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« Final Version Situation | Main | Another good question »
Thursday
Feb232012

Methods I don't recommend (revisited)

When I recently revised the About page (which previously was the Home page), I left out a large chunk of text which I didn’t feel necessarily agreed with my current thinking. Bear in mind that the page was written before I had designed any systems subsequent to Do It Tomorrow (which is still a really good system by the way!)

Having hidden the text away in Evernote, I decided just now to have another look at it and comment on its continuing relevance or otherwise.

So let’s have a look (original text in italics):

Prioritizing by Importance
Prioritizing by importance is a cause of bad time management, not a cure for it! Just how impressed would you be if your new car didn’t have wing mirrors because the factory thought the engine was more important than the wing mirrors? If it needs to be done, then it needs to be done, period.

I still agree with that 100 per cent. However perhaps it needs adding that Importance is the right way to decide what your commitments should be in the first place. You commit to what is important to you, your work and your life. However once you have made the commitments Importance is not the right way to decide in what order to do the resulting work.

Prioritizing by Urgency
Ok, so we sometimes have real emergencies which need an immediate response. You will recognise these when they happen - you don’t need to sit down and allocate them a priority. But let’s face it, all your other “urgent priorities” are only urgent because you have left them to the last minute. And why have you left them to the last minute? - because you are prioritizing by urgency, that’s why!

I hadn’t appreciated an important distinction about Prioritizing by Urgency when I wrote the above. This has since become clearer to me.

The reason Urgency has got a bad name is that people think that it means that we only take action on a task when it becomes urgent.

However what “Prioritizing by Urgency” should mean is that we do things according to the degree of urgency they possess. The degree of urgency may fall anywhere between Must be Done This Second to Not at All Urgent. Where a task falls on this continuum is the deciding factor. This is a sensible method of prioritizing.

To Do Lists
A to do list is the finest known way of ensuring that you never get to the end of your work. The proof? How often have you ended the day with more items on your to do list than you started it with? Me, I finish all my work, just about every day. And I can teach you to do the same.

I still agree with this if one is talking about the standard To Do list of most people’s imagination. However there are various sophisticated ways of working a To Do list which are a great improvement. In order to avoid confusion I have usually given them a different name for my own systems, e.g. The Will Do list (Do It Tomorrow) or the Autofocus list for (for my various Autofocus systems).

Reader Comments (19)

How would you handle the classic case of the term paper in University? It's assigned on day 1 of the class, is due on the fourth month before exams, and requires 40 hours of work to complete. The classic student response is to start the paper three weeks before exams, and work overtime because there are 2 other papers plus studying to achieve.

Meanwhile, 4 months before the deadline, the paper is surely on the list (because it's clearly important), but surely not urgent, and many other things are less important but more urgent.
February 23, 2012 at 18:40 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan - I'd treat this as a project and set weekly goals. This way you would just transfer the weekly goal to the todo list.

But if I was a student I'd probably leave it to the last minute as well!
February 23, 2012 at 19:56 | Registered CommenterAlison Reeves
I'm trying to understand how "prioritizing by urgency" works out in this instance. Setting weekly goals works, but I understand that to be not what Mark advocates here.
February 23, 2012 at 21:39 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Urgency must be determined by required start date, not by required finish date.

Also, if I realize that I must be making continual progress, then it becomes URGENT to make sure I am actually making that continual progress. It becomes a matter of weekly or even daily urgency -- even if it doesn't FEEL urgent.

Mainly I think it requires a realistic conversation with oneself about the project, and frequently reminding oneself of the real urgency, despite the fact that the actual deadline might be months away.
February 24, 2012 at 0:49 | Unregistered CommenterSeraphim
Alan:

<< How would you handle the classic case of the term paper in University? It's assigned on day 1 of the class, is due on the fourth month before exams, and requires 40 hours of work to complete. The classic student response is to start the paper three weeks before exams, and work overtime because there are 2 other papers plus studying to achieve. >>

I don't really understand what you are having so much difficulty in working out the degree of urgency that this term paper would have. You yourself have given the "classic student response" as an example of leaving it until it is too late to do it properly. Therefore you presumably understand that the students have allocated it the wrong degree of urgency. In fact it would be truer to say that they haven't given it any degree of urgency at all. They've just waited until they have no choice in the matter.

You've also spelled out the factors that you would need to take into account when allocating the degree of urgency. You have three term papers to complete each of which will take 40 hours of work. You want to achieve as good a result as possible without having to work overtime and you want to allow time for other work, study, leisure, rest, etc. and allow a buffer for emergencies. That basically tells you how urgent it is to get moving on the papers.

