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At last the answer to how to maintain concentration!


Can we really manage time?

(This article is taken from today’s issue of my newsletter)

When we use the term “time management” what do we actually mean? Obviously we don’t mean that we are managing time itself. Time just is, and we all get 24 hours a day whether we like it or not and whether we try to manage it or not.

So what is it that we are really managing?

To answer this we have to examine what we are already doing each day. Every one of us, however efficient or inefficient, however busy or however idle, however motivated or unmotivated, spends each period of 24 hours doing a series of tasks. Whether you consider your time management to be good or bad, you are already doing 24 hours worth of tasks each day. (I am using the word “task” to describe anything you do). If you were to write down every single thing you do during the course of a day, you would usually end up with quite an impressive list. Whether you like it or not, you have to spend each day doing something, even if it’s only sleeping or watching the television.

So what we are aiming to manage is not how much we do - we are already doing 24 hours worth of tasks. It is what we do. In other words the basic question behind all time management is “Are the tasks I am doing each day, the right ones?”

Now how can one answer a question like that? What do we mean by “right” in this context? In what way is answering one’s email for example “better” or “worse” than any other task we could name?

Such a question only makes sense in terms of our commitments. If we have made a commitment to carry out Project X, then the actions needed to carry out Project X are “right”. If we have made a commitment to be healthy, then the actions needed to keep us healthy will be “right”. If we have made a commitment to our family, then the actions we take to strengthen our family ties, will be “right”. And so on.

What happens when we have taken on more commitments than we have time for? The answer is simple, we will fail at some of those commitments. We will either do them less well than our commitment to them implied, or we will neglect them altogether.

The whole concept of time management is meaningless until we realise that what we are really managing is the flow of tasks that comes from our commitments. Once we do realise that, we can see that time management will only make sense if our commitments make sense. There is no point trying to manage our time if our commitments are contradictory, excessive, undefined or ill- judged.

Keeping our commitments under continuous review is a prerequisite to good time management. Otherwise it just becomes a series of techniques to try and rescue us from the mess that we have made for ourselves. As I have frequently said, using time management techniques on their own. without dealing with the fundamental question of what commitments we have, is just going to end up giving you a bigger and better overwhelm.


"Do It Tomorrow" Interview

A 26 minute audio file of an interview of me on the subject of "Do It Tomorrow" by Jose Quesada on behalf of can be downloaded by clicking here.

A longer (51 minute) version can be accessed here.


Finding Files

Here’s a little trick which may help you to find more quickly the files which you use all the time. If you have your files arranged by subject or in alphabetical order, you probably find that you have to think quite hard in order to find them. I used to find that quite difficult. First of all I had to remember what the file was called, then find the right place where it should be. I often found it wasn’t where it ought to be but had moved somehow into the wrong place. It was just as difficult when I was putting the file away - I had to think in order to know what to do with it.

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to find a website address in your browser when the items are ordered so the last used is at the top? It is far the fastest way of finding something that you use regularly. Our minds are pretty good at telling how long ago it was when we last used something.

It’s very easy to do the same thing with files. Personally, rather than use a filing cabinet, I have all my papers filed in lever arch files arranged on a bookshelf. Whenever I use a file I always put it back at the left end of the top shelf. I move the other files along to give it space. So all the files are now arranged in the order I last used them. Result: I can lay my hands instantly on every file that I use frequently. Another advantage is that I don’t have to think about where to put a file when I have finished with it. It always goes in the same spot - the left end of the top shelf.

I found the system worked so well for files that I now use it for books too. No longer do I lose books that I am reading. I know exactly where to put them so that I can find them again. I can also see exactly when I last looked at any particular book. It’s a very simple system, but it works!


Countdown scoring

I want to elaborate a bit on the last couple of articles I have written about how to motivate yourself through figures. The most obvious figure you can use is money. Monetary goals can be extremely effective because they have the great advantage of being objectively measurable. Other objectively measurable goals include weight, speed and strength.

However there are many goals which it is not possible to express in monetary terms. How can we deal with these? The answer is to think in terms of percentage completion. To do this you need to define exactly what 100 per cent completion of your goal would be. If your goal is to get a project up and running then what would your definition of “up and running” be? The essential thing is that you must be able to recognise it when you see it.

If you are dealing with a fairly simple personal or work goal you can just estimate off the top of your head what percentage completion you have reached. So if your aim is to get a new website up and running, you might say that it is 80% complete. But if you read my article a couple of weeks ago, you will remember that I said it is much more effective to count down than to count up. So don’t say “My website project is 80% complete”, instead say “My website project has still got 20% to go”. That will focus you right back onto the completion of the project. Monitor your project daily and record it visually. This helps to bring your whole brain into focus behind the project.

