Posted in Techniques

5 Steps to Managing Workload Overload

In today’s world we’re often not in control of our own workload.  The expectations made of us both professionally and personally mount up and we hit that point of wondering what’s next. We also wonder why, if everyone else is so productive as the Internet would have us believe, are we stuck in this quagmire? Let me tell you a dirty little secret of the productivity community.

It happens to all of us at one time or another.

We look at our workload, our task list, our calendar and wonder how are we going to get it all done.  You check off one item and three more get added. It’s enough to drive someone to chocolate. Take heart intrepid adventurer, there are some steps you can take to get your workload under control and feel better about the tasks ahead.

Step 1 – Get the lay of the land: Know what’s coming from where

We can feel overwhelmed when we don’t have a good grasp of the amount of work ahead of us and the new work that is coming. Taking time to identify all the work you are facing is the first step to getting overload under control. Think about it like being in a car speeding down a hill towards a curve. You don’t know what’s around the curve so you don’t hit the gas, you hit the brake.  You try to slow down and see what’s coming up next so you know how to react. The same thing applies to managing an out of control workload.  You shouldn’t just plow into it, hoping you can get enough done before more comes your way that you’ll be ok. Taking some time to understand what work is coming from where will help you get a better sense of what you are truly facing.

Step 2 – Create a go / no-go gate

Not everything added to our workload has to be done. Yes, a fair amount of work is out of our control and we have to “just do it.” But just as often we’ve added things to our workload through impromptu commitments and acceptances. To be fair to ourselves and others we have to put a go / no-go gate in place.

This gate gives us an opportunity to evaluate our current workload to determine if we have the time and energy (technology geeks refer to this as bandwidth) available to tackle the requested task. When you receive a request to add something to your workload make sure you understand:

  • what is being asked

  • when it is needed

  • what resources it will require

  • what dependencies it has on others, both people and tasks

If you can answer all of those questions you will be able to say whether or not something will fit into your workload and if you are likely to be able to complete it successfully.

Step 3 -Purge unnecessary work

Often our evaluation of our workload can become skewed by “stale work”. These are requests or tasks that while they seemed important at the time have either become irrelevant, unimportant, or have been superseded by other work. If we keep this stale work as part of our workload we can’t get a true measure of what space we have available in our schedules.  You wouldn’t keep gallons of expired milk in your fridge would you?

But how do you know?  Tasks don’t have “sell-by” dates. What can you do to determine if a task is not longer work keeping as part of your workload.  Well, if it came from someone, ask them. Normally this happens by someone giving you work and then committing to give you some information or deliverable so you can complete the work, but then never providing the information. Back tracking to the requestor and asking if they still are planning to provide you the information you need. Time and time again I’ve found people will cancel the work request rather than having to go back to their own workload and deliver you the needed information.

Step 4 – Work in sprints

When my wife and I purchased our home the previous owners had spread small white landscaping rocks over all the flowerbeds as a decorative touch.  Not being her style, I received the work request to move all those little rocks out the of the beds so she could plant her plants. First, there were a lot of rocks.  I mean, a lot. Way more than I could do all in one effort and believe me I tried to figure out a way.  When my planning when down the path of renting a front end loader I put the brakes on. The amount of work added to my workload, after evaluating the three what’s and when, was way more than I could accomplish as a singular effort.  I felt overwhelmed. It was then I started to work in sprints on the project.

I broke each flowerbed down into sections and each section into smaller sections.  By the time I was done a section could be loaded and moved within 5 minutes.  Now came the sprints.  I shoveled a section into the wheelbarrow and if I had enough energy I kept right on going into the next section.  I kept sprinting through until I hit one of two limits: I ran out of energy or the wheelbarrow was full. In either case I would stop loading and move the wheelbarrow back to the dumping spot, drop the rocks, and go back to the flowerbed to start again.

By working in sprints I knew in the back of my mind if I felt overwhelmed I could stop, change task for a brief period, and then resume.  It was that working safety valve that made all the difference in tacking a project feeling more like a mountain than a molehill.

Step 5 – Act then track

There’s a phrase that describes planning so much you never get started: “analysis paralysis.” It is possible to dedicate so many mental cycles to planning your work you create your own state of overwhelm. There’s a trick I use to reinforce I am getting things accomplished especially on larger projects.

When working on a larger project, for example creating a SharePoint site to manage work intake processes, often I’ll be deep into building a page and realize I need to add a column for data or change a graphic for a header.  These weren’t part of my original planning but I caught them, did them, and kept right on going. What is important is to acknowledge them as work that was done.

Every time I do something not on my lists, I make a note of it. After I’m done for the day I backtrack through my task list, add each unplanned item, and mark it as done.  Not only does this help me recognize the real work accomplished but it also gives me a much more accurate measure when I self-report on my workload.

