Why Everyone Should Learn Task Management

Career

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jotham.lim

Thanks to the availability of AI tools like ChatGPT, completing tasks is easier than ever before.

Work that once took hours can now be completed in mere minutes, which is a dream for any knowledge worker—whether you’re a student, professional, or even a homemaker.

However, completing tasks does not necessarily translate to being a productive person. That’s because task management and task completion are, in fact, two separate skill sets.

The act of doing is different from planning what to do and how to do it. It is still up to us, the user, to ensure that the completed work actually fulfils the objectives we’ve set.

Hence, we believe that task management is a fundamental skill that every working professional should cultivate—serving as the foundation for other, more complex skills to come.

Here are the reasons why:

It Helps Us Prioritise

A task management system forces us to make conscious decisions on our priorities for the day.

Without a task management system, we work passively instead of making an active choice of what needs to be done. Clueless and lost—we will only have a vague idea of your objectives for the day.

Chances are, our priorities will also be short-term. We are only concerned with our next immediate task on top of our minds, living day-to-day on “attention paychecks”.

Without proper task management, every new task entering our inbox will seem urgent and important, even when that is not necessarily the case.

Worst of all, we will be pulled out of deep focus—which is more detrimental than the time it takes to complete these ad hoc tasks. The cost of dropping actual important work just to pursue these low-value ad hoc tasks is rarely worth it.

Once we are “out of the zone,” it takes significant effort to get back into it.

How often did you get disrupted by a simple phone message, only to return back to work uninterrupted immediately?

If left unchecked, we might find ourselves extremely busy and yet feel unaccomplished at the same time because the work that matters has been pushed back. It is difficult to prioritize our attention and focus when we lack visibility over it.

Conversely, properly managing our tasks will:

  • Give us an overview of our work over a longer time frame—helping us understand how our work today will impact “future us” tomorrow.
  • Set clear boundaries between work tasks, personal tasks, or any other form of commitment that we have.
  • Better visibility over the deadlines of certain projects and the effort it requires to achieve them.

Prioritisation Tips for Task Management

Eisenhower Matrix

Tasks have two types of statuses—importance and urgency. Importance is based on impact, while urgency is based on time.

It is possible for unimportant tasks that need to be handled urgently, while possible for important tasks that do not have a close deadline.

Understanding this concept can help us better prioritise our tasks.

Time Blocking

I use a combination of a to-do list and a calendar, where tasks and commitments are properly scheduled. I also include leisure and break time as well.

This meant that every hour of my day had its purpose and was intentional. There is a high chance that we can’t adhere to the schedule entirely—but the point is not to discipline ourselves according to the timeline given. It is the act of assigning the task for the allocated time and giving that hour a specific purpose that matters.

Breaking up Large Projects

Procrastination is a mix of perfectionism, high self-esteem, and the fear of failure. Hence, tackling a large task head-on will paralyze you emotionally and mentally. You can’t fail or do subpar work when the work is technically not done in the first place.

This is especially true for projects that are deceptively easy. For instance, “writing an article” involves researching, thinking, outlining, designing, editing, and rewriting.

Breaking the project up into tiny chunks makes it more actionable and thus more approachable. Ticking checkboxes for sub-tasks is evidence that you are making some sort of progress in completing the project as a whole.

It Frees up Mental Space

The only logical alternative to having a task management system is to memorize them in our heads physically. To do that properly, we will have to remember a lot.

Not only will we have to factor in the name of the task, but we also need to understand the:

  • scope of the work
  • the process involved in completing the work,
  • how the work needs to be delivered
  • the tools you need
  • So on and so forth.

These are questions that need to be answered subconsciously, whether beforehand or while we’re hands-on doing the actual work. However, keeping this information at the back of your mind while working on other tasks takes up a lot of unnecessary mental energy and stress-inducing.

Thinking about different tasks all the time will constantly haunt you like a ghastly presence. If you do not externalise your tasks, such as jotting it down on a piece of paper, you are constantly shifting information to and from your long-term memory and short-term attention.

Without a task management system, there is an element of fear:

  • Fear of forgetting to complete a task
  • Fear of not completing the task up to specification
  • Fear of the repercussions of not doing the task properly.

The mental space it occupies prevents you from truly focusing on the important work in front of you.

