Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Are Time Management Systems More Trouble Than They’re Worth?

by Andre · 5 Comments

Library A friend of mine from out of town met me yesterday in a cafe, catching me at the tail end of my weekly review. When she asked what I was doing, I explained the process, and she responded, “I used to do lists, but they just turned out to be too much work. I found that I can get one or two things down in the time it takes to make a list.”

The latter statement is true. It’s certainly possible to complete one or more tasks in the time it would take to make a list, but that’s not the point of a weekly review, nor is it the point of a list; nor is it the point of taking a systematic approach to personal organization. The value of having a task or time management system is perhaps best illustrated by comparing it to its absence.

Batch processing vs. doing everything now

You guesstimate that the email you have to write to Susan will take about 10 minutes. The round trip to and from the hardware store to get the a replacement washer for your leaky faucet might take 30 minutes. Unboxing and hooking up the flat screen TV you got the family for Christmas will probably take on hour or more.

You can do any one of those activities in less time than it would take to do a weekly review, but collecting them and putting them on their appropriate lists — Computer, Errands, Home — could be done in under a minute or two. By collecting on clarifying your inventory of projects during a block of non-doing time, you finish the thinking about them in advance, so that during the week you can focus exclusively on doing rather than rethinking. Just-in-time execution is like running your washing machine every time you have an article of clothing to wash.

Instead of asking, “What should I do now?”, you only have to look at the list that corresponds with where you happen to be at that moment. You’re sitting in front of a computer, so writing the email to Susan seems like a good option. Or you’re sitting in your car, and you notice that stopping at the hardware store before going home would be a smart idea.

If, on the other hand, your thinking hadn’t been done in advance, thoughts about the faucet might occur while you’re sitting in front of the computer, and you might decided to get in your car to get the washer. Since the errand isn’t on a list, and it exists strictly in working memory, you’re either compelled to “do it now” before you forget about it, or allow it to consume continuous partial attention while you’re writing your email to Susan. Instead of your holding the errand in your day planner, your mind becomes the day planner.

By giving yourself more time to think about all of your projects on the front end, it might have occurred to you to think about less obvious aspects, like getting the HDMI cables that weren’t included with the flat screen TV — another task to add to your consolidated Errands list. Now on the drive home, you can eliminate the next actions for two projects.

Separating thinking and doing

Very few people are aware of how much stress is created by trying to think about what to do next at the time that they need to be doing it. Realizing you need additional cables after taking the TV out of the box is more frustrating than having thought of it beforehand, even though the amount of physical effort is exactly the same.

If you had taken the traditional approach of time management systems — blocking out one or two hours on your calendar to “Set up TV” — you wouldn’t have applied enough granularity of thought to have taken more discrete tasks like “Get HDMI cables” into account. This is the fundamental difference between a To Do list and a Next Actions list.

Clarifying projects and next actions is an executive task. Holding projects and next actions is a clerical task. Use your brain for the executive functions, and offload the clerical work to a system of shelves — list managers, calendars and file cabinets –organized for efficient retrieval. It’s organization that makes a library a more functional tool than a random pile of books in a warehouse. You can spend your time focusing on what to get instead of how or where to get it.

“But I don’t think in lists!”

A frequent protests against using lists is that they’re one-dimensional, and that they don’t reflect the complexity of real life. That’s absolutely true. Thinking always involves more situational awareness than a list can integrate.

But that’s not the purpose of a list. A list is nothing more than a collection of items that require attention. Lists either hold items you need to think about, or the results of items you’ve already thought about. If you write “faucet” on a mind sweep list because it had your attention, you’ll still need to loop back and clarify the meaning of that item: “Faucet . . . I need fix that leaky faucet [puts 'Fix faucet' on project list] . . . What’s the next action? . . . I need to get a new washer from the hardware store [puts 'Get washer from hardware store' on Errands list.]“

More complex issue are simply different context with which to apply the same process. Instead of “thinking about” going to graduate school a chronically amorphous fashion, you capture the thought. putting “grad school” on your mind sweep list to bring the issue into objective awareness, allowing you to think about it concretely.

One possible train of thought might be: “Grad school . . . What’s the outcome I’m looking for? . . . I’m not ready to go back now, but would resolve that situation?  . . . I need to determine which Masters program I’d like to pursue [puts "R & D: Best Masters program" on project list] . . . What’s the next action? . . . I need to ask Ron about the program he completed at Davis [puts "Ask Ron about Davis Masters program" on Calls list].” Notice that no decision has been made to actually go to grad school, but the thinking has moved from idle contemplation to a specific action that would enable an informed decision.

A journal entry would probably allow more thinking in depth about this issue, but as a focus tool, a list is easier to refer to when it’s time to act. Trying to scan a page of prose to extract the actionable items involves rethinking that would probably be too. cumbersome to motivate further action. So if you prefer the journaling approach, but sure to examine what you’ve written for action items, and get them on a list as soon as possible.

(Photo credit: * CliNKer *)

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Tags: Productivity

Comments

  • AnonymousNo Gravatar // Dec 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    I’m still struggling with the granularity issue. I want to break things down so that each task fits into a specific context and is “actionable”. But on the other hand I don’t want to be flooded with tasks so that the ratio of the timing “managing” that task is big compared to the task size itself. It seems there are problems with both extremes of large, chunkier tasks that are “worth” the effort to manage and a flood of small, no brainer, actionable tasks but that take more time to manage than they are worth. The two minute rule helps, but only seems to help if I’m in the right context for the task that I’m entering when I enter it.

