Principles of time management

In the previous entry, I wrote about the time management book Do It Tomorrow. This post is about the principles of time management that underlie Do It Tomorrow:

  1. have a clear vision
  2. one thing at a time
  3. little and often
  4. define your limits
  5. closed lists
  6. reducing random factors
  7. commitment vs interest

Have a clear vision

Have a clear vision of your goals, of the things you want to do and the things you don’t want to do. A clear vision directs your priorities. Setting priorities is only meaningful between projects, not between tasks that have to be done anyway (’project’ is loosely defined here as an activity that leads to some desired result and that cannot be finished in one go).

Your vision is not something static: it will change over time. So frequently revisit your vision, to keep your priorities clear as well.

One thing at a time

Focus, focus, focus! Use for example timeboxing or working with a pair (like pairprogramming) to work in highly focused way. Don’t dilute your focus by having too many projects at the same time.

Little and often

Work on things frequently, in small bits, iteratively and increment, so that results grow over time. If you want e.g. to write a book or finish a Ph.D. thesis, work every day on it. Actually doing something and keep doing it is more important than the amount of time spent.

This works for writing, uncluttering your home or office, bookkeeping, and many other larger activities.

Define your limits

Creative thinking works better within clear boundaries. An example of limits is timeboxing your activities, e.g. using the pomodori technique.

Defining limits is also important for your projects: determine the boundaries (and frequently re-determine them) to get a clear focus of what you’re doing and what you aren’t doing, instead of being busy with a cloud of all kinds of vaguely interesting and possibly relevant stuff.

This week, I’ve started to make a map of all the projects that I currently have and that I want to take on this year. Being an independent consultant, I don’t have an organisational context that sets a lot of boundaries for me so I’ll have to set them myself in order to be effective.

Closed lists

A closed list is a list that has a line under it and that will not change. For every day, you make a Will Do list, a closed list with the stuff that came in the previous day and your recurring tasks. As the list is closed, it will only shrink when you’re finishing items from the list. This will give you a feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day, when all the Will Do items have been checked.

Anything that comes in during the day and that is not a real urgency, will be put on tomorrow’s list or below the line of today’s list. You’ll first finish all the items above the line, before doing the newly added things.

This approach enables you to plan most of the work you do, so you can work much less reactively and much less governed by self-inflicted urgencies. Your day to day planning will become more predictable and you’ll get early feedback when you’re structurally overloaded.

The Will Do list is limited by your daily processing capacity (so you will need to find out what it is), so you prevent backlogs from building up. If you get more work each day than you can handle the next day, you’ll have to either cut down on your commitments, make your systems more efficient, and/or allocate more time for the stuff on your lists.

Willem asked, what do you do when the telephone rings? It depends: you can answer the call, make a note, and take action tomorrow (unless, of course, it’s about your house being on fire). You can also decide that you won’t answer the phone during certain activities, listen voicemail later on, and get back to the callers the next day. It depends on the nature of your work and your preferences.

Another advantage of closed lists is that you don’t have to prioritise between the items. They all need to be done and if the list is limited by your daily processing capacity, it will be finished. Prioritizing doesn’t make sense for stuff that needs to be done anyway.

Working this way gives peace of mind and reduces waste: you don’t have to spend your energy making difficult decisions about priorities. Prioritizing is waste: it’s work that adds no value, but just increases the pressure on you! You’ll have more time and energy left for actually doing useful stuff.

Forster’s recommendation is to start with the least urgent things first. If work has to be done anyway, why not do it right away?

A bright, grand idea like writing a book is not something you can finish the next day. This becomes a project, a task that recurs (a little attention every day) until the work is finished.

Reducing random factors

By preventing most ‘urgencies’, you will reduce a lot of (self-inflicted) variability in your day to day work. Closed lists system make the underlying systems problems visible. You can’t eliminate all variability and randomness, but you can reduce them substantially, giving you more freedom, making sure your important things get done, and enabling you to handle the remaining randomness better.

Commitment vs interest

You can be interested in a lot of things, but you can have only a limited amount of commitments. It is important to know your commitments, as these provide a framework for your decisions. It’s like the pigs and chickens metaphor used in Scrum (chickens are only involved, but pigs are committed). A pig only has limited ham and bacon it can provide… (the pigs and chickens metaphor has its limitations, but that’s another story)

One Response to “Principles of time management”

  1. Geena Murphy Says:

    I must say great article and well thought of as some time management articles are the same but this was a good solid read!