Secrets of Task Management

How can you manage your tasks in a way that allows you to escape overwhelm? There are certain invisible principles you need to use to stay on top of an expanding workload. When known, they dramatically change your career for the better.

However, no-one teaches us the importance of managing our tasks skillfully. It’s usually discovered in the breach: when life isn’t working the way we want and we scramble for answers. Instead, most live on auto-pilot, never questioning why they do things the way they do. Let’s make some of these secrets conscious.

Secret 1 – Tasks Come from the Inside

What is a task? In its purest form, it belongs to a class of “psychological objects” that can’t be touched or seen, but still have an emotional weight. That’s because they come from within: each one is born when you quietly assign yourself an action to be completed in the future.

This is a self-taught practice. Around the age of seven, someone teaches you how to tell time. You realize it’s a great resource and start to create tasks which can only be executed later.

At first, all this takes place in your mind. Before long, you have developed a daily habit of creating mental commitments, even though the initial number of tasks is small. After all, that’s what a child’s parents and teachers are for: to remind them what they need to do.

But as you enter adolescence and adulthood, things change.

Secret 2 – Only Kids Should Be Using Memory

If you have ever worked with a full adult who regularly fails to do the tasks they intend, you may agree that they have a “bad memory”. This is probably true.

But it obscures a bigger problem: they are using the memory-based techniques of a child, rather than the grown-up methods of an adult. Here’s why so many get stuck.

As I mentioned, you are a self-taught task manager. However, as you grew out of your teenage years, the number of tasks increased, but your approach remained the same: to habitually use your memory.

Before long, you started to experience problems. Overwhelm crept in as you struggled to prevent promises from being broken and appointments from being missed. The harder you tried to remember, the worse things became.

Perhaps you got lucky and a parent or friend intervened, or maybe you figured out the changes you needed to make on your own. Instead of relying on memory, you began to write down all your tasks on paper or a smartphone. In either case, you stopped trying to use a Band Aid to heal an amputation, and switched your approach for the better.

The fact is, most adults have lives which are too complex to be using their memories for task management. However, most of us still complain about having a poor memory for our tasks, long after we should have given up that method.

Pro Tip: you can evaluate the capacity of a teammate by observing his/her reliance on memory for important tasks.

Secret 3 – Migrating to Better Tools

Most professionals understand the need to switch from memory to the use of written commitments (or even the employment of an administrative assistant). However, they don’t realize that this should be the first of many transformations. Research shows that your appetite to manage more tasks is insatiable: successful solutions lead to greater task loads.

These volume increases inevitably make you hit new limits. Consequently, whenever you experience symptoms of overwhelm and other task management problems, you should analyze your current combination of tools and behaviors. They must be upgraded to keep up with an increased number of tasks.

Unfortunately, this is simpler than it sounds. For example, you might recall the age when you shifted to writing down your tasks on an aid like Post-It notes. Since then, you moved on to using digital tools, but let’s imagine that you recently started noticing that familiar feeling of falling behind.

You may be tempted to believe that a return to Post-It notes would help, but here’s the surprise: it won’t. That approach was useful at a lower task volume, but cannot fit your adult life.

Now, you must perform a fresh analysis of your entire self-taught system. Look for small changes to make which together can give you brand new, added capacity. Do the research and experiment with different suggestions and technologies before settling on an upgraded approach.

But the best benefit is that now you’ll know that whenever you feel overwhelmed, the answer is never to revert to what worked for you in the past. Instead, you must go forward to adopt behaviors which are suitable for a future of even more tasks, and less overwhelm.

Overcoming COVID’s Communication Gaps

As a leader, has the advent of “working from home” distanced you from your employees? As a result, have you witnessed unwanted behaviors? Perhaps you have even realized the unexpected: workers who are actually worse off.

In some companies, we have noticed a surprising phenomenon: Employees who had a good relationship with the organization’s leaders before COVID are now becoming fearful of the same executives. In other words, a certain anxiety has arisen.

It’s led to many staff members working longer and harder, but this added effort doesn’t come from a healthy place. Ultimately, this behaviour does more harm than good because it’s being driven in a way that’s just not sustainable.

The Problem

The average Jamaican worker operates in a perpetual state of low anxiety. The proof? Managers who arrive here from other countries notice talented individuals acting like victims. Furthermore, many of our workers thrive when they migrate to more supportive environments.

On a daily basis, local staff members cope with their fears by developing a heightened sensitivity towards the “Big Man” or “Boss Lady”. Outsiders are shocked to see the deference our employees give to powerful people, going out of their way to elevate and “Big Them Up”.

For example, staff members in some organizations know exactly where the top manager is at all times: when she is absent, work comes to a halt. In others, people scan the CEO’s demeanour to understand his mood. If he is on the warpath, they broadcast the news internally, and warn their colleagues to act accordingly.

But these are all just survival techniques. Our workers developed these habits because executives embody a threat to their well-being. As in slavery, the wrong word from the wrong leader can lead to dire outcomes: public shame, disrespect and separation.

While the exact coping mechanisms vary, their intent is the same: to relieve the state of anxiety. And to some degree, they succeed.

The Pandemic’s Impact

Enter COVID-19 and the mandate to work from afar. Some are thriving: they have escaped the scrutiny of micro-managers and enjoy a fresh freedom to be productive.

However, most are not accustomed to the new disconnection from their organization’s leadership. Now, they are left to their own thoughts and worst fears: a bad thing. Here’s why it happens.

The fact is, the average worker is a social creature: closely linked to other people in the workplace with whom they can share informal interactions all day long. Any scary news or rumors were (before COVID) moderated by the presence of their colleagues, even if no words were passed. At a glance, one could gather critical information by simply observing the environment.

Furthermore, if the CEO happened to walk through the company, staff could feel comforted by her proximity, reducing their anxiety. The quality of her “Good Morning” and the quickness of her pace communicated valuable messages. Questions like “Will I be fired today?” dissipated with her smile.

With new work from home norms (such as Zoom) all these emotional supports have disappeared. In fact, staff is spending more time in meetings than ever before. Perhaps it’s all an effort to compensate for the lack of informal communication which has fueled rumours and driven up anxiety.

Creating the Contact People Need

In a radical departure from the past, some are suggesting that the physical workplace should be retained…but only as a place to socialize. By contrast, an employees’ focused, productive efforts should occur at home, where they are free of distractions. The original purpose of the two locations should be swapped.

But that’s futuristic, post COVID thinking. We can’t follow this prediction today because of the pandemic. What can be done in the meantime?

Some companies have responded by creating informal gatherings between employees. These are opportunities for their people to enjoy each other’s company without a business agenda. Apps like Remo and Airmeets are built for these kinds of interactions, offering far more possibilities than the average meeting software.

However, the most important chats are not with peers, but with superiors. These can be implemented to prevent a rise in anxiety. In spite of busy schedules, some companies are including executives in game nights, cocktail hours, joint training and other gatherings. These are designed, scripted activities (not just random hangouts) which are meant to reduce the emotional distance from bottom to top.

In this context, these informal, but intentional, interactions between leaders and staff serve an important purpose: they help compensate for a cultural challenge in the Jamaican workplace. Together, they provide a way for companies to avoid a predictable spike in employee anxiety in pandemic times. It’s a corporate tactic suited for the distance we’re forced to maintain.