How to Use Due Dates Effectively for Project and Task Management
This is the fourth in a series of posts about my search for a simple, lightweight approach to personal productivity.
Ambitious people, like the people I coach, and probably you, juggle loads of projects and tasks for work and their personal lives. Many have some kind of system, whether it's digital or analog to plan and track it all.
If that sounds like you, then the big question is: Do you review your projects and tasks regularly? If so, how long does it take? 15 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour? A couple of hours? More?
I think most people who have adopted some kind of project or task management system find that as they put more into it and it grows in size and complexity, conducting a regular (weekly, we hope) review of it can become unmanageable. I wrote about this challenge in an earlier post in this series.
I ran into this problem myself and have been in the process of addressing it. As I wrote in the post I just linked to, I've been testing out a renegade approach to task and project management developed by Carl Pullein called The Time Sector Method. It's based, in part, on the assumption that you shouldn't be mixing time management with project management. One of the promised benefits of the method is that the weekly review of your projects and tasks will take a lot less time, because you're only planning when you're going to do your work and not how you'll be doing that work. So far, my experience with The Time Sector Method has been positive.
One of the biggest benefits of the Time Sector Method is that when I'm reviewing what's on my plate for the coming week and beyond, I don't get pulled into actually working on my projects. That had been a bigger problem than I realized, and it led to a very long weekly review of my projects and tasks. It could take so long that I often wouldn't complete it. I'd either run out of steam, or time. Or both. That led to concerns that I might be dropping the ball on something. Or several somethings. Following Carl's advice and just focusing on when I'm actually going to do my work over the course of a week and not how I'm actually going to do it, I can get through my weekly review in about an hour. And that's what I was hoping for.
But as I lightened up my weekly review by resisting in-depth project review, I noticed another element of my personal productivity system that tends to slow me down: due dates.
That's right. Due dates.
I had been taught that best practice in task management is to assign due dates, otherwise you might as well be tossing your tasks into a black hole as you're creating them. So most of my tasks had due dates, not all of them achieved. As a result, I was spending more time than I might have imagined reviewing overdue tasks and rescheduling them.
Some common 'wisdom' about due dates
Many approaches to project and task management encourage you — practically command you — to give each task a due date so that you've committed to doing it. But let's face it, how many of your tasks with due dates get rescheduled every day or just start to pile up into what appears on your screen as an angry red swarm of due dates gone by? If you're anything like me, more than you care to admit.
So I decided to break with another common convention of project and task management. Not every task is going to have a due date. If that makes you uncomfortable, I get it. After all, without due dates, won't you just forget about your tasks? Maybe even drop a few balls?
With a little common sense thrown into the mix, you won't. Let's figure this out.
The task management hell we're talking about here is a never-ending cycle of postponing and rescheduling tasks with due dates. If you do this (and you know who you are if you do), you have to stop and wonder how it affects your state of mind. Each time you reschedule a due date, you're acknowledging a failure no matter how minor.
Use due dates for tasks that are actually due
If a task actually needs to be done by a certain date, whether it's part of a project or a standalone task, then give it a date and ensure the task is visible to you as its actual due date approaches.
If your system allows for start dates and you find them useful, then use them. If your system doesn't allow for start dates, here's a simple hack. Schedule the due date for the day you plan to work on the task. In the task title, indicate the actual due date or deadline. I do this by adding 'HD MM/DD' in parentheses at the end of the task name. HD stands for 'hard deadline.'
An example would be Draft blog post (HD 03/31) with a system due date of 03/30.
In this example, I'm going to work on the draft on March 30, but I know that it has to be done by March 31, which is the "HD" or hard deadline.
Resist the temptation to subdivide a task with a due date into many subtasks, each with its own due date. Instead, consider a checklist and just be sure to keep the ultimate due date in mind. That way you're tracking only one due date and not several. Or a dozen.
Resist assigning a due dates to tasks that aren't actually due
Many people use due dates to signal an intention to do the work. That's all well and good, but other work and life commitments often get in the way. So the intention is just that, an intention. And the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Right?
The task management hell we're talking about here is a never-ending cycle of postponing and rescheduling tasks with 'due dates.' If you do this (and you know who you are if you do), you have to stop and wonder how it affects your state of mind. Each time you reschedule a due date, you're acknowledging a failure no matter how minor.
That can't be good for you. So stop doing it.
Create a CTW or 'Continue To Work on' task instead
Putting aside the worry that you might drop the ball on tasks that are actually due on a specific date (you can assign due dates to those and ensure they surface at the right time in whatever tool or system you're using), I've found that creating a 'master task' for a project is a helpful solution for avoiding the never-ending and soul-crushing cycle of due date rescheduling.
The master task, with a due date, represents when I'm going to work on that project next, but not an individual step (or task) in that project.
I usually write it as CTW [Project]
The CTW stands for 'Continue To Work on.' I believe the abbreviation CTW is something I picked up from Carl Pullein a long time ago. Since then, I've developed all kinds of helpful abbreviations like ROT (Reach Out To), GBT (Get Back To) and, my favorite HBF (Hear Back From). These abbreviations help me standardize and shorten my task names.
But I digress.
For each project or ongoing area of responsibility in your life (an 'evergreen' project like Home Maintenance or Business Admin), you'll have a CTW task — and that's what gets assigned a due date. And the due date should be the next day you plan to work on that project or area of responsibility. You're planning when you're going to work on your project or area, but you're not spending the time figuring out exactly which tasks in that project or area will be worked on that day. You'll have just one task with a due date to review, work on, and then reschedule — not dozens. When your project is complete, you can then mark your CTW task done.
A lot less rescheduling. A lot less implied failure. A happier and more confident you. Or me for that matter.
If you conduct or aspire to conduct a weekly review of your personal productivity system and it's taking a lot of time, stop to consider how you're using due dates. Are you setting a lot of due dates only to see them pass by and then reschedule them?
If so, then they're not actually due dates, and they're probably taking a lot of your time to set, review and then (sadly) reschedule. And all that rescheduling of your supposed commitments is probably making you feel bad about yourself to boot.
So do this instead:
- Set due dates that are actually due dates. Whether that's for projects or for the tasks in them. Whatever app or system you use, make sure your actual due dates are in there. And respect them.
- Don't set due dates for tasks that don't actually need to be done by a certain date.
- Start using CTW or 'Continue To Work on...' tasks to identify when you'll be working on a set of tasks in a specific project or area of responsibility. That CTW task can even repeat on a regular basis. You can still maintain individual tasks and checklists in a project or area of responsibility in your business and life, but they don't need to have their own due dates unless they're actually due at a specific time.
- If you want to indicate a start date for working on a task and the system you're using doesn't allow for it, then assign the start date to your task as the due date and then note the actual due date in the name of the task using the (HD MM/DD) format, with the HD standing for 'hard deadline.'
- Every week, conduct a high-level review of your projects and areas keeping their importance and urgency in mind. Then plan your project and area-related CTW tasks accordingly. Consider blocking time on your calendar to protect the time you need to do the work.
- Finally, review the individual tasks in your system that have true due dates associated with them. If appropriate, block time on your calendar to do them. Or ensure that there's a related CTW task scheduled prior to the individual task's due date so that you can be confident it will get done.
If you treat due dates with more respect and only assign them when they're truly called for, you'll be on your way to creating a personal productivity system that takes less time to maintain, and you'll feel better about the progress you're making.