Whether you’re doing dishes, performing tasks for clients, or doing project management for a company you’re going to be dealing with the smallest denomination of work: tasks.
Understanding the anatomy of a task, and most importantly how to influence what tasks you’re taking on is foundational to keeping control over your time. To understand a task’s place however we must first understand your two most fundamental resources.
Time and Attention
Everything you do requires both time and attention.
Time ticks on by, and attention is your utilization of that time. Tracking tasks is a way of managing your attention.
I’m sure you’ve heard someone say “I don’t have time”, what they’re really saying is that they don’t wish to pay attention to it. We all have the same 24 hours per day. When time runs out is when we pass on.
A task requires your attention, and costs time to perform. Now that we know the two basic resources required to fuel a task, let’s talk about the parts of a task.
What makes up a task?
A task is comprised of the following:
How important the task is. This can be determined by the value of the long term benefits of completing the tasks. A good example would be reading a good book on how to talk to people. That simple task can benefit you for years. In comparison eating a piece of cake has fantastic short term benefits, but mean little, or can even be damaging, in the long run.
Every task has an expiration date. The more urgent a task is, the more important it seems. An example would be cleaning up a dozen eggs that got dropped. If not taken care of asap it will seep into the carpet and stink. Alternatively reading a book isn’t usually urgent. Tasks demanded by others commonly feel urgent.
This is based on Eisenhower’s Matrix.
Common Pitfalls To Avoid
There are a couple of common pitfalls for tasks:
Getting caught up in urgent, unimportant work
Just doing what the boss tells you, buckling into the constant demands of family and friends, or just all around dealing with what just falls onto your lap. There is a time and place for these things, just not all of the time.
The key thing is to make sure you can set aside time, and ideally a space, where you can focus on what’s important. Don’t know what’s important? Then your most important task is to figure out what’s important.
Not knowing how to prioritize
What makes something important or not important? There’s plenty of content out there, but I found this question to be my guiding star:
What is the one thing I can do that, by doing it, everything else becomes easier or unnecessary?
This is from the amazing book The One Thing, it basically asks you what can you do that will complete other tasks or make them not needed to be done.
For example, say your car breaks down and it will cost $10,000 to fix. You ask around a bit and a close family member has a good vehicle they will sell you for $6000. Instead of paying to get it repaired you get a new(er) car for cheaper, your money stays in the family, and the breakdown issue is completely circumvented.
This is completing three “tasks” in one fell swoop.
Some other methods of prioritizing include:
- Setting a goal
- Separating your tasks from everyone else’s tasks
- Figuring out what tasks create the greatest long term reward
Pain and Pleasure
Many tasks have a short term increase in pleasure, or decrease in pain, that create a long term increase in pain or decrease in pleasure.
Other tasks, far more important ones can at the least be boring in the moment or downright terrifying at the worst, but create long term benefits.
In the following graph, a beneficial task is represented in a green line while a more urgent, non-beneficial task is in red.
Completing your tasks that are beneficial on the long run compound and multiply. Eventually you build a great reservoir of good from the things that you’ve accomplished.
Unfortunately however this cuts both ways, so always be conscious of what task your performing and what the long term benefits/consequences of a task may be.
Andrew Kirby discusses this in more detail.
What You Can Do With A Task
This one might seem obvious, but there are actually 3 different things you can do with a task:
You can complete the task
This is the state that everyone thinks of when it comes to a task, that it must always be done. While this is in fact the ideal state of all tasks trying to do everything at once creates lots of stress.
You can delay the task
Delaying the task allows you to use time to your advantage. Assuming you have a system for managing your tasks, whether on paper or digital, you can always take a task and push it out so that you can focus on more important tasks.
You can decide not to perform the task
This is probably the most important skill you could ever learn. Learning how to let go of tasks that you admit you will never get done is one of the most freeing things you can do for yourself.
At the end of the day a task can either be completed or let go. It’s healthy to take some time every once and a while and let go of things you will never get done.
Long Term Effects Of Effective Task Management
If you take the time and energy to develop/adopt a system for managing your tasks the long term effects are huge.
Most systems sell to you that you will “get more done” using their system. This simply isn’t true. Building/adopting a system does two things for you:
- Helps you do things faster ( with less effort )
- Helps you get the right things done
Remember, you only have 24 hours every day, just like everyone else. Having a good system simply helps you focus your attention and get the most out of that time.
Short, Actionable Tips
If you don’t know what’s important, spend time figuring out what is ( Give yourself plenty of time, at least an hour or two ).
You’re not going to get it right the first time.
Commit to completing at least one of your important items per day.
That does it for today’s post. Take care!