Getting traction with complex tasks

A recent question from a participant in our Productive Leadership program got me thinking about a solution to managing more the complex tasks on our list. You see, he had a fairly busy meeting workload, but was pretty organised and managed to stay on top of most of his simple tasks all the same. What was killing him were the few more complex pieces of work in his role that he invariably procrastinated about and left until the last minute. These tasks were highly valuable but also highly stressful.

Every task, simple or complex, has three stages – Deadline, Planning and Execution. A simple task, like sending an email or making a phone call, will usually roll all three of these stages into one. With a simple email, we try to get to the task before it is overdue. We then open the email, have a think about what we need to say, write it and then send it. The deadline, planning and execution all happen at once.

Complex tasks, such as preparing for a presentation, writing a report or finalising a budget are a different beast. With complex work, there is a much greater risk that we will procrastinate, leave it until the last minute, and run out of time. This drags down the quality of the task and increases the stress levels. It also puts pressure on those around you if you then need to pass it downstream at the last minute.

So, next time you have a complex task to manage, break it down into the following three stages, and manage each with the appropriate tool in your action management system.

Deadline – Make it visible
Even though this is the final stage, it is where we should start. Clarify the deadline, and make it visible in your schedule. All Day Events in your calendar are a great way to show upcoming deadlines. As deadlines are zero duration milestones rather than activities, we just need to be able to have them in our line of sight, and be aware as we draw close to them. It is a good idea to review your upcoming deadlines as a part of your weekly planning and make sure you are still on track.

Planning – Create a thumbnail sketch
Now that the deadline is in place, we need to come right back to now and start planning the task. Schedule no more than 20 minutes to roughly outline the scope of the task – quickly brainstorm the key components, stages or points involved. This is what I call a thumbnail sketch. It is a very rough outline, and it will help you to estimate how much work is involved, and clarify your thinking about how to approach the task. This planning stage can simply be scheduled as a task in your action list, and it should be prioritised to happen as soon as possible.

Execution – Block out time
Once you have roughly planned the task, decide when you will protect some time for the actual work. You should now have a better feel for how much time will be needed. This is best blocked out in your calendar, ideally far enough ahead of the deadline to provide some wriggle room. Other things will invariably come up, and it always takes longer than we thought. Plan for this. When you block this time out, protect it and view it as being as important as any meeting in your schedule. The beauty of having created the thumbnail sketch before you do the work is that your mind will begin working on the task in the time between planning and execution.

So, what complex tasks are you procrastinating on right now?

If you follow this process, you will find that things are rarely quite as complex as we first thought!!