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There’s no inherent structure to work. Work has no inherent unit. We make units; we make tasks, and projects, and milestones, and goals. But nothing about those is inherent in the nature of work. Tiago Forte
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 From “Do It Tomorrow: and other secrets of time management.”

Chapter 1 - What this book is about

To complain about a shortage of time is like a fish in the sea complaining that it has a shortage of water.

This book is about getting you to be one hundred percent creative, ordered and effective.

In my first two books I explored some very different ways of overcoming the problem of how we control our work and our time. In Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play I looked at the problems of the traditional methods of time management and then examined some better ways. In How to Make Your Dreams Come True I tried to get away from the whole concept of managing time, and instead looked at how we can get our goals to pull us towards them.

My books both got a good reception from many people. Nevertheless inevitably the ideas in them have done little to effect society at large. The problems and pressures of modern life are still there and if anything the pressures we put ourselves under at work have got even worse. Just the other day I received some questions from a journalist who was writing an article about time management. These are very typical of the sort of questions which I get asked over and over again.

  • I am always rushing. How can I stop?
  • I always have to eat fast. How can I slow down?
  • I am always having to multitask. How can I focus better?
  • I always feel guilty about not spending more time with my family. What can I do about it?
  • I never have time to exercise. How can I find the time?
  • How can I find the time to take a holiday? I’m far too busy.

These are pretty common questions. The journalist was asking them because he believed the public would be interested in the answers, but they were also questions that he needed answering for himself.

These questions all imply that we have a shortage of time. Is this really true? Do we have a shortage of time? No, we don’t. Time is the medium in which we exist. To complain about a shortage of time is like a fish in the sea complaining that it has a shortage of water. The next time that you complain that “there aren’t enough hours in the day”, imagine for a moment that the day was lengthened to forty-eight hours. Would that enable you to be on top of your work? Not likely! You would almost certainly be just as behind as before.

It struck me as significant that the journalist found it necessary to ask me the questions that he did. They sounded like the inverse of the sort of advice that we give ourselves or our friends and family all the time. In fact his questions could easily be turned into simple rules for living:

  • Don’t rush
  • Take time to eat properly
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • Make sufficient time for your family
  • Take adequate exercise
  • Go on regular holidays

All really that he and his readers have to do is to decide to keep to these rules, surely?

However life is never as simple as that. What we decide to do and what we actually do are two different things. If you think of the decisions you have made over the past year, how many of them have been satisfactorily carried to a conclusion or are progressing properly to that end? If you are like most people, you will have acted on some of your decisions, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that a large proportion will have fallen by the wayside.

So a simple decision such as to take time to eat properly is in fact very difficult to carry out. Our new rule may work for a few days or a few weeks, but it won’t be long before the pressures of work force us to make an exception to it. Before many days are up the exception will have become the rule and we are right back where we started. However much we rationalise the reasons why our decision didn’t get carried out, we know deep in the heart of us that it was not really the circumstances that were to blame. We secretly acknowledge that there is something missing from our ability to carry out a decision once we have made it.

In fact if we are honest it sometimes feels as if it is easier to get other people to do what we want them to do than it is to get ourselves to do what we want to do. We like to think of ourselves as a sort of separate entity sitting in our body controlling it, but when we look at the way we behave most of the time that is not really the case. The body controls itself most of the time. We have a delusion of control. That’s what it is – a delusion.

If we want to see how little control we have over ourselves, all most of us have to do is to look in the mirror. You might like to do that now. Ask yourself as you look at your image:

Is my health the way I want it to be?
Is my fitness the way I want it to be?
Is my weight the way I want it to be?
Is the way I am dressed the way I want it to be?

I am not asking you here to assess what sort of body you were born with, but what you have made of it and how good repair you are keeping it in.

