Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Task Management - Does anyone really have the answer?

I've read a lot of books on organizational skills, time management and project management, and yet I still struggle with task management. Because I'm managing a multitude of projects, I often, despite my best efforts, find myself in crisis management mode which leaves me feeling less than accomplished at the end of the day.

How does one balance working on a project, which for me requires uninterrupted time to focus, with multiple daily interruptions and a bunch of single straggler tasks that also need to be done outside of projects? Some of the books will tell you that you should start saying no to projects in order to lighten your load and to increase the efficiency with which you can complete the projects to which you have already agreed. In health care, this is an inordinately difficult task to accomplish, in my opinion. There is always the risk that if something doesn't get done, then patient care could hypothetically suffer. This is true of directing and maintaining information systems and services just as it is in providing direct clinical service to patients. While the impact of not providing direct clinical service has much more immediate impact to an individual patient, the impact of not correcting information system issues can have both an immediate and far more wide-reaching impact to much larger numbers of patients.

Electronic and paper-based management systems each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Calendars are definitely best left electronic, in my opinion, because of the advantages of others in my organization being able to query my calendar for meeting time. While this may seem like facilitating the interruptions previously moaned about, on the flip side these meetings would get scheduled anyway, and at least this way I don't have to take the time to search my calendar to find potential times for a meeting, e-mail that back to the sender, get the time and date for the meeting from the sender, and then manually schedule it in my calendar. Of course, sometimes we go through multiple iterations of the sending back and forth by e-mail when the electronic scheduling assistant is not used, and this is, quite frankly, highly annoying.

Task management systems, however, are another story. Most calendaring programs provide good task management for people who have less than 100 tasks in their master task list. For people with 40 projects and about 2000 tasks to be completed, these applications are lacking in that they don't have master task and child task capability that is formatted in an indented manner. If you are a Microsoft shop, as we are, then you know that Microsoft provides this capability, but it requires Microsoft Project Server Accounts which many institutions don't have. These have the additional advantage of tying in all of the people on your project to the same project planning file.

So what do you do when you don't have this? More importantly, what do you do to keep up when you don't have access to a computer to keep things up to date? PDAs can be helpful. My PDA is synced to our Exchange server; but I find that looking at tasks on my PDA is frustrating because of the limited view, difficulty in adding new tasks using the stylus (takes a lot longer than typing), and the amount of time it takes to pull 2000 tasks up into view.

I'm still in search of a good task management system that balances trying to complete about 40 projects at one time (some of which are quite large and time consuming; others not) with daily clinical service, teaching and research responsibilities. If anyone who reads this blog has any good suggestions, I'm all ears.


  1. Well, I'm not exactly sure as to the content of your 2000 tasks, but, I'd imagine that they are detail oriented for there to be so many.

    A suggestion I have, that I use (although I have farrr fewer tasks admittedly), the NOTE portion of each task in Outlook to contain the details and then I sort by priority. I suppose I have the added PITA of having to click on a task to see the sub-tasks contained within, but everything fits nice and snug on my smartphone...

    Another thing you might look into is Google Docs, especially if you have a smartphone. They have a task list script that you can use to get a To-Do function to the calendar. This is great for those on the go who can access their calendar on the go. An additional plus is that it's all stored safe in the cloud ready to be accessed when it needs to be.

    Finally, as far as getting things done, for me it's mental. I've found that each day, I have to set goals for myself, for example "I'm going to get these three things done." As long as I am reasonable in setting my goals, I find that I get more accomplished because I stay more motivated with a defined end-point in sight. I also use time-outs. If ever I feel overwhelmed, a deep breath goes a long way.

    Unfortunately, I'm not as familiar (as you mentioned most of us wouldn't be) with the enterprise-level software solutions you were talking about, but there certainly might be something out there that does meet your needs.

    Just my two cents :)
    -Karl (

    PS I found out about your blog over at digital pathology! (He gave us a shot-out!). It's very nice and I look forward to reading more! P)

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  3. (whoops, accidentally removed my post above. . .)

    I have found one system that works quite well. There is a very popular book called "Getting Things Done" by David Allen which lays out a system for dividing larger projects into smaller bite-sized tasks that can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. The "GTD" system is centered around a categorized to-do list and a simple filing system which you constantly update and refer to. Good to-do list and calendar software are essential, and since Allen's system has sort of a cult following of internet geeks, there are no shortage of options for how to implement the system.

    Personally, I require my calendar and to-do list be accessible from an device, from anywhere. Since I use Linux, Mac, and Window, it's got to be platform-neutral. What I use is an on-line to-do list manager called Remember the Milk (I can't recommend this highly enough) in combination with Google Calendar. I can access these from any device, including my phone.

    Anyway, you might want to take a look at the GTD book next time you're in Barnes and Noble. I really feel like it has been useful for me.

    --Kenny (