If a student sat down and worked this out, then they would avoid the "classic student response" which is to leave everything till the last minute - i.e. failing to prioritize by degree of urgency (or anything else for that matter).

You still seem to be thinking in terms of "Prioritizing by Urgency" as meaning "waiting until things get urgent", but that is exactly what I've come to realise it's not about. In fact if you are prioritizing properly by degree of urgency, very few things are going to become really urgent.
February 24, 2012 at 1:20 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
The difficulty is that "go out with the gang" is always considered both important and urgent (they are going now). So somehow a balance needs to be reached where you decide that the going out is now deemed relatively unimportant and therefore off the list because it's been squeezed out by the more important and eventually urgent writing the paper.

You seem to suggest estimating how much time each activity requires, calculating where each what will fit into your schedule and then squeezing exactly those things in. Barring the obvious difficulty of proper estimation and of accounting for future important interruptions, that could certainly work.

I guess the main reason I'm taken aback is I didn't expect anything like such detailed planning to be what you had in mind.
February 24, 2012 at 1:43 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
"You seem to suggest estimating how much time each activity requires, calculating where each what will fit into your schedule and then squeezing exactly those things in. Barring the obvious difficulty of proper estimation and of accounting for future important interruptions, that could certainly work."

Yes, this is an interesting line of thought. It very closely resembles a methodology I recently read about where Agile software teams use a combination of Kanban and Scrum to manage their development activities.

In this approach, the team breaks down a project into chunks (called stories) and estimates the time required to complete the chunk. At the beginning of each time-based cycle, they determine the highest value activities and limit the work in progress to the activities that can reasonably fit into their cycle's timeframe.

I think the approach could be modified and used for an individual too.

You can download an e-book on this approach at http://www.infoq.com/minibooks/kanban-scrum-minibook .
February 24, 2012 at 4:31 | Registered CommenterPaulB from Canada
<<However perhaps it needs adding that Importance is the right way to decide what your commitments should be in the first place. You commit to what is important to you, your work and your life.>>

Hey Mark, does you have a mini-system to determine which commitments we should take or not?

Because this means that we'll have to do a GTD review. Sometimes, we know our goals, and some commitments appear really relevant in the moment. However, if we spend time thinking on them and comparing them to alternatives, we can find out that the highest leverage is in doing something else that would give a much better result.

I remember for Autofocus you talked about how we just put the commitments in it, and it filters out which ones should be done and which shouldn't, which to an extent it does.

Does this mean that we should have an Inbox, and then dedicate time to review its contents and determine what should go on the list and what shouldn't? I mean, when it is part of a clear system, and not simply a recommendation we are more likely to do it.
February 24, 2012 at 8:58 | Unregistered CommenterMauricio
I have to admit, I'm really struggling with this. Perhaps I've been simplistically over-analysing for so many years that I've lost track of the meaning of key words. But for me, the "Importance/ urgency" dimensions of classic "time management" assign urgency a strict meaning: how soon a task needs to be addressed if it is to be done at all. This is quite an objective measure, not a value that you assign to a task. If it takes a week and is due a week from now it is very urgent. If it takes a week and is due four months from now it isn't.

But Mark talks about allocating a degree of urgency as if there is an element of choice in the matter.

What have I missed?

The only think I can think of that is open to choice is the amount of contingency we are comfortable with. You don't actually know that something will take forty hours, or that you will actually have forty hours available in the final week. But I'm a simple soul, and would like some help here.
February 24, 2012 at 9:14 | Registered CommenterWill
Alan:

<< The difficulty is that "go out with the gang" is always considered both important and urgent (they are going now). So somehow a balance needs to be reached where you decide that the going out is now deemed relatively unimportant and therefore off the list because it's been squeezed out by the more important and eventually urgent writing the paper. >>

The article is about the problems of prioritizing by (degree of) importance v. prioritizing by (degree of) urgency. You've just proved the point that importance is no better than urgency in getting the term papers done. The average student is still going to go out with the gang. Though notice that "going out with the gang" is only high urgency at certain times of day. At other times, other things will be more urgent.

In fact if you read what I've said about importance and urgency in the post, you will see that you take on the commitment to do the term papers because they are important and then do the resulting work in order of urgency. If you regard going out with the gang important enough to be on your list of commitments, then you must be prepared to pay the price.

