjoy getting things done. There are days I focus and grind through every item on my task list. But I don’t sweat moving a couple of tasks to the next day.
There is a dichotomy in my approach. I have a strong conviction regarding the importance of a task list. A strong conviction, loosely held.
About The Author
John MacAdam runs a consulting firm helping agencies deliver and understand technology solutions for transportation problems.
He is currently writing about living with less and running a business. Follow him on LinkedIn for monthly articles.