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26 Nov

Four elephants is very different from five ants

Date: 2014-11-26 10:06 Comments: 0 st

In our daily life at work we have some tasks which are done in no time and others which require more time and effort. Some tasks can be done immediately. Others need more time and we have to return to them and do a little at a time in order to complete it. It may not be finished until several weeks later after which we are granted the pleasure of ticking it off our to-do-list.

It is a good idea to keep these two types of tasks apart since they are two very different things. When we make note of the short tasks, we write down exactly what we will do. But as we add the longer tasks to the to-do-list, we phrase them in terms of what we want to ultimately accomplish by the completion of many shorter tasks done consecutively (which are hopefully on our to-do-list as well).

Longer tasks tend to be phrased along the lines of “Establishing in Norway”, “New intranet”, “The parent-teacher conferences”, “Buildingproject X”, “Fall kick-off”, “Improved routines for refunds” and “Delivery for client Y”, while the shorter tasks are formulated using verbs such as “write”, “send”, “gather”, “ask”, “email” and “schedule”.

I sometimes feel that I cannot emphasize the importance of keeping short and long tasks apart enough. Hence, allow me to draw your attention to this vital distinction once again.

The list divided into layers
As I see it, we need to have one to-do-list for those short and immediately doable tasks, and one overview of the tasks we are responsible for completing. Every longer, more extensive task which I want to progress with needs to at all times have at least one proper to-do-task on the to-do-list as its next step (or on someone else’s to-do-list as you are waiting for them to do something). We should be able to be rest assured that if we do the tasks on the to-do-list we will undoubtedly progress in the more extensive and more ambiguous items on the overview.

If we separate long and short tasks we can consciously go between the strategic perspective where we look at the whole picture and the operative perspective from which we execute all the things that need doing. If we mix the shorter and longer tasks on one to-do-list, the longer tasks are easily left unattended to and thereby eventually turn into sourdoughs which we procrastinate. We repeatedly notice them on the list, but since we have not defined the next short task we can do to move forward with the task, we tend to choose the short tasks (which concern other things) since they are much more concrete, tangible and hence easier to get started with. 

If you feel overwhelmed by all the longer, extensive tasks you need to complete at some point, then breaking it down into small gradual steps is an effective way to reduce your stress. And if we then have all the long tasks on a separate list, it is easier to define the shorter steps which make up the entire task as to-do-tasks on the to-do-list. But if we mix long and short tasks, the short next steps and longer tasks become jumbled up so that we eventually have a list that partly contain all the concrete things we have to do and partly those things we cannot do in a single go but will accomplish eventually. The to-do-list will become more of a bit-of-everything-list rather than the useful tool it is intended to be.

Do this

  1. Take time to think about where you could keep your complete overview of the longer tasks, projects and change-initiatives you are responsible for completing. Focus on making it comprehensible, easy to get an overview of and accessible. Will you make an ordinary list? Do you draw a mindmap to create a visual representation of your tasks? Do you create a Gantt-table in a spreadsheet? Do you reserve a wall in your office for PostIts which are gradually moved to the right as the tasks approaches completion?

  2. Create your complete overview. That is to say, empty your head of all the more extensive tasks you can think of which you are responsible for and skim through your to-do-list for tasks which actually require more than one step to complete. You might have a common project-management-system at your company or perhaps you work with visual management of your common projects. For most people it is worth to put in a little extra effort and add the projects you are involved in from these common locations as well so that you create a truly comprehensive overview of all the tasks and projects you need to complete or are part of.

  3. Skim through the overview and make sure that you have defined a next step (or “action” if you wish) for each and every one of the longer tasks you want to progress with. It can be something you will do (and which is noted as an item on your to-do-list) or something you are waiting for someone else to do.

  4. Determine how often you want to skim through the overview like this and when it suits you best to do so. Many do this a few times every month during a calmer part of time of day. You could for instance schedule a recurring meeting with yourself so that you really take the time to do it.

Get less confused and get more done
If you keep the short to-do-tasks separate from the longer projects or changes you are responsible for completing, you will end up with a list that is much easier to work with. It will also be easier to see which longer tasks that are in risk of loosing tempo and what change-initiatives that are involuntarily neglected.

What is your method?
Where have you chosen to keep your overview of longer tasks? Feel free to leave a comment letting us know. 

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