May all your dreams come true!


The Real Reality Check

People tend to have very mixed attitudes towards money. But I would like to suggest one use of money which very few people think of, and that is as a reality check. How can you tell if your business is providing what people want and being run in an effective way? Answer: look at whether it’s making money. How can you tell if you have a personal life- style based on fantasy or on reality? Answer: by looking at how much you are saving. In both these cases the objective and measurable nature of money cuts through the self-deception we can so easily bring to our life and our work.

“But I’m not interested in money!” I hear some people saying. Sure, you’re not - and why is your business so badly and inefficiently run? - is it because you’re not interested in that either? Why is your expenditure so out of control? - because you’re not interested in money, or because you’re not interested in self-discipline?

Keeping a close eye on your personal and business finances can really tighten up your effectiveness. Why not try the exercise I gave in last week’s newsletter? See how long it takes you to make or save £10,000, and then try to make the next £10,000 more quickly - and the one after that, and the one after that. (You can add or subtract 0’s to that figure according to your own circumstances.) Even more effective is to have a buddy who is in approximately the same business situation as you are and make a race of it. You will be amazed how much that sharpens up your business senses!


Internet Explorer 7

I've always been a fan of Internet Explorer 6 which definitely puts me in the minority of people who write about such things on the net (though not in the minority of users, as a glance at any web usage stats will confirm). Although I've tried many other web browsers I always find that I come back to IE6.

So it was with a sense of anticipation that I downloaded the new IE7 (a long process). After getting it working (an even longer process), I found it to be a huge, slow, cumbersome piece of bloatware with all the annoying features of the other browsers which used to send me back to IE6.

So back to IE6 I went again with a great sigh of relief, while blessing my foresight in backing up my whole hard disk to an external one just before the download.

Final scores:

IE6                     10 points
External  HD        10 points
IE7                      0 points


"No S Diet" Update

Two weeks and two days into the "No S Diet", how am I doing?

Firstly, I have had no problem at all in keeping to the diet. I've never felt hungry and I've never felt deprived. I've enjoyed the weekend breaks from the diet without going overboard. So in terms of how easy it is to keep to, so far 10 out of 10.

I know I said at the beginning that I wasn't going to weigh myself for a month (when will I learn not to make promises I can't keep?), but I couldn't resist taking a look this morning (hence this blog entry) and I had lost seven pounds!

As far as I'm concerned that's another 10 out of 10.

This is very definitely not a starvation diet, so I feel quite confident that I can continue. I expect the weight loss will slow down a bit now, but I am happy just so long as it continues downwards.


Old Articles

I have been uploading some of the past articles from my newsletter archive. The latest are:

  • My Favourite Time Management Tool
  • Plus or Minus?
  • Space Invaders
  • Structure
  • The 30-Day Challenge
  • The Way I Want It?
  • Three Types of Urgent


    Do It Tomorrow Reviewed by Academic Productivity

    There's a good review of my book Do It Tomorrow on the Academic Productivity Blog dated last Friday.


    Road Test: Journalling (Revisited)

    I first wrote about journalling quite a few years ago, and there is a description of it in my first book "Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play" (2000). What I wrote then was:

    "My own experience of writing like this for a period of about eight months, during which I hardly missed a day, was quite incredible. I described it at the time as like having a new brain. My mind became full of ideas, which seemed to bounce off each other. I became much more energetic and problems of procrastination fell away of their own accord. Although for various reasons I now write in my journal far more sporadically, I remain convinced that the practice left me with a permanently raised intelligence and far more self-awareness."

    In spite of the benefits I had received from journalling, I didn't succeed in re-establishing it as a regular feature of my life for years. Then finally on 26 August this year I decided that I was going to adopt a "No Option" attitude to it. Since then I haven't missed a day.

    There are many methods of journalling but the one I use is the one described in Julia Cameron's book "The Artist's Way": three pages a day in a spiral-bound A4 lined notebook, written without stopping to think. I'm writing this review to celebrate the completion of my first notebook this time round!

    Ideally the writing is done first thing in the morning, which is why Julia Cameron calls it "The Morning Pages". Although it's good to do it as the first thing one does, I don't regard it as essential.

    So what has been my experience of starting up again a practice which I found so beneficial six or seven years ago? My excuse for not doing it was that I had already got as much benefit from the practice as I would ever get. Did that prove to be true?

