One of the questions I get asked a lot is, “How can I stay on top of all my tasks?” When you are managing multiple projects, there are a lot of things to do… and it’s important not to lose sight of where you are with your activities.
In my experience, a paper To Do list soon starts to get unwieldy with too many projects. I used to have a page per project and then by the time my Do To list got to four or five pages, I’d realise I’d never make a start on anything! I couldn’t even read the list in its entirety, let alone prioritize and start work on the actions.
If you feel the same, don’t worry! Task overload is real! In this article, I’ll explain three common types of tools for managing project tasks and hopefully you’ll get a sense of what will work best for you and your projects.
Personally, I am a big fan of lists. I use a list in a spreadsheet for tracking tasks on a project. I have multiple spreadsheets: one for each task.
I also have a personal To Do list for tasks that don’t really fit within the scope of a project, such as staff performance appraisals, following up with a colleague about training and that kind of thing.
Most project management software tools give you the option to create a list of some sort. A digital list will allow you to filter tasks and tick them off as complete when they are done. You can order tasks by due date to help with prioritization. You can do a similar thing with spreadsheets, if that is how you prefer to work.
Lists can be paper or electronic, depending on the number of items you have on the go at any time.
2. Visual task tracking
An alternative to a ‘classic’ To Do list is to track project tasks in a more visual way. For example, using Kanban-style approaches and task boards. A Kanban board has several columns. Tasks fit on sticky notes (electronic or real – if you are creating a physical board) within a column. Typical columns would be ‘Not started’, ‘In progress’, ‘Verification’ and ‘Complete’. Tasks move horizontally along the board.
The good thing about this approach is that it’s easy to see exactly what is currently in progress. You can limit the number of tasks in that column to avoid overload and make sure that you have a chance of getting something finished before picking up the next activity!
Mindmapping is another way to manage tasks, especially if you are feeling currently overwhelmed at the amount of work you have to do. Start by brainstorming all the different activities on your To Do list and noting them down. Then use mindmapping techniques to group tasks visually. Mindmapping software allows you to color-code tasks to help with prioritization.
Grouping tasks enables you to be more productive when you get a time slot to do some work. By working on similar, related tasks, you avoid multi-tasking and task switching so you can be more efficient.
Timesheets might not feel like a traditional way to manage your work, but they are designed to help with task management because all tasks are on there.
If your project management tool is integrated with your timesheet app, you’ll find each task from your schedule on your timesheet, ready for you to allocate your hours.
Timesheets can help with task prioritization because you can see the tasks that link to major milestones and upcoming project deadlines. These are the tasks you should be working on first. An advantage of using integrated timesheets is that as you mark a task as complete on your schedule, the task drops off the timesheet, making it really obvious that you don’t need to spend any more time on it.
The downside with timesheets as a task management tool is that they don’t include a lot of project management overhead-type tasks, such as attending meetings, doing regular project management documentation updates and so on. You can add a task to your schedule to cover project management activities, but it won’t then tell you exactly what you should be doing. You’ll need a separate To Do list for that.
However, for your colleagues in the project team, timesheets can be a good way of managing their project-related task lists as they’ll quickly be able to see what they are responsible for.
Tip: If timesheets don’t work in this way for you, or you don’t use them, your project management software tool probably has another kind of ‘task view’ or dashboard for your colleagues to use as a single place to look for project work allocated to them.
Ultimately, task management is a very personal thing and you might have to try a couple of different ways of tracking your work before you get to a system that is efficient for you. Everyone likes to work in different ways, so look at how your colleagues are managing their work and think about what you prefer to do, and perhaps blend a few techniques together until you find something that helps you stay on top of your work in a way that isn’t overwhelming. As a starting point, why not try what I’ve outlined in this article and go from there?
Elizabeth Harrin is the creator of A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, which she started in 2006. She has won a number of awards for her internationally popular blog: "A Girl's Guide To Project Management." She also authors two additional blogs, regularly featuring interviews she conducts with industry experts: "Talking Work," and "The Money Files," on Gantthead.