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On Being Productive: Task Versus Project Management

During a typical workday I get more than 100 emails in my various in-boxes (I have 6 different accounts, 4 of which I use often).

I used to get more than 150 emails per day, so my workload seems to have become a bit more manageable. Then, there are the instant messages, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Teams and Slack notifications - with additional messages on WhatApp, Snapchat and Skype. All of this can be quite overwhelming.

According to an often quoted McKinsey survey carried out a few years ago, the average professional spends 28% of the work day reading and answering just email - that translates to 2.6 hours spent to read and often respond to/process what typically amounts to 120 emails for professionals in the US. That is just huge. That is bad enough but the distraction does not end there. We check (or over-check) our in-box up to 20 times day! I’m sure you know people who compulsively check their in-box even more often than that!

Which brings us to the notion of productivity. How can we stay productive when inundated with so many inputs from a variety of sources. How do we avoid losing track?

First of all, we need to streamline our platforms and applications. We can’t have multiple apps for the same things or we’ll definitely lose track. Unfortunately, many of us do. Putting things in the calendar and on “todo” lists is one basic process. But some people have multiple calendars and several to-do lists. What is more they mix basic notions such as task and project management.

The organisation of work requires planning which in turn requires breaking down what needs to be done into manageable chunks of activity. We may be working from a todo list but may also be working on projects (workflows that require more than one step to get done and often involve contingencies and prioritisation). Indeed, the essence of projects does include tasks in that they involve two or more steps to complete.

One the other hand, tasks can be repetitive and independent in which case you can just tick them off a list and they disappear. You no longer have to worry about them.

In a sense, task management is a sub-set of project management and may share some of the same components or processes: such as deliverables (the outcomes to be accomplished) as well as start and and end dates. They involve scheduling, delegating, and completing work items.

Project management and task management go hand in hand when the tasks are dependent on planning, collaboration, organization and delivery of work. At times, tasks are independent of projects and can be completed at an individual level using task management routines. Indeed, once you have completed a task on a to-do list, it can be crossed off which is why trying to manage projects from todo lists does not work.

So, there are a few principles you may consider:

Try streamlining when possible. Don’t have tasks or project across different platforms and applications.

Use “horses for courses” - don’t use “todo” lists to try to manage projects.

Learn how to prioritise. Classify things into slow burns and heavy lifts. You may want to start several projects at once, but you may opt to do it as a "slow burn" than a "heavy lift." That means just gathering ideas that can later become more actionable. Sometimes that is preferable to trying to create something all in one go.

There is no one perfect productivity system. Try to be methodical and purposeful - and most importantly, try working on things that matter. As Peter Drucker remarked:

There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.


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