When I start juggling a lot of projects, it often follows that I always feel behind. The moment I feel like I’m catching up on my tasks, and my to-do list continues to grow.
The ironic thing is while I often feel behind, people have said, “I don’t know how you do it all.”
My task management system has evolved from pen and paper to Evernote lists back to pen and paper, temporarily Trello, to Todoist, and I think I’ve landed on a system that’ll last me for a few years.
I enjoy geeking out about systems and the balance of efficiency and effectiveness so I’m sharing how I work in hopes it’ll help someone.
Before I jump in, my task management software of choice are Todoist and Sunsama. I pay for both, but you can do everything I’m about to explain with a free Todoist account and Google Calendar. You’ll see below that Todoist is my task manager where I dump all my to-dos.
My system follows the following framework:
- Capture all tasks.
- Prioritize tasks.
- Schedule time for each task.
1. Capture all tasks.
I use Todoist to capture any and all tasks regardless of when I need to do them and whether I actually need to do them. Yes, even if I’m not sure if I have to do a task, I’ll add it to my tasks anyway so I don’t forget about it.
I might be on a walk, on the train, in the middle of a conversation, or working on something and I realize, “I have to do that thing,” so I add it to Todoist and add an estimated due date I should complete or revisit the task. This might be the next day, or the next month, or the next year. I’ll get into what I mean by this in a bit.
If a task seems urgent, I’ll add it to “today” with a plan to triage and schedule it into my work week (more on this in a bit).
Here’s what that looks like when I added a task while writing this article.
2. Prioritize tasks.
Once I’ve added tasks to Todoist, I’ll look at the Upcoming view and see all the tasks I’ll need to complete over the next seven days. You can see what I actually have on my task list at the time of writing this below.
I’m not as intense on task organization as other productivity geeks. I don’t use a lot of labels or tags or color-coding. I’ve tried to do those things and that level of organization ends up feeling like another thing to manage. I also don’t feel like I need that level of categorization and management for my system.
When I’m prioritizing my tasks, I think of how urgent and important they are.
As you know, not all things that are urgent are important.
At the beginning of every week, I look at the Upcoming view and I prioritize tasks by asking the following questions:
- Which important tasks do I have to complete this week?
- Which tasks, if completed, will unblock me or others on future projects?
- Which tasks do I personally have to do?
- Which tasks can someone else do better than me? Ask if they can take the lead on it.
- Is this important enough that I need to complete this task this week? If not, when should I schedule to complete this task? (in a week, in a month, three months, a year?
This is how I begin to whittle down my tasks and focus for the week.
I’ll often reschedule tasks to be revisited a month or more later.
For example, if you look at my tasks above, I had a task to buy a wedding gift for my friend Celina for nearly a year. It’s not that it isn’t important, but her wedding was postponed during the pandemic and I wanted the gift to be timely so I rescheduled it a year ahead of time for when I knew she would reschedule her wedding.
3. Schedule time for each task.
Now that we’ve decided the things that are urgent and important for the week, I give each task a time block to complete each day.
Sunsama, one of the newer all-in-one productivity tools, is helpful for this part of the workflow, but I’ll get to that later. For now, let’s talk about how to do this with Todoist.
Once I decide on what tasks I’ll focus on for the next week, I decide what day and time I’ll finish each task.
Each day, I’ll have at least one big project I want to make progress on. In total, I might end up with 3-5 big and small tasks each day. Here’s what that might look like using the kanban board view in Todoist.
When I was using Google Calendar and Todoist, I’d have them open side by side and add calendar blocks for the tasks I’d focus on each day.
I’ve learned to give a task at least 30 minutes by default, even if I think I can finish it more quickly (that’s the product manager in me speaking). I’ve found that tasks usually take longer than expected due to distractions and context switching (from Slack, email, my dog looking for attention, me not being able to resist my dog).
That buffer also helps psychologically because I’d rather finish something more quickly than I planned rather than stress about not finishing something quickly enough.
It’s a big morale boost if I do finish a task ahead of time.
For bigger projects, I’ll block out 1-2 hours for focus time.
Here’s an example of what my calendar might look like with generic task names as an example.
I schedule the following day at the end of each workday. This allows me the flexibility to take in new information from the workday to inform the next day of work and move things around if something more urgent and important comes up.
Sunsama makes this process easier because it integrates with Google Calendar, Todoist, JIRA, Trello, Gmail, Github, and a bunch of other task management apps so you can have all your tasks and calendar in one view.
All I have to do is drag and drop the task onto the calendar and it creates a calendar event for that task. When I mark the task done in Sunsama, it also marks it done in Todoist.
I use Sunsama for organizing and scheduling my tasks after capturing those tasks in Todoist. Though Sunsama also lets you create tasks, the task capture feature isn’t as powerful or convenient as Todoist’s.
Here’s what the main view in Sunsama looks like. I have my daily calendar view on the right and the tasks I want to complete each day in the middle.
Sunsama has functionalities that help manage workload and energy such as:
- Reminder to end the workday at a specific time (defaults to 5 pm but you can set this)
- Assign an amount of time to spend on a task
- Prompt to not overload a day with more than a certain number of hours of work (defaults to 8 hours but you can change this)
- A reminder to plan the next day’s work at the end of each workday
- A reminder to reflect on how the last week went
These features make it easier to schedule out my workdays and allow me to pull in tasks from Todoist, Asana, and convert emails into tasks as well.
I treat it like my cockpit that tells me what I’m supposed to be doing at a given time and gives me an overview of the rest of my day.
The interesting part of Sunsama is its founder, Ashutosh Priyadarshy, didn’t just build an app for you to add all your tasks or a calendar app just for scheduling tasks. He built an opinionated product that promotes a philosophy of work that involves a daily planner that reminds you to not overschedule your workday or overcommit to daily tasks.
What’s your task or energy management system?
Anything you do that you think would be helpful for me to try out? Let me know in the comments.