Time 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)