Things I’ve learned about Time Management

It’s easy enough to say that you don’t have enough time, but the reality is that time is the medium in which we live. Complaining you don’t have enough time very much like a fish complaining that he doesn’t have enough water. So, rather than complaining about the amount of time I have, I’ve been learning to think about my time management issues differently.

Where David Allen lead me wrong

The first insight I had is that Getting Things Done (GTD) has steared me wrong. This is hard to say because I think it’s a great book with a lot of great insights. In particular the strong admonition to get everything you need to do down on paper has changed the way I live and think. That list includes all the major and minor commitments I’ve made, and having it out of my head and in a system that I trust reduced my stress levels imensely.

But I found that I still have a lot of stress. And I found that I was still thrashing back and forth between projects without making the kind of decisive progress on any of them that I wanted to.

Why wasn’t the GTD process enough?

Because, as I eventually learned the GTD “inbox processing” strategy as described in the book is broken. You are supposed to choose between three options for each input: do it, deligate it, or defer it. But really there’s a key fourth option that is the really important one if you’re life is anything like mine.

What is that all important forth option?

  • Don’t do it. Say no. Avoid adding another commitment to your list.

Wait, there’s science behind this!

This is really critical because like any queue that’s processed by a limited resource (in this case my time and attention) filling it too full actually causes the system to break down. This process of breakdown even has a technical name that feels exactly right, it’s called “thrashing.”

Every programmer and computer user knows what this is like. Open too many apps at once, and your machine grinds to a halt, data keeps getting swapped out to disk and the rate at which the machine can process information goes down exponentially.

Ok, so know I knew the name for my problem. Naming it is good, but it’s not the solution.

So, how do I stop thrashing about and get stuff done?

At some point, i’m not exactly sure where, I had a realization that in life, just like a manufacturing line, or a software resource issue, there are two keys to preventing thrashing.

  1. Avoid too much multitasking. A system spends time switching between tasks and is less efficent when time-windows for work are too small, and task-switching happens too often.
  2. When multiple commitments are being made that require real-time or near real-time responses, you have to keep the task-switching window short enough that high-priority tasks can be scheduled immediately. This, of course, creates a tension with the first principle which suggests larger time windows between task-switching.

This is where Getting Things Done’s todo list system provided me with a lot of help. It helped me reduce my task-switching costs, and that’s allowed me to get a better balance on these two pressures.

Letting the work FLOW

I think there’s a very clear analogy with what happened at Toyota in the early days. Manufacturers had die presses which took a long time to change, so they would run them for a long time. This was great in that it helped keep the machine working and limited the downtime. But it also meant that there were long delays in the system since the switching time and the time for the long runs added up. Toyota decided that since they couldn’t afford more machines, they needed to figure out ways to reduce the cost of switching, which reduced total cycle time, made them more responsive to bugs (quality problems) and helped them to get more done in less time.

Reducing the cost of switching made it possible for the system to run differently, rather than batching up lots of work and pushing it through, it Toyota discovered that you could pull what you needed through the system just in time. This same thing works for time management, when you aren’t overloaded you can be more responsive to today’s needs, and you avoid the inevitable mismatches that come with long delays between request and response.

What happens when there’s still too much to do?

But, to come back to my main point, even when you’ve done everything you can do to reduce the task-switching costs, you still can have significant thrashing problems when the resource (that’s you or me) gets overscheduled.

Most projects I’ve worked on ended up in this situation at some point, where working harder stopped producing results because of schedule pressure and resource contention.

This is why saying no is a critical skill.

If you limit the commitments you make, you can provide rapid turn around on the commitements you do make, and everything runs much more smoothly because you’re thrashing less, and wasting less time on task switching.

Beyond the basics, I’ve discovered that one really critical notion is to have enough slack in your system to handle emergencies. If you schedule the system full, any high-priority, high-urgency task that enters the system can break the whole process.

Without slack in the system emergencies snowball…

I know this from experience, as I’ve had my share of emergencies in the last couple of years, and when there was slack in the system things settled down quickly, and when there wasn’t I ended up with new emergencies caused by the first emergency delaying things just a little bit too much.

So, when you are tempted to take on another commitment, think about what would happen to your life if you had to take a week off to deal with a death in the family, or to help a sick relative. If you don’t see any path to recovery, perhaps you’re over-scheduling your most important resource — you.

When No, really means Yes

In the end I discovered the biggest irony of time management: it’s only when you say No to some things, that you have the ability to say Yes, and make real commitments.

When you say no to helping a friend move, or to visiting family, or whatever feels valuable to you you will feel terrible. But, if you don’t say no sometimes to at least some of these things, you’ll end up not being able to do any of those things anyway, because you’re always behind and never quite able to fulfill the commitments you make.

I learned the hard way, hopefully you don’t have to ;)

16 Responses to “Things I’ve learned about Time Management”


  1. Great article — I agree to every point you make. Not sure that I would if I hadn’t experienced something similar myself, so I wonder if someone who didn’t would listen to the advice.

  2. Actually “don’t do it” or “throw it away” is part of the original GTD process. It was not David Allen leading you wrong. ;)

  3. 3zoredache

    The fourth option you are trying to add is really part of the first. The first option isn’t really ‘do it’. More accurately it is ‘process it’. Choosing to immediately decline a request is part of that option.

  4. Good article. I agree with the others that saying no is a part of the GTD workflow, but there’s an understated assumption about that workflow that’s relevant here: you gotta know what your goals are. Also, GTD isn’t about time management. It’s worth picking up some time management techniques, like Pomodoro, to augment GTD.

  5. Great ideas here, Mark. The same “slack in the system” idea could also be applied to just about anything…money comes to mind.

  6. I understand that GTD doesn’t really mean that you can’t say no. But the “Do It, Defer It, or Delegate It” mantra certainly doesn’t promote the idea that you have to say no, or highlight the importance of constraining the work that flows into the system.

    And David Allen certainly never discusses the costs of thrash, or any of the queue theory stuff that made me realize how important managing the flow of work through my personal schedule is.

  7. Outstanding!

    I completely agree.

    The quote that comes to mind:

    Diplomacy is the art of saying “go to hell” in a way that makes them look forward to it.

    I think there should be a quote that goes like this:

    Saying No in a way that makes them feel you still want to be friends.

  8. Actually, on the workflow diagram, there’s an initial step of asking if it’s actionable. If it’s not, then there’s the Eliminate (throw it out), Incubate (save it for later), or Reference (file it). It’s only after deciding if it’s actionable that the Do it, Defer it, or Delegate it comes into play. And even at the Do it level, the next action may be to respond to the person asking for something to “go fly a kite”.

    It’s not a perfect system (I’m still trying to figure out how to get GTD to manage an ever-changing ticket list), but it does manage some of the stress.

    Also, if you’re not doing the Weekly Review, you’re already in a world of hurt. Been there way too many times. :)

  9. Also, I’ve found the opposite of thrash in my process, and that’s resource starvation. I’ve become so engrossed with something that I don’t allow myself to unhook and take care of other things that need some attention. It’s like I need a little bell or something to ding and say “OK, enough on this, move on to something else”.

  10. Really, I don’t think the “is it actionable” question is functionally equivalent to “should I take action on this?”

  11. 11Dave Allan

    Good tips. I definitley agree with leaving a little slack in your life. I did the opposite for along time and learned the hard way as well. Does anyone know about scheduling/ calendar programs? I know of meebee.com and meet-0-matic.com. Do you think they’re worth using? Thanks

  12. Im so confuse about time manage,thx

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