    I am planning to use “Things” and sync to the iPhone to “take it with me” but I got stuck when it turned out they didn’t support tags on the mobile version so I’ve mostly been playing/practicing. Now that they are on the cusp of supporting tags on the iPhone version, I’ll try to make a serious commitment and hopefully come up with something that works productively.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 29, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I’m still struggling with the granularity issue. I want to break things down so that each task fits into a specific context and is “actionable”.

    In most cases, contexts are self-evident. “Get washer from hardware store” is obviously an errand. “Email Susan” is a computer task. The perceived complexity of context usually has to do with (a) not articulating in writing where you see yourself performing the action, or (b) thinking about the overall number of lists rather than the fact that only the list that matches the current context needs to be reviewed at any point in time. Occasionally more than one list is applicable (with a cell phone, @Calls and @Anywhere might be active lists), but sooner than later, you’ll get a clear sense of which lists you’re more likely to scan. For instance, I don’t do email on my phone, so even though I could technically put “Email Susan” on my @Anywhere list, I know that I wouldn’t be motivated to take action on it there, so I don’t put it on that list as an option.

    But on the other hand I don’t want to be flooded with tasks so that the ratio of the timing “managing” that task is big compared to the task size itself.

    I’m going to have to write a post about this phenomenon. I personally don’t believe that people spend more time managing tasks than doing them. I think that people are more self-conscious when managing tasks than when they’re executing them, so the perceived passage of time is heightened. As the saying goes, a watched pot never boils. Each phase of managing an individual project — collecting, clarifying, organizing and reviewing — should take less than a minute in more cases. It might take longer if the issue is more ambiguous, like clarifying precisely what to do about graduate school or moving to a better city (e.g., what does “better” mean?), but even if it takes 10 minutes to carry your thinking forward on those, the time spent is far less than trying to incubate an issue you haven’t fully articulated to yourself.

    It seems there are problems with both extremes of large, chunkier tasks that are “worth” the effort to manage and a flood of small, no brainer, actionable tasks but that take more time to manage than they are worth.

    The smaller tasks are more insidious distractions when dismissed as unworthy of tracking. It’s really not a matter of whether or not something is judged to be big or small so much as whether or not it has a claim on your attention. If an overdue library book has more of your attention than your next car payment, it’s probably because you know the car payment is consequential enough to get handled without much prodding. The paradox is that smaller items tend to require more effort to remember than big ones, and by keeping them only in your head, the effort needed to keep them conscious has to come from some of the bandwidth used to keep track of the big ones, creating undue anxiety. The consequences are complex, but the solution is simple. Track everything that has your attention without deliberating which things are “worthy.”

    The two minute rule helps, but only seems to help if I’m in the right context for the task that I’m entering when I enter it.

    True. The upshot of writing down out-of-context actions is that the next time you’re in the corresponding context and review that list, you’ll have one or more “cheap wins” to knock off without having to think about what to do next.

    I am planning to use “Things” and sync to the iPhone to “take it with me” but I got stuck when it turned out they didn’t support tags on the mobile version so I’ve mostly been playing/practicing. Now that they are on the cusp of supporting tags on the iPhone version, I’ll try to make a serious commitment and hopefully come up with something that works productively.

    I can’t comment on the iPhone. I had an iPod Touch, but didn’t find it as straightforward to use as a list manager as my Palm Centro. Good luck with it!

  • CyrilNo Gravatar // Jan 2, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    When I first tried to implement a task management method, my goal was to avoid to be burried down the number of emails and other information I received daily.
    When I first tried GTD I thought that the system will be so heavy to implement that it will become useless pretty quickly.
    But as the saying: you cannot change the results if you continue to do the same things, I tried the method.
    And IMHO it’s the only way to really understand the “stress free productivity” concept.
    Exactly as doing a renovation yourself on your home can seem cheaper than having a contractor to do it, doing a task right away can be faster than planning first. But in the end it’s often smarter and cheaper to ask a professional to perform the renovation on your house, and the same goes to planning your actions.
    Of course it’s a lot of work to plan, to break down into actions, to classify the actions and then to do them. But the feeling you get when you know that all your actions are under control is so powerful that you’ll never go back to your old ways.

    This long comment just to suggest one thing : the important is the method, not the tool you are using. At the beginning it’s a little bit overwhelming to implement such a system on a new gizmo (iPhone and others). I always suggest to start with a pen and paper. When your system will be up and running you’ll be able to use new gizmos if you like.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jan 2, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    This long comment just to suggest one thing : the important is the method, not the tool you are using. At the beginning it’s a little bit overwhelming to implement such a system on a new gizmo (iPhone and others). I always suggest to start with a pen and paper. When your system will be up and running you’ll be able to use new gizmos if you like.

    Good advice. Low-tech is the way to go when starting out, unless you’re completely familiar with the digital tool being used, like Outlook. Even if you’re convinced you’ll be taking an electronic direction, save the technology for a second learning curve, and focus on the method first.

  • Radek PilichNo Gravatar // Jan 28, 2009 at 9:56 am

    What I will do to make my todo list more actionable without making it way too much granual is putting these gradnual action steps into the task notes. I use MyLifeOrganized software, so it is easily to see when the task has notes and easy to read and edit them. I believe that outlining the action process in the task note will decrease the resistance of doing the task, increase motivation and separate thinking from doing.