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Managing tasks and activities

As a leadership advisor and strategist who works with executives from all sectors, I encounter leaders every day who work exceptionally long days with rarely a break, who are often are over-whelmed and stressed. Some organizations pride themselves on their culture of busy-ness where being in the office late into the evening, working weekends, sending emails at 3:00 am and answering smartphones during meetings is worn as a badge of honour. For most organizations, however, this is not a desirable state, but one which has evolved over time from staff cut-backs, the proliferation of technology and increasing stakeholder demands. This paper looks at two aspects of getting better control of your time.  Part I addresses how we manage ourselves and create energy and focus related to our work.  Part II looks at how to better manage and prioritize our work activities.

Tracking Tasks and Activities

A time-honoured tradition of time management is to write down the tasks that need to be accomplished. Utilizing systems of memory that are external to our brain is important.  While there are many advanced online and digital applications for doing this, a surprising number of leaders use low-tech simple solutions for keeping on top of things. It is recognized by many that carrying a pen and notepad for taking physical notes is more efficient and more satisfying than the electronic alternatives.

Tracking tasks and ‘to do’s’ externally is about clearing the mind.  When we have something on our mind – especially a ‘to do’ item – we’re afraid we will forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in something referred to as the rehearsal loop which is quite effective at helping us remember things.  Trouble is that it works too well, keeping items in rehearsal until we attend to them.  Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission for the brain to let them go, to relax its circuits so that we can focus on something else.

Categorizing and Prioritizing

The purpose of categorizing tasks is to provide a framework for managing and reducing the number of tasks on your list.  It all starts with a list of your tasks and “to do’s.

Using the attached Task Categorization Worksheet list all of your upcoming tasks and “to do’s”. There are a number of lenses to use to assess your tasks and what you can do about them. The following are ideas that have been identified by several of my clients as well leading experts on Executive Time Mastery. (Does this need to be capitalized? Is it a tv show or podcast?)

Categorizing By Importance

Categorize each task by where  it will make a difference and the impact it will make on results and outcomes.

  1. Minor impact on goal achievement and personal success – don’t bother doing it
  2. Some impact on goal achievement and personal success – consider impact of not doing it

Critical to goal achievement and personal success – needs to be done

Categorize by Urgency

Categorize each task by when it needs to be accomplished. There is an expectation that urgent tasks need to be done right away. When managing tasks you will need to determine if these tasks are actually urgent.

  1. Not urgent – don’t do it until there is some urgency
  2. Some urgency but not immediate – set a deadline in the future

Extremely urgent – expectation is that it is to be done right now

Categorize by Whether This is Something You  Are Good At

Categorize each task by your level of competence in achieving it.

  1. Incompetent – delegate, don’t even try to do it
  2. Competent – delegate or do it

Excellent – do it in the short term but transfer your skill to others where possible

Determine How Long Will it Take to Complete

Estimate completion time for each task.  Think of those that will take less than 5 minutes, less than one hour and greater than one hour.

Guidelines for Managing Tasks and “to dos”

  1. Once you have categorized each task and activity on your list decide on the best action:
  • Do it now (urgent/important/good at it/takes less than 5 minutes or during time blocked to do urgent/important/quick tasks)
  • Delegate it (as much as possible especially what you are not as good at it)
  • Defer it but ensure a time is scheduled to do it (task takes more than 5 minutes/not urgent). Block time in your calendar to complete each task.
  • Drop it (not important)
  1. Blocking time for specific activities is important for getting and maintaining control of your time.
  • Block a minimum of 1 hour per week for personal time and planning (i.e. no phone calls, no email, no interruptions). Some leaders do this on Friday afternoon to prepare for the following week. Others do it first thing Monday morning before the rush begins.
  • Block time for unscheduled meetings and last minute requests. The time required will vary, however, more leaders find the range between 1 and 3 hours per week.
  • Block 30 minutes per day to do the high priority/urgent tasks that take less than 5 minutes to complete.
  • Block specific times for responding to emails.
  • Block 1 to 2 hours per week as ‘flow time’ as outlined in Part I of this article. Flow time is a time of uninterrupted focus and concentration.
  • Block specific ‘open door’ times and let people know when this is. This may occur during the time identified for responding to emails but should not be when time if blocked for work that requires a concentrated focus.


  • The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin
  • Conquering Digital Distraction: ‘Take a Break’ by Larry Rosen and Fight Fire with Fire by Alexander Samuel
  • First Things First by Steven Covey

About the Author: Rob Cooke is a leadership advisor, strategist and coach.  Drawing on a strong background in business and organizational development, Rob utilizes his extensive consulting experience to help leaders address emerging challenges, seize opportunities and execute approaches to achieve personal, leadership and business goals.


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