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Task management is an essential part of project management, yet remains largely ignored and understudied. This guide will show you the right process for managing tasks in projects big and small.
To manage projects is to manage tasks.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re building a billion-dollar stadium or a $10,000 website, every project is essentially a list of tasks. For the project to be successful, these tasks have to be completed in a fixed order and within a fixed timeframe.
Become better at managing these tasks and you will become better at running projects.
Task management isn’t an exact science. The tactics that work for one person or project might not work for another. More than specific frameworks, it’s important to understand the underlying philosophy and approach behind task management.
That’s exactly what we’ll cover in this guide. I’ll walk you through some of the key definitions, strategies, and tactics for successful task management. These tips are as applicable for managing your personal tasks as they are for handling agency projects.
Use this guide as a reference to figure out your own approach to task management.
Understand Tasks and Task Management
Task management is easy enough to understand - at least in its formal definition:
“The process of managing a task through its lifecycle, that is, planning, testing, executing, tracking, and reporting.”
What complicates matters is the term “task” itself.
We use “task” both colloquially and within the formal framework of a project management methodology. A list of chores around the house is “tasks”, as are a bunch of billable to-dos in a project.
What’s the minimum amount of work that needs to be done for something to qualify as a “task”? What’s the maximum?
Questions like these might sound redundant but become critical in the context of project management.
Take something as simple as grocery shopping as an example. If you were to break down every action you need to perform in order to shop, your to-do list would become exhaustively long. You’d have “drive to store”, “find suitable parking spot”, “park car”, and “grab shopping cart” all on your to-do list.
By the time you even come to the actual shopping list, you’d be exhausted just checking off your to-dos.
The opposite approach is equally misleading. Instead of separate to-dos for “buy eggs, bread, milk”, you might have a single task to “buy breakfast items”. This will compress your task list, but it also means that some days, you might forget to buy the milk or the eggs.
Of course, you don’t make this mistake in real life because you instinctively understand grocery shopping.
But think of the same issues in the context of a project and you’ll realize how complicated defining a “task” can be. If you’re developing a website, do you add “install npm package manager” to your to-do or do you assume that developers will do it instinctively? Do you add specific steps for testing the website or do you just have a broad “test website” task?
This is where a formal, project-oriented definition of “task” can help:
“A task is the smallest identifiable piece of a job that constitutes one unit of work. A number of tasks together make a project. Tasks have definite deliverables and deadlines.”
While tasks can - and usually do - have sub-tasks, every task in a project should be justifiable and quantifiable on its own. The sub-tasks, on the other hand, don’t necessarily need deliverables attached to them. Thus, you can be as granular as you want in the list of sub-tasks associated with a task.
Take baking a cake as an example. To create the deliverable “cake”, you need eggs, flour, butter, and sugar. Thus, you can have the task “Buy ingredients”. The end product (deliverable) of this task would be the core raw ingredients.
How you want to divide this task into sub-tasks is up to you. If you’re handing off this task to an experienced baker, you might just write “buy cake ingredients”.
But if you’re handing it off to your teenage son, you might include detailed to-dos such as “find the baking aisle, look for unsalted butter, etc.”
These sub-tasks are not essential by themselves. You don’t have to include instructions on where to find cake ingredients in order to make the cake (the task assignee can often figure this out by herself).
But buying the ingredients - the primary task - is essential for completing the project (i.e. baking a cake).
This example shows the subjective nature of tasks. You’re free to divide tasks any way you want; you just have to ensure that the task itself is essential to the project.
What is Task Management?
This brings us to the second part of dealing with tasks - task management.
Task management is nothing but the entire process of working with tasks. This includes planning, testing, tracking, and reporting on tasks.
All the thinking you did in the above cake-baking example? That would come under the ‘planning’ part of task management. If you were also calling your grocery shopper every hour to check on their status, you were essentially “tracking” the task.
Finally, if you made a mental note of changing your instructions based on the shopper’s performance, you were “reporting” on the task.
There is no fixed philosophy or approach to task management. What works for one person or organization might not work for another.
A deep understanding of the core principles and processes behind task management, however, will help you make the right decisions when it comes to managing tasks.
We’ll look at these principles in more detail below.
The Task Management System Explained
There are plenty of well-documented task management systems - Kanban, Agile, etc. While they vary in their execution, nearly all of them share a few core fundamentals.
In broad strokes, these fundamentals can be summed up as follows:
- Break down projects into a broad list of activities, thoughts, and notes
- Add structure to this “brain dump” by adding deadlines, specific deliverables, etc.
- Delegate, delete, or defer tasks as necessary
- Prioritize remaining tasks
Regardless of which task management system you choose (or create your own), understanding these fundamentals is vital. It will not only make you better at managing complex projects but also your own personal to-dos.
