Posts tagged #Manage complex tasks

Scheduling actions – hard or soft?

A common question that we hear when discussing task management in workshops is 'When should a task be blocked out as an appointment in the calendar'? Blocking out time, or what I call ‘Hard scheduling’ is a great strategy for putting traction into your action, but if overused or misused, it can work against your productivity.

In Smart Work, I talk about the difference between meeting and task workload. Meetings are ‘fixed’ commitments that we have with other people, tasks are ‘flexible’ commitments that we have with ourselves. Meetings need a scheduling tool that allows specific scheduling for both date and time. But tasks, given their more discretionary nature, need a more flexible system to manage them effectively.

So, in a good scheduling system, where meetings and tasks are managed together in a holistic way, meetings are hard scheduled into your calendar, and tasks can be soft scheduled into a dated task list. The difference is that although both are scheduled by date, only meetings are scheduled with a specific start and finish time.

But, I believe there can be a case for hard scheduling tasks into your calendar, sometimes. If you choose the right circumstances to do this, and you honour the time that you block out, this is a great strategy to make sure the important work gets done in a timely way.

Here are some circumstances where I will hard schedule tasks into my calendar:

  • Any task that will take more than 1 hour of concentration time
  • If I have pressure on my schedule from others, and need to protect time for the task
  • If the work is something I am likely to procrastinate about
  • A task that need to be complete by a specific time in the day i.e. a report due by midday
  • If the task requires me to go somewhere outside of the office

I reckon that your calendar and task list are both designed to help you get things done at the right time. The calendar is by nature more time focused, so is worth using in these situations. But be careful not to overuse the calendar for task workload. There is a risk that you may end up ignoring the reminder that pops up for the activity, and end up leaving work behind in your inflexible calendar. If you schedule it, do it, or prioritise again and reschedule the activity.

A sense of perspective

At the start of each month I have a recurring priority scheduled in my task list. It reminds me that at some stage in that week, I need to sit down and get some perspective. To take some time out from doing, and spend some time thinking about my top 10 BIG priorities for the month ahead.

So, when the time comes, I set myself up in a quiet space with a coffee and print-out a two-page template that helps me to prioritise. It is my version of a prioritisation strategy used in the project management industry to prioritise competing projects called forced-ranked prioritisation. Essentially it forces me to compare my list of ten priorities against each other to come up with a sequenced list from most important, to least important.

Now, this list is not a list of things to do. It is not at the task level of granularity. It is a list of projects, issues or opportunities that I would like to move forward in a significant way this month. This is about the BIG picture, and about getting some perspective into my thinking.

Once I have ranked each priority against the other priorities and come up with a prioritised sequence, I gain some valuable perspective about what I should be spending my time on over the coming weeks. Out of this list should drop next-step actions that get scheduled into my calendar or task list. This creates traction, and ensures that how my time is being spent is a healthy balance of proactive as well as reactive work. It focuses my attention, and ensure that my work is driven by importance, not just by urgency.

This week, a pretty busy few days turned into a light few days as two client engagements rescheduled at short notice. Some days in the office – gold! How could I best use that time? To work that out, I turned to my Top 10 list and eyed my top three priorities on the list. Two days later I have moved several significant pieces of work forward. Work that will add substantial value to my business in the long term.

My suspicion is that without doing the prioritisation exercise last week, I might have spent the last two days ‘catching up’ with myself. Clearing emails and faffing around with the small stuff. Instead, I knew exactly what deserved my time.

What is your strategy for gaining perspective? Do you have one? If not, please send me an email and it would be my pleasure to send my Monthly Top 10 prioritisation tool to you

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!!