When Harmonia is working at its best with your team, you should find that you'll be able to handle more tasks and chores with less effort than it used to take.

That's a huge win, but it doesn't come for free. In order to get the most out of Harmonia, you need to invest in making your tasks as good as they can be.

Here are the four characteristics of a successful task. It should be:

  1. timed appropriately,
  2. have clear completion criteria,
  3. have repeatable instructions,
  4. be doable in 15 minutes or less.

Let's see how each of these contributes towards the ultimate goal: a happier, more effective team.

Timing your tasks

Some tasks require a bit more co-ordination than others. It's far from ideal to be given a task that requires some thought or creative effort only 15 minutes before it's actually due! On the other hand, some tasks really don't require much notice at all, particularly if they are simple chores like 'watering the plants' or 'loading the dishwasher'.

Harmonia handles this by allowing each task to have an assignment lead time. This is the amount of time in advance that the assignment should be made.

Assigning someone to tidy the kitchen doesn't require much notice, so it could have an assignment lead time of a few hours. However, filing a tax return might need the coordination of information from several different people, so you can use an assignment lead time of a few days, or even weeks.

Thinking carefully about how much notice to give someone about an assignment will make it much easier for that person to schedule the task between the rest of their responsibilities without feeling overwhelmed.

Clear completion criteria

As I wrote about in "Getting things done... in teams", vague and under-specified tasks are very difficult to perform, but more importantly they take more mental energy to perform because they require each person, for every assignment, to try and define for themselves when the task is "done".

In some cases, this may not seem important (e.g. a 'water the plants' task is done when all the plants have moist soil), but for many tasks it can be less obvious. Is a 'newsletter' task completed when the content has been written, or when it has been sent to all recipients?

VagueClear
Do the newsletter Send the newsletter to our customer mailing list
Clean the kitchen Wipe kitchen surfaces, stack and start dishwasher and put all items back in the cupboard
Organise weekly meeting Send calendar invitation for weekly meeting to everyone, with attached agenda

Making it clear how to recognise whether or not a task is "done" lets you worry less about whether or not you finish with the task and get back to more interesting work, confident that you don't need to worry about it again.

Repeatable instructions

The best way to communicate what a "done" task looks like is to clearly describe the steps required to get to that point.

Here's an example of some task instructions that... well, aren't great:

Send invoices

Email invoices to all clients for the work done so far.

Sure, it's not wrong, but it raises a lot of questions, and the burden of providing answers lands in the lap of whoever is assigned that task, each and every time they are assigned.

How do I find out which clients to invoice? How do I calculate how much is due? Where should I send the invoices? What happens if there's a problem?

Each of these questions saps more time and effort from your team, but almost all of them can be mitigated by providing clear, step-by-step instructions and guidance.

Here's a better set of instructions:

Send invoices

  • We need to invoice all active clients once a month.
  • Find the list of active clients in our CRM here (link)
  • For each client, find the total unbilled time by clicking here (link).
  • Multiply the unbilled time by the daily rate for that client (found here - link) to calculate the total amount due
  • Enter that time in our invoice template (link)
    • change the invoice date to today
    • change the due date to 30 days from today
    • increment the invoice number
  • Email the invoice to the 'invoice contact' listed in the CRM
  • Finally, save a PDF copy of the invoice into the appropriate Dropbox folder (e.g. /Work/Clients/<client name>/Invoices)

If you have any problems, email Alice and make a note of the problem and solution here in Harmonia by replying to the assignment email

Now, of course the details of your task will be different, but hopefully it's clear that these instructions are far easier to follow, and don't require you to rely on vague memories about how to perform the task.

The clearer the instructions, the easier the task is to complete with less energy lost to either figuring out how to perform it, or correcting it later because you forgot a step.

What's more, the task becomes easier to repeat, and to repeat consistently. This is very important when more than one person can be responsible for completing a task. (See "Stronger teams through chaos" for a few reasons why it's very desirable for more than one person to be able to tackle any particular task.)

Confidence that a task is always completed properly means never needing to worry about it ever again.

Smaller tasks are better tasks

If performing a task takes hours, it's harder to balance with other tasks. It also makes it more likely that you'll be interrupted before completing a task, and that sucks more energy as team members switch from one context to another without finishing anything.

This is a classic idea from the world of "agile software development": try to break down work into the smallest possible chunk that's still independently useful, and then work through those small chunks, changing focus as required.

Of course, not all tasks can be made small, and breaking down some tasks is easier said than done. However, you might be surprised at what's possible with a bit of thought.

There are two techniques that can be used to make tasks smaller. We've already covered the first: write some clear, repeatable instructions. When you're following a thorough list of steps, less time is lost to trying to remember how to complete the task, so it can be completed faster.

The second technique is to automate everything you can. Taking the invoicing task above, a lot of that can be automated by using software like FreeAgent or Harvest to collect and generate the required information. If there's a software tool that can save you time, it will rapidly repay its cost through savings in time, consistency and effort.

Better tasks lead to a better team

What's important here, above all, is minimising the impact that tasks and chores have on your team. Nobody loves the chores and tasks that most teams and companies share, but they cannot be ignored, so it's worth spending a little time (and even a little money) making them as easy as possible to perform.