There is a huge difference between being busy and being productive. Being busy is like treading water, expending a lot of energy but not really getting anywhere. Being productive means you’re actually making progress, getting better, going for the gold. I’m not Ryan Lochte, so don’t ask me for advice on swimming workouts. But I can help you tweak your task management techniques so that you can move swiftly between tasks and look good doing it–no gold plated razor required!

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of the modern workplace. There are many systems we have to juggle – time entry, bug tracking, accounting, email, and to do lists.  Software doesn’t actually create productivity. Systems can only track the activity of a workforce, rarely does it actually stimulate efficiencies.

Productivity starts with you. You must decide to take action – complete assignments – and look up to evaluate your next move. Pick your poison: Basecamp, Google Task, Wunderlist, or Evernote – there are loads of options for task management software. Depending on your job, you may not have much say in which solution gets implemented. Which of course can be frustrating. My advice? Don’t fight the system, but hack it if you need to.

Here are some tips to help you make a bigger impact and feel be more productive.

1. Bite Size Tasks


Some assignments are gargantuan, and need to be broken down into smaller tasks. I’ve found that anything that takes me longer than 2 hours to finish should be split into more manageable (read as “finishable”) pieces. Otherwise, my ability to accurately estimate how long Task X takes is diminished.

For example, something in my backburner might read as “Complete 2014 Budget”. Once I decide to actively work on this item, I consider the steps required to finish the whole assignment.

  1. Pull 2012 and 2013 Financials

  2. Review 2012 Financials

  3. Review 2013 Financials

  4. Prep 2014 Budget

  5. Polish and Review 2014 Budget

Breaking a large assignment into more manageable tasks helps to plan what’s really involved. A lot of things sound simple until you think about the predecessor and successor tasks (said every Project Manager (PM), always) that are actually required. It’s easy to forget about things like research and revisions. Most folks only consider the time spent in photoshop, or the spreadsheet, or the word processor – without factoring in all of the variables.

Instead, I’ve found it best to take a moment and think more granularly before diving into the next task or project. A better itemized list helps create a realistic schedule that you can actually stick to.  Break down tasks as small as is reasonable, and think holistically before committing to deadlines. Setting realistic deadlines will reduce your stress levels.  Meeting deadlines consistently will get you noticed. Every boss yearns for someone reliable.

2. Decision: Do, Delegate, Defer, or Delete


Did you ever take one of those exercises in school where the teacher warned you to “read all the steps before beginning”? You know, the ones that said write your name on the top of the sheet, raise your arms in the air, fold your test into a paper airplane, etc. Then the final step was “don’t do any of the above steps.” Burn.

I used to fall victim to those all the time. But I guess I’ve learned my lesson. Now I consider things more carefully before I start them. This helps me actually DO LESS at work. Just because a task ends up on your to do list, doesn’t mean you should hurry up and complete it.  Instead, take a moment to evaluate the assignment.

Time is precious. Don’t waste time on a task you’re not sure about. If it seems useless, has ambiguity, or doesn’t drive revenue then it’s probably safe to defer that task.  In some cases, it’s best just to ignore that task all together. You may need to check with someone else, especially if the task is somehow flagged as a priority.

Ignoring (or deleting) tasks is perhaps the single most fulfilling way to cross items off a to do list.  What could be any better than making your list smaller by not doing any work? When a task is my own, as in on a post-it… I just throw it away. But if I’m working in a shared system, like Basecamp, then I mark the task as complete and leave a note explaining why it’s not needed.  It seems anal, but it’s best to document the “why” behind your decision to avoid getting caught in the same trap if it comes up later.

3. Group “like” tasks


All tasks are not created equal. Some assignments require critical thinking, others inspiration, and yet others silence and a complex spreadsheet. Find commonality in your tasks, and group them so that you can make an afternoon of research, strategic planning, or whatever your job requires. Allow yourself to get into a groove – especially for tasks that are repetitive and time consuming (time entry, invoicing, product research, etc).

If you get overwhelmed with this idea, here’s an easy template for you to grab.


I love to come in to the office early and bang out things in big batches. It’s remarkable how much more effective I am at thorough email responses first thing in the morning as opposed to late in the afternoon.  I’m also usually most creative before the helicopters start to fly around the office.  That leaves my afternoons for research, status meetings, and other PM’y type duties.

4. Give yourself less time


Impose your own realistic, but aggressive deadlines as often as possible. I guarantee you’ll find that your ability to focus skyrockets when you start to compress the time you have to complete things. Use your calendar to block off time to complete one (or many!) tasks. The goal here is to be purposeful and attentive to the task at hand. When the pressure is on you’re less likely to frazz and more likely to churn out quality work.

By using the tips above I’ve filtered out the unimportant tasks, and other things that don’t really belong to me. That leaves me with a shorter list of bit-sized assignments and I know how long they should take.  I’ve found that by giving myself less time, I buy myself more breaks 🙂

Studies have shown that you need to unplug from work – we’re only effective for about 90 minutes. After that there are diminishing returns to staying at your desk to finish that last item. Challenge yourself to write that status report in 20 minutes instead of thirty. Use that time to get make a cup of tea and stretch. Your brain and eyes need a rest.

5. Experiment with Formats


Sure, there’s something to be said for predictability, but without some experimentation you may never find the zen you’re seeking. This guy has a cool system if you’re into legal pads. Or maybe you’d rather roll like me with a post-it note and a pen handy. If you want something more structured try out the Action Journal, or an old school Day Planner. Trying out different formats might change your whole approach to task management. If you’re reading this post you’ll already looking to make changes.

I wrote about my own process and bias toward action a couple of weeks ago. I tend to take analog notes and transfer to Basecamp – it slows me down, but I find I pay better attention when I can’t see my twitter stream or IMs. I keep a post-it note with my own action items stuck to my Macbook Air, and if something can’t be completed on the day it’s initially assigned then I add it as a “To Do” in Basecamp. That’s also where I track assignments for designers, developers and even my clients.

I have friends who swear by Omnifocus, and Evernote seems to be growing more and more popular each day. Take advantage of free trials and find the mix of analog/digital to do lists that works for you.

Final Thought

There are many benefits to hacking your to do list. Working through this process ensures that you have meaningful assignments with proper estimates. It also maximizes efficiency by grouping tasks together and challenging your own status quo for speed. Playing with the format of your to-do list is actually pretty fun because you get better every time you experiment. It’s also very rewarding to see your own stress levels reduce as you strikethrough completed assignments faster than ever before.

If you have some of your own techniques, please share them in the comments.  I’d also love to hear your feedback after you’ve tried some of mine.

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