    My experiences since 26 August have in fact been exactly the same as I experienced at first:

    1. my mind has been noticeably sharper
    2. ideas have started to flow again
    3. procrastination has vanished

    Let's say a little bit about each of these:

    Sharper mind. I have found again that my mind is working much quicker when thinking through ideas. I also have more confidence in being able to think on my feet when needed. Before I tried journalling for the first time, I would often find it difficult to think what to say in meetings or how to reply when asked a direct question. This hasn't been a problem since, but I have definitely found less mental fog since re-starting. I can usually measure this by the number of times I have to ask myself through the day "What am I trying to do?" because I've lost the mental thread.

    Flow of ideas. This has been a major change. In fact at one meeting I attended a couple of weeks ago, people were remarking in amazement at the number of ideas that were coming to me in the course of the meeting. I have made major changes in the direction of my business since re-starting journalling - and this blog is just one of the results.

    Procrastination. I remember well how when I journalled before, how procrastination suddenly disappeared. I think it was because I got really enthusiastic about all the new ideas I was having. When you're enthusiastic about something, you can't wait to see how it works out. Starting journalling again had exactly the same effect this time. I've developed loads of techniques to overcome procrastination over the years, but suddenly I found myself not needing the techniques.
    In short, the experience of re-visiting journalling has been that it is everything that I remember it being.

    I know that many other people swear by journalling, but I also know that some have tried it and not got much out of it. This may well be a matter of individual temperament. However one thing I have found is that it is important to avoid two extremes when writing one's journal. One extreme is to make it nothing more than a factual list. I have known some people make their journalling into not much more than writing out a to do list. This may be a very useful thing to do, but it is not journalling!

    The other extreme is to make it an endless exploration of one's feelings and emotions. This is very easy to fall into, especially if you are in the middle of a break-up of some sort, but doesn't really get you very far.

    My own experience is that ideally journalling should consist of both facts and emotion, and above all of concepts and ideas. Journalling should be where you wrestle with ideas in the context of your own values and convictions.

    And finally, there is some evidence that writing in this sort of way can stave off mental deterioration due to age and even increase one's life span. I'll report back on that one in ten or twenty years' time!


    Evernote - A Note Taking Program

    I've always had trouble finding a good simple program on which to keep miscellaneous notes and other odds and ends. Most of the programs I have tried are either far too complicated, lack basic functionality, or are highly unstable. Yesterday I googled "personal information manager", which I do from time to time in the hope that something new will turn up, and this time it did!

    Evernote has one great advantage right from the word go - in its basic version (which is all I think I need at the moment) it's free. But it has the look and feel of a highly professional program. What's more it's highly intuitive and extremely simple to use. I was competent in just about all the basic functions within 15 minutes of downloading it.

    The basic idea is that it keeps all your notes in a continuous roll, rather like a blog. With the ability to categorise and carry out instant searches, it's easy to find stuff again. When I say it keeps your notes, that probably gives the wrong impression. The "notes" can be almost anything. Text, documents, webpages, links, clippings, images - just about whatever you like.

    I've already established that it's very easy to put stuff into Evernote. The real test will come when I've put a huge volume of stuff in and want to get it out again!

    I'll report back in due course.


    Structured v. Unstructured?

    (This article is taken from the current issue of my newsletter)
    One of the great advantages of the time management methods that I describe in Do It Tomorrow is that you know when you have finished your day's work. I don't know of any other time management system that allows you to do that. With every other system or method, you are left at the end of the day with a seemingly unending supply of further work that you could be doing. With Do It Tomorrow, you can say "That's it! That's the end of my day's work. I am completely up to date."

    Another advantage of the Do It Tomorrow system is that it's easy to check whether your workload equals the time available to complete it. Because it always keeps the link between one day's worth of incoming work and one day's worth of outgoing work, you can see exactly how your work fits into your time. This again is difficult or impossible with most conventional time management systems.

    This presents us with an opportunity - particularly if you are someone who works from home or owns your own business. We've all heard of Parkinson's Law: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion." You will know from your own experience that it's often when you have the least time available that you get the most done. When you have nothing in your schedule all day, then there's a tendency to faff about achieving nothing very much - so much so that you end up working late in order to get all the things done which you failed to do during the day!

    But what would happen if, instead of allowing your work to expand to fill the time available, you ruthlessly pruned your work down to the essentials and aimed to finish it as quickly as possible?

    Most of us have taken on far too many commitments, most of which only serve to distract us from our core work. If you concentrate on the core work and refuse to allow anything in that will take your attention away from it, then a) would you finish your work in more or less time than now? and b) would you be more or less effective at your real work?

