how to manage your work in progress

How to manage your “work in progress” and loose ends [TPP #83]

I don’t know about you, but I struggle to mentally shut down at the end of the day if I haven’t tied up all my loose ends. You know all that work you’ve started throughout the day that hasn’t been finished? Or the people you’re waiting on responses from. How do you deal with this stuff so that nothing falls through the cracks?

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For me, there are a few common types of work in progress I frequently have to deal with:

  • Follow-ups – This is a big one. Across all the clients and potential future clients, I’m in contact with, I may be waiting on responses from dozens of people at any one time. I can’t possibly remember everyone I need to follow up with or what I need to follow up on.
  • Client work – For example, let’s say I have outstanding work for a client that I still need to do. How do you record and document this so you don’t forget about it?
  • Incomplete tasks – These are the things you’ve started, but still, need to complete.
As part of your end of day routine (assuming you have one), you need to make sure all these loose ends, all this work in progress, is correctly dealt with and managed so that nothing falls through the cracks.Click To Tweet

With this in mind, here are a few tactics you can use:

  1. Use tasks as reminders of follow-ups – I use Pipedrive and Asana (affiliate links) for managing my clients and prospects. From the very first time someone contacts me to the time we say goodbye at the end of a project, I follow one simple rule: Always have a “next action” logged against the client. For example, let’s say I’ve sent out a proposal, my next action is to follow up with the client in a few days. I never assume that the client will get back to me (usually they don’t). Therefore I have to be the one to drive the project forward and take action if I don’t hear anything. You can apply this to work that you’re waiting on as well. If you’re waiting on something from someone, never assume they’ll get back to you when you want. You need to set yourself a reminder to follow up when you don’t hear anything. Otherwise, you both forget and the project comes to a halt.
  2. Create a “Waiting” list – If you’re a fan of Getting Things Done (GTD), you might already have a “Waiting” list. These are the things and people you’re waiting on. i.e. the things you can’t move forward right now because you’re waiting for a response or for some action to be completed. By keeping everything you’re waiting on stored on a list, you can review this once a day or a few times a week to follow up on all these loose ends. How you do this is up to you. If you use a task manager like Asana or Todoist, you could use a tag/label to group together everything you're waiting on. In Gmail, you could put all your open email threads into a “Waiting” label.
  3. Snooze your email – Let’s say you send an email to someone and need a response. After you send the email, you can snooze it using a service like Boomerang (for Gmail) or MailButler (affiliate link) (on the Mac). This means the email will reappear in your inbox later at your chosen time reminding you to follow up. Some mail clients and apps even let you set a snooze time when you compose the email. So let’s say you’re sending an email and ideally you’d like to get a response before the end of the day. Well, then you could adjust your snooze settings so that the email reappears in your inbox at 4 pm, or the following morning so that you can follow up.

Further to this, I really like Cal Newport’s advice about having a “shutdown ritual” in his popular book, Deep Work:

In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say, “Shutdown complete”). This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.”

I’ve adopted Cal’s shutdown ritual which involves:

  1. Checking your email inbox. Confirm, have you dealt with everything urgent? Has everything been “triaged” e.g. added to the task list or scheduled for later?
  2. Checking your task list. Have you completed all important or urgent work for the day? Have you captured new tasks of things you’ve thought about or still need to do? Do a quick brain dump now if needed.
  3. Check your calendar for tomorrow. Do you have a plan for the day? Are meetings or appointments scheduled?

I’ve actually set this up as a repeating task that I check off at the end of each day. As well as helping me to tie up the loose ends, it’s a very rewarding thing to be able to complete this task and “officially” end the day.

The key takeaway from this post is this – whatever you have in progress, make sure you have some kind of system for reminding yourself of these things at some point in the future. Whether you use tasks, email snoozing or a calendar reminder, the tool you use doesn't matter so much. Just make sure you have something in place to capture your work and deliver a reminder later.