How to Simplify Your Ever-Growing Network of Tasks
It’s not news that the professional landscape is undergoing change. Over the last year-and-a-half, we’ve seen work move from the office to the home, and we’ve also seen a rebound from that trend that some might call sharp. Despite the hardships of 2020, many aren’t ready to return to the old status quo, with some 40% of workers now stating they would rather quit their jobs than return to a strictly in-person workplace. It’s clear the modern professional craves the autonomy and agency our digital age demonstrably offers them.
That’s true regardless of your stance on remote work. After all, office workers have seen their jobs evolve rapidly over the last few generations — not just during the COVID-19 pandemic — with computers providing new angles of attack, raw numerical power, and revolutionary multitasking ability. It’s that last one, however, that might be the most challenging to fully implement; the ability to manage tasks with computers has played no small part in shifting the functional nature of our jobs from a nuclear one to a nebulous one, but that doesn’t mean things are necessarily easier. While we once expected computers would single-handedly increase our ability to juggle different tasks, it’s been established this isn’t really true.
We shouldn’t overestimate task management capacity just because we can outsource some thinking to machines. However, by employing some basic good practices and seeding helpful habits, you can get a grip on your network of tasks and enjoy increased productivity as a result.
1. Clearly Define Roles – Including Your Own
If you’ve been working under the belief that managers are taking advantage of the increased self-management capacity of their employees, think again. And if you’re currently occupying a managerial position, you know just as well as your staff that it can be troublesome to stay on top of a workload.
It might sound elementary, but you’ll be surprised how often a workplace slides into disarray because of unfulfilled assumptions concerning who should do what, and how it should be done. The first step in establishing a productive atmosphere is setting guidelines and solidifying roles. Delegate tasks thoroughly, and don’t be afraid or unwilling to explain why a task should be completed a certain way. On the flipside, always try to clarify the substance of tasks assigned to you. In the workplace, nothing should be taken for granted; murkiness reduces confidence, which reduces productivity. Proper compartmentalization and communication make any workload easier to tame.
2. One Thing at a Time
When it comes to the word “multitasking,” there are two types of people: those who take the word at face value, and those who use it with the understanding that, technically, it’s impossible. Human beings can’t really multitask like a computer can, and that’s been known for some time. Isn’t it tempting, though, to try? Especially with the help of our laptops and smartphones? Resist the urge. Tackle one task at a time.
Even in the context of one task, job, or assignment, there are multiple parts. Apply the same rule: break down a given task into its parts, and complete them in whichever sequence strikes a good enough balance between comfort and result. “Multitasking” doesn’t benefit us by having us do ten things at once – it benefits us by giving us the freedom to choose what we do and when.
3. Organize Your Information Consciously
Task management used to mean paperwork. Lots of paperwork. Rooms full of alphabetized and dated file cabinets taking up valuable real estate have now been replaced by digital records. Just like those old file cabinets (and they’re still around, by the way), our digital records are only as good as we make them. Think about your own computer documents. Are they neatly arranged? If you suddenly lost the ability to search your drive for the file you’re looking for, would you still be able to find it in a reasonable amount of time? How well does that search function work, by the way?
Don’t be lazy with your documents. Take a conscious look at the crevices of your hard drive you use the most, and take stock of your folders and subfolders. It’s no secret that proper organization makes task management easier, but with no one peering over your shoulder, how likely is it you’ve stuck to a responsible and functional filing system? It’s never too late to change. Take some time and reorganize your important files, making sure all project-relevant information is in the same place and in appropriately named folders. Say goodbye to that tempting desktop; just like a real desktop, documents scattered all over the place won’t make things simpler, and you’ll be surprised how much better your search bar works when it doesn’t have to open every file cabinet in the room to find something.
4. Accept the Possibility of Failure
This may sound more like lifestyle advice, but it applies to the workplace as well: accept the risks. You may fail to meet a deadline. You may get stuck on one sub-task. You may encounter totally unforeseen problems. By accepting the possibility of difficulty and even failure, you’re already better prepared for unexpected scenarios and less likely to endanger your remaining workload to salvage one dud of a task.
5. Employ Thought-Management Tools
As we’ve come to understand the unexpectedly precarious position we’re in as computer-focused workers in a world distractingly rich in information, some of us are starting to embrace a new wave of thought management. As it turns out, the very ways we manage our internal ideas may be leading us into unproductive dead ends. Think of the classic writer’s block, and realize that it basically applies to any kind of work. This is a universal problem, and we now have plenty of tools available to overcome it.
Note-taking tools like OneNote and Evernote, and task management tools like Asana are familiar to many. Further, explore your idea productivity with brainstorming and mindmapping tools. Braincat is one such product, designed to organize thoughts so that they not only become easier to comprehend and categorize, but inspire new approaches and creative solutions. Mind-mapping apps like Braincat can make restructuring your workload into a usable, interconnected network a walk in the park.
6. Complete Tasks in Order of Importance
It may not be a revolutionary thought, but it’s worth mentioning that you should tackle the biggest, most problematic, beefiest tasks first, and save the small fry for last. While you might at first think it best to get small tasks out of the way so you can later concentrate on the main course, or cherry pick the easiest ones and do them in order of simplicity – maybe you think of it as a “warm up” of sorts – it’s time to recognize this for what it is: procrastination.
When we procrastinate, we avoid the job at hand by engaging in other activities, often ones completely unrelated to our work, implicitly justifying this behavior as better for our mental health and more relaxing than work. Of course, it’s the opposite. Putting off large tasks only makes them larger, more time consuming, and more irritating. It increases stress and reduces the quality of our work. So when you’re figuring out the best time table for your work, always make it your goal to work from the top down in terms of difficulty.