Task management is one of the most important skills that an engineer needs to be good at. Bad task management can cause you to work slower and get less done. Unfortunately, even though task management is so important, it is seldom discussed at school or work. Even if you are on a team that does a good job of managing tasks on a project, this does not necessarily mean you are good at managing your own personal tasks or juggling multiple projects at the same time. In this post I am going to outline my own personal task management system by describing the aspects of a task management system that I considered most important.
Workflowy, the tool I use for my task management system, has features like tags and zooming in on a section that make it ideal for task management. Workflowy at its core is a simple bulleted list. However, with tags this list becomes a categorized, easy to search, tool. Anything that starts with a “#” or a “@” is a tag. When you click on a tag it automatically searches for that tag everywhere else in your list and if you properly combine the right tags it is easy to filter out unwanted noise in your list. Another useful feature is the ability to zoom in on one section of your list. When you click on a bullet you are zoomed into that part of the list and only see everything that is contained under that bullet. Check out this 24 second video to see Workflowy in action.
One thing that I am always worried about when managing my tasks is that some tasks may get buried and forgotten in a giant to-do list or that I will forget things that I don’t write down. In order to never forget anything, I always carry a small journal around with me where I can write down everything that comes to my mind the moment I think of it. I also have a specific list in Workflowy called Inbox where I can just add thoughts using my phone or computer. Each day I will spend some time in the evening processing all of the things I wrote down in my journal or inbox during the day. By capturing all of my ideas and using the tags described in the next few sections, I am able to trust my system to never forget a task.
To make it easy to find tasks I created a simple structure for my lists and added special context tags that allow me to filter out unwanted tasks. At the top level of my Workflowy list I have 4 main categories. The first is the inbox which I discussed in the section above. The other 3 are Personal, School, and Work. These lists separate my tasks out into the three primary areas of my life which allows me to focus on different tasks depending on where I am. To make it easy to filter my tasks with specific criteria I created a number of tags to describe the context of a given task. These tags include @home, @internet, @town, @John, and others. As an example, if I am about to go into town to do errands I can use the @town tag to see every errand that I need to run. If I am about to meet my friend John to get some work done I can use the @John tag to list all of the tasks related to John.
The next feature I needed was to be able to plan when I would get tasks done and take note of tasks that were important or urgent. To do this I created the following tags: #thisweek, #nextweek, #thismonth, #nextmonth, #someday, #important, #urgent. Every day when I am processing new tasks I assign the tasks one of these tags. Tasks that I do not want to commit to a deadline for are labeled with #someday. To handle tasks with due dates, I use date tags of the form #d-yyyy-mm-dd. All these tags together make it easy for me to see what tasks I have coming up, when tasks need to be completed by, and still keep track of any tasks that I want to do but don’t have time for now.
I am always looking to improve myself so I have weekly and monthly reviews on how well my task management system is working. I also use these reviews as a time to make sure all of the tags for my tasks are up to date. For instance, I change #nextweek tags to #thisweek tags, and I see if there are any tasks that can be done in the next week or two. It is important to keep track of what obstacles are keeping you from getting things finished in any given week.
I use workflowy to keep track of all of the tasks I need to finish. After creating my system I have had a much better success rate at completing tasks on time, not getting behind on things like homework or chores, and I feel like I have more free time because I am less distracted when I am doing my actual work. I highly recommend that engineers take time to review bottlenecks in getting their work done efficiently and how they can improve in their task management.