In my first office job, a number of people had tall, thin, black boxes with a clear plastic flip-top on their desks. The boxes were full of pro-forma sheets and dividers. (You can still buy them.) They were the visible result of a time management training course that people had been sent on.
You knew who had been on the course because they asked questions about the urgency and importance of tasks they were assigned and spent the start of each day listing tasks in order of urgency and importance. For some of these people, this way of thinking became a regime into which they invested their heart and mind; others soon slipped back into their former way of working. This was my first experience with task management.
Since that time, there have been many schemes that have sought to help people with that particular method called “flapsi hapsi” and to aid people in focusing on the right thing. Over time, paper has been displaced by IT and there are now many applications aimed at making our tasks easier to manage.
It’s not going to be possible to talk about all of the technologies available for task management; there are just too many of them (a problem which I’ll talk about later). The high-level options do, however, fall into a number of different categories:
- Email integrated – Many corporate email solutions include a task management capability. This enables you to create tasks for yourself, turn emails into tasks and assign tasks to others. Of course, because you can assign tasks to others, it also means that others can assign tasks to you. In my experience these capabilities are the least used capabilities in corporate email platforms. I spoke to someone recently who didn’t even know they existed in the Outlook client they were looking at.
- Collaboration platform – Collaboration platforms often include some element of task management. The theory is that as teams come together to work, they will want to see the tasks colleagues are working on. Jive, as an example, includes this in the projects capability.
- Project management platform – Projects consist of a set of tasks, and as a project manager, you want to see who is working on what tasks and what progress they are making. That’s where the project management platform comes in.
- Business system driven – Depending on the business, many business systems drive the daily tasks of individuals. In call-centres and manufacturing, you want the business systems to drive the tasks people are working on. Atlassian JIRA is an excellent example of how this can happen for development environments.
- Dedicated applications – There are thousands of dedicated task management applications in a market that has exploded since the creation of app stores and smartphones. Wunderlist, Todoist and Toodledo are a few of the popular ones. Each of these are Software-as-a-Service provided with the data stored in the cloud and primarily accessed by mobile apps and browser capability.
- Pseudo task management applications – If you can create a list, you can create a set of tasks — and that is what many people do in many businesses. Meeting minutes written as documents contain tasks; spreadsheets contain tasks; and note-taking applications contain tasks. There’s also paper and post-it notes.
The challenge that most end users suffer is that they are enrolled in more than one of these options as part of their normal work. Our view of the tasks assigned to us is fragmented, with very few of us having a single dashboard view despite the many attempts to give us just that. Some try to overcome this problem by consolidating all of the tasks into a single application from where they manage their time. The problem with this approach is that it requires re-posting of tasks into the chosen repository; it also necessitates that progress on tasks is posted-back into the original system and the consolidated list. It’s bad news when you have to spend more time managing the tasks than doing the tasks.
If you were hoping that I would have an answer to this problem then I’m sorry, I don’t. There are some things you can do to simplify the challenge by using applications that support the creation of tasks via email or applications that allow the use of task automators like IFTTT and Zapier. You can then, as an example, automatically create a task in your chosen application every time you receive an email from a certain person or system. This only eases the problem in one direction, but at least that’s part of the problem automated. This approach still requires you to prioritize the tasks yourself.
The vast array of technology options for task management is partially symptomatic of there being no magic-bullet that answers everyone’s needs or everyone’s way of working. I have colleagues who love the list of tasks they have in various spreadsheets. Some people like to split personal tasks and works tasks; other people prefer an integrated list. Some people’s activities are such that the business system is enough to drive nearly all of their tasks, and hence they don’t need another way of managing their work tasks. Some people like to classify tasks in 10 different dimensions so that they know they are working on the right ones. Other people manage their tasks by post-it notes on their monitor. I personally switch between all sorts of different ways of managing tasks, but mostly I use Wunderlist and a daily list on paper.
Off now to tick off one task on my list.
Graham Chastney is a Technologist in CSC’s Global Infrastructure Services. He has worked in the arena of workplace technology for over 25 years, starting as a sysprog supporting IBM DISOSS and DEC All-in-1. Latterly Graham has been working with CSC’s customers to help them understand how they exploit the changing world of workplace technology. Graham lives with his family in the United Kingdom.