The goal of task management is to offload the “remembering process” to an external device. It could be a to-do app with the ability to add descriptions or even a note-taking tool. In an ideal scenario, the key idea is to cut down the number of times you need to worry about your tasks.

Because without proper task management, your attention will be fractured, like a desktop computer with multiple tasks running in the background.

Are People Who Manage Tasks Just Nerds?

I have personally met people who have a strange sense of pride in not needing to rely on these external tools. They believe that all systems are fallible—A disk might be corrupted, data will be lost, and a notepad might be replaced.

The brain is the ultimate task management tool, they say. They believe that the time and effort needed to upkeep the task management system should be spent on completing the task itself.

Unsurprisingly, these are the same people who are also often forgetful. From my work experience, they also show up to meetings late, never show up at all, or notify team members of important items at the last minute.

We shouldn’t be overconfident in our mind’s ability to remember—not in an age of rising mental disorders and illness. Our minds are not built for rote memorisation, which is what external tools are for. Rather, our mind excels at building connections, establishing relationships, crafting stories, and generating ideas.

Task management is not intended just for nerds but for everyone in general.

It Helps You Become More Fulfilled

Task management is not about doing more work but doing work intentionally.

Here is a thought experiment: How often do you get around completing tasks that you truly care about?

Perhaps there is a restaurant that you wanted to visit but have forgotten—so you defaulted towards the nearest fast-food joint. Perhaps you have a blockbuster show that you really wanted to watch but found yourself scrolling through TikTok, feeling less fulfilled instead.

Task management helps us avoid living life by default but rather by design. At the very least, we were given the choice of choosing between TikTok or the blockbuster movie. Personally, I have created an interest board in my to-do list where I included a list of places to visit, foods to eat, and movies to watch.

Proper task management is also the catalyst needed to bring out the best in people. Take, for instance, great artists, celebrities, politicians, entrepreneurs, and the great minds of the world that we look up to.

Generally, they do more than their day jobs. They have commitments beyond work, such as managing multiple NGOs, giving speeches, meeting friends, and pursuing personal habits and interests—all while being dutiful parents, spouses, and being great friends to be around.

It is nearly impossible to balance all of these commitments without a proper task management system, whether outsourced to a personal assistant or via a to-do app. Their ability to manage tasks is a key reason why they hold respectable positions.

We don’t look up to them based on what they could have done but rather on what they have already done and are currently doing. A coding wizard is only as useful as the code they write. A music savant is only as inspiring as the music they produce.

It Keeps Track of Your Personal Development

Proper task management involves keeping a record of what you have done, chronicling your accomplishments, no matter how small.

With a proper system, you can have a quick snapshot of the major projects completed across the year, regardless of whether they are personal or professional.

Looking back, you might find that you have accomplished a lot. These are projects that you can include in your resume or LinkedIn profile.

Perhaps you were busy completing them, and you never had the chance to step back, review your progress, and bask in the afterglow of your hard work. Looking at the completed projects, perhaps you can reassure yourself, “Yeah, it’s about time I take that vacation that I deserve.”

Conversely, task management might also show your pockets of time where you struggled with productivity. Perhaps you were struggling with stress and mental health at that point in time. Or perhaps the gap doesn’t indicate anything because you forgot to document your tasks.

Regardless, having visibility over these achievements can inspire further personal and professional growth because they are a form of a reward system.

Apps like Todoist have a karma system that shows how many tasks you have completed. Sunsama and Akiflow have a daily review feature that helps you reflect on completed tasks from the day before.

Just completing tasks you’re responsible for shouldn’t be treated as the status quo but as tiny achievements that deserve to be rewarded. Not many people can stay motivated and complete tasks in a consistent, deliberate manner. Task management systems help make that possible.

Final Thoughts

Many people dislike managing their tasks, believing that it is a chore or a burden. I view it as a reliable assistant, informing me of important matters so that I can focus on experiencing and enjoying my personal life or the craft of my work.

You can view task management as:

  • Sharpening an axe to help you cut down faster.
  • A quest marker in video games telling you where you need to go so that you won’t get lost in the open world.
  • A diary – an extension of who you are by documenting what you do, which makes you… you.

If you haven’t set up a task management system yet, I highly recommend giving it a go – perhaps for a week or so. You might be surprised at how something so trivial can have a profound impact on your day-to-day life.

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