I wanted to share with you some techniques I have used for task management at work. Ever since I became an engineering manager, my (work)life has been full of interruptions, putting down fires and juggling with various tasks. It’s probably a common feeling among managers that you’re super busy all the time while still having the feeling you’re not getting anything done.
This is what I felt for a long time. Nowadays my day consists of various meetings, ad-hoc chats with several people, code reviews and various low-priority tasks. Of course, this is usual (and important!) work of any manager but still it’s surprisingly hard to focus on anything really important as you’re constantly interrupted!
I’ll describe next some good practices for task management and how I’m organizing my day. I’m using Todoist for task management so this article also shows how to set up Todoist accordingly.
The turning point for me was to start defining MITs. The Most important task (MIT) is a critical task that will produce the most significant results. The tasks often follow the 80/20 rule where 20% of them are responsible for 80% of the results. MITs help you to focus your attention to that 20%.
The main idea behind MITs is selecting a couple of MITs each morning and focusing on getting them done as soon as possible. You have a limited amount of time & energy each day and it’s also hard to predict what kind of surprises the day will bring. Finishing the MITs as soon as possible each day will get you to finish them at least if nothing else.
MITs helps to address a few of the issues mentioned earlier:
- You have a clear definition of success for the day with the MITs. If you finish them, it was a productive day
- Permits you to say no to interruptions before the MITs are done for the day
Task management basics
One of the important things in task management is to write down all the tasks immediately. If you don’t do this, you’re wasting your energy on keeping track of them in your head.
I strongly recommend having your to-do list open at all times so it’s quick to jot down the tasks when they appear. I’m personally using Todoist but any to-do list application should be sufficient.
I usually write down even the smallest tasks to avoid having to remember them, especially before the MITs have been done. After I have finished the most important tasks for the day, I tend to do tasks that take less than 3–5 minutes immediately. You have to find a good balance yourself but it’s good to be careful not to end up doing only those quick tasks.
I don’t personally give any effort estimates for the tasks but just try to decompose them into small tasks. You should after all do a couple of MITs each day so make sure your tasks are small enough to be finished in a day.
One of the best features of Todoist is the recurring tasks. I have plenty of things I need to do periodically. Whether it’s checking the presence of any urgent tickets every morning, sending the weekly update to other teams or sending the monthly/quarterly expenditure reports to management. The recurring tasks in Todoist will automatically appear to the Today view along with the tasks I have selected for the day.
Time for learning
I also use the recurring tasks to learn new things. I have a “Things to learn” list outside of Todoist which contains things that I have encountered and want to learn more about. To make sure I will reserve time for learning, I have created a recurring task which is scheduled for every other day. This is not a high priority task and might be skipped if the MITs take all of my time. But since it has a due date, Todoist will keep showing it in the Today view as long as it’s marked as complete.
Planning your day
I always start my day by selecting the MITs for the day. I quickly glance through the emails first to know if there are any urgent matters but otherwise try to make my mornings email-free.
The Planning view
Todoist supports different filter views so I have set up a filter that shows the following tasks:
- Tasks due today
- Overdue tasks from previous days
- Tasks due in the next four days (excluding the recurring tasks)
- Unscheduled tasks
The tasks are grouped by priority, which provides an easy way to see the MITs and select them for the day. I use this view to select 1–2 MITs each morning and depending on how large they are, I select a few less important tasks as well. Selecting is done by simply setting the due date to the current day so the tasks you plan to do will be shown in the Today view.
Here’s the filter query in Todoist:
(today | overdue | (4 days & !recurring) | no date)
The upcoming recurring tasks are excluded because the recurring tasks cannot usually be done in advance. Non-recurring tasks that are due soon are shown because I like to be reminded of them a few days before the due date.
The daily plan
The Today view in Todoist will then provide you a clutter-free view of the tasks you should complete each day.
This helps to focus on the MITs since the unscheduled tasks are out of sight. The tasks are also grouped by priority so you can start working from the most important ones.
I always reserve 1–2 hours in my calendar every morning to make sure I have time to focus on the MITs. This is crucial because otherwise others can book meetings and you end up doing low priority stuff all day.
This process has helped me to be more organized and productive. The main takeaway from this article is to write down all of your tasks immediately and come up with a process for managing and prioritizing them.
You can take the process from this article and adapt it into your own workflow and the tools you’re using. But Todoist (referral link) is something I recommend as a to-do list!