I’ve been thinking a lot about task management lately, largely due to what Seth Godin says in Linchpin and what Chris Brogan had to say in a post titled You’re not as busy as you think. What I’ve come to realize is that there are four kinds of tasks: tasks that we enjoy but don’t move us forward, tasks that keep us busy, tasks that we think are important, and tasks that are important and have momentum. The former three can be very counter-productive. I call these types of tasks Time Marauders.

Tasks that we enjoy but that don’t progress us towards our goals

This is the most dangerous type of time marauder. How many things do we create simply because we want to do it and not because there is any value created for the end user? I am not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy our work. But rather, we use enjoyable tasks to avoid the important tasks.

For example, checking your email is a very common time marauder. Do you really need to check your email every 15 minutes? Or is that social media profile really generating buzz, traffic, leads, sales, etc? Or does your site really need a redesign right now? Tie tasks to a business goal or specific outcome that you expect. And please do enjoy the journey.

Tasks that just keep us busy

Quote from Caterina Fake:

“When we were building Flickr, we worked very hard. We worked all waking hours, we didn’t stop. My Hunch cofounder Chris Dixon and I were talking about how hard we worked on our first startups, his being Site Advisor, acquired by McAfee — 14-18 hours a day. We agreed that a lot of what we then considered “working hard” was actually “freaking out”. Freaking out included panicking, working on things just to be working on something, not knowing what we were doing, fearing failure, worrying about things we needn’t have worried about, thinking about fund raising rather than product building, building too many features, getting distracted by competitors, being at the office since just being there seemed productive even if it wasn’t — and other time-consuming activities. This time around we have eliminated a lot of freaking out time. We seem to be working less hard this time, even making it home in time for dinner.”

Avinash Kaushik wrote in his book Web Analytics 2.0 about a company that he worked for where he was asked to produce 100+ reports weekly to send to various departments. As an experiment, he stopped producing 100% of the reports for one week. Not a single individual asked about the missing reports. Meaning, creating over 100 reports was just meaningless busy work.

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Tasks that we THINK are important

This is about facing the reality that what you do may not matter. It’s all about self-deception. We don’t want to believe that what we do does not offer value. The answer is prioritization – assigning value to tasks and projects and weeding out low value tasks. This is scary because you might find that there’s no reason for you to come to work. If that’s the case, then step up and create new opportunities, projects and tasks that are high value.

Tasks that ARE important and have momentum

Focus on tasks that add value to your customers. Let me define a customer as anyone that uses what you produce – e.g. your boss, a co-worker, other departments, the person that buys your goods or your blog reader. Every task you complete should create value for your customer. As Avinash discovered, his internal customers found zero value in the reports he produced. So he stopped producing them.

Important tasks are tasks that remove obstacles, produce new revenue, reduce costs, improve employee morale, enhance customer service or open new opportunities. Tasks with momentum are tasks that propel us one step closer to our ultimate goal. Working on tasks that are important and that have momentum is how you optimize your time to get the biggest bang for your buck.

For the next week, ask yourself before starting every task, “Does this task create value for my customer?” If not, then don’t do it. If your boss is the customer, then explain why your time is better spent doing something else.

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Photo courtesy of Profound Whatever.