Managing Personal Tasks

Managing Personal Tasks

Few people would say that work and life are the same. Yet we try to apply work task management techniques to the rest of our lives, and are frustrated when it doesn’t work.

I have very little problem staying on task at work. I have multiple priorities and multiple projects, and yet I consistently meet my deadlines. I began to wonder why I had problems at home, and so I started to read books on task management and to-do lists, hoping to find the answer. Instead, I had an epiphany.

Differences Between Work and Home

It occurred to me halfway through the third book that the focus of each of the books was on work. Things like how to prioritize your tasks, how to avoid empty meetings, how to set aside good working time were all addressed. And don’t get me wrong…these are important things! But they don’t apply at home. So what is the difference between work and home and how does it affect tasks?

Work has context

Work tasks have context. It is very easy to see when considering tasks. Let’s say your current focus is to produce TPS reports. If a task comes along, say to clean fish, you would recognize that it has nothing to do with TPS reports. Work has very clearly defined context parameters to help you focus on tasks.

Each context supports a higher purpose: to earn money for the business. If an activity doesn’t support that, it will either go away or become a drag on resources.

Work has job function/delegation

Work has clearly defined roles. If you work for the accounting department, you don’t have to worry about backing up the database servers. If you work in a teller position in a bank, you don’t have to worry about expense reports at the main office. By the very definition of a job, your tasks are automatically limited to those within the job function…”other tasks as assigned” not withstanding.

We can tell what tasks belong to our job function, and which tasks need to be handled by someone else. What does not belong to us can be sent to the person with the expertise to do it.

Home has no boundaries

Our non-work lives require a breadth of activities you would never see at work. There are very few limits on what we can take on, thereby expanding our possible context to an astronomical number. You want to train for a marathon? Go ahead. Write the great American novel? Have at it. Alphabetize your spices? Knock yourself out.

The contexts that we have at work vanish in our personal lives, simply because there is no underlying principle. You can attempt what you wish because there is no other goal at work other than to “live your life.” Which is pretty broad.

Home has no defined job functions

Once you are out on your own, you wear all hats. You may find yourself being a housekeeper as you scrub your toilets; launderer as you fold your clothes; chef as you cook your dinner; landscaper as you mow your lawn; accountant as you pay your bills; and so on. This is in addition to the roles you play as a person: spouse, parent, pet owner, child, friend, volunteer and dozens of other labels that encapsulate person-to-person relationships.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you know how to do these things. You can hire expert assistance, but even if you hire these out, you still have the job of managing the person doing the task.

Tasks, at home, are never neatly defined, since we have to wear all the hats all the time.

Home can’t ignore indefinitely

Let’s talk about the dirty little secret of workplaces: that list of tasks that is always low priority and never gets done in the face of more important tasks. Eventually those tasks are just removed or picked up on the next month or quarter. Or given to the new guy.

At home we don’t have that luxury. We can’t skip doing laundry indefinitely. We can’t ignore the dirty dishes in the sink or the overflowing trash. Even though these things are not important in the scheme of “live your life,” ignoring them just makes a bigger mess.

Managing Home Tasks

So what can we do? Having recognized that work and home produce very different sets of contexts, roles and tasks, we have to treat the home tasks in a different manner from the work ones.

Create A Master List

In order to effectively manage home tasks, you need to know what these all are. The best way is to have a list of all the tasks you would do at home.

There are two types of tasks: stand-alone and repeating.

Stand-alone (or as I call them, “one-offs”) are things that are done once or not done on a fixed schedule. This could include calling the charity shop for a pickup or painting the bathroom or making cupcakes for the Valentine’s class party. For these types of tasks, you need to note if there is a due date.

Repeating tasks are those that should be done regularly. Putting the trash on the curb on pickup day is an example of this.

There are other tasks that become easier if they are performed regularly. Most housework falls into this category…it is easier to clean a week’s worth of soap scum off of a shower rather than a month’s worth, for example.

Each repeating task should note how often it gets repeated, as well as a due date if it has one; if not, add range of time when it should be done next.

Creating a Sublist

The next thing to decide is what you are going to accomplish in a week. Pull all the repeating tasks that need to be done this week, and then add in some of the one-off tasks (especially if they are due!).

How do you know what to put on the list? Look at where the task needs to be done, and the time it will take.

Let’s say you have a task to return your library books. You also have a task to drop off batteries for recycling at the collection point at the library. The library task has a due date; the battery task does not. However, they are at the same place, so even though you could put off the battery drop, why not knock it off your list since you’re going to the library anyway?

Another way to pick tasks for the sublist from the master is by the time they will take. This will mean you have some idea of what free time you have during a given day or week. On those weeks where you have larger chunks of free time, you can pick tasks that take longer. Or if you only have a ten minute gap, you could add in sweeping the kitchen floor.

So in order to make the most of what you are doing, you will need to know both where a task will take place, and the time you estimate it will take.

Planning Beyond the Day

Most task management systems recommend that you either have tasks in a backlog or on your current day’s list. If you place personal tasks on the backlog, they will disappear under the fog of the more important or urgent tasks. If you place the tasks on your current day’s list, you will overwhelm yourself with the amount on your daily list.

Instead, make a list of everything you would like to get accomplished in the next week and keep it near you as you work through your day. If you finish your daily tasks, pick things off the weekly list to work on.

Setting Up Your Day

So when it comes time to write out your task list, you will have a set of personal tasks.

Those that have to be done today, add to your list. You will have determined those with due dates when you made your master list. These will be both one-off and repeating tasks.

Next, keep a list of the tasks to be done this week nearby. As you finish your tasks with due dates, see if there are any that appeal on the weekly list.

What To Do About Leftover Tasks?

So you may be wondering about how to handle that bunch of tasks you didn’t get to during the week?

I recommend a “pick up the slack” day. That means I give up one of my weekend days and knock everything out.

This has two benefits: the first, which is that during a slack day, I get it all done. The second, is that I will make more of an effort to get everything done during the week if I know I have to give up a weekend day if I don’t. 🙂


Personal tasks require a different handling than work tasks. Making a master list of stand-along and repeating tasks, scheduling those with due dates and working from a list of those without dates, and then having a slack day will allow you to get a grip on this different task beast.

Action Item

I challenge you to try this method for your personal tasks this week. On Saturday, determine whether or not it was effective for you.

Picture by Unsplash/FuYong Hua