On that note, let’s look at this task management approach in more detail.
1. Break Down Projects into a “Brain Dump”
The start of any project - whether it’s reorganizing your garage or building a client website - is a time for ideas, questions, and observations.
Take the cake-baking project we explored earlier. Your brief might be simple - bake a cake - but the specifics can be complex and confusing. What kind of cake should you bake? Do you want frosting? What should be the size and shape of this cake?
This is why it’s a good practice to start every project with a “brain dump”. Write down everything and anything related to the project. Don’t worry about keeping it structured or organized; your goal is to get every thought, idea, and objection on paper.
How you do this is entirely up to you. For personal projects, jotting down notes in a diary is enough. For business projects, you can create flowcharts and mind maps.
While this “brain dump” is largely unstructured, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
- Try breaking down the project into broad steps. These steps don’t have to be sequential, but you should have an overall idea of the direction of the project.
- Use past projects as a guide to figure out the overall direction of the current project.
- Make a note of the deliverables attached to each step in the project. For instance, if you’re baking a cake, the first step - grocery shopping - should yield a complete set of ingredients.
Of course, feel free to skip this step or curtail it drastically if you’ve done a lot of similar projects in the past. This phase is entirely to get ideas out of your head and onto paper. If you already know what you have to do and deliver, skip to the next step.
2. Add Structure to Your Brain Dump
At this point, you have a lot of ideas but little in the way of concrete direction.
Your next step, thus, is to organize your brain dump and give it structure.
One way to do it is to go through your notes and segregate everything into three categories:
- Activities: These are actions and tasks that must be completed in order to create something (i.e. a deliverable).
- Deliverables: These are the end result of a single or group of activities.
- Specifics: These are tips, strategies, and other insight that helps in the completion of an activity or the production of a deliverable.
For instance, if you’re baking a cake:
- Drive to the grocery store and buy eggs and flour would be an activity.
- A mixture of eggs, sugar, butter, and flour, i.e. the cake mix, would be a deliverable.
- Preheating the oven to 450 degrees or specific directions to buy the right brand of flour would come under specifics.
Dealing with Deliverables
The most important part of your brain dump is the deliverables. This is what you’re actually trying to produce in the course of the project. All the activities you do are in the service of these deliverables.
Figuring out the deliverables isn’t always obvious. In the cake example above, is the cake batter the deliverable or the raw ingredients? Or both?
While the answer to questions like these may be subjective, a few formal tools such as a work breakdown structure (WBS), offer some insight.
A WBS breaks down a project into all its constituent deliverables. These parts have to describe a noun, not a verb or adjective. Thus, “wheel” and “frame” are deliverables, but “assembling the wheel” and “welding the frame” are not.
As Paul Burek notes at PMI.org:
In a WBS, deliverables are organized into different levels. Your goal is to break down every part into its component parts until you can’t break things down any further.
A bicycle, for instance, has a frame and wheels, but the frame itself has a frameset, handlebars, and seat. A WBS for it, thus, looks something like this:
You don’t have to follow the WBS model (at least not for personal projects), but it’s a good framework to know for understanding deliverables. Read this in-depth guide to learn more about work breakdown structures and how to use them.
To create deliverables, you need to perform tasks, i.e. activities. What specific tasks you complete and what order you complete them in is highly subjective. Much will depend on what resources and skills you have at any given moment.
For instance, suppose you’re assembling a bicycle frame. To create this frame, you need a handlebar, a frameset, a seat, and a welding machine. You originally planned to weld the handlebar to the frameset, then screw in the seat.
However, the welding machine wasn’t shipped on time. So instead of waiting, you decide to screw in the seat first, then weld the handlebar. This completely changes your list of activities.
This brings up one of the most important concepts in task management: task dependency.
Task dependency means that certain tasks depend on others for completion. You can’t bake a cake if you haven’t made the batter, and you can’t make the batter if you don’t buy all the ingredients.
Thus, when you’re organizing activities related to any deliverable, you have to think about task dependencies as well. You want as little downtime as possible between activities. A resource that keeps waiting for a task to get complete is a wasted resource.
Go back to your deliverables. Look at each of them and ask: What activities are necessary to create this deliverable? What order do they need to be completed in?
You are free to include as many - or as few - activities as you want. An inexperienced team might need a detailed list of activities or tasks, while a seasoned team can get by with broad instructions.
The more important part is to organize them in such a way that there is as little downtime as possible between activities.
The third part of your brain dump is your specifics, i.e. notes and ideas. These are nothing but a list of observations, tips, tactics, and strategies for dealing with each deliverable and activity. They aren’t necessary for the project, but they can make the entire process smoother.
Plus, they can be a shared repository of knowledge that the entire team can tap into during the course of the project.
