Getting sh*t done as a manager
A personal organization system for managing myself and my team
As a new product manager, I felt constantly overwhelmed by the flood of incoming requests, ideas, tasks, meetings, messages, and more. I’d end every day completely exhausted, and inevitably would have forgotten to finish something, or reply to someone. The admin felt relentless, and left me feeling stressed and ineffective, like I wasn’t doing any ‘real’ work.
In a way, this is the system working as intended — it’s a manager’s job to bear the mental load of being aware of everyone’s tasks and responsibilities and handling distractions so that your team can get on with the work of actually building features/fixing bugs etc. (Paul Graham has a great write-up on this in his article Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule).
But in order to manage your team well, you first need to manage yourself. If you don’t have a system to do this, you’ll find yourself spread too thin and get burned out. And that doesn’t help anyone.
In this article we’ll go through a simple organization system to keep track of daily tasks. Conceptually, it’s a very simplified version of the Getting Things Done framework, and it can be summarized in three basic principles:
- Write things down
- Keep it simple
The primary goal is to reduce the number of things to remember, because we can only hold 5–7 things in our short term memory at once. Anyone who claims to be a brilliant multi-tasker is deceiving themselves, and context switching from task to task is one of the fastest ways to turn you into a drooling zombie staring at the same screen for minutes on end.
How it works
I use an outliner called Workflowy, which is an infinite bullet/toggle list (I have no affiliation with them, just love their product). You can use any similar note-taking app. Here’s the overall structure:
- Scheduled Meetings
I start each workday by creating a new bullet point for that day and put in all my meetings and tasks (hint: meetings count as tasks!). This is a great way to center myself at the beginning of the day, see what is coming up and decide on task priorities.
Here’s how it looks first thing in the morning:
As the day progresses, and incoming tasks/requests come in, I mark items complete, add/delete items, or move them around. This is halfway through my day:
You can see that an extra meeting has been added, some tasks were completed, and new tasks were added. At the end of the day, I close off the previous day and move over tasks to the next day (Workflowy makes this super easy by allowing you to collapse each bullet point).
Each item crossed off provides a little dopamine hit that keeps me going, and it’s an amazing feeling to get to the end of the day and have everything ticked off. I usually get through about 80% on a normal day, being careful not to get into toxic productivity (creating and finishing tasks just for the sake of it).
An explanation of the principles
Now that we’ve seen the basic idea, let’s dive deeper into the principles behind it:
1) Write things down
The scarcest resource for most knowledge workers is not time but attention. You only have a finite amount of high-quality attention to spend each day, and you don’t want to waste it on trying to remember random tasks to do later.
We can only actually focus on one thing at a time, so writing down incoming requests/ideas/tasks frees up your short-term memory to focus on your immediate task. Therefore, write down anything that you’d spend effort on remembering, even if it’s replying to an email or Slack message.
Tasks should also not to be too big and should take max 4 hours to complete. If it’s part of a bigger project e.g.
Write product spec for new feature , then I tend to break it into several separate tasks
Start product specand
Finish prodoct spec . I also put personal errands in e.g.
Call mom because otherwise I’d need to spend brain space to remember it.
Once it’s written down, you can review the list later and decide what to work on next.
Usually I’ll look at my daily tasks and realize that not everything needs to be done today. I’ll work on the shortest tasks first just to clear the board, which just leaves a few big, nebulous tasks like “Send team thoughts on next year’s roadmap”.
If I know I don’t have capacity to work on something right away, I’ll create a reminder loop — basically anything that will resurface the task for me at a future date, such as:
- Creating tomorrow’s bullet point in the to-do list and moving the task there
- Sending a message/meeting invite to talk about it with someone else
- Jotting down the task/idea in a long-running backlog elsewhere
That’ll let me clear the task knowing that I have a plan to deal with it later. Of course, you can’t just keep kicking the can of important-but-not-urgent things down the road, so make sure to get around to it on a quieter day.
3) Keep it simple
Whatever system you use needs to be as simple as possible — for me that means I’m able to record a task in mid-conversation without interrupting the flow, within 3–5 seconds. I also need to have one source of truth across all my work systems (calendar, email, Slack, docs and conversations) and personal life, because this personal org system needs to last between projects, roles and companies.
I’ve used digital tools like Trello, Asana, and JIRA in the past, and all of these have their place. I often use them when collaborating with other people on large complex projects but I find them too heavyweight for my personal tasks. The simplicity of Workflowy is actually really helpful, because I don’t see any other people, reminders, other systems etc. It’s just my daily to-do list.
Having a simple system like this has helped me to relax at work, knowing that I don’t need to be a superhuman keeping perfectly on top of everything.
The deeper lesson I’ve learned through this is to be more honest and kind to myself. We’re all human (just ‘monkeys in suits’ as a colleague once told me), and we all have our physical and mental limitations. Recognizing that I can’t remember everything just in my head, and I can’t work on more than one thing at a time is not a weakness but a strength. Paradoxically, that’s also made me way more productive and impactful.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this has been helpful!