Mastering productivity

How to write the perfect task to move work forward

This is a guest post by Hamza Khan

Imagine this all-too-familiar scenario: you open up your task list expecting to see a handful of bite-sized, manageable to-dos that can be completed within the confines of your workday. But as you begin to scroll down, you’re confronted by something which reads like a huge project: “Complete Final Report” or “Deliver Mockups.”

“Wait a minute,” you tell yourself, “What am I responsible for here? Who’s doing what? Where are the individuals deadlines?” About now, you’re probably ready for your third cup of coffee…

Vague tasks are often are comprised of several smaller tasks which, if unaccounted for, will throw your workflow out of whack when you’re nearing a deadline.

The good news is, there’s a better way to write your tasks. Not only will this technique help you overcome procrastination, it will ultimately give you the clarity and direction you need to move your projects forward quickly. Poorly written tasks will lead you to underestimate what actually needs to get done, when it needs to get done, and how it’s going to move your larger priorities forward.

A well-written task will help you work more effectively and efficiently. Without giving our tasks the required context, we risk getting blindsided by deadlines and scope creep. To move projects forward, it’s imperative that we finesse our task-writing skills. The ideal task includes four components:





Here’s how to use them:

1. Step

A task should begin with a verb, so write it down as an action. Imagine you’re applying to be a speaker at a conference. The deadline for the application is on October 3rd. You must know instinctively that the first step toward putting together a presentation is to write. Therefore, your task must begin with the word “Write.”

Now, the key to structuring your task is to recognize the difference between single step and multi-step tasks, and to write them out accordingly. For instance, “Email Sample Presentation” is a multi-step task which in and of itself doesn’t reflect the multiple steps which comprise it. You’re better suited to break it down into “Outline Presentation,” “Draft Presentation,” “Review Presentation,” and so on.

Spark Productivity trainer, Sue Becker, works with people and organizations that want to do and achieve more — and feel more fulfilled in the process. She put together a handy list of single step and multi-step verbs below that will help you structure your tasks. These words make it clear what specific action needs to be performed. Refer to this list when writing your tasks:

How to Write the Perfect Task

2. Details

Approach the details of writing a task like a journalist would approach writing a story.

Next, you’ll want to provide details about exactly what it is you’re doing. You know that you have a major report due. It’s worth including as many details in the task as possible so that you don’t have to search around to get the full scope of the project.

“Write First Draft of Marketing Team’s 2015 Final Report”

Approach the details of writing like a journalist would approach writing a story. Consider the 5 W’s. I personally default to:

  • Who? Who needs to take the action? Who needs to be involved? Who needs to know?
  • What? What is the purpose of task? What is the key information?
  • Why? Why is this task conducive to moving the project forward?
  • How? Especially if you’re assigning it to someone else, consider how you want people to complete this task. Don’t assume that people will know what to do based on the wording of the task alone. Provide as many details as possible.

It’s tedious, but answering these questions ensures that your task is understood upon the first read, and doesn’t require unnecessary back-and-forth clarifying questions. A task description might look something like this:

“The Boss Lady wants a detailed report (30-40 pages) of our team’s wins & losses during 2015. Refer to the documents: “Strategic Objectives 2015” as well as “Milestones 2015” in the Google Drive when compiling this report. The Boss Lady will use this report to inform budget allocation for 2016, so please be sure to highlight our major wins, especially that really successful campaign we did back in March. At the same, let’s also touch upon some areas for growth. When describing these fails, be sure to adopt a positive tone and focus on how we’ve learned from them. Let me know if you have any further questions!”

3. Deadlines

American author and time management guru, Diana Scharf Hunt, said, “Goals are dreams with deadlines.” But stated goals are just the beginning. To actually make ideas happen, every task must have a deadline. When it comes to setting deadlines, be sure to take an “underpromise and overdeliver” approach. Establish milestones between now and the ultimate deadline to keep you on track.

“Write First Draft of Marketing Team’s 2015 Final Report” (Due: September 23rd)

4. Context

And finally, provide additional details to help you prioritize this task. How long will the task take to complete? What type of work is this? Is it a priority, and at what level? Which project does it fall under?

“Write First Draft of Marketing Team’s 2015 Final Report” (Due: September 23rd) [Project: Marketing Strategy] [Tagged: Writing] [Tagged: 1 Hour] [Tagged: High Priority]

When you open your task list on any given day, you should see that you have to clear an hour of your schedule to work on the first draft of a marketing strategy final report due on September 23rd. With that level of clarity, all you have do is open up a Google Doc and start writing.

Mike Vardy, former Managing Editor at Lifehack, suggests using more meaningful contexts:

1. Energy-Based Context

Your energy fluctuates throughout the day. You might be more energetic and focused in the morning, and that might be the best time to complete tasks that require high cognitive capacity.

2. Time-Based Context

This is especially helpful during those pesky 15-30 minutes between meetings. Knowing how long a task will take to complete can help you make the most of your downtime. For instance, I filter my task list to find a few 5-minute and 10-minute tasks to crank out before the next meeting begins.

3. Priority-Based Context

Dwight Eisenhower said it best: “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” Indicating the priority-level of your tasks will give you more clarity around the order in which tasks need to be tackled.

4. Work/Life-Based Context

Some people choose to keep separate task lists for work and life. But if you only use one list, then it would help to specify which area of your life this task falls under. This is especially helpful for remote workers.

And so your task could read as such:

“Write First Draft of Marketing Team’s 2015 Final Report” (Due: September 23rd @ 10:00am) [Project: Marketing Strategy] [Tagged: Writing] [Tagged: 1 Hour] [Tagged: Urgent] [Tagged: High Priority]

Remember: ideas are easy, but turning them into a reality is a whole other story. Don’t let poorly written tasks get in the way of getting things done.

About the author

hamzaHamza is an award-winning marketer and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder of Splash Effect, a Toronto-based marketing agency at the intersection of higher education and digital technology. He is the editor-in-chief of Year One, a publication aimed at motivating people through periods of personal and professional transition. Hamza is also a professor with Seneca College’s Faculty of Business. He regularly speaks and writes on the subjects of productivity, startups, hip hop, marketing, leadership, peak performance and making ideas happen. His insights have been featured by 99U and numerous national media outlets and industry publications.

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