Time or Task management? Mastering a “Herculean” labor

Just incase you are not familiar with the labors of Hercules (I went to a secondary modern so I had to look them up – much to my wife’s (classics scholar) amusement) the second of his labors was to defeat the 9 headed Hydra.


Now Hercules had been set these tasks as part of his punishment for killing his family – pretty sure I would have enjoyed learning about this in school – and the point about the labors is that they were supposed to be impossible. And, much like our workload – not only does that seem an impossible task but very much like the Hydra’s head – you remove one task and another one spawns in it’s place.  In fact you could take the view that the quicker you complete tasks to move on to another one you are actually creating MORE work for yourself….

Now I am not advocating slowing down or missing deadlines of course so the point of this post is to convince you that perhaps our focus is better served on the management of tasks and not time.

For example – instead of creating a to-do list and then wondering how much time to allocate for it – focus on the priority/urgency of the task itself and then build in time to complete that task and that task alone.  Multi-tasking is a complete myth and we are doing ourselves no favours in starting one task, drifting to another and then distracted by a third.  It undermines our ability to complete the first task to the standard we and others would like and it creates a huge sense of frustration at the end of the day.

Top tips for Task Management

So, here are some top tips for task management.

1.  Care about deadlines – they matter.  They reflect on our professionalism to complete work and our colleagues depend on our ability to ease their workload and organisation.  I don’t want to create a sense of anxiety over this – just an awareness that sometimes the most important thing we can do is understand the importance of a deadline and plan accordingly….see tips

2. Evaluate the time taken versus priority.  If a task can take less than 5 minutes then get it done and pass it on.  It if can’t then add it to an action/to-do list and prioritise a block of time to work on it later.  Remember that we are far better served to focus on one task at a time so use your calendar/planner and find a quiet space to get through the tasks in the order of their priorities.

3. Have a clear outcome of what it is you need to accomplish.  The beginning is not always the best place to start.  Think about what a great task/work/outcome would be then your steps to completing it will be clearer.  Plus, if you need the input of someone else then you can send that out with plenty of time to get it back and complete (assuming they also subscribe to point 1)

4. Find out when you are most productive and front load those important or creative tasks in that slot.  I certainly function better in the morning and early evening so I block my time then.  You will have different optimal times or your timetable might not allow your first choices all of the time but at least recognising that you can not be tip-top all of the time means you are creating better conditions for you to succeed and feel better about completing tasks.

5. Use a to-do list.  Some people poo-poo these but I NEED a platform to de-junk my inbox and make sure I don’t forget things.  I hate a full inbox and get a great deal of comfort from seeing a zero inbox – not all of you will and I know some people keep all their mail in the inbox (shudder) but a to-do list can be a great tool in clearing your head and making sure you don’t forget things.  Here are some suggestions;

    • notebook – obvious but even in the digital age I still like to use a diary for notes on my desk
    • Todoist – https://todoist.com/ works on Android and Apple and have used this before – good for setting reminders and you can send emails to it with the premium version
    • Wunderlist – https://www.wunderlist.com/ another well established app that works on any device
    • Trello https://trello.com/ is a visual list using boards rather than items – used by lots of top companies and easy to set up
    • Any.do https://www.any.do/ is excellent and I have used this a lot.  Easy to set up and sync tasks to – useful reminder system
    • Google Keep https://keep.google.com/u/0/ free and easy to use – bit like Trello really.  Think of electronic post it notes and you have it
    • Omnifocus – https://www.omnigroup.com/omnifocus this is the one I use – Mac only and costs but it is exceptionally detailed and helps me organise my tasks and projects.  Takes a while to set up but is the best software I’ve seen and the only reason why I have moved away from Todoist and Any.do

6. Have one slot in a week where you de-junk.  Take all the notes you’ve left yourself, all the emails with tasks and jobs to do and tick off the ones you have completed and then set time over the next week for the ones you need to attack.  This review is hugely important in giving you the confidence that you haven’t missed anything and that you can look forward to your off-work time with the knowledge that you can pick up whatever needs completing in the next week.

7. Ask for help – it is not a sign of weakness to struggle to a deadline – it will not be viewed as a failing on your part if you see your line manager or a colleague and ask for some help with a task or wider workload – it is possible to tame your workload but it needs some careful thought and some tools.

There will never be more hours in a day nor should you aim to fill whatever time you have with work.  You do need to be organised and tackle tasks in a strategic and disciplined fashion so that you can ring-fence your time to switch-off and do the things with your family and friends that we aim to enjoy in life.

How did Hercules destroy the Hydra?  He enlisted the support of his nephew and methodically worked through one head at a time before he reached the supposedly immortal head and then removed that.  Much as we should tackle our workload – one task at a time with the support of our friends and colleagues.

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