Voice of joy and sunshine
26th May 2003
There was a question on another forum I frequent lately about this, so I thought it might be interesting to go into: How do you manage your time at work?
The way I'm currently working is this:
What I will commit to doing relates to what I control. If I don't control it, you're talking to the wrong person. (There are nicer ways of saying that, but it's true.)
To-do lists I use purely to monitor that necessary steps are ticked off. Just don't make them time-based; don't have a 'to-do today' list. The minute they become time-based my experience is that what tends to happen is people will look at today's list and miss the incomplete task on page 3 of 7.... They're largely project based tools and excel in that role. They work even better when you start annotating some of the tasks as deliverables: ('Who, what, when, how?') - just draw a line from the task with the name, the date, and how you expect to receive it.
The things that go on my to-do list are things that relate to things that I control. They tend to be project-based or team-based, depending on the role I'm in at the time.
My calendar is how I organise work that my to-do list says relates to things I control. My attitude is that if time is not booked to do it, it's not going to happen. This really helps with prioritising, especially when newer tasks are coming in and people are bothering you, because I can have the discussion right there and then 'Yes, I can do that if we move this to here.'
Things that have been sent from the to-do list to the calendar I mark with a single dash to the left hand side of the line. Things that didn't get done when they were meant to are marked with a cross to the left hand side of the line and must be rescheduled. Things that did get done I mark with a tick to the right of the line. Things that we decided not to do are crossed through with a ruled line in their entirety. (This helps for flicking through the lists because it's easy to recognise what we're having trouble with and to see incomplete tasks in many pages if you have this sort of position-based system for status.)
On the calendar:
All tasks have a minimum time. This is true regardless of the actual size of the task. Now you can group small things that are very similar, and I recommend you do. You don't need a big amount of time to answer one email. But, equally, there's no such thing as the five minutes it takes to check your emails. Not as a general task, not reliably. And reliability is the important thing in planning your time. If you get some extra time one week, great, but don't count on it.
The minimum size, depending on how you work, seems to be between 30 minutes and an hour. Currently I'm operating on an hour and that's what I'd recommend to start off with. I got 30 significant deliverables signed off last week just by doing one thing an hour.
There's a maximum time for any task. This is more a very strong rule of thumb than a total rule. Still... if something's going to take more than three hours, chances are you're engaging with it on too high a level of abstraction to meaningfully plan the work. Like I advise people on things that are... fuzzy, I suppose is the word... all the time - quite complex things - and I still use that three hour rule.
If it's more than three hours, chances are that we don't know what we're doing that well, and there need to be steps in there about understanding the problem and delivering on that before we can meaningfully plan the rest of the work. That doesn't mean you can't set ballpark targets - a point in your diary for when the project deliverable as a whole needs to be in, but there's going to be a lot of empty space, or '$Project-name,' with more concrete deliverables booked alongside that appointment as they are discovered - on your calendar between now and that deliverable date that reflects the uncertainty of the task.
This rule also helps with 'You've been looking at it too long and it's time to take a break!' syndrome. 'cause looking at one thing for too long makes Nem stupid. ^_^
So, generally speaking, my process is that I have a to-do list for whatever major project I'm working on - and if someone comes to me and asks about getting something, or if we're in a meeting or what have you, then the thing will be added to the to-do list if it's relevant to something I control. The deliverables are on that list, but they're mostly on there for quick reference and to facilitate that information moving to the calendar when I'm not in front of it.
Then I'll push the to-do list items onto the calendar. If they're deliverables that have been assigned to others, I'll schedule a time on the calendar to receive said deliverable and mark it up appropriately on the to-do list, 'David, 23-9 14:00, email' for instance, as I become aware that it belongs to them. (Receiving deliverables also counts in the minimum time-slot rule!)
As the things get done they get ticked off the to-do list. If the thing is not done at the end of that scheduled time, it doesn't get ticked off and will have to generate a new calendar item and the appropriate cross and dash mark against it.
That's what I've recommended to team-members when they've asked me and it's how I work. It sounds like it doesn't let you get a lot done, but I got 30 non-trivial things done this week by using it and that's not unusual
As my sales pitch goes, when this comes up: Imagine what you could do if you could honestly commit to getting 30 non-trivial things done. Every. Single. week.