    I've been experimenting with this over the past few weeks. First of all I cut my Will Do list down to the bare minimum. I refused to allow anything into it that didn't relate specifically to the stated goals for my business. Out went all my pet projects and time wasting commitments. In came all the actions that would take my business forward. Having defined exactly what I meant by "work", I ensured that nothing that didn't comprise work was allowed a place on the list.

    My next step was to start getting up at 6.30 and hitting the Will Do list straight away, allowing nothing to distract me except a quick breakfast after I'd been working for an hour or so. I found that I could finish the whole Will Do list in about four to four and a half hours. That means that I am currently finishing my whole day's work by 10.30 to 11 a.m. each day. And what's more it is far more focused than before.

    So the structured part of my day is over. What do I do with the rest of the day? Whatever I want! If I want to I can get on with some of the stuff which I chucked out in order to focus on my real work. But usually I get out and do the enjoyable things which I've been meaning to do for ages but haven't had time because I've been too "busy".

    So remember: it's certainly true that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, but the converse is also true - if the time available is reduced, the work will contract too.



    Yesterday was the last of my three-hour seminars. They have been a great success over the two years or so that I have been running them, but now that Do It Tomorrow has been published it is time for something new.

    My plan is that I will run one-day seminars for people who have read the book. By its very nature, a book like Do It Tomorrow is aimed at a general public, and can only go so far towards the needs of specific individuals. The seminars I am planning will give people the chance to apply the principles to their own circumstances. The seminars will be highly interactive, and people will also be able to share their experiences of putting the principles to work.

    Those are my first thoughts. I would welcome comments on the subject.


    One of Those Days

    Today was one of those days in which all my plans for the day were completely disrupted by my computer refusing to go on-line when I started it up in the morning. It was 3pm before it condescended to sign on again - and I still don't know what it was I did that cured whatever it was that was wrong.

    What does one do to recover from this sort of disruption? The temptation is to panic and start acting at random. It may be days before one returns to normal. How can you avoid this happening?

    The answer is to return as quickly as possible to the system. If you are using the methods in Do It Tomorrow, then get back to working on your Will Do list just as soon as you can. Getting back to the system stabilises your work again, and prevents the knock-on effects.

    So however frustrated and annoyed I felt mid-afternoon today (and I felt it a lot!), I made myself get back to the list. And suddenly things seemed to be back under control.



    Similar Actions

    (This article is from today's issue of my newsletter)
    One of the basic rules of time management is that it is much faster to group similar actions together. This rule is the basis of the batching which I advise in Do It Tomorrow. By dealing with emails in batches rather than haphazardly throughout the day you can process them much faster. The same applies to paperwork and minor tasks.

    This rule doesn’t just apply to the order in which you do tasks, it also applies to the structure of a task itself.

    I’ll give you an example which I regularly come across in my own life. Something I often have to do is put the tables and chairs out for one of my seminars. I use folding tables which are kept in a storage cupboard. Three folding chairs are put out per table. These are kept on a chair rack.

    Now which do you think would be quicker?

    1) Get out one table, put it in the right place, unfold the legs and turn it over. Then get three chairs off the rack, open them and put them behind the table. Repeat this process one table at a time until all the tables and chairs are in position. OR

    2) Get out all the tables and put each of them on the ground with the legs uppermost and still folded. Then open the legs of all the tables. Then turn all the tables over. Then put all the folded chairs on top of the tables. Then open all the chairs and put them behind the tables.

    As I’m sure you’ve realised the answer is 2). It’s not just a bit quicker. It’s a lot quicker (and I have tried both ways so I know from experience!). What’s more it is a lot less boring. And what’s more if you get interrupted and can’t finish it completely, it doesn’t matter so much.

    The key to efficient action is whenever possible not to do your actions in the sequence ABC ABC ABC but instead go for AAA BBB CCC. However, funnily enough, ABC ABC ABC often seems more natural at first and we often find ourselves doing these tasks in the less efficient way.

    Have a think about some of your repetitive actions. Are you doing them according to the AAA BBB CCC formula? Take cleaning a house for instance. Is it quicker to tidy, dust and vacuum each room in turn, or quicker to tidy every room, then dust every room and then vacuum every room? Another example would be filling in a spreadsheet. Is it quicker to fill it in row by row or column by column? I’ll leave you to answer that one!

    Start Small

    One of the most difficult coaching situations I come across is people who can't make up their mind about what they want to do. This very often happens when they want to start a new business but can't decide what it should be. So they are full of ideas but never get down to making any of them work. Very often they decide that they can't start their business until they have got more training or have finished some lengthy training that they are taking part in at the moment.