<< You seem to suggest estimating how much time each activity requires, calculating where each what will fit into your schedule and then squeezing exactly those things in. Barring the obvious difficulty of proper estimation and of accounting for future important interruptions, that could certainly work. >>

What I'm suggesting is that (degree of) urgency is a better method of prioritizing than (degree of) importance if done consistently. Be clear though that I am using the word "prioritizing" in its correct meaning of establishing what you do first (prior). Prioritizing does not refer to whether you should be doing it at all - that is a different question.

<< I guess the main reason I'm taken aback is I didn't expect anything like such detailed planning to be what you had in mind. >>

If you were going to prioritize exclusively by urgency, you would already have a pretty good idea of how long a term paper takes to do properly. You've already shown that you know the normal student method doesn't leave enough time, or you wouldn't have used it as an example.

However please note that I am merely revisiting comments I wrote years ago, not proposing a new time management system.
February 24, 2012 at 10:00 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Will:

<< What have I missed? >>

Nothing. When I talk about allocating a degree of urgency to projects I mean exactly what you describe.

"If it takes a week and is due a week from now it is very urgent. If it takes a week and is due four months from now it isn't."

Perhaps I should have said "identify the degree of urgency" rather than "allocate" it.

However bear in mind that there are lots of minor tasks which you do have to allocate a degree of urgency to. I'm thinking of thing like: do you check your email four times a day, once a day, or once a week? The answer depends on how much email you are comfortable with clearing at a time. How often do you tidy your office? The answer depends on how much untidiness you are prepared to tolerate.
February 24, 2012 at 10:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Example of prioritizing by urgency:

You have the following tasks on your list today:

Term Paper (must have started in six weeks time if going to meet deadline)
Email (do today)
Breakfast (do now)
Read textbook chapter for next lecture (by tomorrow)
Go out with the gang (this evening)

You do them in the following order:

Breakfast
Email
Read textbook chapter
Do some work on Term Paper
Go out with gang

Note that you work on the term paper even though you don't have to start it for six weeks because there are no further more urgent tasks. Going out with the gang has no urgency during the day. It is only urgent in the evening.
February 24, 2012 at 10:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,

(from an earlier post of yours)
<<One point - the system has changed a lot since my earliest drafts, so things I've said in the past about it may not necessarily still be valid.>>

In light of all you have recently revealed and the resulting speculations from readers, perhaps you could revisit some of your earlier descriptions and comment on what has changed in FV. This could be a ready source of several more blog posts! ;)

The following links seem to be the most relevant:

http://www.markforster.net/blog/2011/9/12/key-principles-of-the-new-system-i-the-time-equation.html

http://www.markforster.net/blog/2011/9/19/key-principles-of-the-new-system-ii-universal-capture.html

http://www.markforster.net/blog/2011/12/14/key-principles-of-the-new-system-iii-getting-stuff-done.html
February 24, 2012 at 15:14 | Registered CommenterBernie
It's been a struggle for me to grasp this concept, but I think your last post clears the fog. Thanks Mark.
February 24, 2012 at 15:22 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
One could define "degree of urgency of task A" reasonably objectively, as the ratio
Time needed to complete A / Time available to complete A
where the available time is constrained by all the other tasks that also can be done by various times. Calculating the ratio would depend on one's default scheduling algorithm for all those other tasks.

The classic student scheduling algorithm is to do tasks at random until the urgency ratio for some task reaches a threshold value greater than or equal to 1, at which point that task takes over and the student also seeks to increase the denominator of the ratio by not sleeping.
February 24, 2012 at 15:54 | Registered CommenterRichard Stamper
Richard,
<<The classic student scheduling algorithm is to do tasks at random until the urgency ratio for some task reaches a threshold value greater than or equal to 1, at which point that task takes over and the student also seeks to increase the denominator of the ratio by not sleeping.>>

As a student, I must have majored in that!
February 24, 2012 at 16:06 | Registered CommenterBernie
Bernie:

<< The following links seem to be the most relevant: >>

They all sort of still apply, but not necessarily in the way they did when I wrote the posts.
February 24, 2012 at 18:42 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I like to cycle my priorities. In essence, if I write something down, I will do it. Somedays, I prefer to do the most important first. Other days, I do only the menial stuff, like cleaning the kitchen.
April 13, 2012 at 21:32 | Unregistered CommenterFluent-time-management
<<Note that you work on the term paper even though you don't have to start it for six weeks because there are no further more urgent tasks. Going out with the gang has no urgency during the day. It is only urgent in the evening. >>

More than that, you can't start "go out with the gang" before the evening, when it gets a "do now" urgency.
August 20, 2012 at 7:52 | Unregistered CommenterLaurent

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