How to Manage Tasks
A big part of being a project manager is the ability to manage tasks. These tasks come in all shapes and sizes. Many tasks and activities have your project plan as the source. These are the things that you have identified that must be complete by someone else in order for the project to be complete.
Other types of tasks are the ones that you personally need to accomplish. Some project managers keep up with these tasks by using daily To-Do lists that never seem to end. Others may scribble tasks on the whiteboard behind their desk and add them to the other two dozen items that have been on the whiteboard so long they are beyond the stage of being erasable.
It’s easy to see that without some way of learning how to manage tasks for yourself and others you could quickly become overwhelmed. The following are some suggestions that you can use for task management that may help you at least check off a couple items off your list at the end of the day.
How to Manage Tasks for Yourself
A great place to start managing tasks is with yourself. There are meetings to plan, flights to book, agendas to put together, and reports to complete. All of these demands are coming at you fast and furious and other people depend upon these things being done in order for them to move forward.
The last thing you want to be on any project or any organization is a bottleneck. So, what sorts of things can help when it comes to learning how to manage the tasks that you need to get done?
Your e-mail application is a good place to start. We’ll be focusing on Microsoft Outlook, but the principles would apply to other e-mail applications as well.
Why You Should Capitalize on the Task Functionality in Outlook
Most people use their e-mail application for its ability to send and receive email as well as set up meetings and sync with other people’s schedules. Many people, however, overlook the Task functionality in Outlook.
There are a couple of ways to make the most of this feature in Outlook. The first is that if you receive an email that you have to do something with later, drag it over to the Task Pane in Outlook. This will start creating your list of To-Do’s within the application itself, rather than having to write it on a piece of paper or on the whiteboard behind your desk.
You also have the ability at this point to move the email out of your Inbox and file it away wherever you want. This keeps your Inbox uncluttered and still keeps the Task in your list of things to get done.
The next thing you want to do is use the Categorize feature of Outlook. There are six default color-coded categories you can start with. You can rename these and add as many as you like. Six is probably a good number of categories to start with otherwise it can quickly become unmanageable.
You may have a different category for each of your projects, or you may categorize things that you can only do while you are at your desk, or things that you can perhaps while you are on the road (like catch up on phone calls that need to be made).
Whatever task management system you develop in Outlook is dependent upon your specific needs, but it’s something you will find is easier than keeping your to-do list on paper and rewriting it every couple of days. Plus, you can drag these tasks that need to be completed, onto your calendar and block off time to get them done.
One task management trick is to understand that it takes time to complete them. Project managers get so busy that their calendar books up with meeting after meeting – a scenario that leaves no time to get other work done.
When you plan out your week, be sure to drag these tasks onto your calendar for the hour or so that you will need in order to get them done. You’ll be very pleased at what a difference this makes compared to checking things off of your list.
How to Manage Tasks for Others
Once you’ve figured out how to keep yourself and your tasks organized, it’s time to move on to helping others do the same. Some project managers may reason “I did my part and put the project plan together. Can’t they just follow that and know what tasks they need to do next?” Newsflash…a lot of people don’t read, can’t read, or won’t read a project plan. Yes, it’s hard to believe that as a project manager with all the preparation you put into it, but many times project plans go unread and unused.
You have two choices at this point. You can become incensed and furious that nobody respects your plan enough to read it…or, you can change your strategy and help people understand what tasks are next for them to accomplish. Your job is not to be a babysitter, but you can add a lot of value as a project manager to the team if you help them in the area of knowing what to do next. Break the plan into bite-sized chunks and tasks and be sure to be mindful of the following principles of task management:
- Communicate Clearly – Be crystal clear when it comes to assigning tasks to somebody else. What exactly are you asking them to do? Do they understand what the expected final deliverable? There are numerous methods of making sure they understand. One of the more insulting ones that I’ve seen used in the past is having someone repeat back to you what you just said. How condescending. Treat your team with the respect they deserve and you’ll find that communication is that much easier. You’ll know if someone understands what they need to do or if it needs further explanation.
- Provide Context – A good thing to do is to provide the context around that task that has been assigned. They may know “what” they need to do, but may not know “why”. This is important to getting things done because, if they run into a problem or situation that slows things down and you can’t be found, they can make the decision because they understand the bigger picture and context.
- Determine Standards – When it comes to assigning tasks, you must also make sure they understand what the desired outcome looks like from a quality perspective. You could say ‘build a house’ and then be terribly disappointed when you see they built a straw house rather than the brick house you imagined. Be very clear as to what standards you expect the task at hand to meet.
- Empower Them to Get the Task Done – Responsibility without authority is a frustrating experience for anyone, especially good resources on your team. Make sure that they have the commensurate authority they’ll need to get the task that you have assigned them, done. Otherwise, they may end up throwing their hands in the air and giving up.
- Give Support – Make sure the person you have assigned the task to, knows that if they do get stuck, or if they do have a question, to come back to you sooner rather than later. They need to feel comfortable with the support you will provide them and not criticize them for asking questions or assistance in getting “un-stuck”.
- Get Commitment – Finally, you’ll want their buy-in and commitment that they will get the task, assignment, or activity done – and how soon. As much as possible, let them set the date, but hold them accountable to making that happen.
It’s important to remember that your job as a project manager is not to look over everyone’s shoulders to make sure that they’re getting their work done. Rather, you need to learn how to manage tasks and let good people do good work. By following the guidelines above you’ll find that you’ll be able to manage tasks not only for yourself, but others as well.
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