Remember it happens to everyone

No matter how organized and proficient you are, at some point you’ll feel overwhelmed by what you face in your workload. The key is to pump the brakes, figure out what still has to be done, break it down, and keep track of what you do. No matter how overwhelming your workload feels, there are ways to get you through the stress, and if nothing else give you the information necessary if you are going to ask for help.  Which is a smart thing to do contrary to popular productivity bravado.

Posted in Uncategorized

Task management success comes from three questions

When managing tasks for yourself or especially for others, there are three questions you need to answer for each task. These questions make sure you have the minimum amount of information needed to successfully complete the task.  These questions are:

What is the task?

While this may seem obvious, defining what the task is in a clear, concise, and measurable manner can make all the difference between success and failure. For example, “Send the TPS reports” and “Send the TPS reports to Dave” contain a small difference in information but a huge difference in success criteria. Always write your tasks as if someone else was going to complete them for you without access to you for clarification.

Who is responsible?

This doesn’t necessarily mean who is completing the task. This often can be the person to whom the responsibility falls to make sure the task is completed.  This could be a manager, co-worker, family member, etc. In many cases the doer and the responsible person are the same, but don’t assume that is the case.  Many digital tools, such as Todoist, allow you to assign labels to tasks.  I use the labels to identify who is responsible for making sure the task is complete. In this way, I can display all the tasks sharing a person’s name label and see immediate what I am expecting from them.

When does it need to be completed?

Not all tasks have deadlines, but any task without an estimated completion date and time is a task begging to be left undone.  Scheduling a task for “completion” even when it doesn’t have a hard due date is an excellent way to provide a reminder for the task status. Tasks multiply rapidly and if they are not managed in a timely manner will be pushed off further and further.

What, Who, When

Ask these three questions of every task you capture. The answers will give you at least a minimum of information needed to complete the tasks.  There is one additional question you can add if you want to smooth the flow of your tasks. If you often find yourself completing tasks and then not being sure how to proceed, ask “What’s next?” as part of every task definition.

Posted in Uncategorized

Finding the best digital task manager

After changing task managers yet again I wanted to know if others go through the same churn as I do when it comes to finding a tool that works for them. Out of curiousity I reached out to the Productivity Springboard group on Google Plus and posed the question: “Do you use a task manager and if so which one?” My hypothesis was the majority of people in the group would respond in the positive (it is a group based on productivity after all) and one or two task managers would take the landslide response in usage by the group. Well…one out of two isn’t bad.

As expected almost every person who responded indicated they use some form of digital task management tool. Is this required? Not at all. There’s a strong argument to be made on both sides of the digital / analog task management discussion. What caught me more off guard is the number of variants in what people are using to track and manage their tasks. This also focused for me a couple of the key issues people run into when trying to find the “right” tool for them and some significant thoughts around how others can choose the right task manager for them.

Here’s a list of some of the tools the group reported as using:

  • Todoist
  • Remember The Milk
  • Checkvist
  • Trello
  • Wunderlist
  • Workflowy

Now this came from a very small sample size so by no means is scientific. One of the things I found interesting is the number of people (myself included) who have transitioned from application to application in search of one best targeted to how they work. When thinking about selecting a digital task management tool there are a few strategies you can apply to help the process:

How do you capture tasks?

Understanding what YOU need to know to be able to successfully execute a task is a bit of introspection many people don’t do. We expect the application to ask the right question in the right way to work for us and get frustrated when it doesn’t quite work. I recently changed tools and started with “what do I need to know about a task to be able to execute?” I came up with:

  • What is the task?
  • When is this due?
  • When do I have to start this task to finish on time?
  • Who else is impacted?
  • Are there other tasks related to this one?

These seem to be pretty common pieces of information for any task but on closer review I found some more complex relationships and requirements:

  • I want to be able to capture tasks in as few steps as possible
  • I want to be reminded when tasks need to be completed
  • I want the experience to be equally as usable on the desktop, browser, and mobile (Android for me)
  • I want some reinforcement (positive and negative) about my completion of tasks to motivate me

It turns out the last one (reinforcement) is a bigger factor for me than I initially anticipated. So now I have a basic overview of what I need to know on each task, it’s time to scale up the thinking. How do the tasks relate to each other, other people, and between work and personal life?

When capturing my tasks in many cases they’re follow up items for other people and being able to not only see what I need to check on with a person as well as track those items is a significant aspect for me. This doesn’t apply to every task but it does apply to many of them. Finding a balance point between the two that doesn’t impact the first of the wants became a deciding factor between tools for me.

