How does it feel to finish a big project? Pretty good, right? You may even forget some of the stresses you endured along the way. While you may have mastered how to manage your own tasks (or at least learned how to keep things afloat), task management continues to be one of the most challenging aspects of work life. Tasks can arise from meetings, managers, colleagues, and more. How do you effectively work with others to ensure tasks get done appropriately?
Task management at its best
The process of how you design your tasks can impact the quality of collaboration and the time it takes to complete a project. There are ways to improve the sometimes unwieldy process of task management for yourself and your team. Start by following these five tips.
1. Assign an owner and a due date for each task
Tasks often fall through the cracks if there is a lack of accountability. The more people involved in a conversation, the greater the chances for ambiguity around who will own the task.
To reduce confusion and promote follow-through, ask team members to commit to unassigned tasks by the end of every meeting or informal conversation. Make sure each task has an owner and a due date. While due dates may be artificially imposed deadlines, they increase the likelihood that tasks will get done.
2. Make the task specific and set clear expectations
Whether you assign the task to yourself or someone else, include a clear explanation of what is to be done and the context around it. Explain the requirements, success criteria, and any other specifics of the deliverable that might be necessary for the assignee to understand and accurately complete the task. Share document links and access to view and edit documents. Include a list of people who can provide additional information and help if needed.
In his article, How to write the perfect task to move work forward, Hamza Khan suggests a journalistic approach to writing clear task descriptions by answering the who, what, when, why, and how of a task. He says this helps reduce back-and-forth clarifying questions and sets the task owner up for success.
A task like “prepare presentation on results of social media audit” might include a description like this: “We’re going to present the results of the social media audit to the CEO (Who), and she will use this report to inform our social media strategy for the upcoming year (Why). Please provide charts to show the performance, learnings, and recommendations for each of our 3 social media platforms in 10 slides or less (What). Use the “continue / consider” framework to structure recommendations (How). Complete the first draft by noon this Friday (When) and we can regroup that afternoon to discuss it.”
This task description anticipates questions that the task assignee might have. The assignee is then free to get to work immediately rather than waste time trying to figure out task specifics.
3. Break the task down into manageable actions
A good rule of thumb to task management is this: if a task requires more than 3 hours to complete, break it down into smaller steps, each with its own due date. When people feel overwhelmed by tasks that they perceive to be large, they may get anxious, procrastinate, and let themselves get distracted by other things. Breaking down big projects into smaller steps makes each small task easier to confront and complete, which then builds confidence. Inevitably, those small steps lead to completing the larger project.
4. Include a time estimate for each task
Time is another way to set expectations and manage resources. Give a realistic and specific timeframe for completing the task. Will it require 30 minutes or two hours? This will help the team member time-block the task into their schedule. Including a timeframe also shares someone’s estimation for how long a task should take.
For example, if a manager believes the task should take no more than 30 minutes to accomplish, but the employee spends over 2 hours working on it, there’s an opportunity for managers and employees to discuss this disconnect. Can the manager more accurately estimate the time for the task? Is there a lack of alignment on the nature of the task? Does the employee need further training in some area?
5. Share progress with others
So, what do you do when your work is dependent on the work of others, and vice versa?
Proactively communicate. Keep people informed about the status of tasks that involve their work. Are these tasks complete? Are there blockers or impediments that stand in the way of accurate and timely completion?
When your priorities have changed and you won’t be able to meet deadlines around tasks that concern the work of others, let them know. And don’t be afraid to ask colleagues about the status of tasks that affect your work.
One way to streamline the process of collaborative tasks management is to use a shared or group task list. You can try software like Asana, Trello, Wunderlist, or Meeteor to manage your team’s tasks. If team members stay current on updating the the status of their tasks, everyone can check the progress of a particular task at any time. This can reduce some back-and-forth emails as well as replace some status meetings.
You can become a task master for yourself and your colleagues by following these five practices. What are other ways you manage tasks alone and when working with others?