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The Challenges of Choosing a Task Management System

by Kerry Dawson

Productivity! The word is batted around like a ping pong ball at the World Championship ping pong games. The word unfortunately has become cliche. Yet, when you have a demanding job or life, the idea of productivity is something that is very tangible. Being able to be more productive without expending inordinate amounts of energy striving for this is something that we can all aspire to and yet, not be considered insane.

To become more productive through studies, the ways in which we work or the manner in which we accomplish things can be the difference between having a successful business, relationship, family etc or abject failure. To be able to have a happy and successful life is not asking for the stars. The outcomes of productivity may be the key ingredient towards your overall satisfaction with this life. This doesn’t imply workaholism for the conquest of riches beyond our imagination at the expense of not being able to enjoy the outcome. In this case, productivity might imply working less and enjoying the outcome of a successful life rather than working more thinking you will obtain exponential happiness. That’s greed and I doubt it does anyone any good except to put themselves in their graves earlier.

In this article, I won’t be addressing the systems themselves but rather some of the guiding principles that might assist in choosing the system that would meet your needs. It is very much about looking at the aspects of task management that is considered useful and beneficial. Once that is done, it should be easier to weed out through the variety of systems the ones that you feel might help in accomplishing your goals.

I’ve done a few articles on the various systems but feel this part of the discussion was missing. Thus, rather than trying to shove the two components into one article, it is better to have a high level view of task management benefits and processes and then look at the variety of solutions available. A second article will be needed to do the latter but not to look at every task management system, but rather to look at the various outstanding systems in their category.

The Manner in Which we Do Things

When we think of productivity we might associate it with something like an assembly line that is rolling a long at a certain speed and has a certain output. With certain tweaks or reassessment of the processes we might be able to increase the output year over year by 2% thus increasing net income (that is, as long as people still want the product this is not an impossible outcome). In addition, as we will see, there are a variety of reasons that productivity increases can have beneficial results which has nothing to do with work or industry but only ourselves.

For the Person not on a Production Line

People who work as what is referred to as white collar employees can benefit from increasing their productivity. The benefit might be more intangible as it relates to enhanced time for the self and increased leisure time.

Work or even leisure that is out of control can create an ungainly sense of helplessness. Techniques though are available to assist even the student, the white collar worker, the mom and dad etc to improve how they’re approaching that which they have to do. Anything that can assist this process will allow for a better outcome and likely one in which you feel some sense of control.

The Task Manager and Task Management Systems

It’s well understood that a task management system steadily employed will do exactly this. It can bring not only a sense of order to chaos but a sense of order in real terms. The more orderly the process, the more knowledgeable you are of the facts or where to get them, the more control you bring to bear on a problem.

There are numerous task management systems that rely on our computers etc to operate properly. They can be evaluated for their effectiveness on a variety of parameters. The thing that is important here is not to give up as the one you’re trying just might not be the right for you. This begs the question though what is the right one and how do you find it before you realize you’re on the proverbial sinking ship.

Flexibility built on a Model

This almost sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t. The model that is currently in vogue and which I particularly like is the one referred to as GTD or Getting Things Done. In some ways, although it sounds like a highly structured system it isn’t. The way you use any GTD tool can be adapted for your needs and aspects of the tool that are useful you might not immediately aware of.

Someone who has mastered GTD as a methodology has a great starting point. Now they just have to find the tool that they can apply that fits their style. This model can be applied to pretty well anything we have to get done.

It’s not essential to use a model but there is little point in bringing an unguided missile to an unguided tool with the hope that the tool will fix the problem of things which are out of control.

For arguments sake, let’s assume that you’ve mastered the method called GTD and now you’re ready for a tool that will help you feel things are more in control. There is literally a plethora of task management tools all promising to make you more productive and in control. That is, they will assist you in the process of efficiently “getting stuff done”. How do you know when a Task Manager feels right or should you just go with what appears to be the best.

Choosing your Task Manager is Not Easy

Just as a word of warning, I’ve been using these kind of tools for a long time and I don’t find it easy to determine which is the best one for me. From the get go, you have to define what your system has to come with and what it can do. To have a trial period is more than worthwhile and possibly a return policy. Many manufacturers have this.

You might want to start out by getting knowledgeable. I don’t necessarily mean overkill is the way to go here but having a certain basic understanding of what you can expect is so important. There are very many systems that are too lightweight for the kind of task management that you could possibly have in mind and these will actually reduce your productivity as opposed to increasing it.

If you’ve had very little exposure to these type of systems, you will definitely want to take it out for a bit of a run. Assuming you know the GTD methodology relatively well, you’re a step ahead of the game as you can define from the get go what the system absolutely has to have.

