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« Whakate to Compare DIT and GTD | Main | Train-To-Gain Grants »
Monday
Nov172008

The Simplest Time Management Method

What is the simplest list-based time management method?

I can remember years ago listing all my tasks as they presented themselves and then doing them in the same order that I had listed them. In other words, I was doing my tasks in strict First In, First Out (FIFO) order.

What I found of course is that I got bogged down pretty quickly. I ground gradually to a halt while the list grew longer and longer. In theory it was a great method for ensuring that everything got done. In practice, slogging through a list that only got longer and longer was mind-numbingly dull, with very little sense of achievement or completion.

Some years later I tried a similar system. This time, instead of doing the items in the order I had written them down, I did them in any order I liked. This worked much better than the first system. It felt much less like hard slog, and I found I could get a lot done very quickly.

The trouble was that that although I was getting lots of work done, it was the relatively easy work. The more difficult items tended to stay on the list for ever. I could of course try various techniques like working for a short time on a task and then re-entering it, but nevertheless working in this way resulted in a lot of easy and trivial work, and not much challenging and productive work.

I did notice one advantage though: because there was no compulsion actually to do a task, I was quite prepared to write even the most difficult task on the list.

So is there a way of running a simple list which avoids the drawbacks of these two methods, but keeps their advantages?

Yes, there is! Here’s how.

I discovered that all I had to do once I’d drawn the list up was to draw a line at the end of it. Then I continued to add new items to the end of the list but didn’t allow myself to work on them until I had finished all the items up to the line. I could do those in any order I liked.

Once I’d finished the items above the line, I drew another line at the end of the new items and did the same again.

This has some huge advantages:

1) It’s complete. Everything I write down gets done.

2) I get the advantage of the principle that procrastination is relative. The easier items act as displacement activities for the more difficult ones, so working becomes much easier. Even when I have only two difficult items left, one is still easier than the other.

3) The last item left above the line may be difficult, but the reward I get for doing it is a huge sense of completion. I have finished everything above the line, and can now draw another line. There’s a wonderful feeling of making a fresh start.

4) When I draw the line under the new items, everything above that line represents all the due work that I have at that moment. This makes it easy for me to judge whether my workload matches my capacity. If it takes longer and longer each time to clear the list, then I know that I have more work coming in than I am able to process. If the time remains reasonably stable, then I know that my workload is correct. I try to keep the time from drawing one line to drawing the next at not more than one day. Any longer than that and my response time to emails, etc., is going to be too slow.

You may have realised by now that this system is virtually identical to the core components of “Do It Tomorrow” - just that it’s not tied quite so rigidly to one day. In fact I am finding that this added element of flexibility is making the system easier to work, and I shall be incorporating this modification into the DIT seminars I run in the future.

 

Reader Comments (41)

Terrific idea. It seems so simple but it's really innovative and makes sense. Thanks for sharing this.
November 17, 2008 at 17:10 | Unregistered CommenterPercy
Dear Mark,

I like this idea as well! But the one thing I finding missing is the sense of a "day's end" to it. Before I tried DIT, I never felt I was done working for the day. Now I do, and my evenings and weekends are way less stressful.

So, as I said, to my work/mindset, this not-tied-to-a-day closed list could work exceptionally (e.g. during holidays), but I think I would not be able to use it day to day.

Anyway, I am sure it will work for a lot of people!
November 17, 2008 at 17:13 | Unregistered CommenterNatalia
Natalia:

The idea is where possible to turn over at least one list per day. So although the end of the list no longer necessarily comes at the end of the working day, you should still get at least one "closure" during the day.

For instance today I finished a list at around 11 a.m. I still had four items left on the new list at the end of work, but am confident I will have them out of the way first thing tomorrow. So tomorrow I will probably start a new list earlier than 11 a.m.
November 17, 2008 at 19:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
It sounds like a useful change from the method outlined in your book. I'll have to see how it plays out, especially in handling the items that get on "tomorrow's" list. Tomorrow often shouldn't be too many days after tomorrow :-)

It probably boils down to not taking on too many things at once. Which is sane no matter what.
November 17, 2008 at 19:06 | Unregistered CommenterReinout van Rees
With this system, how would you handle tasks that take longer than 1 day? or perhaps several days?

