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« The Problem with Deadlines | Main | What is Effectiveness? »

One Thing at a Time

One of the most important time management principles, to which I have often referred in the past, is “one thing at a time”.

This principle is at its most powerful when applied to getting projects under way. I know that it’s not always possible to be working on only one project at a time, but it’s a lot more possible than we are usually prepared to allow.

What I mean by a project is a desired result that takes a series of actions to complete. There’s no hard and fast dividing line between an action and a project because virtually any action can be turned into a project just by breaking it down further. But basically if you think of a project as a collection of actions leading to a specific result you will not go too wrong.

For the purposes of this article I want to distinguish between two types of project:

There’s the type which involves recurrent activity over a long period, such as learning a language, writing a book, getting fit, etc. The actions are similar to each other, and the effect comes from the regular consistent repetition of the activity. The best way of dealing with this type of activity is to schedule a specific time of day for it every day (or whatever time interval is appropriate). This article is not about this type of project. 

The other type of project usually involves organising something. It consists of a series of separate and distinct activities leading to a specific result. It is this second type of project that I am dealing with in this article. 

You almost certainly have many of this second type of  project that you are desperately trying to find time for. Imagine for instance that you have all the following to get through:

Write report for Client X
Update website
Change your stationery supplier
Research potential new clients
Prepare for business presentation
Implement new marketing strategy
Decide on new pricing
Select next month’s special offers
Edit mailshot
Organise party for clients
Put forward proposals to the board
Deal with records backlog 

Most people faced with a list of projects like this deal with them on the “headless chicken” principle. They rush around doing a bit here and a bit there, constantly getting distracted by whatever is making the most noise at the time. What usually happens is that the ones which have become pressingly urgent get finished, while the others languish. 

Yet by applying the “one thing at a time” principle they can in fact be done quite quickly. And certainly much more effectively and less stressfully than by the “headless chicken” approach.

Here’s how to do it.

First of all list all your outstanding projects. Split really large projects into separate phases. Next decide in what order to do them. The best way to decide the order is by urgency, rather than importance. After all if they are not important, what are they doing on your project list in the first place? You are too valuable to be doing unimportant work.

So after arranging the items by urgency, the above list might come out something like this:

Prepare for business presentation
Select next month’s special offers
Edit mailshot
Write report for Client X
Decide on new pricing
Put forward proposals to the board
Research potential new clients
Design new marketing strategy
Organise party for clients
Update website
Change stationery supplier
Deal with records backlog 

The next step is to ask yourself for each project in turn “If this was the only project I had, how long would it take me to finish it?” And then plot your estimated date for completing that project.

Today is 16 October but you don’t intend to work over the weekend, so 18 October is your first working day. The first project, the business presentation, will take a day to complete so you estimate it will be completed on 18 October. The next project, the special offers, will also take a day so you estimate 19 October. 

After you’ve been right through the list it might look something like this:

Prepare for business presentation          1           18 Oct
Select next month’s special offers          1            19 Oct
Edit mailshot                                        2            21 Oct
Write report for Client X                        2           25 Oct
Decide on new pricing                           1            26 Oct
Put forward proposals to the board         2           28 Oct
Research potential new clients               3              2 Nov
Design new marketing strategy              2             4 Nov
Organise party for clients                      2              8 Nov
Update website                                    2            10 Nov
Change stationery supplier                    1            11 Nov
Deal with records backlog                     3            16 Nov 

So in one month you should have dealt with every project you had on your original list. If you get behind or ahead with the projects, make sure you adjust the estimated completion dates for all the projects. That will help to keep you right on track.

I’m sure you are saying to yourself “Well, that’s all very well, but new projects are coming in all the time. What do I do with them?”

The answer is simple: add them on to the end of the queue! 

If that’s not feasible because the project really can’t wait, then enter it in your list so that the estimated completion date is early enough for the project’s purposes. Change all the completion dates for later projects, and you will then be able to see exactly what effect taking the new project on is going to have on the rest of your work.

TIP: Don’t completely erase the old estimated completion dates when you revise them. That way you keep a record of how many changes you have needed to make. Examining that record can tell you a lot about your workload and the way you are tackling it.

[This article was originally published in my newsletter in October 2004]

Reader Comments (2)

I like how this approach shows whether I'm over-committed.
September 18, 2010 at 17:53 | Unregistered CommenterCricket
Mark says he changed his thinking at the end of this article. But I read the newer article and don't see any difference.
September 18, 2010 at 18:21 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Baljeu

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