How To Get Things Done, Part 1: Capturing Tasks
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Six Questions That Lead to Mastering Your Tasks
Have you ever been making coffee, walking the dog, or picking up the kids from school when something urgent you need to do pops into your head? If you don’t capture that thought right away — poof — it’s gone. And while you might remember that there was something important you needed to do, you can’t always remember the details. Unfortunately, our memory isn’t the most reliable way to manage our tasks. Trying to rely on our memories instead of a to-do list can become a big source of anxiety for many of us.
Similarly, capturing action items is foundational for productivity when you're in work mode and taking notes in a meeting. If tasks aren't recorded, you risk showing up next time with incomplete work. You'll have wasted time and may have to rehash the same discussion in your next meeting. You can avoid this fate!
In this article, I'll talk you through everything you need to know to effectively capture your most important tasks. Unlock this skill, and your mind will be free to concentrate on getting the things done that matter the most.
What Is a Task, Anyway?
Tasks are about "doing things," not just thinking or talking about them. They're the things that impact our world. Completing tasks are how we move things forward, achieve results, and make a difference. But not all tasks are created equally. Some tasks are standalone, for example, "pick up laptop." Others form part of a larger project. For example, "prepare audience research findings" might fall within the larger task of "create product launch strategy."
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How To Capture Tasks Effectively
It's one thing to know what a task is — but the first step in getting things done is capturing these tasks effectively. By taking time to familiarize yourself with the elements of each task, you'll be able to include all the information you need to make progress. Consider the following six questions.
1. What does a good task look like?
First things first — what's your task? Specificity and action are the defining attributes of a good task. This is usually written as a verb plus a noun, like "Finalize design files." Sometimes a task only needs to be a few words as long as it clearly specifies the step you need to take.
Avoid being abstract when defining your task because it makes it harder to check things off. For example, "Project for Sales" doesn't give you nearly enough information, but breaking down the different sections for the report and creating a separate task for each one will.
2. Why does the task exist?
This is about context — so be sure to consider why the task exists. Suppose you've found yourself scribbling down a couple of abstract words in a meeting. In this case, you'll know that often when you look back on them, it's difficult to piece together exactly what you meant. Instead, capture as much contextual information as possible.
If you're taking meeting notes, make sure they're clear and concise. Rather than trying to jot down everything (which is impossible, by the way), focus on key details, clarifying questions, and action items. After a meeting, take a few minutes to review your notes and add any additional information while everything is still fresh in your mind.
3. How does the task get done?
This is where you add the details needed to complete each task.
If you find a task is sitting on your to-do list for ages — then 'task rot' has set in. When this happens, it can be a sign that you weren't specific enough about the task and how you will complete it. In this case, revisit the task and define what resources or approach you need to complete the task.
4. When does the task get done?
Now it's time to consider how long the task should take, whether other tasks must be completed first, and when you're going to set aside time to work on it. Estimating the duration is okay; you can always refine this over time. I like the 3-point estimation method, where you assign an optimistic estimation (if everything goes faster than planned), a pessimistic estimation (if it takes longer), and a most-likely estimation. Add these durations together, divide by three, and you'll have your 3-point estimate:
E = (O + P + M) ÷ 3
Once you've calculated your estimate, set aside a specific day and time to work on the task. Blocking time in your calendar to work on the task can help avoid losing time to context switching. Or in other words, jumping from task to task without making meaningful progress or feeling like you've achieved anything.
5. Who owns the task?
Some tasks are self-generated, while others may be delegated to team members or require working with external collaborators. If you're assigned tasks by others, you need to schedule these into your calendar in addition to providing updates to the task owner.
If you need team meetings to discuss the progress of these tasks, avoid falling into the trap of calling an agenda-less meeting. Instead, use an agenda template to clarify the goal of the meeting and what will be discussed to ensure each of you has what you need to complete your tasks.
6. Where is the task captured and managed?
Now the big question — where to keep all your tasks? A major key to success is to keep them all in one place rather than spread out over different apps, scraps of paper, and calendars. A productivity app like Sticky can help because it captures all your tasks from meetings, notes, and more. You can even sync meeting notes with tasks to individual calendar events, so you can quickly create an agenda, write follow-up notes, or easily assign tasks. Keeping everything all in one place means you can use your time to complete your tasks instead of wasting time trying to find them.
How To Get Things Done Like a Boss
Knowing how to effectively complete a task isn't an inherent skill we're born with. Instead, this is something that we learn and refine over time. Many of us struggle to remember everything we need to get done and battle with notes that don't contain enough information to complete each task. But with a few tweaks to the process, it's possible to take control of our task lists — and get more done in less time.
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