If you happen to put a large task on that list, you might not draw your line for several days... And meanwhile, all your incoming new tasks are being neglected.

This has been my biggest trouble with DIT. I end up having a list of "current initiatives" to handle projects and tasks of long duration, and my regular "task list" for little things. When new one-off tasks arrive, I put them on my "task list" for tomorrow -- and that system works great. But it's harder to manage large, complex tasks.

Sometimes I hear that you should break the large tasks down into smaller tasks -- but that alone doesn't help me track how the smaller, component tasks tie to the larger projects. It also doesn't help balance priorities among the large tasks and various small tasks, and deciding when I should ignore my small task list and focus entirely on larger, complex tasks. Since it's so difficult to track these relationships, I always fall back to my two-list approach.

Having two lists (the "current initiative" list, and the one-off task list) usually works fairly well. But sometimes I get so wrapped up in my current initiative, that I neglect important and urgent one-offs. And sometimes the reverse happens.
November 17, 2008 at 19:27 | Unregistered CommenterSeraphim
Hi Seraphim,

Here is what I do with very large tasks -- schedule block time on your calendar to work only on those tasks. I keep these off of my will-do list by scheduling time for them. Yes, if you have to work on one or two major tasks that take almost all of your time, then the smaller tasks will accumulate. However, I know of no time management system that will help you with that reality. When this happens, I then schedule some time for me to work only on the smaller tasks. This frequently occurs in the evenings and into the night for me. But that is my professional life and I accept that with the level of responsibilities I have on my plate.

Best wishes,
-David
November 17, 2008 at 20:17 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Drake
Hi Mark,

This modification is brilliant and provides the flexibility that I need in my professional life. I embrace this change wholeheartedly! Nice job!!

Best wishes,
-David
November 17, 2008 at 21:05 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Drake
I'll have to try it. My initial reaction echoes that of Natalia.

There was a book by Neil Fiore called Overcoming Procrastination. Although many rave about that book, it never worked for me. However, I did learn something useful from it. It's OK to not work. And it's especially OK to not work when you have that enormously satisfying feeling that you get after you've crossed off the hardest (and usually last) item from your will-do list (see Mark's advantage number 3, above).

Today I got my will-do list done early. After that I did a mixture of work and play. Although there were some things on my will-do list for tomorrow, I did not work on them today. I liked the glorious free feeling of working on whatever I felt like at the moment, not what was on my tomorrow list.

There's another thing. I make a very big deal out of completing today's will-do list. I track and graph how many successive days I have completed my list. I am quite proud of the fact that today made my 26th successive day of completing my list.

In this proposal, as I understand it, the day could end and I'd still be in the middle of my list. As we Americans are wont to say, "No problem!" I'll just work on it some more tomorrow morning. When I'm done tomorrow, I'll create a new list.

As far as I can see, this removes the urgency I feel when it's getting late in the day and I still have some very significant items left on my list. That's when I really bear down and start cranking. The beauty of the will-do list (for me, of course) is that it creates great urgency. Pre-DIT, I'd have a few hard items left to do. I might work on them, but without any sense of urgency, since there was always tomorrow.

The beauty of canonical DIT (for me) is that I can soberly decide today that tomorrow I should work on some goal which will have a significant impact on my long-term well-being. Tomorrow, when some short-term distraction seems much more tempting than my long-term good, I can't wriggle out of my commitment to my long-term good. If my list did not expire at the end of the day, I fear I would wriggle out.
November 17, 2008 at 21:54 | Unregistered Commentermoises
moises:

I appreciate all you have said. However I've now completed two lists today, and have started on a third and my motivation is very high. I don't feel any obligation to keep on working. I just want to!

I suggest you try it and see how it works. If it doesn't do it for you, then you can go back to the method you know works.
November 17, 2008 at 23:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Seraphim:

Whether you've got one list or two lists you are still going to be doing a series of tasks throughout the day. The number of lists you have doesn't affect that.

