The art of task management can seem elusive, with monk-like adherents following complex sets of belief systems to arrive at the holy grail of maximum productivity. While advanced users of task management and productivity techniques might indeed beat the average entrepreneur by far, the Pareto principle applies here as well: 20% of effort may give you 80% of the benefits. Pareto Productivity presents simple task management guidelines that go a long way. So feel free to cancel your 21-day productivity retreat and return the fancy sleep tracking ring. This will get you covered in much less than one Pomodoro slot.
Focus on high-impact tasks only
Check whether someone else can do it and don’t reinvent the wheel
Use a task management tool
Box your time
Review your progress
Work in deep mode
Reduce or structure meetings
Don’t forget the other (more) important stuff
1. FOCUS ON HIGH-IMPACT TASKS ONLY
"Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials" (The Importance of Living).
Before jumping into managing tasks, it is key to select only those with high priority - and leave the others undone. In other words, you apply the 80/20 principle to sorting out the small minority of tasks you should actually work on.
For a business startup, this is straightforward and means understanding the needs of the customers and acquiring more of them, as this Y Combinator talk on managing time outlines. In the case of a charity, it is slightly more complex as the financial resources and the beneficiaries represent two distinct dimensions. In essence, there are four core task categories that directly contribute to a charity startup’s success:
Fundraising to obtain the financial resources to operate
Applied research and direct feedback from beneficiaries to design a promising program
Running a pilot program with solid monitoring and evaluation to understand your impact
Operating a financially and legally compliant organization
Avoid any tasks that do not fall under these categories at all or only very indirectly. If you have a basic website, for example, updating or redesigning it is not a direct pathway to attracting more grants. Instead, the number of grant applications sent and warm introductions obtained are much more impactful. Similarly, at some point, desk research has marginal returns and you better talk to potential beneficiaries in the field and run a pilot with a strong monitoring and evaluation component. Finally, you might operate the most effective charity in the world but if you get into trouble with tax or other government authorities your future is uncertain. Feel free to change the list of core task categories to make them more applicable to your context, but resist the temptation to go above five categories or make them too broad. If you need an additional perspective to define success factors, consider the most common ways charity startups fail. The Eisenhower matrix suggests prioritizing tasks according to importance and urgency. We extend this model by including the core task categories from above. This forces you to assign each task to a substantial success factor. This is a first filter against tasks not directly contributing to your charity’s success. Moreover, we add effort, as this helps you identify low hanging fruit.
Core Task Category
Follow these rules as you implement the grading framework:
Avoid tasks that do not directly contribute to a core task defining the success of your organization.
Prioritize tasks with high importance and high urgency.
Do not neglect tasks with high importance but low urgency. Importance trumps urgency.
Tasks with low importance and low urgency can often be postponed. Tasks with low importance but high urgency are suitable to be delegated.
Effort is generally less important than importance and urgency. Yet among the important/urgent tasks, you want to prioritize those with the lowest effort first. Pick these low-hanging fruits.
Here is an illustration of sample tasks assessed by importance, urgency, and effort. This assumes that you already confirmed that each task aligns with at least one core task category such as fundraising. You first prioritize importance/urgency. In each cluster, you then give priority to low effort tasks.
2. CHECK WHETHER SOMEONE ELSE CAN DO IT AND DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL
Are you really the best person to implement this task? Your co-founder might be better suited and once you have employees you should try to delegate as much as possible anyhow (with clear task descriptions, responsibilities and deadlines).
Outsourcing is another option that often gets forgotten.
No need to spend the weekend reviewing hundreds of field expenses when you can delegate this to a contractor. You can easily find affordable remote freelancers on a platform such as Upwork.com. This works well for tasks such as simple review activities, basic bookkeeping, web research, or IT-related tasks (from developing Google Scripts to updating WordPress). In terms of more expensive contractors such as lawyers, you might be able to find pro bono options (e.g. through TrustLaw). If you end up being the one implementing the task, make sure to check for existing advice and templates on the internet. For onboarding, you might consider looking at templates before drafting an Employee Handbook, for instance. Entrepreneurs love to set up things from scratch but often building on existing templates and guidelines can be more productive.
