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We’re always told to break down our projects into next actions, which are the very next thing that must be done to move a project forward. The next actions are actionable (start with a verb). They take the guesswork out of what needs to be done.
The challenge I’ve always had has always been scheduling the appropriate time to work on these next actions. For the longest time, I would schedule my next steps in my task management app and set a date for when I need to work on it.
The problem with scheduling every task is that you constantly must go in and out of your project to see what the next action is and then set a start or due date for that task.
In the end, my task app was overwhelming, full of overdue tasks.
Plan your projects
To make this work, you’ll need a list of your projects where you keep information about the project and all the known tasks for that project. Review the project as often as necessary; the Weekly Review is an excellent time for this, or even daily if the project is very active and changing.
Each project should have at 1 next action and all the other known tasks that need to be completed. The reason to do this is when you are in “Execution” mode, you want to see what’s next and start working on it. You hope to avoid doing project planning every time you open your project. The fewer decisions you must make, the more likely you will complete the task.
Your project list does not need to be anything fancy. It could be as simple as a list of subtasks in your task management app. I have a page in my notes app for each personal project that has some information about the project, some links, and then a list of tasks. My “work” projects are in the Azure DevOps Kanban board, where they are shared with my team.
Schedule your projects
If you're only using a task management app, you can set a date on your project rather than the individual tasks. They will show up in your Today list as any other task would; however, the actual tasks would be a list of subtasks or a link to your project in your other system.
Time Blocking works great for scheduling projects.
Block off time to work on a specific project. It serves the purpose of blocking your calendar, and gives you awareness to what you’ll be working on.
When planning your week, look at your project list and for each project you need to move forward this week, block an appropriate amount of time on your calendar. Not only does this give you a more realistic idea of how much time you can spend through the week, but it also blocks the time, so others can’t schedule it for you.
There are exceptions to everything. Not every task belongs in a project, and some tasks have to be done on specific days or times.
Go ahead and add dates and reminders to these tasks, so they show up at the appropriate time.
By only setting dates on necessary tasks, your task list is now much less overwhelming. You’ll see a list of tasks you have to do today and a list of projects you plan to work on.
A real-world example
While my system is far from perfect and is always being tweaked (I can’t help myself), I’d like to share my approach and how it has helped me. You can use your preferred tools for this.
Its they process that matters, not the apps.
For context, I’m a Software Architect at a consulting company, and I work with a team of developers and project managers on many active projects.
The tools I use
- My Calendar (Google calendar for personal and Outlook for work).
- iOS Reminders App where I store reminders and personal projects.
- Azure DevOps Kanban Board (It's similar to Trello), where I keep project tasks. They are shared with my team. In my role, I need a clear picture of everyone else’s task for a project as well.
- Paper index cards (yes, it's analog).
- On Sundays, I’ll review my projects, calendar, Kanban Board, and reminders to see what needs to be done this next week.
- I’ll make sure my Kanban board is up-to-date and prioritize my work.
- Now that I have an idea of which projects must be worked on and how much time I require, I’ll block time on my calendar for each active project. I can see how much time I’ll have to work on projects. If It's not enough, I can let my project manager know, and we can reprioritize some things.
- If there are any time specific tasks that need to be done, I add it to them, Reminders app.
- Each day (I try to do this the night before), I’ll look at my calendar and reminders for the day and then write down on my index card the 3 most important things for me to do today. Since my day fluctuates constantly, I can still focus on those 3 things.
- I’ll receive notifications from my calendar and Reminders app when it's time to switch to some other project, task, or meeting.
- As things come up during the day, I’ll jot it down on my index card. I’ll even capture simple meeting notes there as well. I also jot down any ideas I have about something completely unrelated to what I’m working on.
- At the end of each workday, I’ll review my Index card and transfer anything of importance into its appropriate home. For example, if I have a new project task, I’ll make sure to add it to Azure DevOps. If I need to schedule a call, I’ll go ahead and schedule it, or I’ll make a reminder to schedule it tomorrow.
- Writing things on an index card not only lets me look away from my screen but helps prevent me from jumping in and out of my digital apps.
I hope this encourages you to think about better ways to manage your tasks and projects. I was frustrated over the years seeing overdue items in my task list. Scheduling time to work on projects has significantly reduced the clutter and reduced the number of decisions I need to make throughout the day.
Let me know how you handle project tasks!
Here are a few related tools that I hope you find helpful.
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