A few weeks into my job with BioWare, way back in ’99 I found myself overwhelmed. The tasks just kept piling on and while it was fun and exciting I was starting to get a little stressed. I think up until that point I had only received a few dozen e-mails in my entire life and now that was how many I was receiving every day.
And most of them were asking me to do more work. Eeeek.
I developed some task management systems for myself that worked more or less for my entire career with BioWare, needing a bit of tweaking along the way. Here’s a short discussion on what worked (and an example of what did not).
One quick way to get more done is to improve the process itself. If something takes forever to do (and you have to do it a lot) get it improved, even if it results in a short-term expenditure of time that you think is not worth it.
For me, on Baldur’s Gate 2, the thing I hated most was that there was no script editor. Scripts were being written in notepad and then compiled by a command line compiler. Commands were confusing and hard to look up.
So I took a weekend and wrote a scripting editor (that through some ego googling I realized is still being used by the end user community that mods Baldur’s Gate). This was a simple text editor with crude syntax highlighting and the ability to press a button to compile scripts.
I could now get more done in a day.
Likewise I converted any tasks I received into checklists. Made it easy for me to know what was done and what was not when I was asked. (Obvious I know but you’d be amazed at how many people do not do this, constantly having to re-examine what they have and have not finished when their manager asks).
Purge Thy Email
I made sure that I answered all my email every day (I tried to continue this process even when I started getting a hundred or more emails a day, did not quite succeed but I was always prompt in replies). I categorized my email and tried to reply to everything (i..e, “okay, got that”). Tasks were then moved to my task checklist and the email moved to a ‘deal with later’ folder so that I could remember to reply to the person when the task was completed. I tried not to keep emails I had read already in my inbox (i.e., why read them every time I cleaned the inbox).
I learned quickly to under-promise and over-deliver. This was probably my most effective task management strategy. Not only did it look good (i.e., I always got more done than I said I would AND I did it faster than I said) but it also let me pay attention to my estimates and modify them as I realized how long it had actually taken me to finish the tasks (workers who are constantly behind on their tasks, I think, don’t have take the time to really understand the time they are spending; I could and did).
My estimates improved (though I always continued to under-promise/over-deliver). I was able to build personal schedules and see my entire task load in a global view. I realized I had time to finish all my tasks. Gradually I got less stressed (at least until I joined management).
Caveat! While following this philosophy gives you the appearance of being a diligent worker you still have to get a reasonable amount of tasks done! I couldn’t have gotten away with small workloads and huge timelines. You have to be realistically realistic.
Also be careful not to apply this philosophy to the quality of your work. Don’t say things like “I think this level sucks but maybe you might kinda sort of tolerate it, no?”
I’ve seen a few editors (for short story magazines) say they get this kind of cover letter all the time (and I saw it a bit as a design manager). If you are not confident in what you’ve written/designed you need to make it good before you show anybody else.
If you do like it and think its awesome but say it sucks to mess with the other guy’s expectations, well, you are just being weird. If you honestly don’t know whether it is good or not then say so but as a designer you really should know, at least the difference between terrible and great. The line between okay and not-okay, might be harder to differentiate until you are more experienced.
Don’t promise too much and kill yourself trying to be a hero. But don’t undersell your skills either.
You will always have multiple, simultaneous tasks. Don’t work on them all at the same time. Get one task done and only then move to the others. One exception would be if you are blocked on the current task (i.e, waiting for an e-mail reply to a question), then it makes sense to move to the next task (and try to complete THAT task even if it means delaying the first). Moving your attention span and concentration between multiple tasks kills your efficiency.
What Did Not Work
I wrote my own task management software once. While this was helpful for honing my estimates and automated a lot of my task management, I could not easily share the data with anyone else. If your company does not have a task management tool it is best to use something simple like Excel because it can be easily modified to work with a variety of systems.
Don’t spend too much time trying to make a task 100% efficient when 90% is good enough.