In a recent blog post, we talked about three business legends and their tips for startups. Ingvar Kamprad, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson all built massive empires from modest beginnings. Their companies are now giants of the business world, but they started out small, too.

Superachievers like Kamprad, Jobs and Branson all have one thing in common: they’ve learnt that the key to success is not about working harder, but working smarter. They’ve perfected the art of task management.

If there’s one truth that applies to the business world, it’s that entrepreneurs are always busy. Especially in the early days, it’s difficult to take a break, to slow down. You aim for a milestone and think that after you reach it you can take it easy for a while, but the truth is you won’t get any less busy. As you become more successful you’ll just have more and more to do.

Or will you?

This is where task management comes in. For you to be able to work productively while staying in good health and maintaining a work-life balance, you need to manage your time; manage your energy; and manage your tasks.

Jim Rohn calls time management “the best-kept secret of the rich.” We all have the same number of hours in a day. However, what we choose to do with them is often the difference between success and failure.

Most of today’s most successful people achieved success not by doing more, but by evaluating what’s important and focusing on a select few tasks. In short, they learn how to cut away distractions, how to stop wasting time on menial activities, and how to stay focused on what’s important.

Today we’re going to take a look at the best task management tips of six superachievers. Starting with our three aforementioned business legends - Kamprad, Jobs and Branson - we’re going to examine how smart task management is the key to getting ahead:

Richard Branson, master of delegation

Richard Branson started his first business venture when he was 16. By the time he was 23, he had opened several record stores, opened a Virgin recording studio, launched Virgin Records, and made his first million.

From the very start, Branson knew that to successfully manage such a large and complex business, he had to learn how to delegate. With hundreds of businesses as part of the Virgin Group, Branson relies on a terrific team to help him run all of Virgin’s operations. And that’s something he’s done from day one.

A key part of task management is not trying to do everything yourself. The best leaders are the ones who recognize their own limitations and hire someone else who can do the job better. Learning how to ask for help, delegate, and trust others with important work are all important ingredients for your business to grow.

Steve Jobs: simple is beautiful

Steve Jobs has valuable lessons to teach pretty much everyone. From genius marketing to beautiful design to revolutionary technology, Jobs was the tech guru most of us want to be.

The most important task management tip he has to teach us is perhaps the one that imbued every aspect of his work: keep things simple. This allowed him to create beautiful, easy-to-use objects that people intuitively knew how to use. Take the iPod: a simple rectangular device with a screen and a circular controller, any child could pick it up and understand how to use it.

His philosophy of minimalism didn’t only shape his design aesthetic, it also characterized his personal life. For Jobs, if something was a distraction, it had to go.

This gave him the quiet needed to focus on his most important tasks. Jobs’ preoccupation with simplicity went to the extreme of him having almost no furniture in his apartment. Without any superfluous clutter surrounding him, he could concentrate on what mattered.

Ingvar Kamprad and time management

In the early days of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad was already a master of efficiency. He started IKEA as a mail-order business from the small village of Agunnaryd in 1943, getting up at 6 AM every day.

To best tackle projects and finish tasks, Kamprad believed that we should all divide our lives into 10 minute units, and sacrifice as few of them as possible on meaningless activity.

Hmm, maybe news of the Pomodoro Technique reached Kamprad all the way to his tiny village in rural Sweden...

Dr. Oz and energy management

Dr. Mehmet Oz is a busy guy. Not only does he perform 250 open-heart surgeries a year and host his own TV show, he’s also a professor, a chairman of surgery, a prolific writer, and a devoted family man with four kids.

His task management tip is similar to Ingvar Kamprad’s. However rather than focusing on time management, he focuses on energy management.

In other words, he tries to devote his time to tasks that energize and inspire him. “The things you do in your life should give you that zest for life,” he says.

Everybody has natural highs and lows of energy that dictate when we work best; for some of us mornings are sacred, for others the late hours of the night are when they’re most productive. For Dr. Oz, managing his tasks well means taking these moment of high energy, maximizing them, and cutting out tasks that drag down his energy instead of boosting it.

Darren Hardy: doing less to get ahead

Darren Hardy - publisher, director, and mentor of CEOs and entrepreneurs - has a problem that many of us have as well. He’s an addict.

So what’s his drug of choice? Not drugs or coffee or alcohol as you may think, but constant movement, constant communication, and constant achievement.

This addiction to perpetual busyness is one that’s all the more common among professional men and women. Caught up in a whirlwind of phone-calls, deadlines, emails, and assignments, it’s easy to slip into the cycle of being busy but not productive.

Darren Hardy realized that to get ahead, he can’t just keep doing more: doing so is incredibly taxing to your physical, psychological, and emotional system. Also, it’s not sustainable; sooner or later, if you don’t take a physical break, you’ll end up taking a mental one, simply going through the motions of your job without really being there.

So to get ahead, Hardy realized that he actually needs to start doing less. He needed to shorten his to-do list, focus on a handful of important tasks, and put the rest aside. He found ways to stop being busy and start being productive.

One of his strategies is using the 80/20 rule: 20% of the work you do is responsible for 80% of your impact and effectiveness. Hardy identified the 20% and concentrated on it. The result? A more balanced lifestyle.

President Obama and the economy of decision-making

The brain consumes 20% more energy when it’s thinking. Over the course of a day, you make countless decisions that all require a fair amount of energy. Some of these decisions are more important. Some are fairly redundant.

For every decision you make, your future decisions-making ability is eroded. Psychologists call this decision fatigue. It’s the reason that judges for example give harsher rulings later on in the day.

So wear the same suit.

President Obama always wears a blue or a grey suit because he doesn’t want to waste decision-making energy on what to wear. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make,” he says.

Obama uses the same type of methodical process when it comes to decision memos. Preferring written advice to spoken, he has his team members deliver memos to his desk with three checkboxes at the bottom:

  • agree
  • disagree
  • let's discuss

He then selects one of the boxes and communicates his choice to his team members. This process speeds up the feedback loop by breaking down decision-making into three simple choices.

Having a set routine for what you wear, what you eat, and how you handle other daily tasks is an amazing time-saver. It reduces the friction in your days and lets you focus on the really important decisions. When you’re working, it’s valuable; when you’re president, it’s a necessity.

Have any of these task management tips helped you to organize your time? Have you found it helpful to use a task management tool to break down your tasks? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!

Photo credit: Charles S cc