Keeping on top of your workload

In a recent blog post I suggested you shouldn’t use email as a task list or a filing system, because it is very bad at both of those things. Unfortunately because the overwhelming majority of information arrives by email it frequently becomes the de facto task list and filing system (more by a lack of alternative options than anything else). Some time ago I found an alternative option, refined it over the years, and it’s what keeps me on top of my workload.

Getting Things Done®

As the roles I took on became more autonomous and prioritisation of my workload became more critical, I realised I needed a system for dealing with all the actions I accumulated during the day. I’d read blogs and articles on the topic and eventually came across the David Allen methodology Getting Things Done┬«. I’ve since operated a simplified version of this which I’m sure GTD purists won’t like, but it works for me, and fundamentally it’s very simple.

  1. Capture.
  2. Process/Organise.
  3. Review.
  4. Do.

I’ll go through these in a little more detail below, to show how I do it.

Capture

On a typical day I’ll receive around 100+ work emails (excluding emails I’m copied in to or receive as a distribution group/mailing list) which means that’s 100+ things I need to act on. This is my primary ‘collection’ method.

For everything else I use Microsoft OneNote, with a page for each day which I use as a notebook for meetings, phone calls, ad-hoc discussions in the office or just thoughts which pop into my brain at 4:30 in the morning. Between those two ‘inputs’ everything is captured, and nothing is lost.

Process/Organise

This bit is where GTD pedants would say I’m doing two phases at once, but that’s because the tool I use (Todoist) and in particular it’s email integration, means I can do both phases at once.

The original GTD workflow ‘Process’ phase was;

  • filing things which required no action,
  • doing things which could be done quickly (i.e. </= 2 minutes), and
  • adding the remainder to a task list

The Organise phase was where you then categorised that task list according to whether it was a project, an action, something you’d delegated etc.

With Todoist email integration I can read the email and then (if action is required) forward to the relevant project in Todoist, categorised by the type of activity (see list below), prioritised and with a deadline set! For example, if someone sends me a document to review which requires a response the next day to I’ll forward the email to the relevant project email address, and add in the body of the email;

@computer <date tomorrow> !!2

That translates to the @computer category (things I need a computer to do, wherever I am), deadline tomorrow, and priority 2.

Anything actionable from the notes I take each day in OneNote are also processed into tasks using the categories above, either at the end of the day or the end of the week when I review everything from the last 5 days.

The categories I use in Todoist define either where I would do the task, what type of task it is, or whether it is delegated.

  • @Agendas (things I need to discuss with a specific person)
  • @Calls (phone calls to make)
  • @Computer (things I can do at my computer wherever I am)
  • @Defer (things I have deferred for later review)
  • @Home (things I need to do at home)
  • @Office (things I need to do in the office)
  • @Waiting (things I’m waiting for other people to do)

How do these categories work? Well, for example, if I’m having a meeting with Paul I only need to look for all the tasks with @agendas category and their name (q:Paul & @agendas).

Review

Every day I review two things; my calendar (for meeting commitments) and my Todoist task list, particularly the filter which shows me tasks due today or earlier. If I’ve set priority and deadline effectively then it’ll be very easy to see what I have to do today.

Every week I’ll do two additional reviews; on a Friday I review all the tasks in the @Waiting category (which is all the tasks I’ve delegated and are waiting for someone else to complete), and on a Monday I’ll review all tasks with a due date in the next week, and tasks which are priority 1 and 2, and schedule my work for the week.

Do

This bit is obvious.

Results

When I use Todoist and OneNote, I’m effective. I know what I planned to do each day, I don’t forget commitments, I know what the relative priority of my tasks are, I can see how multiple subtasks deliver a larger piece of work like a project, and I never lose track of anything I’ve delegated.

The only struggle is sometimes being overwhelmed by inputs, being trapped in a reactive firefighting mode (due to circumstances largely outside my control). That leads to an email backlog, notes not taken, actions missed, lack of focus, lack of results and generally speaking a very crappy situation. Getting out of firefighting mode is tricky, and probably the topic of my next blog.

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