I used to track every task that showed up in my life, regardless of how it showed up or the source. No matter how large or small, if it required that I do something in the future, I captured it in a task manager. There is a sense of confidence and certainty from knowing where you find all of your tasks. No matter how many hours or how hard I worked, I was never able to reduce the number of tasks in my task manager. While I completed a lot of work, the more work I finished, the more new tasks I generated.
Most of the tasks were not big enough or important enough to command my attention on any given day, so I ignored them, investing my time on the few essential things. As more tasks piled up, I ignored a more significant percentage of them, until I decided to file a form of task manager bankruptcy, deleting everything and starting over.
Looking at a giant list of things you are not going to do doesn’t give you a sense of certainty and control; it gives you a sense of overwhelm. Worse, when you look at a list of tasks, what they have in common is an obligation of your time and energy. You have to read and evaluate them to determine the value of each one, even while the ones you ignore hold a tiny command over your attention; once seen, they can’t be unseen, which means you feel the obligation as stress or overwhelm.
Not Starting Over – Beginning
To keep my task list limited to the things I have to do or want to do, I applied the filters that I would use during my weekly planning to the potential task immediately. The “agile” idea of touching things once is attractive when making decisions about what you do with all incoming requests for your time and your energy.
Instead of adding a task to my task manager and reviewing its potential value later in the week, I started applying the filter immediately, preventing it from ever making it on to my task list. If it wasn’t something that was going to impact my goals and my most important projects, I eliminated it before it could become task manager clutter.
If you are the kind of person who likes to help other people, it is difficult to say no and refuse requests. You might also be the kind of person who fears missing out and is excited by new opportunities. I am in the first category, but not the second. But I am also a person who likes to hold onto options and deciding later allowed me the ability to change my mind in the future.
Moving your decision forward in time prevents you from allowing things you are not going to do, shouldn’t do or don’t want to do from finding their way onto your project and task lists.
Stealing Time from What’s Important
Your project and task lists need to be sacred territory. You protect the boundary of what is most important and impactful. By doing so, you narrow your focus and do meaningful work.
Here is how you might look at this concept. Every time you add a new project to your project list, you are taking time from the other projects on your list. Because you have a finite number of hours and energy to produce the results you want, you have to move that time and energy from one project to the next. If you accept Project Z, the twenty-sixth project on your list, then you have taken time from Project A, the first and most important project. Maybe you are unwilling to take time away from Project A. Do you then take the time from Project B? No matter from where you take the time, you are taking it from what’s most important.
Strong filters prevent you from saying yes to things deserve an unequivocal no. You want to apply filters as early as possible, even if it pains you to say no. The pain of saying no to things that don’t make it through your filters isn’t as awful of the pain of not achieving your goals.
By refusing a project or task, you eliminate any sense of obligation.
The Tyranny of Tasks
Tasks are no different than projects. Each time you accept a new task, you are stealing time from some other job, project, priority, or goal. You prevent this by using some values-based decision-making criteria. The variability of the value of a task is no different than the variability of a project or initiative.
Trivial, low-value tasks steal time and energy from your priorities. If you are not achieving enough of what’s most important, it is because you are allowing things that are less important to command your attention and your focus.
What is most impactful for you needs to command your time and energy. What creates no value should be eliminated on first contact.
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Filed under: Productivity