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« My New Time Management System (Under Development) | Main | Dynamic Lists »

Working in the Present

One of the principles which I have always emphasized when talking about time management is that we should work with our minds rather than against them.

Unfortunately it’s not always obvious how to do that. But I think over the years I have come to see that one of the most effective ways of working with our minds is to work little and often. It doesn’t matter what method of time management you use, or even if you don’t use any method at all, this is essential to progressing almost any subject.

I’ve written plenty in the past about little and often and I don’t intend to repeat it here. It’s perhaps easiest to understand by looking at its opposite which is “doing it all in one big session at the last moment”. Remember that both “little” and “often” are relative terms. For a concert pianist “little” may be four hours and “often” is probably daily. For someone writing a blog post “little” may be ten minutes and “often” every hour or so.

One of the many advantages of working little and often is that when you return to the task or project you will find each time that your mind has moved on. New things have come. You have more understanding, more light, on the project. You begin to see your way through what seemed to be insoluble problems. Little and often works on the physical as well as the mental plane. Athletes and trainers use the principle all the time. The house you are building grows steadily bit by bit. The plants in your garden respond to your repeated care.

Little and often is therefore a way both of keeping a subject alive and also of expanding your grasp and understanding of that subject.

More and more I’m realising that this is the key to managing time. And therefore at all costs we have to avoid working in such a way that the principle of little and often is impeded.

What sort of things are not conducive to little and often?

  • Long lists of things to do
  • Building up resistance
  • Depending on willpower

Let’s look at the first one. The problem with long lists from a little and often point of view is that they were written in the past about the future. They are neither written in nor about the present.

We should be thinking about what we are doing now, rather than about what we may do in the future.

Even our goals and plans should be directed at guiding what we do in the present rather than being rigid constraints on our actions way into the future.

Reader Comments (9)

Are you familiar with Cal Newport's Deep Work? The book was just published, but he's been blogging about the ideas in it for some time now. What he says about the importance of extended work sessions with deep focus seems to run counter to your "little and often" concept. Any thoughts?
February 14, 2016 at 17:26 | Unregistered CommenterEurobubba
Sorry if all my recent comments have been coming across as objections, BTW, I've just been trying to find tools to help bridge the gap between planning and action and keep hoping I've found something that will reduce the friction.
February 14, 2016 at 17:33 | Unregistered CommenterEurobubba

I haven't read any Cal Newport, but remember what I said about both "little" and "often" being relative terms.
February 14, 2016 at 18:34 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Eurobubba: I think you're comparing apples to oranges.

Cal Newport, from my understanding of his work, isn't talking about the kinds of everyday tasks + some big projects that are talked about here. Cal's work is more on leaving a legacy or a body of work about hard problems that only yield up their ground to prolonged and persistent application of mind with zero distractions.

I don't think Cal's work and Mark's work are incompatible by any means. But as Mark says, little and often is relative. Cal needs 3 days of 4-hr blocks of time to crack very tough problems in computer networking mathematics; just entering into that problem space and loading the variables into his head can take an hour, probably.

But then Cal also teaches, writes, advises students, etc -- he has written on his blog that he maps out his schedule with a daily list and is pretty rigid about stopping work at 5pm. He doesn't spend his deep-work time on administrivia. So Cal could use any kind of task management system that's compatible with his philosophy of self-management and work style.

That's my understanding anyway. Others who know more should jump in.
February 14, 2016 at 18:52 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
In response to the last two comments by Eurobubba and Mike Brown:

I recently listened to several podcasts of interviews with Cal Newport. I enjoy his writing and ideas, especially because I also am a professor at a research university, so he discusses many topics that resonate with me. Mark's work, on the surface, seems to be at odds with the Deep Work principle described by Cal. Even "little" and "often" really does not quite capture, in my opinion, the longer timeblocks that Cal associates with his approaches of productive meditation and uninterrupted deep-work.

However, one thing that Cal does not describe in much detail on his blog or in his book, is the concept of managing a group of people and assimilating group projects/meetings into his day/week. Cal's concept of a lab (as a theoretical computer scientist) differs considerably from my physical lab space filled with imaging equipment and experimental work (as a biomedical engineer) I find that project management with a group of students/postdocs benefits better from spending time paying attention to "shallow work" and works well with Mark's little-and-often philosophy, to keep the balls in the air.

The Deep Work is critical, but some of the shallow work becomes more critical for me than I imagine it is for Cal.

Hence, I currently use a hybrid Newport/Forster approach in which I spend ~15h per week on Deep Work/Current Initiative-style projects (time blocks >1h) and intersperse Shallow Work using Mark's No-List Autofocus (Mark, I really like this concept!) combined with a large-scale master list (yes, this sounds contradictory, but it helps me apply GTD to my life in a sane way) stored in OmniFocus.

Haven't quite figured out how to end work at 5:00pm like Cal (one day!), but I at least complete my Deep Work/Current Initiatives during the standard work day and only allow myself to do shallow work in the evening.
April 27, 2016 at 21:33 | Unregistered CommenterBernard Choi
Bernard Choi:

<< Haven't quite figured out how to end work at 5:00pm like Cal >>

What time does he start work? Many people who finish early start while the rest of us have still a couple of hours left in bed.
April 28, 2016 at 7:26 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, I believe that Cal Newport starts work at either 8:00 or 9:00.
Reconstructing this based on my recollection of snippets from several podcast interviews.
I think he is fairly ruthless with minimizing what he calls shallow work, which helps him maximize his deep work during the 8-9 hour workdays.
April 28, 2016 at 14:56 | Unregistered CommenterBernard Choi

Don't you advise people struggling with their workload to stop work earlier? This always struck me as delightfully counterintuitive and supremely logical.
April 28, 2016 at 15:01 | Registered CommenterWill

I don't advise any particular time to stop working generally, just that one should have a definite and invariable stop time - also a defined lunch break.
April 28, 2016 at 17:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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