How to manage tasks and focus on what’s really important
Before I became a business consultant, I thought I was an efficient worker. I thought I knew how to hustle, operate effectively, and move smarter and faster than my colleagues and customers. I was wrong.
I still remember what a colleague wrote in my first review, “Jordan is a smart guy, but I wish I could shake the midwest off of him and get him to move.”
When joining Undercurrent, one learns how to focus and improve their working ability quickly. Undercurrent’s Members can hold multiple roles within the organization and often work on multiple projects simultaneously. Our clients are smart. Our clients are under pressure. They demand a lot from us. To get our clients what they need, each client-facing project team communicates weekly targets and ships a deliverable on Friday. It’s a grueling, exhilarating pace.
There are particular practices and values that have developed within Undercurrent that allow Members to operate efficiently and effectively within our environment. Each Member has clearly documented roles, accountabilities, and metrics that evolve to match market demands and opportunities. Experimentation with process is encouraged, and the best processes tend to adapt and be adopted quickly. One such process that has taken root is a scrum-like meeting for delivering project updates and distributing actions.
Many organizations have their own kinds of meetings where project status is given and actions are assigned. The question is: what happens next? How does one organize their own working time outside the meeting room?
There are many personal organizational practices (such as GTD) or tools (such as Asana or At-Task). Personally I’ve found them to be too cumbersome and granular for me to use regularly. I favor seeing everything going on in my life (both professionally and personally) at a glance so I can structure my time to tackle them. For anything hairy, I usually block off one or more 90 minute working sprints to chip away at them.
The dashboard outlined below is heavily influenced by the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown and Holacracy guidelines for individually accepting work. I use Trello as a system of record because it’s lightweight, non-prescriptive, and works equally well on a desktop or mobile.
My dashboard, as of this evening, appears below. Sensitive text has been pixelated to protect confidentiality.
The dashboard contains two primary elements: a list of roles I play (along with their current purpose), and a prioritization of the tasks I’ve got to get done.
My roles and their purposes (Holacracy’s term for a “mission”) are given at left. If I am unsure about accepting a task, having this list handy helps to remind me what I truly care about. If something is out-of-bounds but I’m feeling tense about turning it down, that’s a good clue that I might consider revising Undercurrent’s current missions and strategy at one of the occasions we provide for such things.
My tasks are prioritized first according to the Eisenhower Method — the only prioritization scheme simple enough that I’ll actually use it to decide on a task’s relative priority as I accept it. Every morning before I check e-mail or even shower I examine my tasks beginning with those I’ve marked as Important & Urgent. I make sure my calendar has the time to accommodate what’s in front of me. And then, I get on with my day. As I complete tasks, I re-prioritize what remains. Often Important tasks become Urgent & Important as time goes on.
When a task recurs often enough — for example, on-boarding a new employee or kicking-off work with a new client — I’ll create a separate board and set of checklists for how to tackle it. This view, on the other hand, is purposefully sparse and unconcerned with the how. It’s my unified view for everything I spend time on.
I could label things by project (but I don’t). I could be more rigorous about setting due dates (but I’m not). There are a lot of things I could be doing but this is the system that’s stuck.
Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/5tZrEe