Based on what we’ve learned so far let’s realign the needs and wants:

  • Need to capture a task in as few steps as possible
  • Capture needs to include what to do, when to start, when to finish, and if there are other people or tasks involved
  • Needs to work on mobile and desktop equally well
  • Want to be informed when I am being productive and when I am not

With this summary in hand I could then start to assess task management applications based on their ability to meet these requirements. What I find most interesting about this is (and I’m just as guilty of this in the past) is most people work backwards through this process. We typically will take and application and look at the features and say, “That’s cool, I may be able to use that” or “Hmmm, that’s not going to work for me.” Working through the features we often miss applying how we work and try to adjust our natural tendencies to match how the tool works.

As with any solution strategy when it comes to productivity it is critical to understand your needs before you begin the process of evaluating tools. If you have taken the time to capture and refine your requirements a great deal of time and effort can be saved by determining if your identified needs are being met before you even begin working with the deeper functions of the tool.

What if you find more than one tool meeting your needs and wants? This happens more often than you would think. There are so many options for task management in the productivity space the odds are good you will find multiple ways to meet your needs. (For reference, the more general your definition of your needs and wants the more likely this is to happen.) If you’re in a situation where multiple tools are in play, I recommend looking at some additional criteria:

  • Usability and user experience
  • Scalability
  • Collaboration with others if needed
  • Interoperability with other services (files, images, etc.)

As you can see the deeper the comparison gets the harder it can become to determine what is the best fit. There is no magic solution nor clear winner to this contest but if you take time to figure out what you want, you have a much better chance of finding what you need.

Posted in Tools

Using Todoist to get a busy week under control

Too many tasks to manage

This week has been a hectic one with my dear wife out of town on vacation and the overlapping activites of sports and work between the two teens at home taking their toll on my organizational systems. Coupled with my day job I found this week to be a bit more than I expected on the weekly stress scale. To the rescue…Todoist.I needed a way to capture all the individual tasks needed to be done this week. Part of the issue was the tasks were coming fast and furious and capturing them included not on the task to be done but when it needed to be executed. Using my normal tools for this (OneNote, Workflowy, Google Keep) worked with various levels of success, but none of them did the complete job. It was at this point I went back through the archives and decided to give Todoist another try.

Speaking plain English to Todoist

One of the key features of Todoist is its “natural language” method of capturing and organizing tasks. Here’s an example:



Take out the trash today 8pm #chores @ian

In Todoist, that translates to a task that is automatically set with a reminder for 8pm today, added to the Chores project, and labeled with my son’s name (so I can look at the label in the app and immediately know what chores he needs to do today). By using this natual language formatting for the tasks, reminders, projects, and labels I have been able to bulk capture tasks as they come up with no secondary processing necessary.

Using the widget is a simple matter to be able to capture the tasks in a format where they are are already organized and ready to be acted upon. The application is much more powerful than just this feature but for now this is making a huge difference for me this week. We’ll see if it holds up over time but I have high hopes that my system may have evolved to be able to leverage Todoist more fully.

Posted in Uncategorized

Using Todoist to get a busy week under control

Too many tasks to manage

This week has been a hectic one with my dear wife out of town on vacation and the overlapping activites of sports and work between the two teens at home taking their toll on my organizational systems. Coupled with my day job I found this week to be a bit more than I expected on the weekly stress scale. To the rescue…Todoist.I needed a way to capture all the individual tasks needed to be done this week. Part of the issue was the tasks were coming fast and furious and capturing them included not on the task to be done but when it needed to be executed. Using my normal tools for this (OneNote, Workflowy, Google Keep) worked with various levels of success, but none of them did the complete job. It was at this point I went back through the archives and decided to give Todoist another try.

Speaking plain English to Todoist

One of the key features of Todoist is its “natural language” method of capturing and organizing tasks. Here’s an example:



Take out the trash today 8pm #chores @ian

In Todoist, that translates to a task that is automatically set with a reminder for 8pm today, added to the Chores project, and labeled with my son’s name (so I can look at the label in the app and immediately know what chores he needs to do today). By using this natual language formatting for the tasks, reminders, projects, and labels I have been able to bulk capture tasks as they come up with no secondary processing necessary.

Using the widget is a simple matter to be able to capture the tasks in a format where they are are already organized and ready to be acted upon. The application is much more powerful than just this feature but for now this is making a huge difference for me this week. We’ll see if it holds up over time but I have high hopes that my system may have evolved to be able to leverage Todoist more fully.

Posted in Uncategorized

Quick and Dirty Team Task Management using OneNote

I recently received a question as to how to track the tasks for a team in OneNote.  While there are a number of ways to accomplish this, I thought I’d show a quick and dirty way using OneNote 2016.  
Step 1 – Create your task lists

Each member of the team to be managed gets a task list of their own in OneNote.  Create a notebook and then in a section add one page for each team member:

Step 1- Create a task list for each team member
Step 1- Create a task list for each team member
An important part of this step is the use of the To Do Tag.  By default you can add a To Do Tag by tapping Ctrl-1 on your keyboard or clicking on the tag in the Ribbon Bar.
Step 2 – Repeat Step 1 for each team member

When you’re done repeating step 1 each team member should have their own list of tasks.