How you organize these specifics is entirely up to you. You might dump them all into a shared Google Doc, add them to a centrally updated wiki, or attach them to each deliverable/activity.
Whatever path you choose, these specifics should be:
- Easily discoverable and, if possible, searchable
- Associated with specific deliverables and activities. These associations must also be easy to spot.
- Shareable with the rest of the team
A tool like Workamajig where your team can have conversations within the PM system and track files for each task makes it much easier to keep track of your specifics.
3. Organize and Delegate/Defer/Delete Tasks
By now, you would have a list of deliverables and the activities associated with them.
But not all of these activities need to be completed. And not all of them need to be completed by you.
The next step, thus, is to organize your tasks further.
Start by attaching deadlines to each task. Instead of saying “Complete shopping for cake ingredients”, specify exactly what ingredients need to be bought and by when.
Deadlines inspire action, so it’s crucial to include them in your tasks. Just make sure that your deadlines are realistic, not overly optimistic. Prior experience dealing with similar tasks and deliverables in the past will help you come up with tighter estimates.
Before you can do that, however, you need to figure out whether the task even needs to be done. And if it does, who should do it?
Segregate your tasks into the following categories:
- Delegate: Tasks that need to be delegated to someone else. You can figure out who exactly to delegate the task to later.
- Defer: Tasks that can be delayed for now or don’t fit into your current plans. Deferred tasks don’t have a fixed deadline.
- Delete: Tasks that can be removed without affecting the project. Usually, these tasks are either extraneous or have already been fulfilled by someone else.
- Do: All the remaining tasks that you need to tackle.
Keep in mind that this categorization mostly applies to personal projects. If you’re managing projects for, say, an agency, most tasks will be delegated. In that case, you can skip the “do/delegate” categorization.
At the end of this exercise, you should have:
- A list of tasks that you have to do and delegate
- The specific requirements for each task along with their deadlines
4. Prioritize Your Tasks
Detailed as your task list may be, it is still unprioritized. You don’t know what to tackle and in what order.
The next step, thus, is to prioritize your tasks and create your to-do list.
How you go about this will depend on the nature of the project. For personal projects, there are no hard and fast rules for determining priority; you can often pick tasks that are the most fulfilling first.
But for business projects, there are a few things to keep in mind when determining task priority:
A. Prioritize by dependency
The easiest way to stall a project is to push a task with a lot of dependencies down your priority list.
An example would be de-prioritizing buying sugar in our cake-baking project. You can have all the ingredients set up and ready to go, but you can’t really bake a cake (at least a good one) until someone buys the sugar and brings it home.
Hence, look for tasks with a lot of dependencies. Usually, these tasks are associated with high-value, early stage deliverables. Make these tasks a top priority on your to-do list.
B. Prioritize by difficulty
A common heuristic for organizing personal to-do lists is to tackle the hardest and most unpleasant of your tasks first thing in the morning. That’s when you have the most willpower and can tackle tough tasks better.
Mark Twain would call this the “eat the frog” heuristic - if you do something awfully unpleasant first up in the morning, nothing truly worse can happen to you after that.
Of course, this option only works for personal projects. You can’t really set your task list in a business project based on what you personally find uncomfortable!
C. Prioritize by resource and time requirements
One of the challenges in organizing tasks is that they don’t always require the same amount of resources or time. Moreover, the resource requirements for an individual task itself aren’t always uniformly distributed. A task might be 90% complete, but the remaining 10% might require 2x the resources.
For instance, you might have a task that requires a lot of resources upfront but little to no later. An example would be baking a cake. It takes a lot of effort to shop for ingredients and make the cake batter, but once things are in the oven, it requires minimal oversight.
Thus, one way to prioritize task lists is to consider:
- How many resources the task requires and at what time
- How much time the task requires on the whole
If you clearly know these details for your tasks, keep resource and time-intensive tasks upfront in your priority list.
D. Prioritize by resource availability
Resource availability isn’t always uniform across a project. A key resource - such as a freelancer - might only be available for a limited amount of time.
Tasks that depend on such limited resources should always be prioritized based on resource availability. This should override any other priorities you have.
An agency management tool that shows you resource availability - both freelance and in-house - can make scheduling such tasks much easier. Workamajig, for instance, shows you exactly how many hours each resource has at a glance.
Workamajig shows you how many hours of your resources’ time you’ve utilized
Once you’ve prioritized your tasks, you’ll also want to organize them. There are several ways to do this, such as:
- Label tasks as P1, P2, P3, etc. based on their priority
- Categorize tasks are ‘Urgent’, ‘High’, “Medium’, and ‘Low’
- Prioritize by date, such as ‘Now’, ‘Today’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘This Week’, ‘Next Week’, ‘This Month’, and so on.
5. Track Task Status and Performance
The final cog in this task management process is task monitoring.
