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Entries in problems (5)


Problem 4 - Wasting Time

“I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”

―  Character from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters

The above quote sums it up very neatly. Wasted time is time in which you don’t do what you ought to do (“work”) or what you want to do (“pleasure”). It is quite different from rest time, which often falls under both of these categories.

Typical examples of wasted time: 

  • Staring mindlessly into the fire (which is the example Lewis mentions in the book)
  • Falling asleep in front of the TV
  • Getting mindlessly drunk [Ah, that’s twice I’ve used the word “mindless” in three examples]
  • Putting up with something that’s not working properly rather than fixing it
  • Finding a heap of trivial tasks to do in order to avoid starting on one important task.
  • Drifting around at random unable to decide on something constructive to do 

Wasting time is the difference between mindless drifting and taking intentional action. It’s usually quite easy to tell the difference, but the best way to ensure that your action is intentional is to write it down. Writing down your next action forces you to bring your intentional powers into play. As I’ve mentioned often in the past, one of the ways I used to get people out of a state of mental paralysis and back into focus was simply to write a task down - any task - do it, then write another task down and do that. That in fact is the simplest form of No List system. If you find yourself wasting time, the easiest way out of it is to use this exercise.

It’s also the reason that I encourage people who are using a Long List system to put all their trivial tasks on it as well as the more serious stuff. These means you are always acting intentionally, rather than just drifting. Even if you are spending time picking the easy tasks, it is better than drifting - and it is much easier to pick up the serious stuff once your energy has replenished itself.

So remember:

Write it down! 


Problem 3 - Resistance

Resistance is a huge problem in Time Management. Not only is it the main reason why we need time management systems and methods in the first place, but it is also the main reason why these systems and methods fail. At the extreme, resistance leads to a state of complete paralysis in which one is incapable of doing anything constructive at all. 

It’s important to understand how resistance works. 

  1. Anything which we don’t want to do will tend to build up more and more resistance if we don’t get started on doing it.
  2. The stage of a task which we resist the most is getting started. Once we are working on something resistance will diminish as long as we maintain momentum.
  3. Once resistance to a task or project has been allowed to build it will only get done when not doing it produces more pain than doing it. As you can imagine this is not a happy state to be living in.
  4. The more we give in to resistance, i.e. the more we procrastinate, the more difficult it becomes to do anything constructive at all.
  5. Resistance is stressful. Extreme resistance is stressful in the extreme.

There are really only two ways to work without experiencing resistance: 

Firstly, “Do It Now”. In other words, get started on a project or task before resistance to it has a chance to build up. Since getting started is the point at which resistance is usually highest, from then on the “little and often” principle can keep you going with minimal resistance until the work has either been accomplished or has become a routine.

The problem with this method is that at any one time there are usually a number of new things clamouring for our attention. How do we chose which new project to start now? If we leave one task unfinished so that we can start the next, will we ever get back to finishing the one we’ve left?

The second way is more effective, but does take some practice and requires a rethink about the nature of resistance:

The feelings we identify as resistance are in fact nothing of the sort. Resistance doesn’t exist. Or - to be more exact - it won’t exist in the context of a properly run Long List time management system.

In a Long List system we have a list of everything we want or have to do. Scanning through the list results in certain tasks “standing out” as ready to be done. This implies that the majority of tasks won’t stand out on that scan. The reason certain tasks stand out is that your intuition is identifying them as the tasks best suited to be done at that precise time. The reason the majority of tasks don’t stand out is that your intuition has not identified them as the tasks best suited to be done at that time. It is not a question of easy tasks v. difficult tasks. It is purely a question of suitability to be done at that time. 

The point of a Long List system is to build up consistency of action. It’s consistency that brings about results. But consistency works both ways. If we are consistently slapdash and unreliable, we will produce slapdash and unreliable results.

All this becomes automatic if you use a Long List system and follow the simple rule:

Do what stands out for as long as you feel like doing it and no longer


Problem 2 - Too Little Time

Having too little time is the mirror image of over-commitment. If you are over-committed, you have too little time to fulfil your commitments. If you have only a small amount of time available then it makes no sense to take on more commitments.

In the previous blog post I recommended making sure that your commitments do not exceed the time that you need for them. But as well as keeping your commitments well pruned, you can also tackle the problem by ensuring that your time is well used. Time is the most valuable resource you have, and you need to protect it.

It’s stating the obvious to say that everyone has 24 hours worth of time every day. It’s what is done with it that counts. Some people achieve very little with those 24 hours and some people achieve an enormous amount. What makes the difference?

