Years ago, I designed my own daily planner. It was photocopied and lived in a three-ring binder, with hand-lettered headings and strategically outlined sections.
Sure, the final product was bulky — but it worked better than a traditional planner. And here’s what I learned from the process: When you think outside the standard to-do list, there’s a lot you can do to improve the way you manage tasks.
Although effective task management tools exist today in many forms, most people aren’t using three-ring binders to organize their daily tasks at work.
However, that doesn’t mean that the way that your team is approaching task management couldn’t benefit from a fresh approach. For knowledge workers today, better task management means more than a digital to-do list.
As multiple team members, multiple clients, and even multiple departments enter the picture, a more robust and coordinated solution becomes necessary.
In “Going Beyond Your Team: Fixing The Collaboration Bottleneck,” Redbooth’s Thomas Koerner describes what’s possible with a unified approach to collaborative task management:
There’s more visibility and transparency into everything that’s going on when you’re centrally locating it in one area. It’s even more powerful when you have multiple departments in an organization engaged.
You’re also building a knowledge base for your business that you can use to grow — becoming more efficient and minimizing the need to start from scratch each time.
For better task management today, you don’t need to design your own planner (although it might be fun!). But you may want to consider having your team adopt one or more of these 7 techniques.
1. See how your tasks are part of the big picture
It’s hard to picture an organization where what happens in one department has no effect on another. It’s even more challenging to imagine a team where each member can work in perfect isolation, completely independent of every other team member.
And yet the way that most people track their tasks — the process that, more than any other, reminds them on a daily basis what their purpose is at work — is missing context.
What are your colleagues working on? What’s happening with that project that you’re doing a small part of? What’s happening with the project that you’re not involved in — but will have major implications for the meetings you’re trying to set up to move your project forward?
Reinforcing the idea that your work is unrelated to what’s going on around you is ultimately limiting. It limits your ability to plan in the short-term and the long-term, to understand and respond to trends in your workplace, and to be effective at what you do. No knowledge worker is an island.
2. Make commitments that get witnessed
Naturally, the flip side of being able to see how your work fits into a larger context is having your own work commitments witnessed by your colleagues.
Without visibility, team leaders are driven to micromanage — and often they don’t see an alternative. Without insight into a team’s progress, you’re left with little choice but to check up on things constantly or send repeated emails asking for updates.
When you track your tasks in a way that ensures they’ll be witnessed by your colleagues, each task becomes an opportunity to demonstrate effectiveness and accountability. It’s also an efficient way to communicate about what you’re working on.
A handwritten list can be shared. A spreadsheet of tasks can be attached. A weekly summary of accomplishments can be emailed. But being able to effortlessly show what you’re working on is best (and most efficient) of all.
3. Ask for help when you need it
One of the most dangerous aspects of the traditional to-do list model is that it carries outdated assumptions with it that don’t reflect the way many agile and results-oriented teams work today.
In some cases, having a team meet a deadline is far more important than having an individual complete all of the items on a given list.
Ensuring that you’re working within a task management system that enables you to bring team members up to speed rapidly on the progress up to that point and any existing loose ends helps enormously.
It’s also important to be able to instantly share all of the related files and resources that are in use or provide background for what you need help with. When you’re behind enough to need to ask for help, you sure don’t want to spend even more time hunting down documents for the colleagues who are pitching in.
[cta_signup_red text=”Wish you could get more done?” subtext=”Thousands of teams use Redbooth’s easy-to-use project management platform to get more done.” placeholder=”Your email” button_link=”/signup” button_text=”Get Started FREE »”]
4. Capture tasks wherever they come up
An action item is something that someone needs to do. In this way, it’s different from an idea, a passing thought, or even a flash of inspiration.
When you identify an action item, you might be chatting online with a colleague in another country, stopped at the drive-through to get a coffee, or sitting in an important meeting. At that point, wherever you are, you have three options.
The first one is to decide to remember it. We’ve all been there. And we all know exactly what happens to an unfortunate number of those “action” items.
The second one is to capture it in a format that will need to be reviewed later. A notes app on a phone, a little notebook, and the margins of a meeting agenda are all examples of places where action items get recorded. For people with the time and the methodical nature to set up daily routines for transferring these items into a task management system, this approach works. Unfortunately, few of us have time for this — or the personality type that would make it automatic.
The third, and most effective, option is to capture tasks immediately into the system where they’re intended to end up in the first place. This means capturing and creating new tasks right where you are, wherever that may be — from online team chat to that drive-through. Not only does this save time, but it also prevents that miserable 2am wakeup when you remember that you forgot to transfer a task into your task management system…and it needed to be finished yesterday.
5. Review records to plan for the future
To-do lists exist in a limited range of time. Whether it’s your list for the day, the week, or the quarter, a to-do list leaves out an important block of time: the past.
The past is archived in our memory — but not comprehensively or even very accurately. Better task management relies on being able to review, collectively and independently, the way in which tasks were completed by you and your team in the past.
Access to these records, from decision-making processes to unexpected obstacles to suggestions that were made for “the next time we do a project like this” can save a huge amount of time in the long run.
Past tasks should be automatically preserved and fast and easy to search. As an added bonus, as you and your team iterate and get more efficient over time, these looks back will highlight how far you’ve come.
6. Close the loop
This is one area where the traditional to-do list on a piece of paper still holds up pretty well. When you’ve finished an item, cross it off the list! It’s a great feeling of accomplishment.
This works well on an individual basis. But as soon as you introduce the team element, the complexity of being sure that a task is complete increases.
The copy is done, but is the design finalized? The design is done, but is the coding ready? The coding is done, but… The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that complex tasks require the involvement and expertise of multiple team members, and often multiple teams.
Make sure that you team members have a simple and streamlined way to confirm that each contributor’s part of the task is done — and then that there’s still the satisfaction of a task to cross off or a box to check.
7. Take the time to do some spring cleaning
If you want better task management, one of the techniques that will help your team most is…having fewer tasks!
Make it any season you want — “summer cleaning” works fine too. No matter what you call it, take the time to review lists of tasks and re-assign them, update deadlines, or remove them altogether.
Seeing too many tasks in one place eats up mental bandwidth. When those tasks aren’t relevant or current, they need to be removed so that you and your team can focus on the tasks that are important.
We’ve turned these 7 points into an infographic! Read on…