Keeping your head above water by managing your tasks and time

Published on 2020/02/28

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by Bjørnar Myrheim

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In this blog post, I’ll write a little bit about the tools and methods I used to manage the chaos that used to be my workday.

In my previous job, I was managing the IT departments in four different high schools. Every day at work I would get at least 50 emails and a lot of PM’s in the organizations’ chat platform. In addition to this, I attended many meetings which led to even more tasks that needed my attention.

For a long time after starting in that position, I had trouble keeping up with the flow of incoming emails and finding time to complete my tasks within a reasonable time. This would make me feel guilty toward the people waiting for me to finish my tasks and would increase the level of stress I was walking around with. I would always look for different note-taking and task management apps to help me stay organized, but in the end, it only led to yet another place where I had tasks needed to be done.

The inspiration to change

Then one day at a seminar a speaker talked about the use of Microsoft OneNote along with the GTD method to be able to stay organized. His name is Ståle Hansen and here’s a link to a talk that is similar to what I heard that day.

The main takeaway for me from that talk wasn’t necessarily Microsoft OneNote’s functionality, but the idea of using one, and only one app for all your notes and tasks and also the idea of taking control of your own time by reducing the distractions that surrounds us.

A nice quote from David Allen:

The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

Basically, if you try to remember everything you need to do you will most likely forget a lot of it or remember it at the wrong time.

The system

Here’s what I did to gain control over my time and task list.
I started to:

  • Disable notifications Rather than letting email notifications interrupt my concentration, I disabled them and would instead check my emails a few times per day.
    • The same can and should be done for social network services as well. Check them when you decide you have the time instead of letting them steal your focus.
  • Keep my email inbox empty For too long my inbox had been a long list of unprioritized tasks that were often forgotten. To solve this, I made an archive folder where I moved the emails that I had finished working with.
    • Emails you’ve replied to or forwarded can be deleted. A copy of the original will be in the “Sent” folder.
    • Emails that you’ve read or finished working with in less than 2 minutes can be moved to the “Archive” folder.
    • Emails you’ve dropped into the “Collection” can be deleted or moved to the “Archive” folder.
  • Sort emails When receiving emails I would assess what needed to be done and do one of three things:
    • If it would take less than 2 minutes to finish, do it now.
    • If it would take more than 2 minutes to finish, drop the email into the collection section of my note-taking app.
    • If others could or should do it, forward it now.
  • Write things down immediately
    If I suddenly remembered something, received a comment or request from a passer-by in the hallway or was in a meeting and was given an assignment, I would immediately write it down as a note in my collection section and allow myself to forget it.

As for my note-taking app I used Microsoft OneNote at the time, but I’m currently using Apple’s built-in “Notes”. The tool itself isn’t important, but it should have the ability to group notes in folders or categories. If it also offers an option to write a “quick note” that ends up in a default or specified folder, that’s great. Additionally, it should definitely have a pretty decent mobile app so you can write down your tasks anywhere and allow yourself to forget about it.

In the note-taking app I use these folders to organize my tasks:

  • Collection
    • This is where you drop everything. This can be emails, notes, pictures, links and so on.
  • Current
    • This is where you place the tasks that needs to be done.
  • Archive
    • This is where you drop your finished tasks.
  • Mobile (reading list)
    • This is where you keep the emails, articles, documents and web pages you’d like to read.
      If you’re waiting in line, riding the bus or train or have a few extra minutes to kill, then you can easily be done with some of the items in this folder.
  • Some day maybe
    • This is not an important folder to have, but it can be a place to drop off i.e. personal curiosities that would be interesting to check out at some point.

The idea is to regularly go through your Collection and sort your tasks into categories, do them right away or plan them ahead in your calendar or add a reminder.
Collection should be empty and Current should have a prioritized list of tasks to do.

As a final tip as to how to work, I would say – work in intervals.
Even if you think you’re focused enough to keep going, it can be very refreshing to take a short break every now and then. For example 5-10 minutes after every 20-30 minutes of focused work. I find this to help my perspective, especially if I’m working on complex tasks.

Conclusion

Using the above-mentioned method of sorting my tasks and keeping my inbox empty really gave me a better overview of what I needed to do, and when. It helped me keep my head above water in a hectic workday, lowered my stress levels and gave me a better sense of achievement.

I’m currently working remotely as a developer which is completely different from my previous job, but still, having a system like this to manage my tasks and stress levels is a necessity.