Get it done today

Improving Productivity when you Telecommute

In a previous post (Routine vs. Flexibility), I mentioned my daily task list being part of my routine. This post will expand on my views of being productive with the task list.

In my 2 decades of remote work, I have found the single most effective productivity aid has been the Daily Task List. This is only my take on it.

The Daily Task List: How I do it

1. The list includes only tasks that I will start and finish today.
By design, I try to carve every project or assignment up into smaller tasks. If your task list contains too many items to get done in a single work day, you will feel overwhelmed. You will likely get stuck trying to figure out what to do first, and it will cause stress. Finally, if you are the type that doesn’t like to leave anything undone, this will cause you to work many more hours than your life balance would find healthy.

2. Every task should take no more than 2 hours to complete
For my working rhythms, 2 hours is the maximum planned time for any single task. I need breaks after 2 hours, and I find that as a remote worker, I can usually work undisturbed for 2 hours without issue. (Of course, I have dogs and cats, and they don’t care about my list!) If you have a task that is going to take more than 2 hours, consider breaking it up into smaller tasks. This helps me be productive and feel good about accomplishing things.

3. Add your personal tasks to the same list
A challenge many telecommuters have is mixing business and personal activities together. Sure, in an ideal world, you want to do nothing of a personal nature until after work. But let’s be realistic here: you work at home because of the flexibility or perhaps the need to do personal stuff during the day. Don’t fight it, work WITH it. Just be sure that your personal tasks don’t overtake your work tasks. Need to send a few personal emails today, no problem, put them on your list, and when you need a break from work, do them!

4. Don’t  over schedule, surprises happen
I typically plan to complete up to 6 hours of tasks in a day. This is a guideline only. Things come up. Some tasks take longer than anticipated. Your boss calls and drops an urgent task in your lap, etc. Account for this in your day. If nothing comes up, than you can decide to finish early, or take on a task from tomorrow. However, if something does come up, you can minimize the damage to your productivity and schedule.

5. Plan ahead, but not too far
I am a planner. I have a big picture plan for weeks at a time, but I don’t actually add items to daily task lists that far in advance. I will most often make tomorrow’s list at the end of the day today. Sometimes I will have tasks in future days, but usually only when those have to be done on a specific day. This allows me to make minor adjustments constantly.

6. When you’re done, you’re done
When I finish today’s tasks, I am finished work. Period. If that is after 6 hours or 10 hours, it doesn’t matter.  Am I saying be a slacker? Not at all. What I am saying is that as a teleworker, you have many fewer interruptions than you would at the office. Use that to your advantage and get your work done quicker. What you do with that extra time is up to you. This is the best benefit of working at home. In my job, I am evaluated on what I accomplish, not the hours I put in. When I used to manage remote workers, I told them that I was not evaluating them on the hours they put in, but whether they were getting their job done well. If that took 35 hours a week, good for them. If that took 50 hours a week, then some coaching was needed.

The Daily Task List: Why does this work for me

1. Gratification
It feels good to see what I’ve done and what I’ve got left to do
2. Lowers stress
I don’t feel as stressed out as I would if I had this 30 item list of items to do. I know people who work that way, and they are constantly complaining about how much they have to do. I don’t care about what I have to do tomorrow, that’s tomorrow’s problem.
3. Improves “on-time performance”
I generally beat deadlines because I’ve got the bigger picture all planned out. I know what needs to be done and when, and I work hard to follow it. If you’re staring at a jumbled list of stuff with no organization, it is harder to get it done on time.
4. Minimizes distractions
Work from home distractions get minimized because I am focused on what I need to do today. I can’t stream that entire TV season on Netflix because I’ve got this list of stuff to get done today.
5. Lessens procrastination
I suffer less procrastination. If I know what I have to do today, and tomorrow, I know that if I put it off today, I’ve just made tomorrow that much worse. Sure, it still happens, but not as frequently.
6. Defines boundaries
When you work at home, many friends and family think you’ve got all kinds of time to do other non-work stuff. Having a list for today helps you define these boundaries. This is what you have to do today. Is there room for your spouse’s project? Do you have time to meet a buddy for lunch? Check the list.
7. Increases flexibility
Because I’m not managing my day by the clock, I can be more flexible about when I work. Not all telecommuters can do this, but my job has few time requirements when I have to be available. (I don’t have to cover a shift, for example) If I need or want to take a 2 hour lunch break, I can task my way into that without feeling like I have to work late to compensate.

These tips can help both telecommuters and office workers alike.

How do you keep yourself productive? Do you use a task list?


3 thoughts on “Get it done today”

  1. I really struggled with #6 yesterday, I started at 6.30am then I should have finished around 2pm – but ended up working much later because I couldn’t step away. The tasks could have waited until today.

    1. You’re not alone there! Stopping work when the tasks are done is always a challenge for me too. It takes a long time to get into the mindset that you don’t have keep working just for working. And you know, working tasks not on the list for today just messes up your plans for tomorrow too! Look on the bright side: you could be working later because you can’t get your today tasks done! Now that would be much worse….

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