It may be that you are healthy, fit, slim and well-dressed. In which case have a look round at the state of your office or work place:

Is it as well organised as you want it to be?
Is it as tidy as you want it to be?
Do all your office systems (filing, invoicing, correspondence, etc.) work the way you want them to work?

If they do, then you probably don’t need to be reading this book.

I’ve just asked you to look at two aspects of your life which are under your direct control and are very little influenced by outside factors. If these things which are solely affected by you are not the way you want them to be, then in what sense can you be said to be in control at all?

A lot of this difficulty is due to the way our brains are organised. We have the illusion that we are a single person who acts in a “unified” way. But it only takes a little reflection (and examination of our actions as above) to realise that this is not the case at all. Our brains are made up of numerous different parts which deal with different things and often have different agendas.

I am now going to make a gross oversimplification and say that we have a Rational Brain and a Reactive Brain. This is not really a very scientific description, but talking about two brains in this way is useful for the practical purposes of managing our time. For a start it does help us to understand why we have so much difficulty with implementing decisions.

You can imagine the Rational Brain as being like a government agency busy drawing up plans and regulations which it intends to impose on the rest of the body. It has all sorts of ideas about business expansion, family welfare, exercise and healthy eating, just to name a few. Like most government agencies its plans work fine until they come up against reality.

In the case of the internal workings of the brain, the reality which the Rational Brain’s plans come up against is the Reactive Brain. Imagine the Reactive Brain as a lizard sitting on a rock in the sun. If it sees a threat, such as a predator, it scuttles under the rock and freezes. If it sees a juicy bug which has strayed to close, it will snap it up. It doesn’t have to think about it. It acts as a pre-programmed reaction. It really doesn’t care that much at all about the Rational Brain’s plans. The only thing it cares about is whether they constitute a threat or a nice juicy bug.

This part of the brain is hugely important for our survival. Can you imagine using rational thought processes to avoid running over a child who runs out in front of your car? You need a quick reaction to an immediate threat. This is fundamental.

However when it comes to making decisions and plans it is the Rational Brain that we should be using. If we run our days on the basis of the Reactive Brain, our work will consist of reacting to one stimulus after another. Come to think of it, that is quite a good description of how many people do in fact run their days. They are constantly fire fighting, rushing from one thing to another, unable to keep their attention on anything long enough to think it through. The Reactive Brain is not a good work master.

Whenever we get a conflict between the Rational Brain and the Reactive Brain, the Reactive Brain usually wins because it is the stronger. We can make our plans about taking exercise every day, but there will come a day when it’s too cold or raining too hard. The Reactive Brain regards this as a threat, and our rational plan goes out of the window. Or we decide to go on a diet and make rational decisions about what we can and what we can’t eat. But along comes a piece of chocolate cake and our Reactive Brain couldn’t care less what our Rational Brain thinks – it snaps it up like a very juicy bug!

You may be wondering by now how anyone ever succeeds in getting fit or losing weight or carrying out any sort of rational plan. Obviously people do, so the Reactive Brain doesn’t have things its own way the whole time. The reason why it doesn’t is that the Rational Brain has one great advantage over the Reactive Brain – it is intelligent and the Reactive Brain isn’t.

This means that the Rational Brain can work out strategies to control the Reactive Brain – just as the government puts in a whole structure of inspectors, police, law courts, form filling, officials and so forth to ensure the implementation of its plans. No one would take the slightest notice of anything the government said without this structure.

Success at a project is very rarely a matter of “will power”. It’s usually a matter of having set up a good structure to support the carrying out of the project. Your project needs the mental and physical equivalents of the government’s controlling structures. And just as no one would take any notice of the government without the structure, so your Reactive Brain won’t take the slightest notice of your Rational Brain’s plans without a structure to keep it under control.

There are all sorts of ways one can set up these structures. I will be exploring some in this book, but in reality there is no limit to the possibilities. What one is always aiming for is to make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong one. Is it easier for you to fill in your tax return than not to fill it in? Obviously in the natural way of things, it’s much easier not to fill it in. But the government has put a structure in place that would make it very difficult for you not to fill it in – whether you like it or not! In the long run it is easier to fill it in: and that’s what most of us eventually do, however unwillingly.

