Gung Ho Blog

Focus Up, Do More, and Stress Less

The Strategies of Effective Task Management

Productivity relies on more than sheer force of will. Powering through a mess of tasks at the expense of your sanity isn’t the same as efficiency. Even if you get a lot done, most people are left feeling unaccomplished or overwhelmed at the end of the day. Why? Because most things we agree to do are time-sucks and don’t actually contribute to our overall growth. We all do it: We all say yes to things that we don’t have time for, and overextend ourselves to breaking points in pursuit of finishing unimportant tasks in addition to our daily workload.

Then there are those who can’t even face their to-do lists and tend to blame distractions, or the lack of time in a day for why they can’t do as much. To them, it’s all a stressful, disorganized blur and making the to-do list isn’t enough to get motivated.

What’s really the problem in these two cases? If you had more time would you get more done? Or would you simply do more stuff without really furthering your goals? It’s hard not to get bogged down in daily minutia, and it can be daunting to try to get Every Single Thing done, but there are basic and manageable ways to combat these problems.

Here are ways to conquer stress and get more done in a day:

Create focus

I can’t emphasize this enough: Creating focus is the most important step because it sets you up to succeed. Focusing on what is truly important and valuable to you will help you curate your list and goals. Skipping this step can lead to a person focusing on the wrong thing, or too many things at once, which will indeed keep you busy, but not in the way you want. Focus is all about priority, and staying productive comes from having clear goals — and a trustworthy way to maintain them.

Maintain your goals with a task management strategy

Your brain creates stress when you are (a) constantly reminded of things you need to get done in moments when you cannot do them — for example in bed at night — and (b) when you realize you cannot get something done that you were supposed to, and now need to figure out what to do about it — in essence, creating even more tasks for yourself. To overcome these two mechanisms for stress, you need to:

  1. Find a good place to write down every task you have to do now and in the near future. This step can be a brain dump of every task you can think of because the goal is to get it all out. This step gives your brain a break, allowing it to switch off “reminder mode.”
  2. Try to group your tasks into categories like family, work, etc, and prioritize them by determining what is more immediate and what is further out, keeping in mind that long term goals may need immediate day-to-day action, and that priority is about more than just due date. (You can make your list on paper or use a productivity app. I created an app called Completo that facilitates this kind of prioritized list building for you.)
  3. Now, review all the tasks that you’ve written down in your list. Think about what the top three to five important areas of your life are. Categorize your tasks in those terms and see which ones fall into the important categories and the ones that don’t. You’ll see that at least half of your tasks aren’t really that urgent. This will free you up to stay busy with what’s most important to you.
  4. Within this pared-down list, choose your top three tasks for the week and prioritize them over everything else. Say to yourself “these things get done no matter what comes up” and then whenever you have a moment be sure to spend some time progressing them forward.

Stay flexible but don’t lose sight of priorities

Be sure to execute this strategy daily and weekly, but know that there isn’t such a thing as a “perfect week” so don’t cram the week full of tasks before you even start. Leave some room to be dynamic and deal with the real world effect of surprises happening.

Note: Your brain isn’t wired to multi-task, so don’t worry about trying to do everything all at once, but at the same time try not to get caught up spending the whole day focusing on one thing. Work on one thing until you can’t progress further and then move to the next priority item. Most of my own tasks involve calling someone, emailing someone or doing some further research. While I’m waiting for the answers to come back from these communications, I keep moving through the rest my tasks while keeping my priorities in view.

Setting yourself up each day with your prioritized list will help you maintain focus throughout the day. This ensures that no matter what distractions or interruptions you face, your goals will be in place and your productivity will be more tangible as a result.

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Get F$#%* Dressed! How Applying Lean Management to My Toddler Saved Me Two Hours a Day

My toddler takes forever to get ready in the morning — somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour and 15 minutes. Needless to say, this routine needed some adjustments. Especially since time management is What I Do (I even made the apps to prove it) and my wee one was putting my reputation on the line here with his freestyle schedule. So, I did what I do in any situation of inefficiency: I made a factory floor Visual Management board and a Standard Work checklist.

