posted by Matt Ward on Jul 25, 2010.
Task management is certainly an important consideration for any designer – freelance or otherwise. Sometimes, however our to-do lists can become somewhat overwhelming. In this article, I would like to look at one small change that you can make in your approach to task management to make it less daunting and more of a motivating factor in your work.
As designers, we all need to keep ourselves organized in some manner. For many of us, this involves using some form of task management. It could be a complete software package for your computer, a smaller app for your phone, or even a good old fashioned notebook in which you jot everything down. Regardless, the chances are good that you have some kind of to-do list for tracking the various projects and tasks that you have to complete.
The chances are also pretty good that sometimes you look at that always growing to-do list and feel a little overwhelmed, or think that things just aren’t getting checked off as quickly as you might like.
Well, in this article I’d like to share a little trick that I’ve found helps approach the to-do list a bit better, and which can also help keep you energized and motivated in your work.
The Importance of the To-Do
Before moving on, however, I really need to stress the overall importance of the to-do list as a productivity tool. If you’re workload is anything like mine (and I would bet that it probably is at least somewhat similar), then you probably don’t have the luxury of working with only one client at any particular moment. I know that some freelancers do their best to focus on working on only one project at a time, but even then I would imagine that there’s still a certain amount of interaction with other clients – general maintenance, trouble shooting, content changes, and the like.
Add onto this the need to be continually working on some of your own personal projects (something I really think every designer should be doing), and suddenly, in addition to being a designer, you also have to become a juggler of sorts, managing all kinds of work at the same time.
This is exactly what happened to me. When I first started freelancing and was working only for my first client, it was pretty easy. But then I started to get a few more clients. I launched my blog and started to get requests for articles. Soon, my workload started to become far more complex, and I was having an increasingly difficult time keeping everything straight with nothing but my memory.
So, I turned to task management software. We’ll talk more about some specific applications towards the end of this article. For now, suffice it to say that the task management software really helped me keep everything organized, which certainly helped with overall productivity.
The Big Problem
Now, there’s probably nothing all that startling or revealing about the importance of keeping yourself organized with some form of task management. Most of you are probably already doing it to some degree, and I touched on its importance mostly for context – and just on the off chance that there’s someone who’s not doing it.
As important as the task management and to-do lists are, however, I always found that there was a certain overwhelming weight to my to-do list when I first started using it. The problem I faced was really a matter of scope. When I started into task management, I would use really general concepts. As a result, my task list would look like this:
- Design [client] layout in Photoshop
- Code [client] layout into custom WordPress theme
- Design [client] logo
The overall list was generally pretty small, but the individual tasks within it were huge. Designing a complete website in Photoshop can take hours and hours of work. The same is true of coding a WordPress theme or designing a logo. As such, I simply found that my to-do list wasn’t really changing all that much from day to day. This in turn made me feel like I wasn’t making any progress, and was somewhat stuck in a bit of a design rut.
And that’s never a good feeling (whether it’s true or not).
The Sub-Division Trick
Fortunately, we humans are silly creatures, who are perfectly capable of deceiving our own minds, even when we are fully aware of the deception. The solution to my problem involved precisely this kind of deception.
Eventually, I realized that these massive items on my to-do list were simply too big. So, I started breaking them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. For instance, instead of just having a single entry about creating a layout in Photoshop, I might start with something like:
- Establish a basic grid
- Create a greyscale wireframe
- Test several different background options
By using these kind of smaller tasks, the complete list becomes larger, but also a great deal more manageable. Often I can get one, two or even more of these smaller, mini tasks completed in a single evening.
The benefit of this is that, while I may not actually be getting any more work done that I was doing before, it feels like I am getting more done, because I’m actually able to check things off on my to-do list pretty much every day. There is just something profoundly satisfying about completing a task, even if that task is only a small part of a larger project. It’s even more satisfying if I can make a nightly to-do list and complete everything that was on it.
It’s also incredibly motivating. Every time I check something off my list, it invariably gives me the drive to get started on something else. Plus, if I can complete everything I had scheduled for one day, I tend to wake up the next morning with more energy and motivation to keep the momentum of my work going.
Interestingly, all of these positive experiences stem from the simple act of breaking larger tasks into smaller and more manageable mini tasks, all so that I can feel as though I am accomplishing more. And, ultimately, because I feel like I am getting more done and don’t tend to get bogged down by the larger scope of the project, I actually do get more done.
Just by giving myself the satisfaction of being able to actually acknowledge my completion of small tasks, I have actually seen a significant boost in my own productivity!
Task Management Software
As we bring this article to a close, I thought it would be useful to offer a brief list of different task management applications that you could use for managing your own to-do lists. If you’re already using a different app, these might provide some interesting alternatives. If you’re not using anything at all, then hopefully you can find something that will work for you.
This is the application that I am currently using, and I’m really happy with it. It’s a Mac-based app with an attractive design, and the ability schedule and manage your tasks in a variety of ways. Smaller tasks can be collected into larger projects and you can also include task-specific notes that link to emails, websites and other documents.
Additionally, you can also synchronize the desktop application with apps for the iPhone (which I have) and the iPad (which I don’t), meaning that I always have my task list at my fingertips – even when I’m on the go.
Remember the Milk
This is a web-based task management solution that offers a wide range of options, such as several different methods for getting task reminders, tag-based task organization, geo-location for your tasks and a number of other really great features. There are also apps available for both the iPhone and Android powered smart phones.
Personally, I haven’t tried this one, but it looks pretty good and I’ve heard all sorts of really great things about it. Being web-based, it also has the added benefit of allowing you to access your tasks from anywhere you have an internet connection.
Task Coach is an open source task management suite, that is widely available across a wide range of platforms, including Windows, Mac, Ubuntu and the iPhone. Again, I haven’t used this one, but some of my followers on Twitter drew my attention to it, and it certainly appears to have a ton of useful features, including both time and effort tracking.
If you’re looking for either an open source application, or something that allows for really extensive organization and tracking of your tasks, then Task Coach might be the one for you.
Anxiety is a really simple little app for the Mac that integrates seamlessly with iCal, providing a nice, lightweight interface for managing your to-do list. You can organize tasks by attaching them to different calendars. It also adds a simple little icon to the menu bar, allowing for quick and easy access to your tasks. I used this one for a while before finally switching to Things, and was relatively happy with it. I just wanted something a little more extensive that I could sync to my iPhone.
If you’re already using native OS X apps for your task management, this lightweight little addition can provide you with a great way of interacting with your tasks.
This is another alternative that was brought to my attention over Twitter. It is a web-based service that appears to take a much different approach to task management. It uses an interface that it calls the “board”, allowing you to move projects through a number of different stages, from inception to completion.
It looks like an interesting way of approaching the issue of task management, and may be best suited for team-based projects, or for individuals who thrive in a more visual environment.
Of course, there are certainly many, many more task management applications that you could find out there, especially for Windows. If you’re drawn to more tactile methods, you can always use a good old fashioned notebook (moleskine if you’d like).
Regardless of whether or not you chose to use one of the above cited programs or a method of your own choosing, the important thing is that you are doing at least something to keep track of your tasks. Beyond that, however, I hope that this article has demonstrated how making just one simple change to the way you handle your tasks can really help to increase your motivation and overall productivity.
It’s a small thing that can pay big dividends.
Now, what about you? Are there any other simple methods or techniques that you use to make your to-do list more of a real productivity tool, rather than a daunting obstacle to be overcome? If so, I’d love to hear about them!Post A Comment
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