Dec 132011

Task management and time management are complex subjects, made exponentially more complex by self-assured gurus who are happy to teach you their intricate process for efficiency. In my humble opinion, most these gurus are wrong, not because their processes do not work, but rather because they miss A) what is truly important and B) the complexity of their process often causes people to quit the system.

It is not surprising that many people ignore formal methods, confidently tapping their noggins while proclaiming that they have it all up there. After my seven years of personal focus, learning, and experimentation with task/time management and task management software, I have no doubt whatsoever that any written task system is better than “it is all in my brain and it’s a steel trap” method. People that keep everything in their head add greatly to their subconscious stress, even if they rarely drop the ball on a task.

The crux of the matter is that time is our scarcest and most precious resource. Use time well and you can accomplish great things while living a life of true quality. Waste your time and years will fly by while you spin your wheels, stuck in a rut. Therefore, optimizing where you invest your time is critical and like most things, quality and direction are more important than quantity and speed. This is the distinction between effectiveness and efficiency. Most gurus worry too much about the latter.

I believe you should have two parallel systems — one for strategic “advance my life in substantial ways” tasks and another all your other tactical “keep all the balls in the air” tasks — and the two should not mix. The truth is you will never get it all done and hard decisions must be made. Favor strategic advancement whenever possible.

One definition of genius is making complex activities as simple as they can possibly be. If you one of the noggin-only people finally deciding to do things better, I recommend implementing only the first “strategic” tasks system now. It is the simpler one and is far more important for progress. I call it BigRock Task Management, inspired by Stephen Covey’s vivid example (click for the video) from the 90s.

Do these 5 steps daily, and you will change your destiny in just a few years:

1) Every evening after dinner before you turn on the T.V. or open a book to relax, take a fresh index card and write tomorrow’s date at the top. Then, label three categories on the left margin: Work)  Family/Personal)  and Improve).

2) On the card, write the most important item — item numero uno! — the item that you know is important but its been hard to do, or to get started on — the item that will result in a “first down” in the football game of life, for each of the three categories. If your item is too time-consuming for one burst, like writing your first novel, break it into a manageable amount for one hour of time — like write 12 pages of my novel.

3) The next morning, pull your index card out and read it over with your first cup of coffee. Pick one of the three BigRocks and do it first, without checking email, without checking the news, without checking your voice mail. When done with the item, check it off, turn the card over, and jot down a few words about what you did, noting what you will do next on this same project while it is still fresh on your mind.

4) Now, manage the rest of your day such that you accomplish one more of the big items on your card before lunch, and one more in the afternoon, so that the other two BigRocks are completed before dinner. I personally like setting aside two time slots as appointments on my calendar for BigRocks, so that I have planned times to work on them.

5) Save your cards for review.  Go back to Step 1 after dinner. I would advise avoiding Work BigRocks on weekends… we work too many hours as it is, and few people wish that they had spent more time at work while lying on their death bed.

Imagine how much farther your life will be when you accomplish 260 Work, 365 Personal/Family, and 365 Improve Thyself BigRocks in one year. There may be days where you only get one BigRock done, but even so, what if your total BigRocks score is over 500 for the year? Today, many of us drift week after week just keeping the tactical balls in the air, accomplishing little real progress.

Save all your cards and review them once a month. If your BigRock score is 115 this quarter, try to beat it next quarter. The momentum of getting important things done does wonders for your energy. Get obsessed with hitting the perfect score for a month, then for three months, and then the ultimate 990 for the year. If you get there, be sure and contact me about getting a BigRock 990 t-shirt!

We put off what’s truly important because many truly important items are difficult.

Often you will find is that the BigRock on your list is a slimy, squirming frog that must be swallowed. For better or worse, strategic progress items often are difficult items to do. It is not easy to make up with your long lost brother. It is hard to call an upset client and ask for forgiveness and a second chance. It is hard to finally start on that business idea. Its a slimy frog to swallow when you have to step in and tell a friend that he is heading down the wrong path. These strategic tasks/projects are usually not urgent, making it all too easy to procrastinate. Truly successful people don’t hesitate often — they plunge forward taking decisive action with optimistic zeal.

Manage your time and tasks from a Big Rocks first perspective, swallowing the difficult frogs with reckless abandon first thing each morning, before engaging in the minutia of the typical day. You will find that your optimism grows as you build momentum, achieving one strategic first-down after another.

I.M. Optimism Man

PS. BigRock Task Management is easy enough to do without technology although there are advantages to managing your strategic tasks with a smartphone — for one, you can review your entire history at any time, like when you are stuck in the waiting room of the pediatrician’s office.

Once you have mastered managing strategic tasks, the next natural step is to improve one’s process and manage your tactical tasks with software, because paper is just too cumbersome with the multitude. I believe task management is best when it is always with you — no matter if you are in the office, at lunch, at your kid’s game, or heading to bed. That requirement leads to the always-with-you smartphone as the only logical platform.

Most smartphone software packages come up short when asked to keep hundreds, if not thousands of tactical tasks well-organized in one system, following a proven process. If you embrace technology and want a smartphone-based system that can make it happen without running out of gas, I recommend ToDoMatrix for iPhone and BlackBerry. Jumping ahead, there is a full white paper on best practices for managing all your tasks, strategic and tactical, on the ToDoMatrix website.

Full disclosure — ToDoMatrix is the software I have toiled over for the last number of years.

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