And it worked. If you have a kid between the ages of 2 and 5 you’re gonna want to use this.

But first, a quick rundown of terms:

Visual Management is a lean tool that uses mostly images to convey how something works, it drives efficiency in factories and businesses.

Daily management is a lean tool that encourages a daily stand up at a whiteboard to talk about what needs to get done. It keeps everyone on the same page and helps keep progress going since it’s daily. Software developers adopted this concept more recently, and may refer to it as kanban boards, daily scrum, or agile development but it’s basically the same thing.

Standard Work is a lean tool that creates a standard expectation day after day to make sure everything is taken care of, and within a certain time period.

All of the above were the tools used in the creation of this board. Obviously my son didn’t know that — I’m obsessive but not quite to the point where I’m preaching about lean management to a three-year-old (yet). Still, it was these very methods that led to the huge time saving (or productivity saving as it would be called in lean) the board has delivered.

Don’t get me wrong, I make no claims to being the first parent to come up with this idea. Lots of parents make charts, chore wheels, and visuals for their children to follow, but something that tends to get overlooked is the element of ownership. My boy had to be involved in making the board for this visual to work.

For instance, he chose all the pictures for the chart. I did the search of what I wanted to convey and he chose the pictures that he understood best, and of course, the funniest pictures were his favorite.

He also helped me laminate the pics, print the images, cut out the cards, put magnets on the back to stick to the board — all of this meant he felt like it was his and he made it, it was not something thrust upon him. We picked them to convey the message because he can’t read yet, but also because in lean we always try to use images (even for adults) because the brain processes images faster than text. Images are especially useful in a workplace with international clients or coworkers whose command of a given language can vary.

All of the images are attached to magnets so we can add or take away things over time. The board changes, and he rolls with the changes. This has simultaneously made him feel more comfortable about both structure and change. Not only that, but he sees what’s coming for the week ahead and can prepare accordingly. Previously, he would feel anxious about going to pre-school. Now, he sees the pre-school days coming way ahead and so when the day arrives he is totally ready.

The Board

  • The top of the board is the days of the week. They’re listed out with the picture of the god that the day was named after and with the planet the day is associated with. This makes it easier for him to understand the different days and makes it easier to remember than just a word. Also, the days have the name written in English and Spanish so I tell him both names to improve his Spanish.
  • The bottom right of the chart is his evening checklist.
  • The bottom left of the chart is a morning checklist. He looks at the pic then does the action, say brush teeth. Then he checks it done. The act of checking something done for him seems to be as important as it is for an adult, he really gets a good feeling from it.

The best part is, he seriously enjoys all this stuff now. Before this, it was a huge chore to get him to brush his teeth and get dressed in the morning, and bedtime was pretty much a nightmare, too. Now, instead of saying “it’s time to get ready for school” or “it’s time to go to bed,” all I have to say is, “c’mon let’s do the board,” and he loves it — really loves it. In addition, it’s easier to help him with his tasks since he already knows what needs to happen, and it’s fun to see him enjoy them. An added bonus is that my wife and I can look at the board to see what needs to get done, instead of each of us mistakenly assuming the other took care of it.

It now takes about 15 minutes to get him ready in the morning, with zero fighting, whining or tantrums. And the other night he wanted to go to bed early just to do the board. Parents, you know what I’m talking about here — those tantrum-free minutes back in your day are pure gold.

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The Worst Way to Manage Your To-Do List

Are you managing your life with a calendar? Here is why you need to stop.

If you manage your to-do list the way most people — and companies — do, it’s probably heavily reliant on the calendar. Maybe you set milestone dates leading up to the launch of a big project, or share a calendar with family members or colleagues to share tasks and progress updates. It’s a process that will help you keep track of what’s due and when, but it’s not one that will actually help you get things done. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the calendar is the most inefficient way to manage your time. Here’s why: What’s due this week or this month may not be the highest priority item on your list.

