Time management seems to be a perennial thorny problem that causes stress and distress for people today. It appears to me over the past few decades that time-management skills are deteriorating. So this entry is a reminder of some very basic ideas that used to be standard operating procedure for most people.
Perhaps the most important tool for time management is the “To Do List”; however, narrowing down what’s on your list can make a difference. I am going to talk about an exclusive list that only contains items you really must do, called a….”Must Do List.”
It’s better to have no list at all, because you are always already caught up on everything, because you get everything done immediately. That is actually a good principle to keep in mind: If you’re not backed up with important things to do, start on any new assignment or task immediately. If it’s not possible, or if you’re backed up with more important things and earlier deadlines, then put it on your “must do” list of things to do.
A “must do” list is a simple calculation of when it’s due, an estimate of how long it will take, and schedule back from the due date. So when you get a new assignment or task and you can’t do it “now,” prioritize it among your list based on that calculation.
Keep this list of things to do pure: It *only* contains things you *must* do. Work on the next item in your list even if it’s not due for a long time. That’s a simple but often-ignored principle: When there is anything on this list, work on that next item before anything else.
You might also have a separate “nice to do” list. But don’t even look at that list unless your “must do” list is completely empty. Even if you have only one “must do” item left on your list, and it’s not due until a month from now, and it will only take three days, still do it now before you look at your “nice to do” list. “Must do” items come first before anything else regardless of how far off the deadline. Use reasonable judgment for obvious exceptions, such as, I must re-roof the house, but it’s January and there’s five feet of snow, so it will have to wait until spring.
For most “must do” items, this is the key area where people suffer time-management problems: They see that their next “must do” item will take three days, and the deadline is a month away, so they keep doing “nice to do” other stuff for the next three weeks, then a few more days go by. Then suddenly with three days left, something unexpected prevents them from starting, or it’s taking more time than their estimated three days, and now there is no buffer time remaining. This is when you hear excuses like, “I couldn’t help it because this unexpected problem suddenly came up!” and/or “I didn’t think it would take so long!”
These problems are easily avoided if they had finished the “must do” item a month ago when they had plenty of time and opportunity. The “unexpected” obstacle should be expected, not because you can see the future, but because you should always assume there will be an unexpected obstacle just before any deadline.
The result of delaying work on the thing is that you still have to do the thing anyway, plus you have to feel agony, anxiety, stress, and possibly be punished or pay penalties, vent your frustration to other people which makes you look pathetic, and most importantly, your delay and failure most likely will burden or at least inconvenience other people as a consequence. So poor time management is an essentially self-centered indulgent weakness. Good time management is more than just a skill that’s good for you, it is a responsibility that you have towards others.
My time-management answer may seem oversimplified, but I think it is the best answer: Stay focused on “must do” items always, until *all* of them are finished. A major benefit: You will enjoy your free time much more with your “must do” list emptied, than when you slot in free time with “must do” items still hanging over you. When work is hanging over you, even free time costs: It costs you by tainting your fun time with an undercurrent of stress and anxiety, which is registered in your subconscious and affects your emotional health even when you are not aware of it.
Remember also that what people call “multitasking” (e.g., having several assignments going at the same time, switching between tasks) makes you less effective, causes you to waste time, and reduces the quality of whatever you are doing (see links to studies below). No matter how young and energetic you are, no matter how old and experienced you are, multitasking perpetuates inefficiency, missed deadlines, stress, and poor results. Not surprisingly, multitasking is a good fit for short attention spans and shallow concentration.
As much as possible, work on one thing until it’s done. It will save you time and headaches in the long run. I’ve heard many people say they have no choice but to multitask, even though they did have windows of opportunity to start some tasks earlier and do work in a more organized, focused manner.
Stressed-out complainers are typically the ones who failed time management. Multitasking on piled-up work becomes a convenient scapegoat for being “too busy,” feeling stress, and scrambling around trying to catch up. They failed to follow a simple formula for getting things done earlier: Stay focused on “must do” items always, until *all* of them are finished, and do them in due-date/time-estimate order.
This is a much longer entry than I first intended, so I will leave you with a few links below for further insights. Here are some articles and studies on the wastefulness and unhealthiness inherent in multitasking:
- The Thief of Time: Multitasking is Inefficient, Studies Show
- Study: Multitasking is counterproductive
- Multitasking: hip but unhealthy and inefficient
- Why Multitasking Leads to Inefficiency
This entry is from my book
Potential of an Active Mind: How to Recapture the Magic of Everyday Life
© copyright Robert Rose-Coutré 2009, 2011, and 2012