Secondly, reading some articles on Task Management and certain Task Managers that catch your eye is very beneficial. Youtube is another great source to actually visually experience the various systems. I find I feel more comfortable with something the more I know about the area and with recommendations. This might not sound fair but it’s sort of let the other person encounter the pain of the use of a system or something very important that is missing.

The Systems

This article is not intended to address every system but what must be thought of for you to find the system that works for you. You will want to have a sense of the types of system choices and where they fit the best and what systems actually do the work in the most promising fashion.

As I mentioned, for my purposes the GTD model represents the best overall approach for me however, to just jot down a task or todo or quick reminder has its place.

This article is also not one that is intended to explain GTD but I will address some of David Allen’s key concepts where it comes to GTD. However, reading the book before your major investment of money and time is a very good idea. So I would recommend at least his book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” before proceeding with the system choice as it will be a lot easier.

Some very important GTD Concepts

As you’ll note in David Allen’s title itself, getting productive also implies reducing stress and that it does. The following represent some of the key concepts in a GTD approach:

  1. The Brain Dump – the brain isn’t great at remembering a lot of things so it needs to be externalized in your trusted system. The brain can likely only handle remembering clearly 7 or 8 things. So, it is important that everything that is on your mind be externalized. Write it all down.
  2. If you can do it in under two minutes and its convenient, do it now.
  3. One has goals and using GTD you develop projects, tasks and contexts to do what you have to do.
  4. One task is simply a One Step Project
  5. Two or more tasks are a real project
  6. All tasks have contexts which are the places where they will happen and things that are needed to make it happen.
  7. Lists, lists, lists and more lists under which the tasks will go
  8. A start or defer date in which you feel is a required date to Get Things Done.
  9. And finally a due date in which both the tasks individually and the project are due (not necessarily set in stone).

With Task Management Benefits and Processes Elucidated

Now that guiding principles, processes and benefits have been elucidated, in the next article on Task Management and choosing a Task Manager I’ll look at a variety of Task Managers that are considered good and how they work. This will help match the function of a program to your requirements for task management.

One thing that makes choosing a Task Manager so difficult is the variability between programs. You have a set of needs that might be well accomplished with such and such a program and miserably addressed by another program. Someone else might find just the opposite and that program that just doesn’t work for you works incredibly well for them.

Finally, we are all looking for the perfect program. For so and so they may think it’s “The Hit List” while another finds OmniFocus to be their perfect program. However, generally all will fall up short and as an example, in the case of OmniFocus you may feel if only it had tags and in the case the Hit List someone else may feel that if only it had a defer time (has a defer date). These nuisances, some major and some minor prevent the perfect program from ever arriving at the door step.

The best that can be hoped for, as you assess your needs (e.g. only need to be reminded of an activity whereas another feels that there are so many activities involved in accomplishing one thing they have to view it as a project with steps to be worked through). Neither can really work for everyone.

As a further example, there are those that work in teams on a task or set of tasks and have to be able to cross communicate. Referred to as cross platform, many an employee needs to have a cross platform system. That immediately rules out the Mac only solutions. For others, the system has to be highly structured with due dates and priorities. Again, not every system will meet this need.

The goal then will be to look at the various systems in a series of levels or categories to determine that which comes the closest to meeting the needs. If there is this obsessional goal for the perfect system, you’ll be at the process of choosing a system for so long, nothing will get done. Further, you’ll always be unhappy thinking you’re just missing that perfect system.

Focus on the Tasks and the Doing

The idea of the brain dump isn’t a bad idea as long as you’re not perpetually dumping and never get anything done. Some systems tend to promote the creation of far too many todo’s allowing no time to do anything.

Others simply get carried away with the same result as above. If there are too many todo’s it’s easy to get overwhelmed and not have a good idea where to start or to constantly fiddle around with the organization of your tasks.

It’s ultimately important that you are fairly consistent in your use of your system but that the system itself doesn’t become the b all and end all of the process. Thus, reason or reasonable tasks need to outline what needs to be done without getting carried away in a sea of tasks. You will have used so much time in the creation and management of your tasks, there will be no time to do anything.

The goal of your tool simply must be to allow you to get things done. It should reduce stress and ensure accomplishment of the task at hand. Finding the right tool that works as well as possible for your needs and then managing the tool itself so that you don’t get carried away in a sea of todo’s will help to ensure success in your endeavour. Success is not a guarantee but likelier with the proper application of the assisting tool. Even if it’s not quite right, it will be right enough to help you get things organized and off the ground. If you’re on the right track, success will follow.

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