Whether you’re managing a multi-million dollar project or planning out what needs to be done for a visit during the holidays, the chances are you work with task lists. Whether you call them To-Do lists, activity lists or something else, you’re probably familiar with using them at work and in your personal life.
Even though the idea of a list of tasks is easy, there are still some pitfalls to putting them together. If your task list is not well thought-through, the project plan you produce from it or the work you do as a result of the list can be compromised.
Here are 5 task list fails to avoid when putting together your own list of essential activities.
Fail #1: Working Alone
Unless it’s a personal list for something that only you are going to be working on, you shouldn’t put your task lists together by yourself.
You are not the only person involved in doing the work or in knowing what work needs to be done in the first place. Talk to your team. They will know what else needs to be included and they’ll have ideas of other activities that expand on the tasks you have included already.
You’ll get a much broader view of the work that has to be done and you’ll all be clearer about what you are starting.
It’s easy to involve everyone. You meet them all regularly at work anyway, so simply add some time to your next meeting agenda to talk about upcoming tasks. Bounce ideas around. Use collaboration tools if you can’t meet in person and make sure that you give everyone the chance to contribute.
There might be a few things raised that you choose not to include on your task list, but at least you will have had the opportunity to discuss them and come to an agreement.
Fail #2: Not Creating A Structure
A good task list is not a huge long list of activities in any random order. A good task list includes a structure. You can do this in mind-mapping software tools. Group tasks together under sub-headings. Add color to visually show which tasks go together. Add some milestones where you know them already and drop tasks underneath them so you know what has to be done when.
The structure should be very visual so that anyone looking at the tasks should be able to see what is important and what activities naturally sit together.
You can move elements around until you find a structure that works for your team. The point is more to have a structure at all than to have a fixed approach to laying out the work, so you’ll find that each project you work on has a slightly different task structure. Mind-mapping tools are flexible enough to make this work anyway you want, so you can completely personalize each project task list for the team.
Fail #3: Forgetting To Allocate Priorities
Not all tasks are created equal. It can be daunting to be faced with a sprawling mind-map or several pages of To Dos. So you need to help yourself and the team focus on what is important.
Add priorities to the list. There are several ways to do this:
- Use color with red for the most important tasks and other colors to rank the other tasks.
- Add a star or other graphical element next to the most important tasks (this is the technique I use).
- Make the most important tasks bold or italic or underlined, or stand out in some other way.
- Assign tasks numbers. The most important tasks get a number 1, the next important tasks get a number 2 and so on. You work on all items tagged 1 first.
- You can do all of this direct inside your mind-mapping tool or on to a shortlist.
At the end of the day, the system of prioritization is less important than actually doing it. If you already have a system of prioritization in another area of your projects that works for you, use the same one. Whatever works, right!
Fail #4: Not Sharing
OK, some task lists might be full of personal tasks that you don’t want anyone else to see or know about.
But it’s far more likely that your tasks and the team’s tasks will all be aligned and related to helping you work together towards a common goal.
That makes it much more helpful if you share your task list with everyone else. After all, they helped you put it together in the first place! Turn your task list into your project schedule and include it in your project management software so that everyone can tick off the work they have done when their tasks are complete.
Fail #5: Not Updating It
Task lists aren’t a set-and-forget activity. The work shifts as you do it. New tasks come along as a result of work that is now complete. You finish work and need to mark those activities as done.
Keeping your task list up to date is essential if you want it to be an effective and helpful way to manage your work.
Review your task list regularly. A team meeting is a good place to do this as everyone can give you (brief) updates about their progress and you can mark work off as complete when it is finished. People can also ask for help with completing their tasks if they need it.
Use the time to add new tasks too and to allocate these to the right person on the team. This will give them visibility that there is more work to be done and you can use the time to discuss the prioritization of that activity against their other tasks too.
Task lists and mind-maps are a practical way of ensuring all the work is captured, prioritized and visible to the people who need to do it. Task lists can help you structure your time and your activities, knowing that everything you are working on is helping you move towards your ultimate goal of completing your project.
About the author
Elizabeth Harrin is the author and award-winning blogger behind A Girl’s Guide To Project Management. Get her suggestions for being more productive at work on her blog.