The first factor is that some people have much more freedom of action than others. There are many circumstances which are difficult or impossible to change. If you own health is bad or you are caring for a disabled or sick relative you are inevitably restricted in what you can do. That’s just a couple of examples out of many.

But for those of you who have freedom of action, how can you ensure that you make the most of it?

First, you need a fast and reliable system which suits your own style of working. System is the key to good use of time (and can make a lot of difference to your freedom of action too).

Second, you need to extirpate or minimise the enemies of time. Here is a short list of the main offenders in a work context.

1. Meetings. Meetings in themselves are not a bad thing. But badly run meetings which meet only for the sake of meeting are an extremely bad thing. Meeting in person takes up an inordinate amount of time, to which must be added journey time. They also tend to generate meeting-related work, which would be unnecessary if it were not for the meeting. Meetings must justify the time spent on them.

2. Idleness. One of the advantages of having a good time management system is that it minimises idleness. If you are trying to avoid having to work on a challenging task, then there is a tendency to take refuge in idleness. But a Long List of tasks always contains worthwhile things you can do even while trying to avoid something. This keeps you focused on your work and also helps you to “work up” to the task you are resisting.

3. Interruptions. Interruptions are as disruptive as meetings, or even more so, and need to be addressed directly. You must not just accept them as part of the job. If you spend time thinking about how you could minimize the disruption caused by interruptions, you could almost certainly come up with ideas which would make a real difference.

4. Lack of breaks. Working for too long without a break causes boredom, tiredness, lack of focus and even adverse health effects. The remedy is to build breaks into your day. The two most important rules to follow for office workers are: 1) never work through your lunch break; 2) have a definite stopping time. Home workers can alternatively build recreational tasks into their list.

5. Too short hours. Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. If you don’t have enough time to do your work, it may be because you are working too short hours. This is often a problem for part-time workers. Their job description is frequently too big for the hours they are being paid for. And the result is either that they can’t keep up with the work, or that in order to keep up they have to work unpaid hours. The remedy is either to negotiate a revised job description or to negotiate longer paid hours.

6. Too long hours. Paradoxically the problem may be the exact opposite of too short hours. You may be working too long hours. I have written often in the past about what I call the “end effect”. If you work for a precise period of time, say fifteen minutes, on a task, the knowledge that you’ve only got fifteen minutes focuses your mind. You will almost certainly do more work on that task than you would if you worked for the same amount of time on it without a definite stop time. The same applies to a day’s work. Without a definite stop time (preferably several throughout the day) you will tend to be unfocused and lack concentration.


Problem 1 - Too Much Work

Maybe having too much work is the the commonest complaint from people who are desperately trying to get everything done. And usually people blame their boss for giving them too much to do.

On the other hand self-employed people are often even busier. So who’s the boss there?

And it’s well known that recently retired people frequently claim to be busier than they were when they were working.

The message is that whether you are employed, self-employed or retired you have a lot more control over the amount of work you have to do than you think. Being overworked is as often as not a self-inflicted injury.

You know when you have too much work because you can’t keep on top of it. And since being on top of your work gives you a great deal of energy, not being on top of it drains yours energy so that you get even further behind. You are into a vicious circle of too much work and less energy to do the work.

However remember that work doesn’t just appear from nowhere.

Work comes from our commitments, that is to say our commitments to ourselves, to our families and friends, to our work, to our society. Every time we add a commitment we add more work and decrease our energy. Every time we subtract a commitment we reduce our work and increase our energy. We need to find the spot at which we have maximum energy, and that will be where our work is exactly at the point where we can stay on top of it and achieve the maximum possible.

I have often said that a commitment is as much about what we are not going to do as about what we are going to do. Over-commitment leads to reducing our ability to meet our commitments. We have failed with a commitment if we have not protected the time that needs to be spent on it. A commitment should always be along the lines of “I have committed myself to A, and as a result I am not going to do B, C and D.”


The Biggest Problems in Time Management - Intro

I’m planning to write a series of articles over the coming weeks on the biggest problems in time management, and how they can be overcome.

The provisional list of subjects I will cover is as follows: 

  • Too Much Work
  • Too Little Time
  • Resistance
  • Wasting Time
  • Lack of Concentration
  • Lack of Direction
  • Failure to Finish 

Warning: This list may change!

These articles will come out at irregular intervals, so don’t expect them every day, or every Monday, or the first of every month or any other interval.