For 100 days, starting on the 1 August, I recorded every task I did in a spreadsheet. I set up the spreadsheet to count how many tasks I completed a day, which project they were for, and which of my four objectives they contributed to. All I had to do was make a note of what I did in the right cell.
I wanted to learn what I actually spend my time on. Most task management is about forward planning, and most task management systems are really bad at showing how you’re actually performing. They can only show you the tasks you had the foresight to add ahead of doing them. And whilst humans are really bad at predicting the future, spreadsheets are pretty good at tracking the reality of completed tasks.
How many tasks
Over those 100 days, I completed 1124 tasks, which averages 11.24 tasks a day.
On my least productive day I completed 2 tasks (I was on leave that day), and on my three most productive days I completed 21 tasks. On 35 days out of the 100 I completed 10, 11 or 12 tasks, which is right around the average.
Mondays and Tuesdays were my most productive days with 22% of tasks completed on each of those days. 20% of tasks were completed on Wednesdays, 19% on Thursday and 17% on Fridays.
How those tasks contributed to my objectives
I have four long-running objectives that align to the purpose of my role:
- Objective 1 had 251 (22%) tasks. This objective is about team performance and the number of tasks increased considerably for over half of the 100, but that provides an interesting comparison with the rest of the days.
- Objective 2 had 519 (46%) tasks. This is the most obviously role-aligned objective as it’s about managing our products, so it makes sense that it has the most tasks.
- Objective 3 had 91 (8%) tasks. This objective is long-term and organisationally-focused, so it’s the one that drops when I’m busy with the others.
- Objective 4 had 92 (8%) tasks. This task is operational, so although there aren’t many, there is a steady stream and they have to be done fairly promptly.
I also did 171 admin, or non-objective contributing tasks, which was 15% of the tasks completed. This feels broadly right. 15% of my tasks were finance, non-project related planning, reporting, etc. If it was 15% of my time it would three quarters of a day a week, but I don’t think it’s quite that much time.
What this system doesn’t do
There’s a lot it doesn’t do, but it is pretty good at what it does. It doesn’t:
- track how much time is spent on a task. It doesn’t matter whether a task takes two minutes or two hours, it’s counted as one task.
- consider whether they are the right tasks. Whether the task is urgent, important, or neither. Whether it unblocks others (possibly the highest impact type of task), or is some mundane admin task (although I hope I’m pretty good at avoiding these), it’s counted as one task.
- differentiate between planned and unplanned tasks. But that’s a fuzzy, and probably unhelpful, distinction anyway. How planned does a task have to be to be considered planned? If you know you have to do a task but you don’t know when you’ll be doing it, is it planned or unplanned?
Whether a task is planned or unplanned doesn’t seem important. Learning whether I’m doing the right tasks, and spending the right amount of time on them, does seem useful, although I’m not sure how it would affect my decisions about what to work on.
Things I tried and failed to do
I tried to make the system work more as a planner, but it hasn’t worked yet. I tried:
- setting monthly goals that aligned with my four objectives. I never came close to achieving them. A month is too long a time period to predict
- setting (and am still setting) weekly goals that align with projects I’m working on. At the beginning of the week, I usually set between 3 and 5 goals and then at the end, give myself a percentage of how close I came to the goal. Across all the weeks so far, my total completion percentage is 43%. That also represents how successful I think weekly goals are. They are better than monthly goals, but they serve more as reminders of thigs to get done than as actual goals.
- using what I completed last week to help me plan this week. I couldn’t find any helpful insight as so many other factors changed from one week to the next.
What I learned
Having the data is better than not having it. Without it, you’re just guessing at what you spend your time doing and how it contributes to goals and objectives. I’m definitely going to carry on tracking my tasks.
Recording what you actually did is far more helpful for understanding your work and how it contributes to your objectives than “planning” (AKA guessing) what you’d like to do in the future.
Medium and long term goals are better thought of as reminders rather than actual goals (especially given the point about not yet having a means of telling whether they are the right goals).
Shorter time periods are better. Planning day-by-day, I can get close to predicting what I’ll actually achieve, especially as I have historic data which tells me how many tasks I completed on similar days. Planning on a weekly basis yields less than half of the accuracy you’d expect. Monthly planning was more fantasy than fact. I can’t even imagine how planning quarterly or annually could be at all useful.