My style of task management has been influenced by both Getting Things Done, GTD, and the 7-Habits of Effective people. “The 7 Habits of effective people”, by Stephen Covey, promotes the idea of “putting first things first”, spending time on the most important tasks – the so called big rocks. However, given the all-encompassing nature of his work little time is spent on indicating how it is done in practice with many open questions. In this article, I propose a system to merge ideas from 7-Habits and GTD to provide a practical workflow and realistic insight as to when tasks can be done.
The 7 Habits of effective people teaches that work can be divided up into four quadrants indicating the level of urgency and importance – refer to the diagram below. The is fairly reminiscent of the Eisenhower method.
It advocates that one should spend most time in Quadrant II – not urgent but important tasks. In doing so, trivial tasks are avoided and with the preparation and planning hopefully the crises in quadrant I can be avoided.
The Quadrant II tasks here are considered as “Big rocks“, the important tasks that we should be spending time on. An interesting way to view this concept is to watch the video below. Here, Stephen demonstrates in graphic terms the impact of considering the big rocks first. So, check it out below and admire the 80’s styling!
From this concept, I borrow some terminology which will be used in this article.
Big rocks – Primarily Quadrant II tasks &Important stuff. I also consider unavoidable urgent tasks to be in this category such as dealing with crises and attending necessary meetings.
Sand – Quadrant III and IV. I would also add less important tasks to this category. To determine importance I use a qualifying question, explained later.
As can be seen from the video, the best approach was to take care of the big rocks first before moving on to the less critical items. This idea stuck in my mind and I wondered how to go about executing it in practice. The 7-Habits course advocates a weekly review where the big rocks are planned ahead of time. However, this still leaves many open points such as,
What happens if important tasks come during the week?
How do I select the “big rocks”?
What about longer tasks that go beyond this week?
What about complex tasks with many sub-tasks and dependencies?
What if the “sand” or small tasks extends into the hundreds?
As you can see may open points that need to be addressed by anyone trying to implement the teachings in the book. My conclusion from considering this was a standalone principle and rough idea may not be sufficient to really apply in practice. It needed a more solid foundation, a system by which tasks can be methodically entered and executed. At this point, I considered then adding complementary ideas from other task management systems such as Getting Things Done (GTD) which does follow methodical flows. What follows in this article is a combination of both these approaches as well as other ideas typically found in the project management arena such as resource levelling. The features of this system are explained in the next section.
Features of this system
Considering the objectives of “putting first things first”, or selection and execution of the most important tasks is but one of the features that I wanted to consider. In addition to this, there are practical implementation aspects to it and the ability to have good visibility of tasks in the system and when they can be done. Such ideas I list now as features I would like inherent in the proposed Big Rocks system.
Determination of the “Big rocks”
What are the most important tasks that I have to do? Perhaps too seldom do we ask this question to align our day to day tasks with longer term objectives and goals. Part of the 7-Habits training consists of coming up with mission statements and goals. This can be helpful in determining what the big rocks in your own life are. In the context of day to day work, I find a simple yes/no question works better to determine the importance of any given task. These questions then act as a “qualifier”, for the “Big Rocks” category. Here are some examples,
Does this task align with what I am paid to do?
Will this task enable me or my team to complete our objective?
Does this task align with my mission or life goals?
Since I am primarily interested in applying this concept for work, I choose the second of these to act as a Big Rock qualifier,
Will this task enable me or my team to complete our objective?
So, for each task than arrives on my table, I ask this question to determine it’s priority and consequentially, what part it will play when assigning future work.
Conscious switching from the big rock tasks to less critical items
Often it can be the case that when going from task to task we stray from important tasks to less critical things tasks. Sometimes that be a conscious decision, for example to move to less mentally or physically demanding tasks as our focus dictates and sometimes it is an unconscious move. An example being we have a few tasks to get through and we simply go down the list.