Lots of people skip this, especially for personal projects, but I feel it’s the most important part of any task management approach. Unless you’re keeping an eye on how your tasks are performing, you won’t really know a) if your strategy is good enough, and b) if you can complete the project on time.
The more complex a project is, the more you’ll want to invest in task tracking.
In a basic task tracking system, you’d divide all your tasks into the following categories:
- New, i.e. tasks that have been recently added to the queue
- In-Progress, i.e. tasks that are currently being performed
- On Hold, i.e. tasks that are currently delayed for any number of reasons (usually requirements, resources, and approvals)
- Finished, i.e. tasks that have been completed
- Deleted - tasks that have been removed from the to-do list
- Waiting - tasks that are waiting on a dependent task to be completed
If you’re managing agency projects, you might want to add these categories to your system as well:
- In Review, i.e. tasks that are currently seeking approval
- Recurring, i.e. tasks that have to be completed regularly during the course of a project (such as sending a weekly status report)
- Failed, i.e. tasks that failed to meet your or a client’s requirements
Doing this will give you a much better handle on your agency’s performance. For instance, if the number of tasks in your ‘Failed’ category spikes up, it probably indicates a problem in your agency’s performance. If there are too many tasks stuck in “Review”, you have issues communicating clearly to your clients.
You can track these tasks via Kanban boards, labels, or even spreadsheets. A tool like Workamajig will help you track all your tasks automatically with "health meters". These health meters give you a bird's eye view of whether you're on track to meet the budget/time deadline for any task
This is the task management process in a nutshell. Specific task management methodologies - Kanban, Agile, GTD, etc. - essentially use different twists to this process. But the process itself remains fundamentally the same.
You can explore any of these methodologies if necessary, but if you understand the above process, you can easily create your own task management system.
Before I leave you, there are a few tips I want to share about managing your tasks.
5 Crucial Task Management Tips to Follow
Task management can be surprisingly complex, as you saw above. It’s not always easy to figure out how to break down large projects into smaller tasks. Experience and training, of course, help a lot, as does a good project management tool.
At the same time, following some of the task management tips we’ve shared below will make it easier to manage your tasks, and by proxy, your projects:
1. Be aware of multitasking
An easy way to derail a project is to assign too many tasks to a resource (or yourself) at the same time. As popular as multitasking is, studies regularly show that it doesn’t work.
It’s okay if there is some overlap in your task start/end times, but if your Gantt chart starts looking like a bar chart, you need to start rescheduling your tasks.
2. Make your tasks centralized and easily accessible
Regardless of what kind of project you’re managing (business or personal), it helps to keep all your tasks centrally organized. You can do this any way you like - a physical notebook, Evernote, Google Docs, a PM tool like Workamajig, etc.
The value in creating a central repository for your tasks is twofold:
- You - and other resources - can easily know what you have to do next, regardless of where you are.
- You can analyze completed tasks to see what kind or category of tasks you struggle with. This is crucial when managing business projects. Knowing your weaknesses and strengths can guide not just your future projects, but also your broader business initiatives.
3. Automate reminders and notifications
Has a task ever slipped past its deadline simply because you forgot about it?
This happens regularly to the most organized of people. Important tasks get buried beneath to-do lists, only to resurface weeks after the original deadline.
Combat this problem by setting up automated regular reminders of upcoming deadlines. Send notifications of the deadline to the task’s owner. Make sure that you send these notifications across multiple channels - email, SMS, website notifications - so that they don’t miss it.
4. Leave gaps for “recovery”
Tackling one task after another might be great for productivity, but if you do it too long and too often, you’ll just burn out.
Hence, when you’re scheduling your tasks, set aside enough time for recovery. It’s okay if there are no to-dos on your or your team’s task list for a while. These breaks are particularly important after strenuous tasks.
(This process of breaking down projects into “sprints” of heavy work followed by “breaks” is actually the Agile philosophy in a nutshell.)
5. Change task lists if necessary
As you go through your task list, some things will inevitably change. A client might send back a deliverable with a revision request, a new resource might become available that changes how you work, and so on.
At moments like these, don’t hesitate to change your task list. Consider the impact, importance, and resource requirements of the change and incorporate it in your tasks.
For instance, a client revision request that’s going to take just 30 minutes can be pushed to the top of the priority list. But one that takes two full days can’t take precedence over other high priority tasks.
Be flexible with your tasks. There is value in upfront planning, but you should also know how to change things on the fly when necessary.
Over to You
Task management is complex but it is also necessary for running a successful project. Understanding the task management process can help you create your own system for managing your to-dos.
One way to make task management easier is to use a project management tool like Workamajig. Workamajig’s powerful project and task management features make it easy to break down projects and keep track of all your tasks from a single window.