There's a lot of material on this website about how to handle projects. I suggest you use the search box at the top of the left-hand margin to look at some of it.
November 17, 2008 at 23:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,

I like the simplicity of this method. It is like planning your day in the sense that you choose what goes on the list. I could see where it also could be very motivating if for instance you draw the line and then later add something very urgent that must get done. Since you have to clear the list above, you will get all of the items above the list done, plus the urgent one below the line. Additionally, I like it because you can tear up the old list after writing the new one, which does not cause you to have all of the pages of a task diary with stuff you may not have done on your mind. So a simple legal pad is all one needs to implement this method.
November 18, 2008 at 3:50 | Unregistered CommenterGerry
Mark,

Being committed to complete at least a list a day is nice, and I agree it also gives a sense of accomplishment. I might try it someday if I feel the urge to change things.

The problem, in my case, would be the nagging feeling after work that I should still try to do something else that day, after a list or two being completed. Just in case. Just to have more free time tomorrow. (It still happens with canonical DIT, and I sometimes try to do something off my tomorrow's list in the evening.) So, you know, I don't think I could try this just yet, without feeling tempted to work, work, work all the time. And I know the quality of my work drops when I just work, work, work. :)

Moises:

This at-least-a-list-a-day Mark explained afterwards makes more sense, don't you think? I would also procrastinate ad infinitum if the closed lists could be put off.

So, in the end, I need something that does not allow me to put off important stuff, but that also makes me fell free to enjoy my non-work time. That is why I found canonical DIT so liberating.
November 18, 2008 at 20:41 | Unregistered CommenterNatalia
Natalia,

I didn't fully recognize that Mark was requiring at least one list/day until you stressed it. You and Mark are, of course, right. This is certainly worth a try. I will have to figure out how I will integrate my recurring daily tasks into the system. Thanks to both of you.

moises
November 18, 2008 at 21:31 | Unregistered Commentermoises
Hi Mark,

this sounds interesting, but for me, some thoughts come to mind:

(1) Since this method seems to require a bit more self-control than 'orthodox' DIT, it may be better suited as an additional refinement for someone who is already used to working in standard DIT mode.

(2) In some way, it seems to interfere with the idea of 'calling a backlog' and making working on the backlog your current initiative.

(3) It might make it a little harder to implement the 'limits' principle.

--
Alex
November 19, 2008 at 0:54 | Unregistered CommenterAlex W.
Have you actually tried it, Alex? I'd be interested in what you think after you have.
November 19, 2008 at 14:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I like the idea, and am going to try experimenting with it. But I am not sure how its going to help with the biggest problem that I am struggling with, which is the very irregular pattern in which my work comes in. This is due to two reasons:

1. Most of my important work consists of large projects. These of course get broken down into small actions, or repeated tasks, but its still a problem that when a new project comes in, it generates a large pulse of new actions to add to my list. I have tried using the current initiative idea from DIT for this, but cannot get it to work for me.

2. Some days, I will get a week's worth of new work coming in, other days, none.

I am thus constantly struggling how to smooth out my workflow. It is often not practical to create a list of all the actions that have arrived since the previous list was started, as such a list could take 3-4 days to clear. I approach this by trying to create a schedule of work, as suggested by the car mechanic example in DIT, but must confess this doesn't work very well for me, as ten ofthe temptation is to use scheduling as a way of putting things off.

I would welcome new ideas of how to deal with this.
November 20, 2008 at 10:59 | Unregistered CommenterJaroslav
I have to admit that I had trouble getting my mind around this when I first read this post. But now that I've read the comments, I find myself anxious to try it. I'll start tomorrow. Thanks, Mark!
November 25, 2008 at 23:07 | Unregistered CommenterJanine Adams
Good luck with the system, Janine. Do let us know how you get on.
November 26, 2008 at 10:28 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I have just finished (sunday this week) reading DIT after being introduced to it thro Stever Robbins GIDG podcast. As a life long searcher of a way to manage a high volume of personal and professional to do's and commitments I have tried most systems but generally fallen off the wagon after a while. But having started to implement the principals and processes you outline in the book since monday I have already made a huge improvement to my ability to keep on top of my work and my stress levels! It is simple and intuitive and I think the adjustment outlined here will help me deal effectively with the need I have for adding new/urgent same day items in a controlled way. I'll keep you posted on how this newbie progresses.

