How to Define Outcomes and Manage Tasks

One of the keys to effective executive productivity is to manage tasks and map them to predefined outcomes. Over ten years of working various productivity systems, I got quite good at handling things that were expected of me and kept my projects moving forward. But about six months ago I had an epiphany that changed all that.

My epiphany was that most of the tasks I track were things that I was asked to do, and only a few were things I thought were valuable. Meaning, I was quite good at helping other people move forward with their agendas but weaker at managing my projects.

To fix this, I needed to think more about the results than the actions. By making a list of the outcomes I am trying to create, it becomes easier to see what todo’s are important to me, and which are not.

To do this, I use an excellent list manager called The Hit List by Karelia Software.

App  Screenshot

Manage Tasks with The Hit List

As a minimalist, I’ve found The Hit List provides the perfect environment to both plan projects as well as accomplish tasks. The killer feature is its smart lists, which are saved queries like iTunes smart playlists. Sounds nerdy, but it’s a powerful concept.

How I Configure The Hit List for Maximum Productivity

I’ve tried a variety of setups, but this one has stuck with me. It’s very basic and feeds my minimalist nature. The objective is to help me plan by thinking about and reviewing my desired results, and then view the tasks in a Stephen Covey Important/Urgent matrix.

There are a few basic guidelines that make the system work. If you follow these guidelines, the software does all the hard work for you.

  • Results are created as tasks at the top of the hierarchy, and tasks are sub-tasks underneath. Results are not actionable in themselves, and so we give them a tag of `result` as a way to filter them out of our actionable lists
  • Tasks given a priority of 1-3 are considered “Important”. You can use the 1-3 value to make some more significant than others.
  • Tasks given a priority of 4 or higher, or no priority at all, are considered “Not Important.”
  • Tasks with a Due Date in the next three days are considered “Urgent.”
  • Tasks with a Due Date more than three days in the future, or no Due Date at all, are considered “Not Urgent.”

How to Configure the Software

Here’s how I setup my projects:

Sidebar Setup

The purple folders are “smart folders.” We won’t be adding items directly to those lists. Rather, the items from our projects will show up here automatically based on how we configure those folders.

Notice that I keep all my projects in the “Projects” folder (collapsed above), organized in lists however you’d like. That structure is entirely up to you.

I keep any future projects I don’t want to worry about in the “On Hold” folder. The actionable lists we are about to create will filter these out of view.

Smart Lists

We’re going to create five smart lists. These smart lists will automatically look into your project lists, and show you items that match the query we create.

  • Outcomes: Shows all of our active tasks which are tagged with `result`. This is a handy way to keep those expected outcomes at the top of your mind.
  • Important and Urgent: This is your “on fire” list. Things which need attention right now, and the outcome is valuable. Generally, you want to avoid letting things show up here, as they cause anxiety and stress.
  • Important, but not Urgent: These are valuable items which aren’t blowing up in your face. If my system is working well, I work from this list almost exclusively.
  • Urgent, but not Important: This is a list of things that are nagging you right now, but add little value to your intended results. Consider delegating or deleting these items.
  • Not Urgent or Important: Get rid of these items. They consume your time and attention.

The Hit List manual has great documentation on how to setup your own smart lists, so I won’t show you how the software itself works. However, I will show you the exact queries I use in my own setup. I’ll explain the first one in detail, and then the others should be obvious.

Note: As of the time of this writing, on the Mac app supports creating smart lists. You can use them on any device once created, but the Mac app itself is required to create them.

Create a Test Project

To make sure you have everything setup correctly, create yourself a “Test Project” which has this content:

Test Project

As we create our smart lists, you can check the results to make sure the correct items are showing up. For each of the Important/Urgent lists, you should see only the single task that matches. In the Outcomes list, you should see the top result task, and it’s sub-tasks.

For example, once you’ve created the “Important and Urgent” smart list, it should have only have 1 item from the test project in it, the task labeled “Urgent and Important”.

Urgent, but not Important

Lets start by creating the “Urgent, but not Important” list, as its one of the more complex.

Create a new Smart list with the name above. Setup the query like this: (Note, you’ll need to use the option key to add the sub-rules)

Urgent Not Important

Here’s how this works:

  1. The first set of rules filters tasks down to just those which are due in the next 3 days, or overdue
  2. The second rule hides anything which is in the “On Hold” folder.
  3. The third rule filters out any tasks which we have tagged as `Result`
  4. The last rules filter to only tasks which are low priority, or don’t have a priority set.

You can follow this direction to create the remaining smart lists using the following settings.

Important and Urgent

Important And Urgent

Important, but not Urgent

Important Not Urgent

Not Urgent or Important

Not Urgent Not Important


Outcomes Setup

Related Books
The Effective Executive by: Peter F. Drucker
The 12 Week Year by: Brian P. Moran
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by: Stephen R. Covey
The Essential Drucker by: Peter F. Drucker