Organizing your to-do list by priority first ensures that you’re always on top of what’s truly important to your business or your life. And that doesn’t mean you throw dates away entirely — they’re still important. But starting with a priority ranking first will ensure that you’re spending the bulk of your time knocking the most valuable to-dos off your list. More importantly, if you’re focusing more on the projects that deliver the most value to your life or your business, rather than being ruled by the calendar, you’re likely to be more productive and get more out of your time.

Not buying it? Following are a few more reasons I think people need to drop their obsession with the calendar:

  • Reminder Overload. What I often see happen to people who run their days by the calendar is that reminders begin to stack up, but there’s no hierarchy to them, which gives the sense of everything being urgent. Pretty soon you’re being overwhelmed by reminders, and once you’ve got more than three or four, you’re likely to just ignore them all. You become numb to the reminder and it becomes pretty useless.


  • You’re Planning for a Perfect Week That Doesn’t Exist. If you schedule everything, you’re planning for a perfect week and that doesn’t exist. There’s always more immediate problems that come up, so in today’s world you have to be flexible, you have to be a little bit dynamic. When you say these things will happen on these days, you’re not leaving room for reality. The stuff that’s not due until the end of the week you’re likely not to get to in time, and the stuff that’s due at the start of the week will often get pushed back because you think you have time. All of a sudden everything is urgent.


  • It Ensures Procrastination. If you schedule a high-priority task for Thursday, and you find yourself with spare time on Monday, it’s unlikely that you’ll use that time to do Thursday’s task. Instead, you’ll do something else with that time and wait until Thursday to take care of the high priority task. A general manager I know has a sales report due the same day every month and for years he was in the habit of always waiting until the morning it was due to start it. Then inevitably he’d run out of time and turn the report in a day or two late. He’s not a lazy guy, he’s just busy, and because he leaves it to the schedule rather than organizing by priority he just never has enough time to get it done. Once he switched to organizing by priority he would work on the report in spare moments throughout the month, and finally hit the deadline.


  • You May Not Be Getting the Right Things Done. Instead of a calendar of due dates, you need a reliable list that says here’s the order in which these things need to get done. When you have a list of 3, 5, even 10 things, it’s rare that you can sit down of an afternoon and get one thing done. Yet this is how we tend to think of tasks: I’ll set aside two hours on Thursday to get that report done. In reality, you’ll usually start on one task, then hit some sort of a stumbling block — maybe you need to do more research, or you need input from someone else and need to wait to get it from them. If you’ve got a list going, you just move on to the next thing while you’re waiting, and so on down the line. By the time you’re in the middle of task three, maybe you’ll have heard back from the person you were waiting on to complete task one and you can cross that off your list. It’s not so much multi-tasking, as doing as much as you can on each thing before moving on, so all of a sudden by the end of the week, you’ve finished some key tasks and are well on your way to completing others.


  • You’re Separating Your Life Into Two Lists. Generally when you manage everything by a calendar, you’re managing your work and family calendars separately — maybe you’re using different colors or different accounts — but whatever it is, they’re two separate things. The reality is you’re living one life and you need to be able manage both those aspects of your life in one place. The tendency when they’re in separate calendars or lists is to always prioritize work. When you have all of your life’s priorities in one list, it’s easier to keep your personal commitments and strike a better work-life balance.


  • It’s Easy To Fool Yourself Into Thinking You’re Getting More Done Than You Are. With the calendar, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that because you had a lot of meetings and talked to a lot of people you got a lot done, but when you look at your task list, you might realize you only got 5 things done. The task list keeps you a little more honest, forcing you to be more efficient with your time, and more accountable for how you’re spending it. It ensures that you’re actually being productive and not just hitting every meeting in your calendar.

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