Since a primary goal of the 7 Habits is to do Quadrant 2 work we should be conscious when we make that switch to other quadrants. This switch I would also make clear in this system.
Meeting time included as part of the daily task landscape
In this system I will also consider the time taken for meetings or any other event that deducts time from the working day. An 8 hour work day does not mean 8 hours available for completing tasks if half populated by meetings!
Frequently this aspect can be overlooked or if considered may be part of a different system such as a calendar. In this system I will note the meeting down to indicate the time will be spent.
Facing reality – When can the task realistically be done?
It is very easy to list 10 Big Rock important tasks to be done today or even this week. With no thought as to how long each one will take or other committed tasks for that period the scenario of over booking oneself can happen. The consequence of doing this is all the important tasks that were supposed to happen over whatever time period simply don’t get done. For this system I would like some things to be visible and considered when determining realistically when things can get done,
How long will each task take?
When is it required?
How much time is available for the activity given other commitments?
If we have good visibility of the real time available and know how long the task should take it gives a much more realistic view of when it can be delivered. And, in the situation where all things cannot be done in the time to enable the right priority calls to be made.
The 7-Habits approach for task planning was fairly simple. From a weekly review select the key tasks you would like to do in the following week and make time for those. I take this principle and apply a GTD like flow diagram to illustrate how tasks should be entered into lists either from an initial brain dump or ad-hoc new tasks. This flow diagram is shown below. I explain each of the key elements of the diagram.
The Inbox is the first stop coming into the system. In a previous posting, Simple Getting Things Done I explained that if the flow diagram can be made simple enough we can skip the Inbox and file the tasks in the appropriate lists. In this system, it is making a triumphant comeback. The reason for this is because of the thought that is required when processing the tasks. For many of them we need to enter estimated times for their completion and due dates. Such things cannot be done in a second and so to allow for separate processing time for that I include the Inbox
Big Rocks list
These are the important quadrant tasks that ideally we should be spending time on. As mentioned earlier, the qualifying question for the title of important will be,
Will this task enable me or my team to complete our objective?
In applying this, I hope to remove the nebulous connotations that often surround importance and priority in the context of task management. So, a fairly simple question to answer and from that we can then derive the importance.
Additionally, any crises or important deadlines I would also add to this Big rocks list.
Less important tasks as determined by the qualifying question. These tasks can be taken when the big rock tasks have been dealt with. Additionally, delving into these tasks is also possible as a reprieve from the tough tasks. Critically though, it is clear that one is doing tasks from this category.
Pretty simple. Simply a quick note in the task list that meetings will be taking up some of the time. Not intended as a calendar or reminder, but used for available time calculations.
These tasks are directly entered into the big rocks listings. Normally project tasks are must do items so they have not gone into the Inbox and gone thought the processing. Additionally, project tasks normally have set dates determining start and due dates for the task so again this element of the processing has been taken care of previously when the project planning was compiled.
The primary purpose of the Someday list is to prevent unnecessary clutter of either the Big Rocks list or the Sand list. When reviewing the Sand list the last thing we want is to have loads of items in there that have no relevance in the short or medium term. They should not be forgotten though which is why I added a recycling loop back to the Inbox. So, monthly these could be dumped back in there and reviewed once again to see if they need to be done in the present month.
With the tasks entered in the system I guess at some point we have to do something. This consists of only two items,
- Select the task to do
- Do it
In this article I will cover the first of these points, I let the reader cover the second!
When it comes to task selection, I refer to the additional tasks that are done on top of the Big Rocks already scheduled for that day. We will take these from the Sand list, the nice to have items so to speak.
There are many ways to determine which of those tasks to do in the remaining work time available. For example,
- Time available: When the sand tasks were entered in the list, we also enter the estimated time to do those tasks. So, it would be a simple exercise then to match the time available to the time required for those tasks.
- Context: In the remaining time where will you find yourself and which tasks fit to that. For example, will you be in front of the computer? If so, that would lend itself to getting some email done. If traveling, then other tasks need to be selected to fit with that context.
