When you dont know which urgent task to start first?…

Reflecting on the huge to do list my husband tries to wade through each day, and the advice recently I gave to a coaching client about using Stephen Covey’s time management matrix, I was very interested to come across this Harvard Business Review article via Linked In today.

In a nutshell, the author, Daniel Markovitz, president of TimeBack Management and the author of A Factory of One [Productivity Press, December 2011 – Follow him on his blog or on Twitter at @timeback.] says stop making To Do lists:

“They’re simply setting you up for failure and frustration. Consider the to-do lists you’re currently managing: how many items have been languishing since Michelle Bachman was leading the field for the Republican nomination? How often do you scan your list just so that you can pick off the ones you can finish in two minutes? How many items aren’t really to-dos at all, but rather serious projects that require significant planning”

He suggests five fundamental problems with to-do lists that render them ineffective:

  • The paradox of choice. It’s easier for us to make decisions and act when there are fewer choices from which to choose. Looking at the 58 items on your to-do list will either paralyze you or send you into default mode: checking email for an hour instead of doing real work.
  • Heterogeneous complexity. When your list contains some tasks that are three minutes long and some that are 33 minutes, you’ll invariably focus on the shorter one for the psychological payoff and dopamine release that comes from crossing an item off your list. That
  • Heterogeneous priority. When your list comprises items of varying priorities, you tend to take care of the “A” priorities and let the “C” priorities lie fallow…until it becomes an “A” priority itself.
  • Lack of context. To-do lists don’t provide sufficient context for the tasks to help you determine what you should work on
  • Lack of commitment devices. To-do lists don’t prevent you from choosing the most pleasant tasks over the most important (and often most difficult) ones because they lack “commitment devices” that lock you into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose

Instead he suggests using “living in your calendar.” That means taking your tasks off the to-do list, estimating how much time each of them will consume, and transferring them to your calendar making sure you make allowances for time to process your email and other routine activity. He advises leaving some empty space — one to two hours — each day to deal with the inevitable crises that will crop up.) In essence, you’re making a production plan for your work.

Deciding which item to handle at what time overcomes the paradox of choice, compensates for the intrinsic heterogeneity of your work, provides the context of deadlines and other commitments, and provides a (soft) commitment device to help you do the right thing at the right time.

Read the full blog here: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/01/to-do_lists_dont_work.html

Stephen Covey suggests setting out a time management matrix in his “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Urgent

The   reality is that urgency is based on the expectations of others

Not urgent

Important(to do with results)

I

Activities

Crises

Pressing   problems

Deadline-driven   projects

II

Activities

Prevention   activities

Relationship   building

Recognising   new opportunities

Planning,   recreation

Not   Important

III

Activities

Interruptions,   some calls

Some   mail, some reports

Some   meeting

Proximate,   pressing matters

Popular   activities

IV

Activities

Trivia,   busy work

Some   mail

Some   phone calls

Time   wasters

Pleasant   activities

to make sure that you concentrate on Quadrant II activities. Quadrant II is at the heart of effective personnel management. Effective people are opportunity minded.

People focusing their time in Quadrant I find the list of activities gets bigger and bigger until it dominates them.  And this seems to result in the huge To Do Lists that Daniel Markovitz is suggesting just don’t work.

Effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV because urgent or not they are not important, and they shrink quadrant I down to size by spending more time in quadrant II. They learn to say “Yes” to quadrant II priorities and “No” to other activities, sometimes apparently urgent things.

This is an ambitious objective for managers caught in the thick and thin of quadrants III and IV, but striving to achieve this will have a phenomenal impact on personal effectiveness. Covey suggests that Quadrant II organizing involves 4 key activities:

  • Identifying roles – what are your key roles? E.g. Individual / Husband / Father / Manager etc
  • Selecting goals – think of 2 or 3 important results to accomplish in each role over the next 7 days, and record these as goals. These should be both short term and tied in to your longer term goals based on what is important to you/your mission.
  •  Scheduling – Look at your week ahead with these goals in mind and schedule time to achieve them, allocate each goal to a day in the week, or better still a specific appointment. Look also at the time remaining that is unscheduled giving freedom and flexibility to handle unanticipated events, shift appointments and to savour relationships and interactions.
  • Daily adapting – Take a few minutes each morning to review your schedule and get in touch with the value based decisions you made when you organised the week as well a the unanticipated factors that may have come up.

So both are in agreement about the merits of putting your tasks and activities into your calendar to make sure that the important things are done!!

  1. If you are struggling with a huge to do list? Have a go at implementing this advice and let me know how this helps?
  2. Do you have any practical time management ideas to share – let me know?
  3. Please contact me if you want some more time management tips

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