Task Management – Stepping out of Emotion’s Shadow

This blog was originally posted in the December 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

Tasks are central to a workday, after all that’s what work is: a collection of tasks that support the reason why any person is employed. But tasks have both an emotional and rational component, and when the two of these are not in sync, delays and inefficiencies occur.

The primary emotional component has to do with whether a person likes the task or not. The liking of a task can be linked to the actions of the task, its end result, or even the person or cause for which the task is being done. If a task is pleasurable, it is easier to take on. By contrast, tasks that are boring, disagreeable, or in some way not in sync with an individual’s motivations, become unpleasant and easy targets for procrastination or distraction. There is an instinctive aversion to unpleasantness that all humans experience.

There is a secondary emotional component at play as well, and this has to do with a person’s ability to actually anticipate with any degree of accuracy, just how long a task will take. Most people, by default are optimistic when it comes to time assessments. They believe a task or a meeting will just take an hour, when in fact twice that amount is necessary. Humans are equally bad judging distances and managing money. All of these things are too esoteric for the brain to handle.

This is why, in the project management world, tasks are broken down into units, often called Work Units. If a project manager recognizes that it takes an employee precisely six minutes to open a laptop, log on, locate a file, read the file, save it to a USB drive, eject the USB correctly and then log off the computer, that entire sequence, once tested a few times, can be identified as a Work Unit. Consequently, when planning the resources and time needed for a project, and when breaking project tasks down to their smallest discreet sizes, the project manager can calculate with reasonable accuracy how long things will take and how much they will cost.

People don’t do enough of this on a day-to-day basis. Imagine this, for example: an IT manager asks you how many emails per day you deal with. The first question becomes, “what do you mean, ‘deal with?’ Do you mean how many I receive, or send or both? So immediately there is vagueness around the task of handling email. If the project manager’s answer is “both,” then the answer often becomes, “Well, it depends on the day.” Only when pushed further will someone give a reasonably accurate answer: twenty per day. Fifty. One hundred.

The next question the project manager will ask is, “how long, on average, does each of these emails take?” This is obviously an unfair question, since emails vary from thirty seconds to many hours, if a request for extra work is involved. But that’s precisely the point. People often approach tasks in an ad hoc candid fashion, and the task of reading and responding to a new email distracts the reader emotionally. They no longer are aware of the time it takes to do something they are already caught up in.

The solution to all events that are dominated by emotion is to balance that emotion with logic. The logic in the case of emails is to categorize emails into four or more categories: ones that take less than thirty seconds, those that take up to two minutes, those that take up to five minutes, and those that require work/research/reading that will extend beyond fifteen minutes.

This last category of emails should no longer even be considered emails: they are appointments. If the work involved requires fifteen minutes (or more) then the email should actually be physically dragged across onto the face of the calendar to become an actual event. This makes it real, in the mind of the employee and of anyone else who might need that employee’s attention. This is real work, and must be treated as such.

As for the other categories of emails, these should be parsed – how many of each per day – and then assigned a block of time in the calendar.

Imagine that after analyzing email in this fashion over a sample two-week period, an employee recognizes that fully two hours of every day must be given over to email. What if she were to then block off a recurring two-hour block, every day, for email? It is quite a disturbing sight to see so much of a workday, possibly as much as twenty-five percent, being swallowed up by email alone. It forces the question, “is all of this email truly necessary, and if not, what can be done to trim it back?”

Obviously, no-one is expected to deal with their email in one contiguous two-hour block per day – that would be unrealistic. But identifying and symbolizing the total amount of time required per day helps counter the casual emotion-dominated approach people have to this particular task, and bring it down to earth with a thud, where they are better able to assess it more clinically.

This approach to task management – identifying work units inside casual activities, is not exclusive to email. It is recommended that all tasks of all types, from meetings to travel to self-directed work, be analyzed as work units, so that their durations can actually be planned and influenced in advance.

This is one of the keys to proactive time management, born out of the science of project management and applied to the day-to-day.