[This post is part of the ongoing series 4 Steps To Getting Yourself Organized In The New Year. ]
Workflow and time management are either mastered, or they master us. Most of us have experienced the explosive collection of projects and things that seem to appear overnight, at times finding ourselves overwhelmed at the backlog and not even sure where to begin or how to keep it from happening in the first place. Four simple concepts can help you on the front lines as projects roll in, giving you the tools you need to handle your workflow in the middle of the battle.
Tame those to-do lists.
What’s Your Time Footprint?
We each know our work habits, and how long it takes us to get things done. Some of us don’t leave the computer until every last ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed, while the rest of us need to step away and take breaks periodically. The same project, the same work, takes each of us a different amount of time to complete.
In a world where high-productivity is valued (and sometimes confused with speed of work), it might seem that the latter method of working is a wrong one. To reassure those of you who need that periodic break, consider that a pause in work gives you that “second sight” where you are able to see things with fresh eyes. The important thing is to understand that there is no need to think one is better than the other, or feel guilty about which one you might be. Just know which one you are, know how you work, and know how much time it takes to get something completed. Be honest about it. That’s your time footprint, the amount of time that your work requires.
Triage That To-Do List
Some projects need to be done, and soon. They have a deadline. It might take an all-nighter (particularly if we aren’t organized), but we get it done. Lack of organization generally leaves us feeling exhausted by the time the deadline is met. But those things that don’t have a deadline, or have a deadline far, far into the future?
That’s the exponentially expanding pile of “to do” notes that led us to realize we need to get organized in the first place.
Sadly for most of us, no deadline means no incentive means no action. The more vague the deadline, the less we get to it. What’s worse, as things back up and pile on, we often deal with the panic of a towering pile of “to do” lists by moving immediately to the enjoyable things in the pile whether they are important or not. Seeing the pile smaller is a kind of victory, sure, but it’s not an organized method of attacking the pile.
Forget randomness in reducing the pile. Approach the tasks and “to-do” lists with a triage mentality.
Determine what has a specific deadline. Determine what is flexible. Determine what has no deadline, ever, and decide whether you want to bother with those things at all. If you do, decide upon a deadline of your choice and treat it like a real deadline. Determine if something, even without a deadline, is vitally important and must be done ahead of something else. Most importantly, if something isn’t necessary or ever likely to be done, just get rid of it and take it out of the pile. Organizing isn’t merely a question of when something should be done, but if it should be done at all.
First Things First
We’ve just determined which projects are most important — now how do we tackle handling them as they come along?
Before you can tie your shoes, you first need to put them on. We know some things have to happen before others. We also know, shamefacedly, what kinds of things we put off doing because we dread working on them. For a project made up of multiple tasks, there are inevitably some parts of it we avoid doing. Unfortunately, that’s a great way to frustration and projects that either never get done, or don’t get done well.
That time footprint we talked about? Often they’re not as big as we think they are. Working out of order causes the time footprint to bloat. It means we’ll have to backtrack and waste time because we missed doing something foundational. Those things we avoid doing create roadblocks that cause work-flow traffic pile-ups.
A traditional tool that is used to keep projects on task is a Gantt chart. This method has the user chart out an entire project, breaking down the project into sections by showing which tasks cannot be started until a previous task has been completed. It’s based on a system of viewing projects as dependent tasks, and if that appeals to your way of thinking, perhaps you might find Gantter a useful tool. Gantt charts might not appeal to everyone. The basic concept that a Gantt chart is built upon, however, is valid. Whether we choose a formal method of planning out our work flow and breaking it down into chartable dependent tasks or not, it is important that we don’t jam up our work flow out of avoidance of the unpleasant. First things first.
Implement Your Strategy
All the planning in the world won’t help us if we don’t have the tools to help you carry the plan out. We need to find ways to make the decisions we made concrete and actionable.
Set up a system which allows you to plug in dates and tasks when things need to happen, even the projects that don’t have a specific date. For an overwhelming project with a deadline, break it into the “first things first” tasks, and put those smaller parts in your system, remembering the time footprint concept and how long it will take to complete them. The tasks should fall into place in the proper order so that when the project is due, all things are done. When the task you scheduled is due, we must do it. No getting around it.
Perhaps at the start, the system will be three containers labeled “now”, “this week” and “next week.” Maybe you prefer file folders, whiteboards and colored markers, or pinning things to a board with color-coded pins. Choose a method that works for how you work right now. Start small, with a mind set on improving the system. A calendar is an ideal solution and perhaps an eventual goal. It doesn’t allow for vagueness. If a task wasn’t completed on the day determined to be the deadline, it’s pretty hard to get around that fact. A box labeled “this week” might easily become next week and next month.
The most important thing to remember is that it is better to think of projects and “to-do” lists as made up of parts that fall into a kind of chronological place. They are not a gigantic whole. We can’t master something massive and vague, but we can work on parts that have a place.