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Subduing the Task List, Part III

After discovering that I felt like I wasn’t in control of my situation (in Part I), I systematically created a task list (in Part II).

Just getting to this point has a tremendous calming effect on me. The feeling of being overwhelmed seems to be connected very strongly to the sense of “I’ve forgotten something.” From my exposures to the cult of productivity, I’m not the only one to feel this kind of relief.

Sadly, the task list is just a map to the actual end-state, so take a moment to enjoy getting this far and then a deep breath because now that you know what you have to do, the next step is doing it.

Taking Care of Business

Once again, I have a set of questions that I use to filter my list. For each task, I ask myself:

  1. Do I need to do this?
  2. Can I break this down?
  3. Do I need to do this?
  4. Do I need to do this?

I know. I’m trying to be clever. Hopefully, the strangeness of that list make you want to read on and find out what the heck I’m talking about?

Do I need to do this?

The point of the task list is to get things done. And the process I use to build my list captures anything and everything I’m thinking of. So the first step is to make sure that the tasks are real.

Sometimes they are placeholders, where you are waiting for someone else to do something. If you’re waiting for someone, then the action is to follow up sometime.

A more difficult situation is when you have a task that you’re emotionally attached to, but doesn’t actually achieve anything. We place expectations on ourselves that can inflict a lot of strain. Now if only I could remember an example.

Can I break this task down?

One thing that makes it hard to progress on a to-do list is that we think of our tasks at different scales at the same time.

For example, “I have to get some shampoo from the store,” and “I have to invoice my client.” Both are actionable tasks, but buying shampoo is pretty simple. Invoicing my client, on the other hand, actually means that I have to complete timesheets, I have to get the timesheets signed, create an invoice for those timesheets and finally I have to submit the timesheets and invoice to the client for payment.

How much you break down a task depends on your personal skill level. For me “Invoice Client” is enough. But it wasn’t, the first time.

Breaking up a task to understand it is very useful. People get stuck because they have a big complicated task and it’s just too much to think about. They don’t know where to start.

My rule of thumb is that I break down tasks to solve two problems. If I don’t understand the next step, then I try to break things down. And I try to break things down into tasks that are smaller than an hour, or less.

Do I need to do this?

The next thing is to look at the task list and make sure that the tasks I’ve got are the right things to do. All of the tasks on the list are actions that I believe I need to take to achieve the results I want.

Sometimes doing the thing gets more important than the result. The right answer is to adjust my tasks to reflect my situation. To see if there are alternatives which offer a better return on my effort.

By eliminating and reducing that tasks that just don’t matter to what I want to do, I’m making myself more efficient about doing the things that I do want to do.

I’m increasing the amount of me that I can apply to my world.

Do I need to do this?

No matter how efficient I get at, even if I never slept again, I’ve only got 24 hours to put into my day.

I am a finite resource.

The nice thing is that as product and producer, I’m also a pretty important resource, the most important resource I’ve got.

I could resign myself to doing less. But that’s boring. And there’s another option.

First is simply rejecting a task. If someone asks you to do something, you do have the option to say no. It’s not easy, I admit. And I also admit that it can have consequences. But intelligently (and courteously) saying no is one of the most useful tools that I’ve learned for managing my productivity.

I don’t say no to everything. But I do consider what I’m being asked to do and how it fits into my goals. If it isn’t a good use of my time, then “Yes” is not the answer, and I need an alternative.

My biggest problem (and a major pet peeve) is people asking me to do their homework for them. There are a lot of great search engines out there, and I’ve found that the list of people who respect my time overlaps heavily with the people who are willing to do a little research on their own.

So instead of searching for them, the alternative is to give them suggestions for things to look for, keywords, or sites they can trust.

An example of the time constraint is to say that I can’t help them right now but I’ll be available later. The simple advantage of that delay is that it causes people to have to think a little more before I have to deal with them. Often they find their own way to deal with a situation when they’re given time to deal with it.

The final tool is delegation. If there’s only so much of me, then I need to reserve that for the tasks that truly can be done by only me. So does this task require me specifically or can it be done by someone else?

Sometimes this means finding the people at work and getting them to do their jobs. Sometimes it means asking people for help. Sometimes it means hiring someone.

This is the advanced class portion of the program.

Saying no is difficult. For most people, delegation is even harder. It flies in the face of a number of things that we’re taught and encouraged to do. We’re supposed to do things for ourselves, and we’re supposed to do things for our friends, and we’re supposed to impress our superiors.

Yet start delegating and suddenly we’re telling other people to do. We’re being bossy, which since childhood. Worse, we’re saying no to people.

But it is possible to do these things with grace and with respect. Both are important because you still need to build the social capital and connections to your people that comes of helping. The upside is that now I’m doing favours that are more specialized, that actually require my attention. With a bonus that things are much more interesting now that I’m doing better and filtering out the mundane.

The height of delegation is something called personal outsourcing. There are a lot of people out there with a lot of knowledge. You can hire them, to design you a website, or coordinate an event, or to manufacture models or draw designs. By hiring them, you again extend your reach, your capability. You increase the effect you can have on the world.

I’m finding it very difficult, however. I am troubled in having to trust someone else to work on my behalf, because how can anyone else possibly do things right without my involvement. And I am troubled because some of the things that are candidates for outsourcing are things that I feel like I should be doing myself, just to show my capabilities.

And in writing that sentence, I know that my view is wrong, and I think I have an insight as to how to address this problem of mine.

See? Writing this piece has helped me. I hope it’ll do someone else some good too.

Photo by Judson Collier

Posted in life, me, work.

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