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It isn’t how much time you have, but how you protect it

In a recent post, Dig your own hole, sharpen your own shovel, I made a case for us to deepen our engagement in our own work by prioritizing our investment of time into activities that are important, and weeding out the urgent but unimportant tasks that seem to make up so much of corporate work: witness the endless meetings, the torrent of daily emails, the administrivia.

I have come to think that defending my time from invasion has tremendous rewards. People will ask me to come to New York City for a cup of coffee, not realizing that it involves 90 minutes to transit both ways, perhaps. These days, I only do that for people I love, for world-shattering opportunities, or when I can jiggle together at least three possibly worthwhile activities into one day.

But others maybe have not learned the lesson of how you day, week, month can be siphoned away by a thousand small nibbles of your agenda. I am quick to suggest a video chat with someone I consider witty or smart, but I stall when vendors want to tell me about some news, unless I think it’s big news, and not just the most recent sale or upgrade of their Android app.

The Calendar/Work Paradox

We are each of us in a war of attrition, and we may be the worst of our enemies, if we don’t integrate time management/task management into our daily practice. Planning and tracking time and tasks is a seemingly minor practice, but it isn’t really about time, per se: it about engagement with our work.

Far too often our to-dos and calendar are filled with interruptions, and the work is no where to be seen: As Mike Monteiro at Mule Design put it,

Most people don’t schedule their work. They schedule the interruptions that prevent their work from happening. In the case of a business like ours, what clients pay us to make and do happens in the cracks between meetings, or worse, after business hours.

My recommendation is for each of us to take the time on a regular basis to reflect on all demands for our time — either posed by ourselves, coworkers, or clients — and to block out time to accomplish the urgent and important commitments (near term deliverables, this week’s client meetings), and the non-urgent and important (developing a new concept for a product, spending time reading up on Hadoop). Basically, don’t do anything unimportant, no matter how urgent it seems, unless you do it for love.

For this to work we have to establish life choices. In my case, I am significantly more productive writing and thinking in the morning hours, so I carefully avoid calls and meeting in the morning, unless otherwise impossible. Others may find their late nights most creative, and so they are unavailable in the mornings, catching up on sleep.

I also have come to believe that it is important to realize that we can do less than we think we can, and that we will get the most out of each day by accepting that fact. I recommend adopting the 1-3-5 rule. Each day, we can accomplish 1 large task (and it’s best done before lunch), 3 medium tasks, and 5 small tasks.

  • A large task in my case is a redraft of a report, or traveling to the west coast. Something that takes several unbroken hours.
  • A medium tasks for me might be writing a blog post, or getting a product demo, which could take 30 minutes to an hour.
  • A small task for me might be writing a long email to a colleague, or following up on updates to a project on a work management tool, or negotiating terms for a speaking or writing gig.

This doesn’t mean that there might not be time for the occasional unexpected — and perhaps serendipitous — interruption, but my sense is that people who get things done are pretty devoted to making a list and trying to stick to it. Or better said, perhaps, trusting in their practice. In may case, the roots of my practice is reading and writing everyday, and being deeply aware that my best and most productive hours are before 12pm, so I jealously guard that time, and cram everything else into the afternoons and early evening. In that way I remain deeply engaged in my work, and make the most headway for my clients, partners, and ‘company’, GigaOM Research.

Moving Past The Paradox In Practice

Yes, I still put appointments on my Google Calendar, but I make when I am reflecting on the week’s or day’s work, I add any appointments or calls to my task list as the day’s one big thing, one of the 3 big things, or one of the 5 big things. So I constrain how much can be done on, say, next tuesday, because I have already committed to several specific activities.

I use Todoist as my task management solution for a few basic reasons: it’s well integrated with Chrome, so I can easily make a webpage or an email a task. But most importantly it is very fluid textually — tags can be added to a task by inserting ‘@3things’ in the text title, for example. This turns out to be very helpful for filtering based on tags, which is at the heart of my 1-3-5 method.

While I want to keep track of which tasks I have completed so far this week, I don’t want them to disappear (which is built into Todoist logic, alas), so I mark tasks I have completed with the ‘@completed’ tag. This means I can filter in or out @completed tasks in the Todoist search filter. Here’s a filter for tasks tagged as @post that are not tagged @completed and have no date yet assigned:

Screenshot 2013-10-05 13.22.11

 

Or if I want to look back on a week’s worth of one big thing:

Screenshot 2013-10-05 13.40.25

 

All of this week’s one big tasks were in the ‘workify’ project, where I keep tasks related to paid work. But in other weeks — occasionally —  activities in beaconify — my Beacon NY civic activities — or other projects have become the big thing to do on some days.

At the end of the week, which is generally first thing Monday for me, I go through my completed tasks, maybe make some notes in the tasks, and then check them off, which retires them from searchable view. (Note that Todoist supports showing checked off tasks in each project, but it has to be done manually.) This is also the time that I will reassign dates for any tasks that were not completed as planned. And most importantly, I look at all the demands on my time — project deadlines, scheduled calls and meetings, planned writing — and I assign them dates and categories in the 1-3-5 model. Some ideas float without dates, but tagged as future @posts. And some tasks that were marked open but are not complete remain, and I might shift the deadline to a date in the future when I expect a response. Here’s a multi-step task where I have noted the subtasks using a Todoist text note, and I have not yet updated the date to when I expect the next step — Harold’s response — which I denote with @next:response:

Screenshot 2013-10-05 13.50.51

 

On Monday morning, I will change the deadline on that task to 10 October and changing the @3things to @5things, and if I don’t get a response then on Thursday I will ping Harold, and add ‘[x] pinged 10 oct 2013’ to the text on the task. You get the picture.

Conclusions

This is not meant to be a review or plug for Todoist. It has some features — the search filters — that make some of the 1-3-5 implementation fairly easy, and others less so. This could be implemented manually, in a journal, or using TeuxDeux, or in another task manager tool. My point here is to make the case for guarding your time, and to take a small slice of time each day, each week, and each month to review progress, reallocate tasks and time, and to take freely floating opportunities and tie them to specific days to work on.

To engage in our work require that we each develop a practice, and that we come to trust it to work. And the fundamental rule has to be that our practice has to clear away the distractions and invasions so we can do the work, and observe our progress. It has to facilitate the points of interaction with others, but minimize that time so we can maximize time for reflection, learning, and doing, and ultimately, so we can do what we love and love what we do.

Just behind the checklists is connection and discussion, research and investigation. The lists enable us to accomplish that. As Umberto Eco said,

The list is the origin of culture. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists.

This is one of the foundations of the deep culture we need to build, where each of us plans and tracks our work, harboring and harnessing our energy and time, and resisting the call to settle for the unimportant even when it might look just like the truly important items on our lists.