One of the key ways in which the Rational Brain needs to be able to control the Reactive Brain is in the area of resistance and procrastination. Resistance to doing a task is largely a matter of the Reactive Brain seeing the task as a threat. The Rational Brain can tell the Reactive Brain as much as it likes about how important it is to get the task done. So long as the Reactive Brain regards the task as a threat, it will keep the brakes firmly on.

The Rational Brain has to be subtle here and persuade the Reactive Brain that there is no threat. The easiest way to do this is for you to pretend to yourself that you are not going to do the task. Remember that the Reactive Brain is not intelligent, and is therefore not capable of fathoming out the strategies of the Rational Brain.

A phrase such as “I’m not really going to write that report now, but I’ll just get the file out” will cause the Reactive Brain to switch the resistance off. Since getting the file out on its own is not perceived as a threat, the Reactive Brain has no reason to maintain the feelings of resistance. Very often the result is that the entire report gets written.

This is just one way in which we can use the power of the Rational Brain to work out strategies to control the Reactive Brain. Our aim is not to get rid of the Reactive Brain, but to ensure that both parts of the brain are working together rather than fighting each other. In the above example we started with a conflict: the Rational Brain had the intention of writing the report, while the Reactive Brain was resisting it as a threat. Once the resistance was switched off, both the Rational Brain and the Reactive Brain were freed to co-operate in the writing of the report.

If we were able to do this – to get the Reactive Brain to cooperate all the time in the plans made by the Rational Brain, we would be able to carry out the decisions which we make much more consistently than most of us do at the moment. Our ideal sequence would be Thought – Decision – Action. It would mean that our Rational Brain was controlling all the other parts of the brain to produce the desired result.

This would mean that every day we could plan out what we should do according to the best ways of achieving our goals and then carry out these actions as directly and effectively as possible. Of course some people do this already, and if you are one of them then you really don’t need to be reading this book.

Unfortunately, for most of us the Rational Brain doesn’t know the best strategies to control the Reactive Brain. We therefore tend to rely on will power alone. This never works because the ideal sequence above is opposed by a stronger and more primitive one: Stimulus – Reaction.

Without the right structures to keep it under control, Stimulus – Reaction will always tend to overwhelm Thought – Decision – Action.

Not knowing the right structures therefore means that we are left at the mercy of random stimuli. In spite of all the highly rational decisions that we make, it only takes one or two things to go wrong for our beautifully planned days to be reduced to chaos. We react like headless chickens to the random play of events during the day. One phone call, one crisis, one unexpected demand, and our plan for the day starts to wobble. A few more random events and the whole thing collapses like a pack of cards. No wonder many people give up on trying to plan their day altogether.

There is a good example of how this happens in my first book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. I gave a preliminary exercise in that book which was intended to be a simple way of increasing mental strength, but has in fact proved too difficult for just about everyone who has tried it. I am sure there are people who have succeeded in the exercise – all I can say is that I have never come across anyone who has been able to do it for more than a few consecutive days!

The exercise is simplicity itself. If you would like to try it, all you have to do is pick one task which you are going to do the next day without fail, and then do it.

If you succeed that task, then you pick another different task for the following day and make it just a little bit more difficult. And so you continue one day at a time, picking one task which you will do each day – each day a little bit more difficult. One you are confident that you can carry out any task no matter how difficult without fail, you then repeat the process with two tasks.

It doesn’t matter whether the tasks are meaningful or completely nonsensical. The idea is to do them for no other reason than because you have decided to do them.

