Productivity 101 Series Part 3: Crushing Your Task List

This is the final part of my Productivity 101 Series so make sure to check out Part 1 on how I created my vision and Part 2 on how I’m trying to achieve more by focusing on fewer goals and projects.

I have my vision, goals, and project priorities in order so now it is time to actually get stuff done. So let’s talk about tasks. Tasks are the specific action items that can to be completed. As I noted in my last post, projects consist of multiple tasks. Complete enough tasks and…voila…you’ve completed a project. Complete a few projects and you achieve a goal. So…create a to-do list with your tasks and check stuff off. Boom! Done!

But not so fast…

Task Rule #1 – tasks need to represent the next smallest action you can take on a project. The problem I had with the previous tasks on my to-do list was that they were actually more like projects. “Write Blog Post” is an example of one of these tasks. Sounds reasonable right? However, that “task” is much bigger than it seems. I need to pick a topic, I need to organize my thoughts/resources/notes on that topic, I need to draft it, I need to edit it, I need to upload it and add links to resources, etc. As a result, “Write Blog Post” would continue to get deferred because it wasn’t a clearly defined next action item.

Task Rule #2 – know the size of each of your tasks. Even though tasks represent the next smallest action, they still come in different sizes. I think of task size in terms of energy output. Julie Shenosher, productivity expert and host of the Time Hackers podcast, has a great analogy for the different types of tasks and how to plan your day accordingly. She describes task sizes as follows:

  • Boulders – Big, important un-dividable tasks that either take up a long period of time or demand a large amount of focus
  • Gravel – These are tasks that can be split into several time slots and, although they are often meticulous, they are easy to follow through given a reasonable time and instructions
  • Sand – These are small tasks like phone calls, emails, quick updates that have a pre-set deadline that you need to meet.
  • Water – Much like sand but with no deadline limitation

When it comes to planning my day, Julie’s comparison of planning a day to completely filling up a jar with boulders, gravel, sand, and water is something that really resonated with me. The boulders go in first, then add gravel to fill the cracks between the boulders, and then the sand to fill in the cracks left between the gravel, and then water to fill in the rest.

Task Rule #3 – match your tasks to your energy level. Since I’m most productive and creative in the morning, that is when I try to tackle my boulders. By late afternoon early evening my mental energy tends to wane so that is when I like to tackle gravel and sand tasks. If I’m not feeling it and don’t have the energy for something, I don’t try and force it unless it is an absolutely critical fire drill (which usually gives me a huge boost in mental energy anyway). I’ve found over a week that I actually can accomplish a lot more if I just stop when I’m tired and indulge my need for a break and just get after it again first thing in the morning when I’m much more mentally sharp.

Task Rule #4 – always know your next task on your projects. In most cases, when I complete a task it creates a new task or moves me on to the next task. If I don’t know what the next task is…I can’t take an action….and, therefore, I’m not completing my project. Personally, I need to write down every single task as soon as I think of it because I know I won’t remember it later. Our brains are excellent at complex and creative problem solving but they are not an effective tool to remember what to do next. That is why I use the Outlook task list (work) and the Wunderlist task app (personal) religiously. If a task isn’t in one of those tools it’s highly probable I don’t know that I need to do it.

I’ve also started doing a quick “daily review” at the end of each day to make sure my task list is truly complete. I’ll scan my calendar and project list to make sure I’m not missing anything and that each project has an associated task. This is also the time that I’ll plan which tasks I’m going to do the following day so I can start crushing it first thing in the morning.

When it comes to being an endurance athlete and having a successful family and career, productivity and getting the most done with limited time is essential. Incorporating these basic productivity principles from this series has really helped me maximize AND improve the quality of my time.

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