Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Time Management vs. Task Management

by Andre · 8 Comments

Time imageTime management is essential to getting things done efficiently, but not necessarily effectively. That distinction might seem academic, but having seen just how deeply people treat time and output as synonymous, I want to take a closer look at the premise that more time spent on a task equals more productivity.

If only I had more time

At a GTD seminar, an inexperienced presenter was trying to illustrate the concept of converting a problem into a specific outcome and next action. He asked someone in the audience to mention some big problem that was on his mind. He mentioned putting his offline small business on the web.

“So the project is, ‘Create website for business,’ the presenter noted,” writing it on a whiteboard. “Now, what’s the very next action you would take to move that project forward?” The audience member shrugged and said, “You know, there’s so much to do, and I have so many people interrupting me all the time — that’s the problem.”

The presenter said, “OK, but what’s the very next thing you would need to do to get this one project started?” The business owner thought about it, and said, “I guess I need to get rid of the interruptions.” The presenter tried reframing the question to get a concrete next action out of him, but it only resulted in the gentleman rewording the same answer.

If I had nothing else to do

The assumption in the above exchange was that it was necessary to have uninterrupted time in order to decide what to do next. And because there are always things to do and plenty of interruptions, no specific action is ever defined, so the task continually remains implicit. In this case, the “solution” is to block out time to “work on” the project, but because the action is abstract, the time needed to complete a project is equally abstract.

In less time than it took for the business owner to determine that he needed more uninterrupted time to think about what to do next, he could have just thought about what to do next:

“Call Dan: get recommendations for web designers.”

What blocked him from considering this option was a bias toward thinking of time as the fundamental resource for moving a project forward.

To keep next actions from becoming abstract “to do” items, use three guidelines:

  • Assume that time isn’t a factor
  • Ensure that they’re physical, visible actions
  • They have no dependencies

When defining a next action, it helps to precede it with, “If I had nothing else to do, I would . . . ” This stops the knee-jerk reaction of focusing on current time commitments. Once you’ve precisely defined what to do, the perceived time it actually takes usually diminishes, because you’ve reduced the task to something physical. Getting rid of interruptions takes forever. Calling Dan takes five minutes. If the only information needed are names and phone numbers, the call might even be a two minute action that can be done immediately.

A next action should have no dependencies, meaning that if Dan’s phone number isn’t available, the next action is to get Dan’s phone number. But that’s not a next action, since “Get Dan’s phone number” isn’t a physical, visible action.

How do you get Dan’s phone number? In this hypothetical case, you happen to know that Laura has Dan’s phone number, and you know that you have Laura’s number. So the next action would be, “Call Laura: get Dan’s phone number,” which, per the Two Minute Rule, should be taken immediately; it would take more time to write down, review and do later than to get it done at once. This one action kick starts the project, “Create website for business.”

Taking immediate action creates momentum. After calling Laura and getting Dan’s number creates an immediate win, so the tendency is to follow it up with the next action without hesitation. You call Dan and ask about the designers he mentioned when he first suggested that you put your business on the web. He gives you their names, numbers and websites.

You could call these designers now, but decide that you’d rather avoid wasting time calling bad designers. So you put, “Assess designers’ sites” on your @Computer list. Once you’ve eliminated the unimpressive candidates, you put each call for the remaining designers on your @Calls list for quotes.

Two things are noteworthy here. At each step, you’ve acted without complete information; you simply removed the most immediate constraint. Furthermore, you’ve scheduled none of this. If these actions had been put on a calendar, they probably would have taken half a day (when you “had time”). But everything mentioned could can be done in less than half an hour.

Unlike to-do items in calendar-based time management, next actions are designed to be done as soon as possible. You don’t draw out a next action to fill the time you’ve allotted to it. You just do it and move on to the next action, repeating the process until either an external commitment, like a meeting, requires your attendance, or you’ve simply called it quits for the day.

At any point in time, you can only do one thing. Once you’ve defined a next action, either do it or do another one of higher priority, but unless you have a higher-priority task to work on at the moment, don’t defer the next action you’ve just defined by scheduling it — do it now. Arbitrarily assigning a time to an action with no time dependency is procrastination in the name of time management.

(Photo credit: backpackphotography)

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Tags: GTD · Productivity


  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Oct 6, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    So essentially you’re saying that sometimes it’s best to break down a project into small pieces and avoid looking at the big picture.

  • James | Dancing GeekNo Gravatar // Oct 6, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for the guidelines on getting the next task. I use next tasks a lot (because to-do lists just make me feel sick with guilt) I often end up writing a larger goal down, then replacing it with smaller and smaller steps until I get to something that feels like I could get it done. These steps will help me get there faster.

    I tend to have a lot of projects running and use next steps to keep them all moving. I shared how I organise these next steps in a blog post about how to kill the to do list. Hope it’s helpful for someone.

  • John B. KendrickNo Gravatar // Oct 6, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    I’ve been using GTD for about 9 months, a heavy user, after converting from Covey early this year and I’ve read David Allen’s book, but this is one of the best explanations of how to define and take the next step I’ve ever heard. I guess we all assume we know what the tasks are, and the truth is the elephant keeps us from seeing them sometime. Great post. I’ve written some of my own at if your interested in stopping by. Take care, John

  • BrittNo Gravatar // Oct 6, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    I think this is why I love GTD. Estimating the time to do tasks and scheduling them was a bad approach for me. I often didn’t know how long something was going to take. Admittedly, I’m a bad estimator, and I could probably stand to work on that skill, but still, I’d find myself stuck at the very beginning—and note even the beginning of the task!
    Also, you have to overestimate the time for every task, or you end up overscheduling yourself. So you end up with a day packed with tasks that you’ve estimated are going to take a really long time. How depressing is that?

  • CarlaNo Gravatar // Oct 7, 2008 at 9:24 am

    When I remember to follow this method, I get tasks done much more efficiently. I stop looking at the big picture or the TIME involved and just focus on what I need to do and do it one step at a time.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 7, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    @Vered: I was trying to emphasize defining the what over the when. I also deliberately avoided going into defining outcomes (the big picture), but mainly to keep the post from veering into another topic. But now that you mention it, next actions do act as blinders. Instead of getting overwhelmed with everything associated with the big picture, you concentrate on the low hanging fruit that helps fill it in.

    @James: Replacing the tasks you’ve defined with smaller steps, like Vered said, is a good way to think about it. My rule is that if I find myself groaning over what I’m about to write down as a next action, I need to work backward and find something more granular that doesn’t induce a negative reaction.

    @John: I think we all have different standards for knowing how granular to get with our next actions. I don’t need to write about “boot computer,” but if I write, “Clean desk,” it strikes me as a composite action, so I resist it. I’d need to write down the individual tasks that make a desk clean, like “Wipe desk,” “Empty old pen from drawer,” etc.

    Britt: I think we’re all bad estimators of how long something will take. I’ve heard several variations on the “rule” that a project will take twice as long as you plan for, even if the rule is factored into the plan. By just getting started, at least you can get a better idea of how long it might take by assessing your pace.

    @Carla: In an old post I wrote: “Action is experiential. The more we experience doing, the less effort we realize it takes. The more we imagine doing, the more effort it appears to take.” It’s hard to take the first step when we’re preoccupied with the thousand-mile journey. Ironically, once we’ve taken the first step, we realize how actionable the whole process is.

  • JohnNo Gravatar // Oct 7, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    I’ve always thought of time management as “when” we get things done, while task management as “what” we get done. I can definitely see the benefit of focusing more on the “what.”

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