As a final comment, the "declare a backlog" system was the real revelation and motivator for me when combined with the ability to make it into a current initiative, I have already made in-roads to it (email predominantly) and still kept on top of the new work. Thank You!
November 27, 2008 at 6:20 | Unregistered Commentertitch
Thank you, titch. It's good to hear how the methods have helped you, and I'll be very interested to hear how you progress.
December 1, 2008 at 20:30 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I've been using this method for a week or so and so far I'm loving it! In fact, I blogged about it today: http://www.peaceofmindorganizing.com/blog/the-simplest-time-management-method . For whatever reason, this method of writing down the tasks makes me itch to get started in the morning. Thanks for coming up with this, Mark!
December 3, 2008 at 17:33 | Unregistered CommenterJanine Adams
Thanks for a great article, Janine. I hope the method continues to work for you.
December 4, 2008 at 16:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I am about three weeks into this modified version of DIT and I agree with Mark that it is better than regular DIT.

Unlike Mark, I never complete more than one batch in a day. But I am getting much more done in a day. In standard DIT, once I completed my list, all the pressure was off. In my mind, I was done for the day, and did not get much more done.

Furthermore, I had a strong tendency, when using standard DIT, to over-emphasize the "little and often" principle. I would tend to work for a shorter period of time on hard stuff, cross it off my list, complete my daily list, and declare victory.

Now, doing modified DIT, I tend to work for longer intervals on the harder stuff. If I have to spend an hour tomorrow morning finishing my list, I tell myself, I'll still complete the list.

In point of fact, I almost always get my list done in one day. But every now and then I have a small amount to do the next day. I am pleased when this happens, because it is usually the result of being especially focused on difficult tasks.

In the final analysis, I determine how much work to commit to. With standard DIT I would rush, rush, rush, worried that the day would end before I completed my list. That would give me an incentive to work less on the hard, time-consuming projects. With modified DIT, I still see that I have a lot to accomplish, but I feel that I am rushing somewhat less and I am more willing to devote concentrated and lengthier blocks of time to significant projects.

To summarize, I think that I am performing much better with modified DIT. Standard DIT raised my performance levels significantly above my pre-DIT levels. And modified DIT raised them yet again.

I would like to express to Mark my deeply felt gratitude and appreciation. He's helped me immensely. He's truly a titan when it comes to motivation.
December 10, 2008 at 22:25 | Unregistered Commentermoises
This is a very interesting modification, which I am trying in three areas (Domestic, Studio and Office). In fact one has to wonder, with this system, why bother with PDA task management software. Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones.

It is not yet clear to me how I will accommodate the Task Diary into the system. With regard to current initiative, I am making the line between lists read "---Current Initiative---" instead of "------------". This ensures the Current Initiative is given regular attention.
December 11, 2008 at 6:15 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence
Update: Yesterday I wrote I never turn over more than one list in a day. Today I did. That's what's nice about this system. I has more flexibility.
December 11, 2008 at 19:50 | Unregistered Commentermoises
Hi all
call me obtuse, but I don't see this as any different than creating a regular to do list, and completing it. What am I missing?
learning as I go
December 17, 2008 at 17:21 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
Learning as I go:

The basic difference is the line you draw to close the list. A normal to do list remains open.
December 18, 2008 at 15:31 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark
I never used an open list unless an emergency arose. I was taught by my dad to daily write a todo list (regular chores not included). ....and prioritize it *blush*....so in case an emergency or a rich opportunity arose, the important stuff was already done. Then I'd either do a little overtime to finish it or carry it forward depending on what was already planned for the next day (I'm a proponent of weekly reviews and weekly planning to create scaffolding for the week. The daily lists are focus tools)