3. USE A TASK MANAGEMENT TOOL
Don’t be that person who jots down tasks on a random printed out paper - or worse, tries to remember the task without documenting it somewhere. There are simply too many tasks in the life of an entrepreneur to remember them and it is not the best use of your brainpower. Using a shared Google Doc or Spreadsheet can be a decent way to track tasks and discuss them with your colleagues. However, this system faces severe limitations too, due to the lack of reminders and workflows.
It is best to use a proper task management tool and implement a simplified version of Getting Things Done (GTD).
As Katriel Friedman of Charity Science Health has pointed out in an unpublished talk for CE, the key principle of GTD is to avoid “open loops”. These are tasks that are uncategorized, not written down, or without a clear path to completion and therefore may overwhelm and distract you. Create “buckets” that collect all your tasks in a few places (e.g. a notebook and the inbox of your task management app). Place new potential tasks in those buckets immediately, rather than trying to keep track of them using your memory. This way, rather than constantly carrying the mental load of many small tasks, you can review these buckets on a daily or weekly basis. Daniel Kestenholz and Peter Hurford have written up great summaries of how they use a simplified GTD system in practice. Here we outline an even simpler form that works for those using a task management app.
HOW TO DEAL WITH TASKS (EMAIL AND ELSEWHERE)
Add to Google Calendar
Archive in Gmail
Document it (e.g assign to project folder/label in Gmail or save in related GDrive folder) before archiving
Implement it immediately
Task (no time to assign)
Keep the task in the inbox of your task management tool, i.e. you write down the task without indicating an assignee or deadline
Task (time to assign)
Assign in task management tool to yourself or someone else and include a deadline. Provide additional context and links if necessary.
As you can see, this list already takes into consideration that many tasks will arrive in the form of emails. Instead of using your email inbox as your to-do-list, you are much more productive if you adopt Inbox Zero and move any tasks immediately into your task management app. The Inbox Zero approach also rightly states that you only need to check your email client a few times per day to avoid distraction while implementing your tasks (see Deep Work below). In terms of tools, you get a discount for Asana as an effective altruist organization (through the EA Hub). Asana works great for a large organization. For personal usage or side projects, Todoist is a strong option. Check out this review if you would like to consider different apps. In the end, it is less important which tool you pick but rather that you and your team stick to it.
4. BOX YOUR TIME
Defining your high-value activities and turning them into tasks is important but not sufficient. Let’s say you have to finish a grant application in the next three days. You’ve got a critical task at hand with a clear deadline. The implementation, however, very much depends on the time needed to complete the task.
Timeboxing (also known as timecapping) allows you to estimate the required time and book it in your calendar.
In the example, you might reserve a slot in Google Calendar one afternoon from 2 pm to 6 pm to finish the grant application. Timeboxing works for any task: from research and decision-making to daily operations. It has a range of advantages. Timeboxing...
Assigns a concrete time value to your task.
Helps you avoid overspending time. You realize from the beginning that your time is limited, so you focus and stay within the timeframe. Hence, timeboxing is an excellent tool to force you to implement the 80/20 principle at the individual task level as well. Instead of going off on tangents, you remain focused on the core deliverable.
Prevents paralysis and indecision. You have clearly defined how long you spend on something. Sure, you might have to update your estimate but this is very different from conducting tasks without any time estimates or deadlines.
Gives you control. You are the one to define how much time to allocate. This enhances your feeling of autonomy, one of the key drivers of job happiness.
Enhances transparency in your team. Your co-founders see what you are working on and understand why you are busy.
Here are a few best practices in implementing timeboxing:
Use one calendar for all your assignments and meetings and share the calendar with your team.
