Task Management

What works for you?

Task Management

I’ve been a bit overwhelmed lately. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I own all or part of roughly seven businesses, and it’s easy to find my to-do list getting a little out of control. So, more than ever, I’ve been trying to find not only a good system for organizing my tasks, but also an over-arching theme or set of themes to help me keep focused on the big picture. The theme is still a work in progress, but I think I’m narrowing down the sorts of task management systems that work for me, and I thought I would share a few in case you find any of them helpful.

What used to work was just to dig in, start working, and do whatever came to mind. When I was running a single business, that actually worked pretty well, as long as I had enough caffeine in my system! But as I get busier, I find that I not only forget about a lot of tasks that, while they may not be five-alarm fires, are still important for the successful running of the businesses, and also that I also run of out time to do the things I actually remember.

When I ran just two businesses, it was enough to keep a simple to-do list. I used the list iCal and combined that with making sure to get all my appointments on the calendar. I’d review the list each day and prioritize each task, and usually that was enough to keep me on track. Even if I skipped a task or overlooked it, I would find it the next day and definitely get it done.

Then, up until recently, I was using a really primitive system that worked well. I’d just write each primary task on a sheet of paper, and make a note of what I got done that day on the sheet. After a task, the sheet would go on the bottom of the stack, and I’d do the task that appeared on the next sheet. What worked well about this was that I could instantly see what I’d done previously, and that helped inspire whatever had to be done next. However, there were two things about this system that didn’t work very well. One was that I didn’t find it very helpful for organizing and prioritizing tasks. And the other was, it just didn’t inspire me to want to dig into the business of getting work done … which I happen to think is a very important part of any task management system.

I’m experimenting with two systems now without having decided which one is going to be best in the long run. The first is a system designed by Ian, and since I don’t want to take away an opportunity for him to discuss his own creation, I’ll just say that it contains a general list of tasks and ideas along with several other lists of higher priority and long term projects. I’ll try to convince him to describe it in a future post unless he tells me it’s a secret that can make him a ton of money!

The other system is simple, but it’s working well. I use it both as a Word document on the computer and also print it out to give me a change of perspective. On the first page I list my businesses along with a check-off box on the left of each one. On page two, I list the primary aspects of the first business in a graphical box, along with a check-off box on the left of each larger box. I limit myself to no more than ten primary aspects, because (1) everything can be categorized within one of those ten aspects, at least in my businesses; and (2) that’s all I can fit on one page and still read! In each box where an aspect of the business is listed, I add bullets with a short description of tasks for that aspect. If an aspect is complex enough, I create another page of subject boxes with check-off boxes next to them, and fill those in with the individual items that make up each subject, again limiting myself to ten subjects.

So I first look at page one and find a business that hasn’t been checked off. I then locate the pages for that business, go to the first aspect that hasn’t been checked off, and do the work. If I complete the work, I check off that box. If not, I add notes in the subject box to clue me in next time I visit that subject.

I then make a judgment about whether it makes more sense to check off that business on page one and go to another business, or do another aspect of the same business. It all depends on the urgency of the tasks, how much stuff is coming at me in the form of meetings, phone calls or “real” work (like teaching martial arts or mastery lessons), and how much my head is spinning from trying to juggle so many different kinds of work.

When the head gets to spinning, there are a few really good ways to get it back where it needs to be. A 20-minute nap works wonders, as does 45 minutes at the driving range or an hour of intense sparring with another high level black belt.

Are there any task management systems that work particularly well for you? Did you find them somewhere, or make them up yourself? What works great for you, and why do you think it works?

About Nicklaus

Nick has studied the martial arts and philosophies of Asia for 44 years, and has used their principles to start five successful businesses, including SEO Ann Arbor. He's an attorney, entrepreneur, consultant, and author of four books on martial arts, including Budo Mind and Body, which was featured in Black Belt Magazine. He advises a wide variety of businesses and individuals on marketing, motivation, mastery, success, and kicking your ass into gear.