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The Power of Day Theming for PM Productivity

Making a (task) list & checking it twice

It’s a new year. The holidays are over, and clients are returning to work more active and motivated than they’ve been in months. In other words, it’s about to get REAL busy around here. 

With the revving up of client communications and requests comes a heavier workload for our team, making efficiency and task management even more essential in the project management department. In this and other busy periods, I try to refocus and reset my intentions around productivity in the workplace—for both me and teams I manage.

During this new year busy season last year, I started to feel frustrated. I was putting in a lot of effort and putting out ‘fires’ but not accomplishing big picture items. I needed a clear structure for how to prioritize my ‘to-dos’ and get things done smarter, not harder.

I went looking for ways to up my productivity as part of a digital agency team and came across a Skillshare workshop called “Productivity Habits that Stick: Using Time Theming,” by Mike Vardy of Productivityist. In his video series, Vardy lays out the meaning and benefits of ‘day theming.’ Day theming is a practice that prioritizes the importance of a task over it’s urgency factor. By assigning goal themes to each work day and then relating a task to its daily theme, we can see which tasks are important specifically to that day’s theme. 

Day theming instantly hit a nerve with my own experience. In the digital agency world, we have a pesky tendency to prioritize our tasks based on urgency—in other words, who’s shouting the loudest or most often about their problem. This makes sense, of course. When an external person is coming in with a task ‘on fire,’ they’ve set the urgency of their own task, specific to their project. Meanwhile, this task may not be so urgent in the grand scheme of the entire workload. 

Getting things done in order of importance is actually better for everyone, because in helping you to do your task better (more completely, more accurately, more efficiently), team efforts around the task become more focused and efficient as a result. Importance of a task or set of tasks can be applied across a project team, while urgency is only applicable to the task’s standing in an individual’s to-do list. One woman’s urgent fire is another woman’s bottom item on the to-do list. 

Here’s How it Works

DAY THEMING

Sit down with your weekly task list, wherever you make it—in PM software, task management platform, or simple pen and paper—and give each day of the work week a theme. This is the most important piece of Vandy’s “Productivity Habits” and to me feels a little like setting an intention in yoga class. Your day themes can range from super tactical to more intangible or even aspirational. 

Day Theme Examples: 

  • Team Planning
  • Client Communications, AKA Operation Inbox Zero
  • Personal
  • Project Planning
  • Contracts and Work Orders
  • Weekly Billing

MAKING DAILY TASK LISTS

With day themes in hand, you’re ready to create your task list—a process you should repeat each day. Daily tasks are prioritized and ordered based on their relevancy to the day’s theme, or how well they support that goal. I start each morning by making my task list, giving each item a planned time estimate. I revisit my list again in the afternoon before leaving work. 

Task lists operate on a check out and cross off system. Tasks are made in the morning and marked as complete or incomplete at the end of the day. A checked out task is done, while a crossed off task is not yet complete but has been transferred into another medium—put into JIRA, emailed to a client or coworker, or moved onto another day’s list. 

TIME BLOCKING

This piece of Vandy’s “Productivity Habits” calls for establishing certain time blocks each day that are specifically used to deal with theme-related tasks. An easy example would be, ‘Responding to emails from 10-11am.’ I tend to designate two blocks of time each day for recurring tasks—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—to ensure I stay on track with the day’s theme. 

NOTE: Time blocking is much more effective if based on accurate time estimates of each task. Don’t cheat yourself out of the time you need!

More Productive & Less Stressed

Day theming has had a major impact on how I plan work and schedule tasks for my team. Inbox Zero is a consistent goal and day theme of mine, but can also a major source of stress. This productivity process keeps me from preoccupying myself with an emptied inbox on days where it’s not my core theme, because I know there will be a day later in the week when it is the day theme. These days, I’m feeling less stressed knowing that everything has a scheduled time to be important. 

Now, whenever a fire comes up, it’s vetted against my day theme, daily task list, and planned time. This on-fire item could become the new #1 on my list, but it may not. This helps to mitigate the urgency and assess the item or problem against the bigger picture. 

Your themes will likely change and become more accurate over time, as what you do and the important goals of your work week change from role to role and agency to agency. I recommend scheduling a few sessions throughout the year to reassess your themes (quarterly check-ins are a great start). 

If you find yourself getting into the habit of moving tasks from one day or week to the next, rethink if these tasks should even be on your list to begin with. You may identify tasks or projects better suited for another team member or tasks that need to be revised altogether.

handwritten daily task list 

Where the Magic Happens

Mike Vandy of Productivityist recommends Todoist for creating task lists with day themes, but you can use any platform you prefer, like JIRA, Wunderlist, or Basecamp. I take it more old school with the Notes app on my iPhone or good ol’ pen and (cute) paper. 

Liz Wall
Digital Project Manager & Biggest Fan
Clare Sweeney
Content Strategist & World Traveler
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