I would guess that an open list isn't really a list at all but merely an options list. I need my aims clearly defined.....and my free time as well!
learning as I go
December 18, 2008 at 18:24 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
p.s.
I know I'm going to get some flack about importance. If my day presents an occurance that derails some of my work (pain, rare important occurances,etc), the prioritizing helps me in that I can "wait" a few hours to do some things without much consequence, and other things might not be so forgiving. Example: calling my brother on his birthday vs clipping the dog's claws. Both are important but one has more flexibility timewise than the other. You have taught me how to incorporate the little and often rule to apply to things without due dates. I love that! I never thought to forward plan incremental units to projects without a specific due date. It's fun to strategize these timelines especially if it's something onerous like detailing my car. It never occurred to me that I could get the same result doing it in "doable" small segments rather than slogging it for 2 to 3 hours!
Thank you for that!
gsdsmiles
gsdsmiles
December 18, 2008 at 18:40 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
Learning:

I'll be interested to see what you make of my latest ideas, once I've finished testing them out on myself.
December 18, 2008 at 18:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark
I'm ready to go out the door, but....a RESOUNDING YES! to your query! I LOVE LOVE LOVE your various ideas! plus....this being the season for many unexpected opportunites.......this is a prime time to test out your system against "real life" ! LOL!
gsdsmiles
December 18, 2008 at 19:18 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
I hope you won't be disappointed! It seems to be working very well at the moment.
December 18, 2008 at 19:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark
LOL! I'm dripping wet coming out of the shower.....I LOVE the holidays and all the unexpected fun and opportunites to help the less blessed people.....

I will state positively that I won't be disappointed. Even when I don't agree, I totally respect your thinking and reasoning behind your ideas. You are quite inspirational! I, too, love to "experiment" and improve. In the states, we're known as putterers! LOL!
gsdsmiles
December 18, 2008 at 19:39 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
I'm in the middle of reading Chapter 13. Will the "new ideas" totally replace what I've been learning, or just change some of the techniques?
December 18, 2008 at 22:10 | Unregistered CommenterBrian
Brian:

Most of the ideas in "Do It Tomorrow" will still apply to the new system. It's just that it will make them much easier to apply. At least I hope it will :-)
December 18, 2008 at 23:47 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark,

I haven't visited this site for a while, and no, I haven't tried the simplified method yet. But I discovered that there is a whole new system coming, and I just signed up for "beta testing".

By the time I posted my above comment, I was trying to wrap my head around the concepts of the "Dreams" book, and I wasn't very successful at that.

Maybe the new approach helps to incorporate some of the benefits of the "Dreams" ideas into DIT.

--
Alex
January 4, 2009 at 12:45 | Unregistered CommenterAlex W.
Alex:

What I've tried to do in the new approach is to get a better balance between the rational and intuitive parts of the mind. So yes, it does go a bit further towards the Dreams approach, but not using the same methods.
January 4, 2009 at 13:46 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I've been using this system within the last 10 days. I'm just amazed by the results. I can easily see that recently I've been doing much more then at the normal days.
Drawing a line makes all the difference! I actually compete with myself by assigning time for each task, when I start doing it (similar to the method you've described in your book Get everything done). I tend to do it quicker and I don't forget extra details or tasks, as I carefully write them down below the line.
Thanks! I'm very grateful for this advice.
April 2, 2009 at 15:10 | Unregistered CommenterGaliya
I think this list of things that can be done without predefined order reduces stress and allows me do more things than before. Btw, a web-based checklist named checkvist seems a perfect tool for this method.
April 24, 2009 at 14:10 | Unregistered CommenterTime management system
I have never really spent so much time thinking about time
management as you obviously have. Making a list, doing
the things that you enjoy, drawing a line to add new items,
then complete your list even if you don't enjoy the remaining
items to be done, then start a new list from the items below
the line. I understand your time management system, but
what works best for me is making a list and choosing the
item with the nearest time priority. Should two items have
the same time line then I choose the most difficult one.
If I don't, then the thought of the job to be done will linger
on my mind. So, I need this type of order.

Thank you for introducing your system to me; perhaps
some day it may be of assistance to me.
April 28, 2010 at 3:31 | Unregistered CommenterOlivet
Fantastic article! This will help me tremendously through out my academic career. Thanks!
May 30, 2013 at 19:02 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

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