- Favouritism: Let’s be honest. We all partake in tasks that we enjoy and rightly so. In this method, since we have already taken care of the Big Rock important tasks, we can indulge ourselves a little here.
- Priority: A nebulous term which changes with the wind. However, when reviewing the Sand list it is simply a feeling that we may have that one task simply is more important than another.
There are plenty of other methods for task selection. Choose whichever suits you.
The Task Landscape over time
When the big rock tasks and even the sand have been entered there must be an indication of the time that is allocated to these tasks. This is critical to be able to assess how much time is still left for any new tasks or indeed to juggle tasks where necessary.
To enable this, I will take a leaf out of the Project management handbook and use the resource leveling approach. This approach can be illustrated using the diagrams below. The left diagram illustrates some poor guy having a heavy work load on Monday and it tailing off during the week. Applying resource leveling in this case would mean moving some of the task from Monday and doing it on Wednesday. So, the happy worker can now go home on time every day and still have completed the task on schedule. Such an approach is very uncommon for basic task management, todo lists and most apps designed around those purposes. In project management though it is commonly used, so to demo this I will have to pull out the big guns of project management – Microsoft Project. See next section on it’s implementation.
Sample Task Landscape view implementation
At present I do not have an elegant way to implement the system I have described above with the necessary resource visibility features. Therefore I use MS Project 2010 to demonstrate how it could be done. This is not perfect for task management but at least it will show how the task landscape could be viewed enabling realistic scheduling of new tasks.
The screenshot below shows a sample setup. The lists from the previous flowchart are shown as main tasks,
- Big rocks
Several tasks have been received and have gone through the flow chart and have been assigned to the relevant list. For the tasks in each category,
Big rocks: Estimated times entered and due dates set. Several of the big rocks tasks are spread over some days and so I have entered a 25% utilisation for those tasks. So, for an 8 hour work day, this equated to 2 hours per day being spent on those tasks.
Sand: Estimated times entered to enable task selection for time available. I don’t think start/due dates are necessary for these tasks until the point of execution. For the purposes of the demo the dates have been entered.
Someday: No due dates or estimated times entered
The screenshot from MS Project 2010 has three sections shown. The top left has the task entry details. The top right is a Gantt chart view of those tasks and the bottom shows the resource utilisation for the Big Rocks activities.
As can be seen the first day as shown that with the Big Rocks alone, more than 8 hours would be necessary to complete. The following days are less heavily loaded which means it would make sense to re-distribute the tasks from the first day to the following days. That would then give a more realistic picture when the tasks can be completed.
Also note the addition of a recurring meeting. In that case, the time taken for that meeting can be accounted for when we consider the time available each day for work.
The screenshot above shows the resource requirements for the Big Rocks tasks only. It is also possible to sum the Big rocks, meetings and Sand to give a true picture of the committed time for all of these activities. Now we really see the startling picture. On the first day, 12 hours to complete that work? This is the point where we face reality and really see the scope of the commitments that are made. When such visibility of the committed time is available it allows for realistic estimation of completion dates for tasks and where necessary to re-balance tasks for different days.
Daily: Assess and categorize the Inbox items. A quick determination of the big rock items for that day and where time allows selection of some “Sand”, filler tasks.
Monthly: A reminder can be set on the Someday list to dump those tasks back into the Inbox for a monthly review. In many cases they may find themselves enroute once more to the Someday list but in some cases it may be time to take action on those tasks in which case they can go into either the Big Rocks or Sand lists.
So, here is a system with ideas imported from both the 7 Habits of Effective people and Getting Things Done (GTD). The basic workflow can be applied to many general ToDo list applications such as the free Abstractspoon ToDoList. However, for the more complex Task Landscape, this is still work in progress. A demo version has been shown using MS Project but this is not a viable solution for day to day task management. Any hoo, hopefully you have found it interesting and perhaps I will modify this further to get a more elegant implementation.