Step 2 - Create a task list for each remaining member of the team
Step 2 – Create a task list for each remaining member of the team
At this point you can use these lists as they stand to track the work needing to be done by the team.  When a task is finished, you just click on the checkbox to indicate the task is complete.
Step 3 – Full Overview

One of the strengths of OneNote is the ability to aggregate information easily based on tag.  If you click on Find Tags in the Ribbon Bar you’ll get a sidebar similar to this:

Tag Summary view in OneNote 2016
Tag Summary view in OneNote 2016
Once you have the Tag Summary view displayed you can jump to any task just by clicking on it in the list.  This is by default an aggregation for the whole notebook, but you can do it just for the section if you wish.
If you’re planning to meet with your team and want an easy way to review the work that has been done, you can use the Summary Page to generate a new view of the tasks.  NOTE: This does not create a connection to the original tasks but rather a page with copies of them.  If you update information on the summary page it will not transfer to the original tasks.

Click on Create Summary Page at the bottom of the Tag Summary sidebar to generate the page:

Creating a Summary Page in one click
Creating a Summary Page in one click
The resulting summary page will show up as a new OneNote page in the notebook and section you are currently viewing:
An example of a Tag Summary page in OneNote 2016
An example of a Tag Summary page in OneNote 2016
As I mentioned before, there are a number of different ways to handle tasks in OneNote, this is just one of them.  If you have a way that works for you, let’s hear about it in the comments.
Posted in Strategy

Managing tasks – for who for what?

When is a task not a task?

In the world of productivity there’s always a running debate around task management. Should they have reminders? Do they get scheduled? How do you track them? How do you follow-up? Before delving into that type of discussion let’s focus on helping define exactly what tasks are to you and how you can get a grip on them.

The term “task” is a loaded one in my dictionary, because it immediately conjures the image of something hard, something that needs to be “managed,” and something that needs a “manager.” Let’s change the definition a little and see if that helps grant us a better perspective. Instead of a task being focused on work to expend, let’s focus it on objective to be accomplished. Each task we complete should be an accomplishment, no matter how minor. (You have no idea how often completing the task of “getting my morning coffee” is the biggest accomplishment of the day. Now, with our new outlook on tasks, we can change even more rules.

When we look at tasks there are really two types in my book: tasks you assign yourself and tasks assigned to you by someone else. The biggest difference is the second type, assigned by someone else, involves just that…someone else. Part of the task accomplishment process then has to include the other person in the mix to be considered an accomplishment when complete. Let’s take a closer look at a basic userflow (one of my favorite terms) for the two types of task:

Task A – Assigned by me

Identify the task –> Document the task –> Plan –> Execute –> Document accomplishment

Task B – Assigned by someone else

Receive assignment –> Review assignment –> Acknowledge assignment –> Capture the task –> Document the task –> Plan –> Execute –> Document –> Report accomplishment –> Confirm or review accomplishment

If you are in a situation where a task takes longer than planned, you add in a loop for “Report Status –>” after Execute and go back to Execute to continue working. See how much more complicated things get when we introduce another human in the equation? This is where so many of our “task management” solutions fall apart. As professionals, we strive to find the one system, the one miracle pill, to address both Tasks A and B. They’re a rare beast by any measure. So how do we do this? There has to be a way. My opinion…it all comes from a change in perspective.

Communication vs. completion

Let’s take Task B from earlier since it’s the complicated one and break it down into two main areas: action and sharing.

Receive assignment –> Review assignment –> Acknowledge assignment –> Capture the task –> Document the task –> Plan –> Execute –> Document –> Report accomplishment –> Confirm or review accomplishment

Interesting change in what the task effort looks like, isn’t it? Out of the 10 steps to carry out the task, only two focus on the “doing” of the task. The rest are either receiving, sharing, or documenting (for future sharing.) When we look at our tasks this way, we can see putting energy into the task itself is not where the bulk of the work is derived. The heavy lifting comes from the communication back and forth to keep both parties engaged. Now this is just if you’re working with one person on a task. Think about what happens when we add two, three, or more.

Creating the stages in a solution for managing tasks from others must include steps to close the loop on the communications. Updates, snapshots, etc. are all part of the accomplishment of the task, but for more than just the “doing.” If you are going to establish a reputation for being the type of person who gets things done, others have to know you are doing just that. It’s up to you as part of your solution to make sure information about the successes are getting back to the right people in a timely manner so your reputation for quality work grows, rather than just becoming the person who can really crank out the widgets.

When you’re designing your “task management solution” always keep this in mind; the work you do is only a fraction of the work you share.