Putting Pen to Paper

Task management tips for the digitally unhip

by Joseph D. Conklin

I have a running challenge with myself: I try to be part of the digital age without being enslaved by it. I’m comfortable with PCs and laptops, and I am part of the Facebook and LinkedIn scenes. My organization uses Microsoft Outlook for email and scheduling meetings. But I don’t do Twitter or blogs, and I still keep my landline in case of cell phone tower outages. And I’m still not used to the idea of phones that double as cameras.

I am part enough of the Internet age to have only a dim memory of what it was like to organize an office before early technology supporter Al Gore and a few other talented people changed our world forever.

When it comes to managing my tasks, I still make do with pen and paper. In the course of my career, I have seen task management approaches that rely on complicated logs or electronic aids. They usually strike me as a solution in search of a problem.

If my job required extensive outside travel or communication with the general public, I suspect digital time and task management would loom larger. Currently, I have five major responsibilities at work:

  1. Reliability office liaison: I am one of several statisticians who code and update the programs used by the reliability office to evaluate new designs.
  2. Interoffice strategy meeting representative: For my department, I serve on the steering committee that oversees our division’s strategic plan.
  3. Database management team member: I help a group charged with managing product performance data provided by field reports and outside labs.
  4. Advisor on shared computing committee: I assess the possible impact of changes on my organization’s ability to provide statistical services during IT resources consolidation.
  5. Conference postings and papers coordinator: I arrange the submission of abstracts, dress rehearsals and internal department review of papers for presentation at professional conferences.

If your job resembles mine, I can offer you a network outage-proof routine that I carry out at the end of the workweek to assess my progress and plan ahead.

First, I create a list of current projects and the associated significant milestones (see Table 1 for a sample). The milestones under each project reflect deadlines 30-to-60 days ahead. Generally, my project lists remain current over the following two to four weeks. Milestones come from four sources:

  1. The department’s calendar of recurring services it provides at the same time each year.
  2. Updates to the department’s master list of project requests from other offices.
  3. Announcements in my supervisor’s weekly staff meetings.
  4. All-hands-on-deck meetings called for special or urgent situations.

Table 1

These four sources ensure my project list is always aligned with organizational goals. To ensure I set appropriate timelines and milestones, I also take regular notes in meetings and seek frequent clarification from my supervisor.

After the project list is in place, I finish Friday afternoon by preparing the task list for the upcoming week. It consists of two sections: one for meetings and another for the major to do’s. I leave space on the sheet to track issues during the course of the current week and to drive the contents of the following week’s task list.

The task list is a combination of my independent activities and things I must do to prepare for meetings. The tasks are prioritized by deadline; tasks without a due date that week fall to the bottom of the list. I sort tasks that do not have a deadline by order of importance. The lowest priority items settle to the bottom. Table 2 is an example of what a typical task list looks like on Friday afternoon after it’s drafted. Table 3 shows what it might look by the end of the following Friday.

Table 2

Table 3

The notes shown in Table 3, in conjunction with the project list, help me plan the following week. I always save the task lists from the previous month and review them when updating my project list at the start of a new month. They occasionally provide warning signs of pending problems to bring to management’s attention.

As an added bonus, the records provided by the task lists are invaluable during performance reviews. The lists help me remember all of my significant accomplishments throughout the year and allow me to contribute meaningfully to decisions about next year’s goals.

For example, a prospective reorganization may cause my department to have more interoffice visits in its future.

That could require the use of additional electronic communication and scheduling aids. I noted on my handwritten list to sign up for training — if I can only remember if it’s for the phone that takes pictures or the camera that makes calls.

Joseph D. Conklin is a mathematical statistician in Washington, D.C. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and is a senior member of ASQ. Conklin is also an ASQ certified quality manager, quality engineer, quality auditor, reliability engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt.

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