Work at least two hours per day on your top goal, ideally more. Pick times when you are most productive, say, in the morning.
If you use Calendly for scheduling meetings, restrict slots to times when you have less energy, for example, late afternoons.
Combine similar shorter tasks into one block (e.g. review applications for an intern and a full-time position).
Include breaks and logistical slots such as lunch and transit. You are not a robot and your calendar should reflect that.
5. REVIEW YOUR PROGRESS
Each day - and more extensively each week - check your progress on task management by going through this checklist.
How much time did I spend on the different tasks?
For this purpose, you compare the time “boxed” with an estimate of the actual time spent based on your calendar. You planned, for example, to spend three hours on updating your monitoring and evaluation strategy but exceeded that slot by two hours. If you systematically under- or overestimate time for certain tasks that gives you helpful guidance. For example, preparing a 1:1 meeting with an employee usually takes me around 30 not 15 minutes. Advanced users can use a time tracking app such as Clockify.me to get accurate numbers of time spent per task/category.
Is the actual time spent in line with your focus on high-impact tasks? Check against importance, urgency, and effort again.
You might reassess a task after realizing how time-consuming it is (effort). Other developments at work might have corrected the task’s importance upwards or downwards.
Is there nobody that could help with or finish this task for me?
Based on your progress, you might reconsider delegating a task or getting help from a contractor/freelancer.
How do I need to change the deadlines and assignments based on this in my task management app?
The progress made and your re-evaluation of the task define whether updates regarding assignee and deadline are necessary.
What are the implications for timeboxing for the next day/week?
Finally, the re-evaluated task with an updated deadline gets more or less time allocated in your calendar. In the case of an important task for which you continue to be the lead, you might timebox larger slots to meet a deadline. In another case, you might delete a timebox, as you decided to delegate finishing a task.
6. WORK IN DEEP MODE
Working on your fundraising strategy, responding to emails while helping out your new colleague over instant messaging. Does this sound like your typical workday? Then you better consider Deep Work, as presented in the classic by Cal Newport. The basic message is one that resonates intuitively and has been proven in studies:
Multitasking and distraction are undermining productivity (and flow experiences that contribute to a fulfilled work life).
Deep Work suggests building your whole day around carrying out important tasks without interruption: “Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.” Timeboxing, introduced above, is a key tool to arrive at deep work. You should also stop checking your email and turn off notifications from instant messaging such as Slack as you focus on the activity at hand. Another key concept is productive reflection whereby you give yourself time to think about a certain problem. This is not your typical work task, as it is less linked to a specific outcome such as writing a report. Yet it is also not leisure, as you contemplate a work challenge from various angles. Productive reflection can take place in relaxed settings, say, on a walk or under the shower. For some, this comes naturally. If, however, you find yourself running from one task to the other and lack time for thinking through problems creatively, make sure to dedicate at least one to two hours per week to productive reflection. As an example, your outreach to fish farmers might not have been as successful as hoped for. In productive reflection, you approach the problem from a high level (Why do you need to talk to fish farmers? What are all the theoretical ways to reach fish farmers?) and consider different alternatives (what if we set up a hotline instead of sending email newsletters?). The goal is to consider many options in brainstorming mode and follow first principles.
7. REDUCE OR STRUCTURE MEETINGS
Meetings are often not the setting to create the building blocks for your charity startup. Or when was the last time you created an M&E strategy or fundraising plan in a meeting? As Paul Graham points out in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule
frequent meetings can interrupt quiet work on the outputs you need to deliver.
Nobody would dispute that meetings are essential for some coordination or even some creative problem-solving tasks. But in many work settings, they still take place too frequently and in an unstructured manner. Here are some basic guidelines for getting the most out of your meetings:
Apart from weekly team meetings and one-on-ones generally don’t schedule regular meetings where there is no obvious need for in-person coordination. Team meetings and one-on-ones have an important social component so it matters less if there are no important topics for discussion.
