If you spend any part of your work day online, it’s possible that you get a heavy dose of information overload and excessive sensory input. E-mail here, e-mail there, voice mail, IM/chat, cell phone text messages, Facebook chat, Facebook wall, Facebook messages, Twitter, Plurk, and whatever else you can think of. On top of that, there’s actual productive work tasks you do. If your day is full of distraction, large tasks can feel overwhelming.
If you’re in this situation, there’s a simple piece of advice that bears reviewing, something you’ve probably heard countless times before: take one step at a time. It’s a very simple but powerful approach, since it’s far easier to focus on one small step or change at a time.
How It Works
The key to conquering large tasks is break them down into smaller subtasks, then to only focus on the current subtask. Even better, if you “hide” everything but the current subtask, it becomes easier to focus. You already know what comes after, but you keep distractions to a minimum by focusing. This way, you can enjoy small successes each step of the way, and large tasks become less intimidating.
Once you break a large task down into smaller tasks, you have a choice of methods for managing your taskload. Here are a few methods.
To-do List Software
To-do list applications are great for brainstorming a stream of consciousness and writing down thoughts as they come to you. However, they’re not as ideal later when you need to organize your thoughts, cluster ideas together.
It’s often better to scribble down your thoughts in a list, on a piece of paper, then apply another method, such as mind mapping (below). Another flaw with to-do lists is that if you have deadlines attached to each subtask, it’s sometimes difficult to get an overview of related tasks. Calendaring software (below) might be more suitable.
Some sample to-list applications are Ta-da Lists, Todoist, and Remember the Milk (RTM). RTM integrates with Google Calendar. Some of these function well on cell phones, especially those with large screens such as the iPhone.
Free Web-based calendar software abounds, and using it is another way to manage tasks, provided you know when you need to complete each task. The real benefit of web-based calendaring apps is that you can access your calendar(s) from anywhere that you have an Internet connection, often including from a mobile phone. Some calendar tools even synchronize seamlessly with to-do list applications. So you could import events recorded on your mobile phone, or from your web-stored lists.
If you don’t know which calendar tool to use, Mashable lists over 65 of them. Some of them, including Google Calendar, have APIs to build custom applications with. Or you could simply combine a to-do list app such as Remember the Milk, mentioned above, with Google Calendar, giving you a more robust way to manage tasks.
Project management, aka PM, is a very sophisticated approach for managing a set of related subtasks. Good Project Management software offers a number of tools and methods, such as Gantt charts, critical paths, etc. If tasks are spread out over a team of people, you can track their efforts as well, check their workload, determine which tasks are project bottlenecks, and get a rough idea of how long an entire project is going to take. I say “rough” because subtask durations might change, and any later subtask dependent on a previous task will be affected, as might the entire project.
Project management is a very structured approach that is typically better suited to large, complex projects with many dozens of tasks and one or more team members. Smaller projects might benefit from some PM principles, though often there is too much rigidity or over-management of tasks.
Mind maps can take over where to-do lists leave off, are sometimes robust enough for managing projects, and are an ideal tool for implementing a “one step at a time” approach for several reasons. (In fact, most mind mapping software allows you to put to-do lists aside, and offer equivalent functionality.)
- Mind mapping software lets you expand or collapse parts of a mind map with ease. This allows you to see the big picture but to also focus on the small picture details when you need to.
- They are a free-form way to record information, tasks, links, and other bits of data. To this information, you can apply as little or as much structure and hierarchy if and when you want to do so.
- Mind map nodes can show text, icons, or images, and link to documents or activate applications on your computer desktop or in a web browser. This means that if you use a suitable mind mapping application, you can integrate any type of to-do list, calendar or PM app from different parts of the map. Using mind maps, you have the benefit of all of the above-listed methods, if you want – giving you a more robust approach to task management. A mind map can then act like your project command center, and can itself be integrated with a master mind map or personal dashboard map.
An added benefit is that an increasing number of mind mapping applications – e.g., MindJet MindManager – are either incorporating PM features or are integrated with separate PM software, including Microsoft Project.
Of the methods listed above, mind mapping gives you the most flexibility and can incorporate the other methods.