Task Management Pain Points – The Overachiever

Because I’ve written and screencasted so much about OmniFocus, I get a lot of email from people about their particular pain points with task management. With this series I’m going to focus on a few of the more common issues and how I solve them.

The Overachiever

By far the most common problem I read about is how some folks get overwhelmed. I hear from readers that explain they need over an hour every day just to sort through their tasks. That’s nuts.

If you are facing a task list that has hundreds of entries every day, you’re doing it wrong. I think the most common cause of this overload is our technology. Back when I used to write my task list every day longhand in a Franklin Planner, I never wrote more than 20 tasks in a single day. I think it was something about the act of using pencil and paper that my brain just accepted the lunacy of overloading myself. However with computers, there is a certain amount of abstraction and that can work against us.

With most modern task management applications, setting up tasks and projects is a snap. With very little time we can build a task management database with literally thousands of tasks in it. Moreover, because of that abstraction, we often give our brains the afternoon off while adding those tasks, telling ourselves we’ll figure out how important all those projects and tasks are sometime later down the road.

This leads to waking up with hundreds of available tasks that we then spend hours kicking down the road a day or two, only to drag ourselves through the same mental muck again tomorrow.

Just because computers can track hundreds of projects and thousands of tasks doesn’t mean you can do them all. Indeed, as many readers are finding out, loading yourself up like that can be debilitating. You spend so much time pushing the monkeys around every day that you don’t actually get any of them off your back.

If that is you, don’t beat yourself up. I fall into this trap myself more often than I’d like to admit. You can dig yourself out of this and get back to a more manageable task list. It’s going to require a little work though.

1. Begin by looking at projects

If your task list is bursting at the seems, first start by looking at your active projects. In OmniFocus I’ve set up the Today perspective for precisely this reason. I can easily see the existing projects and how many tasks they’ve got attached. With the color coded check-circles I can even see if any active projects have flagged or due items attached.

The point is that in sweeping through the project list, you need to be brutal. Remember the point is not to have to drag through all of this every day. If you see a project that there simply isn’t time for in the next three weeks, defer it 3 weeks and move on. Don’t refuse to accept reality and defer it just two days so you have to go through all of that again. If you see a project that you’ve now deferred three weeks several times, you should probably delete it entirely or, at least, defer it three months. Stop juggling things you are not going to do. It’s just taking you away from the things you need to do.

2. Next focus on tasks

Once you’ve blown out the cruft of unnecessary projects, bring that same killer instinct to individual tasks. Again defer and delete the stuff that isn’t going to happen so you can put a big spotlight on the stuff that needs doing.

It is easy to fall into this overachiever trap because modern technology makes it so easy to build an entirely unrealistic task list. If you follow these steps however and are truly willing to swing your digital machete at unnecessary projects and tasks, you will regain control of your task list and get rid of that underlying dread you’ve been feeling looking at over 200 tasks every day for the last week.

What is your task list hangup? Let me know.