At least, prepare an agenda before the meeting and document decision-points after the meeting. These decision points can be turned into tasks in your task management app.
At best, someone prepares options for decision before the meeting and shares them with all participants. An extreme form of this is practiced at Amazon where employees write multi-page memos ahead of meetings.
In terms of meeting scheduling, a best practice is to schedule for 25 and 50 minutes. This allows you to switch location and refresh after each meeting.
8. DON’T FORGET THE OTHER (MORE) IMPORTANT STUFF
This article covers task management and productivity in a relatively narrow sense. The focus is on the immediate work setting and delivering results. While the tools presented here are impactful, more holistic strategies might even be more important. The good news is, you are already fully aware of them. You might just need to commit to implementing them more (see this summary of Atomic Habits).
Eat well and plant-based
Spend time with friends and family
Exercise or at least move (as a workaholic consider Steve Job’s famous walking meetings)
Outsource chores (e.g. see this timesaving assessment by Joey Savoie)
Take weekends off and schedule vacations during which you completely disconnect
Practice mindfulness/meditation (indeed, it would not be an article about productivity without at least one reference to meditation)
As you implement most or some of the practices introduced in this article, you have every right to add the title Pareto Productivity Pro to your business card and LinkedIn profile. You might not yet be an ordained monk in the order of productivity but you are slowly getting there.
Focus on high-impact tasks only: Prioritize tasks that give you 80% of the return with 20% of the input. First, make sure each activity is directly linked to at least one of your charity’s core success factors (e.g. fundraising). Second, classify tasks according to their importance and urgency. Third, consider effort as an additional criterion to identify low hanging fruits.
Check whether someone else can do it and don’t reinvent the wheel: Others might be better suited or have more capacity to carry out tasks. This includes co-founders, employees or freelancers/contractors. The latter can be hired on platforms like Upwork.com and do well at basic IT- and quality review tasks.
Use a task management tool: With a task management app such as Asana or Todoist you can easily implement a basic form of Getting Things Done where you are on top of all your high-priority activities. This ties in well with Inbox Zero, which avoids abusing your email inbox as a task management hub.
Box your time: Timeboxing puts your top tasks as reserved slots right into your calendar. This forces you to implement individual tasks with an 80/20 mentality to remain within the given timeframe. Other advantages are increased transparency in the team (everyone sees what you are working on) and a sense of autonomy (you are the one to reserve the slot for each task).
Review your progress: Each day - and more extensively each week - check your progress on task management by going through a simple checklist. The basic idea is to compare the time you spent on a task with its priority and reassess importance, assignee, and deadline if necessary.
Work in deep mode: Focus on one task at a time and avoid any distractions, e.g. by turning off instant messaging notifications. Plan for at least 1-2 hours of reflection per week during which you ponder a business challenge in brainstorming mode.
Reduce or structure meetings: Key work usually does not take place in meetings, so keep them limited and - if necessary - structured with a clear agenda (or even preparatory memos) and a decision-making framework as output (who is doing what by when?).
Don’t forget the other (more) important stuff: The most important productivity hacks are closely tied to personal wellbeing. Yes, you know the drill: sleep well, eat well, exercise, ...
The Importance of Time Capping (Joey Savoie)
Minimalist time-management system (Daniel Kestenholz)
How to prioritize your time (Y Combinator)
Inbox Zero (Merlin Mann)
Timesaving Activities (Joey Savoie)
Productivity 101 for Beginners (Peter Hurford)
How I Am Productive (Peter Hurford)
100 Most Useful Productivity Tips (Filtered)
Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule (Paul Graham)
How to Use Gmail More Productively (Andreas Klinger)
The Great CEO Within (Matt Mochary)
The Complete Guide to Deep Work (Doist)
Atomic Habits: Summary (Nate Eliasson)
The Best To-Do List Apps for 2020 (PC Magazine)