“I need to get a system in place in the next couple of weeks to make sure nothing is missed.” This was a side comment in an email I received last week. It came from a woman who is coordinating a conference, managing an exhibition, and teaching regularly, among all of the other things in her life.
The fear of missing something. Dropping the ball. We worry that something will fall apart, or we will let someone down, seem incompetent, screw up. That we will be embarrassed. Or maybe even fired.
I know this feeling so well I’ve written poems about it, laughed about it with colleagues, and fretted with friends. That’s what we do, right? And then we get to it.
There are three parts to the statement in the email I received:
- The desired result
- A deadline
- A system
The desired result - to get everything done without missing anything - is clear. This is really about peace of mind. Managing what can become overwhelm or feel chaotic, and reducing the stress that comes along with that. Feeling in control and on top of everything.
Having a deadline, not just for the tasks, but to have the task management system in place, ensures the system is actually useful. The system needs to be in place, ideally before all of those tasks start to need attention, of course.
The main question really is HOW do we make sure that we remember all the details, and complete all of the tasks, that will result in doing a great job.
GET THEM OUT OF YOUR HEAD
The first step is to recognize that you cannot remember everything. Even those things that seem so important, or so obvious, that you are sure you’d never forget to do them, can still get missed when you are focused on something else.
So don’t try to keep everything in your head.
GET THEM INTO SOMETHING THAT WORKS HOW YOU WORK
Each person’s system needs to be based on how you think and how you work. Not what works for other people. There are many options, and personal fit is important. It must be a system that you will actually do. You system should save you time, reduce stress, and help you to keep on track and on deadline.
Notebooks are great for capturing tasks anywhere, any time, because they can be with you at all times. Most notebooks are also not as much of a barrier between people in meetings as a laptop can be, or perceived as rude like typing on a smartphone. But notebooks can get disorganized if tasks are not organized in a useful way as they are written down.
Use a notebook in a way that works for you. I like having 2-4 pages dedicated to each project or organization I am working with. Then each task is noted in the appropriate project pages, immediately as they arise - no particular order, just captured as I think of them or am asked to do something. Every little and large thing is noted clearly. This is just to ensure that nothing gets missed or forgotten. They then get scheduled.
The kanban board project management system is one option. Great for visual people with space on a wall. I have written about using a kanban approach for tasks and project management here.
Digital To Do List Task Management Systems
Do you do everything on your phone, tablet, or laptop? If so, you have many options for your digital to-lists.
TeuxDeux I wrote about TeuxDeux here. It is a super easy, visual, and intuitive digital to do list system. One of the things I like most about it is that you can double click on a task to edit it, click on a task and see it cross out, or simply drag it to move it to another day’s to do list.
Some other digital to do list options include:
There are also many team-based collaboration project management software options, like Monday.com, Asana, Smartsheet, Wrike, and more. Perhaps we will cover those in a future post. Today we are focused on you as an individual.
I still find Excel spreadsheets to be one of the easiest and most versatile tools for organizing tasks. They are easy to set up in a way that is personalized to how you think and what you need to track. It is also easy to set up multiple spreadsheets in a workbook, if you want tasks for various projects or initiatives all in one place but not mixed together.
Spreadsheets can be useful to plan the tasks and deadlines of design production, campaign rollout plans, critical path workback schedules for projects, as well as content schedules for email and social media plans.
My spreadsheets are usually a variation of this: First column is the task or item to be created. Then details like specs or who needs to be involved. Then the deadline to start. Next is the deadline for when I have the complete first iteration of the item. Then the final delivery deadline. Then the date something goes public, or live, or is distributed. There is at least one cell for specific content focus. And often I have additional cells for more details specific to the project or item.
I sort my task spreadsheets by the start date deadline for each item.
GET THEM INTO YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE
Identifying, capturing, and noting each task is essential - but it’s not enough. You then need to actually do them, of course. Ideally in order of importance and urgency.
Simply putting each and every task into your digital calendar as you think of them is huge. This can be one of the most efficient ways to ensure each task gets done. But it can also get unwieldy for small tasks that we tend to approach in batches.
If you find it easiest to use one of the tools noted above, whether a notebook (great for capturing tasks on the fly) or spreadsheet (great for planning deadlines, timing, or content for each task), it is important to ensure that tasks are then ALSO noted in your calendar.
I prefer digital calendars to printed journal planners for this specific approach, because of the flexibility: you can easily move a task to a different date or time as needed. This is the ultimate simple solution to "making time" for each task and to ensure that nothing is missed because we forgot to do it.
THINK AHEAD TO COMMUNICATION WITH OTHERS
Who needs info or resources from you? Who do you need things from, and when? This could be your boss, your staff, your colleagues, your clients, partners, or participants.
To do our own tasks, most of us rely on other people to provide something that we need. For that to happen smoothly and on time, those people have to know what we need and when. It also helps for them to understand why we need it and why it’s important to receive it by the deadline identified.
Who do you need information, services, or approvals from? Who do you rely on to get things done? Do those people have the info and resources they need from you? Do they know what is coming to them and when, and what they must deliver and when? Your preemptive planning communication with others, and then your follow-through communication, can be a big factor in ensuring no task or deadline is missed.
So, as you are planning your to-dos, be sure to factor in communication with others as a task.
“Think time” is often the last thing we feel like we have time for. I find it helpful to do a weekly review of to-dos and then zoom out, thinking “ok, what might be missing?”
If you can, have a short 10-15 minute brainstorm with a colleague, asking “is everything I/we need to do all here?” This can be especially productive and it can also be fun. There is also the potential to enhance a relationship with someone, when you choose an appropriate brainstorm partner.
A fun technique is to do a brainstorm with colleagues asking what would make the project an epic fail. Write down all the things that go wrong, get missed, don’t happen, and do happen, that would ensure your project is a total disaster. Be sure to keep going for another few minutes after you think you’re done. Then turn each one of those things upside down: what goes right, gets done, happens, and doesn’t happen to ensure the project is a massive success. This is not only fun but the upside-down approach reveals things that we don’t think of when we are approaching it straight on.
There are almost always more tasks to do than can possibly get done in a day. That’s ok, if everything is noted, planned for, and you are clear about your top priorities each day. You can then focus on one thing at a time. And it will all get done.