    The secret of course of getting any small business under way is to start it. If you are planning to set up some huge project for a large business then you need to plan it in the greatest detail. But the great advantage of starting your own small business is that you can start small and adjust as you go along. Everything you do is a learning experience and you will quickly learn what is best for you.

    You can use the financial methods I have been talking about in the last few issues to get yourself moving. Instead of concentrating on the question of what you are going to do, instead concentrate on starting to earn money. Start with a really small goal like earning £100 and set out to earn £100 through your own business. See how long it takes to earn your first £100 and then see how long it takes to earn your next £100. You will begin to learn what you can offer that will bring money in. You will learn what works and what doesn't work. Before long you will be making your goal into earning £1,000 and so on.

    You will still need to make decisions, but the decisions will no longer be a way of putting action off. They will be decisions that are made as part of an ongoing business.


    Find the Key Action!

    What do the following things have in common?

    Example One: Like many people, my wife and I have various old friends to whom we send out Christmas cards every year with a note saying “We really must get together this year.” Needless to say we usually don’t. And then one year we get tired of sending out the same old vague note, and instead we pick up the phone and propose a specific date. Once we’ve done that we know that we are really going to see each other at last.

    Example Two: For years I had been thinking about setting up my own full-time business, but I never really got moving on it until I took the step of giving three months notice to my employers. After that I was fully committed and my preparations started moving forward really fast.

    Example Three: For many years my wife and I had been meaning to see the famous ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem in action. We’d been talking about it for years, but one day we booked tickets to go and see her dance at Covent Garden. We went a couple of weeks ago, and she was great!

    Example Four: When I was considering running a series of “New Time Management” seminars, I knew for sure that they were really going to happen only when I booked the hall for the first three months worth of dates.

    In each of these four examples, which range from major life changes to the fairly trivial, there was one action which committed me. Once I had taken that one action, it was almost certain that the goal was going to happen. If you look at the actions - setting a date, giving notice, buying tickets, booking the hall - you can see that in each case I was doing something which, if not completely irrevocable, would have taken me some effort, expense and/or embarrassment to go back on.

    If you are having a lack of progress on a particular goal, think what key action would really commit you to that goal. Until you’ve taken that action, your goal is just a pipe-dream. Once you’ve taken it you will find that things start moving. Your mind will be fully engaged. Look for the action which is going to make the difference.


    Pulling Cows out of Ditches?

    There's an old story about what a farmer does when a cow falls into a ditch. First he gets it out of the ditch. Second he works out why it fell into the ditch in the first place. Then he makes sure that it never falls into the ditch again.

    How much of your time do you spend pulling metaphorical cows out of ditches? The trouble is that when something goes wrong at work, we often pull the cow out of the ditch, but don't do anything about working out why it went wrong or mending the fence. The result is that we find ourselves pulling the cow out of the ditch over and over again.

    To give a familiar example, suppose we keep losing customers' telephone numbers. Again and again we spend time looking for numbers without asking ourselves "Why did I lose the number in the first place?" The answer is probably that we don't have a proper system for ensuring that customer's data gets entered in our database. Identifying that as the problem is stage two. Stage three is putting a proper system in place.

    Whenever you find something going wrong, take the time to work out why it went wrong and ensure that it can't happen again. That way a small investment of time will save you huge amounts of time in the future.


    No S Diet: First Weekend

    In the "No S" diet I'm allowed a holiday on "S Days", i.e. Saturdays, Sundays and Special Days (such as birthdays). So what was the effect on me of the first weekend?

    I had very little trouble keeping to the diet during the first week. Occasionally the Nanny part of me had to give me a sharp reminder "No Seconds!" or "No Snacking!" but most of the time the diet didn't bother me at all. But I was looking forward to the weekend and the chance to have the odd biscuit, cake or chocolate.

    The strange thing was that on Saturday I actually felt more like keeping to the diet than not. I almost had to force myself to have a slice of cake at tea time, and it tasted almost unpleasantly sweet. The rest of the weekend I ate much the same as I would have before starting the diet, but found myself looking forward to getting back on the diet.

    That seems to indicate that it should be easy to keep to the diet in the long term. That's great, but will it result in weight loss if I do?

    My intention was that I wouldn't weigh myself until the first month of the trial was over. But I must admit that I sneaked a peek on Saturday morning and found that I had lost 4 lbs. That's all to the good and was certainly encouraging. But the truth is that virtually any change in eating habits will result in that sort of initial weight loss. What counts is what happens after that first adjustment to the new regime has been made.