Although the exercise sounds very simple and easy, it is in fact extremely difficult. Even if one starts off with a very simple task indeed on Day One (like moving a paper clip from one position on your desk to another), and moves by the slowest possible increments, it is almost impossible to keep going for a protracted time. The reason is that we will sooner or later get to a level of difficulty at which we are actively resisting the actions necessary to complete the task. In fact this is how we generally judge the difficulty of a proposed action – by how much we are resisting it rather than by how much skill or technical expertise it will take. So many people see doing their tax return as very difficult, even though no real skill is involved.

Another method I gave in the same book was the idea that one should do what one is resisting most. The problem I found with this is that one of two things happened. Either the mind fought back after a while and refused to do what was being resisted, or else one managed to persuade oneself that one was resisting the easiest and most trivial things.

My second book How to Make Your Dreams Come True took a very different look at how to manage one’s time. Instead of dealing with mechanical systems for processing work, it dealt with getting one’s goals to pull one towards them. It advised having a clear vision, dialoguing, and concentrating on what was going well. Although this worked well, there was a tendency among readers to think that they could get their goals to happen without having to do the fairly structured work on them which I recommended. The result was that they tended to drift rather than move purposely towards their goals.

As a result of writing these two books, I have been fairly continuously involved in giving seminars and working with individuals for quite a few years now. I have developed many new insights and become even more aware of some of the problems which affect people. The result has been that I have developed methods which build on the previous books and go beyond them. It is these methods which I shall be sharing in the present book.

In the next chapter I will be looking at the principles which I have used in order to construct a new system of time management. I have found that there are some basic principles which are at the root of managing ourselves, and they form the basis of what I will be proposing. Every technique that I put forward in this book is an expression of one or more of these principles. They are:

  •  Have a clear vision
  •  One thing at a time
  •  Little and often
  •  Limits
  •  Closed lists
  •  Reduce randomness
  •  Commitment v. Interest

 

Test yourself

Which of the following situations are examples of Thought – Decision - Action and which are examples of Stimulus – Response?

  1. You get back to the office from being out at a client meeting and check your e-mails to see what has arrived while you have been out. You deal with a couple that seem urgent, plus a few one-liners. Then you leave the rest for later.
  2. A client phones you and asks you to get her some information. You promise you will get straight back to her.
  3. You are an assistant in a shoe shop. You serve a customer who asks to try on some shoes.
  4. A friend sends you an e-mail telling you about a great new website. You click on the link and have a look at it.
  5. Your secretary brings in some letters for you to sign. You deal with them immediately so that she can get them into the post.
  6. You boss dumps a load of work on your desk and says he needs it back by the end of the day. You feel a sense of panic as you already have more than you can cope with.
  7. You are a member of the fire services. An emergency call comes in and your team responds to it.
  8. You come back from holiday to find 800 e-mails sitting in your computer. You spend several hours clearing the lot.

Answers:

  1. This is a classic Stimulus – Response. You have reacted to the e-mails that caught your attention and have left the rest for an unspecified time in the future. This is the way to ensure that you will have a backlog of e-mail.
  2. Stimulus – Response. You are interrupting whatever you were doing to go on a search for information for your client. There’s no mention of whether it is really urgent or not.
  3. Thought – Decision – Action. A shop is organised to make an immediate response to customers. This is a matter of planning and organisation, not reaction.
  4. Stimulus – Response. There is absolutely no reason why you need to check the website immediately – unless of course you are trying to avoid doing some work!
  5. Thought – Decision – Action. You have presumably arranged for your secretary to bring in letters for signature at a specific time each day. This is a matter of planning and organisation.
  6. Stimulus – Response on both your and your boss’s part. Your boss has probably panicked because he has been sitting on the work for weeks. You are panicking instead of planning rationally how to deal with the extra work.
  7. Thought – Decision – Action. The fire service is organised to respond to emergencies in a planned and systematic way.
  8. Thought – Decision – Action. Contrast this with Question 1. This is a planned decision to clear all the e-mails, not a haphazard trawl through them.

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