14207_8104Emails. Memos. Project descriptions. It’s not uncommon to have a stack of communications each day that we have to translate into tasks that we can actually make a little progress on. It’s a skill that is becoming more and more important if you want to actually maintain a reasonable level of productivity. Even if you plan to say ‘no’ to any of the requests coming your way, you still have to identify them first.

  1. Scan for requests
    More than a few people will bury their requests in polite communications. In between questions about your family and catching you up on what’s actually been done of a project, they’ll slip in something along the lines of “I need you to…” or “Could you…” or “Please take care of…” These words are like tags, noting what part of a particular memo or email is actually the task you need to complete. Jump right to them and skip all the long lead-ins in order to process requests faster.
  2. Look for action verbs
    Not everyone uses the phrases that make requests easy to identify. Stating the specific task is equally common — and such statements can typically be found by scanning a document for action verbs. Some action verbs can translate into big projects — or are difficult to actually translate into a task. Action verbs are easy to find but aren’t easy to act on.
  3. Take the sender into account
    Comprehending just what someone’s asking you to do is an issue of context. While it’s nice to think that we can just flip through a list of email messages and pluck out tasks with ease, the fact of the matter is that you have to at least read who sent you each message to provide the context of what the message means. After all, if your mom asks you to help her with a website, the request means something far different than if your supervisor asks you to help her with a website.
  4. Find the first step
    For the larger projects that get dropped on your desk, don’t bother trying to plan out a whole time line immediately. That, in and of itself, is easily a large task. Instead, identify the first step you really need to take and make a note that planning out the rest of your approach is also on your to-do list. There’s not always an easy way to identify a first task immediately, but if you routinely work on similar projects, you can probably guess what the first step will be on your next assignment.
  5. Process first
    There’s some debate over whether you should try to accomplish small tasks as you become aware of them. Personally, I stick to processing all but the smallest tasks first. For instance, as I read my email, I generally make a note of what I need to do to take care of whatever question, problem or specific task I find in my emails. I can process faster when I’m not stopping to complete minor tasks.
  6. Get everything in one inbox
    Even if you have to move around messages yourself having one inbox where you can sort through everything can make it easier to extract information from all the emails, documents and more that get passed your way. It especially helps you see when you’re getting the same request through different channels, minimizing the chance you’ll duplicate your work. Even if you’re just picking up a pile of papers and moving them to your physical inbox, you can help speed up the time it takes to process this sort of information, just by having it all in one place.
  7. Ask for clarification
    One of the few things I will do while processing new tasks is to get any necessary clarification. If there’s anything at all that confuses me, I immediately send an email requesting any necessary details or clarifications so that I can be sure that I’m adding the right task to my list. If you’re not sure that you’re correctly interpreting a message, go ahead and confirm you’re thinking the right way: send back an email restating the task and ask for a little confirmation.
  8. Avoid skipping complicated questions
    Skipping an email or memo and promising to come back to it later is an easy way to make sure something slips between the cracks. Rather than avoiding complicated requests or tasks, get them out of your inbox now. That doesn’t mean that you have to figure them out, though — if it’s taking forever to try and figure out just what’s being asked for you, ask for a clarification. You can even turn down the request if that’s a better option. Either way, though, don’t put it off until a later that will never come.

There’s one bonus tip I can offer: make the emails and memos you send to others easy to translate into tasks. While it may not help you complete your own tasks, making the effort to streamline others’ efforts means that you can minimize back-and-forths about what a colleague really needs to accomplish. It will save you more time than you might expect and might just convince someone else to communicate tasks more clearly as well.

If you have any tips on processing all the communications that cross our desks into actions we can actually move forward on our tasks, please share them in the comments.

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