Time management: only touch things once

I am in the process of writing a vade mecum – this is nothing more than a small pocket reference but a nice word – about time management with Kanban. It’s still a little bit down to completion, so I decided to publish some useful chapters in advance.

Many time management methods require all activities, whether professional or private, to be written down and entered into the system as a card, entry, or similar. That is in theory correct, but leads often to frustration. If one uses this too accurately and observes on a daily basis what still needs to be done during the month and what not yet even started. If you work in a team writing down all elements in a list or a board is essential, to avoid duplicating work, forgetting items or performing tasks at the wrong time. In personal time-management for example, one can cope well with several media such as the kanban board, electronic to-do list and paper shopping lists. It is only important to write down the correct information and subject to control. Let us try to find out what that can be.

People without time management can be caught scrolling through dozens or hundreds of emails from time to time. The ritual is: One or the other mail goes back to unread, continuous scrolling and at the end the person is tired and needs to grab a coffee. If you ever started with a time management and gave up after a short time, you might remember a moment when you cleaned up the to-do list, summarized it or completed it with accumulated tasks. Such a moment is very exhausting, the thoughts jump from task to task and sound like “Oh yes, that was the task! Oh shit, another thing I have to do! :-(“.

Eliminating such behavior has two advantages, firstly it reduces dissatisfaction and secondly this is a senseless waste of time, even if only 10 minutes a day are wasted. Our objective is to look at activities that need to be done as rarely as possible, ideally only when the activity is being done.

Input, storages and output-channels

The rearrangement of to-do lists at certain intervals is often triggered because there are no prioritized channels or filing systems for them. In fact, a simple disruption of the system – such as a long meeting day – is all that is needed to carry out compilation and arrangement activities.

Please reduce input and output channels as well as storage for tasks. This includes the sensible use of means of communication. Lead by example, ask colleagues to communicate more effectively, avoid playing around with gadgets just because they looked cool in the first place, use few tools and repositories.

I hope two below example explain what I mean: A colleague calls you in the morning on the way to the office and asks you to complete a task that will cost you some time. Ask this teammate to send you a short mail.

Or colleagues of another part of the organization use different electronic tracking systems and assign a task to you from their tool, but you are not a project member. Please explain that you are willing to communicate via e-mail (or similar) but not able to watch yet another tool inbox.

I would also be very reluctant to find myself a management tool. When you start with time management, you have to change so much and have so much to learn for yourself. That means electrical helpers are often not a good start. A paper to-do list (or a Kanban board) on DIN A4 cardboard with tasks on sticky notes can be easily transported in an envelope and operates everywhere. Much better than tools that only work on one platform, are clumsy or a large blackboard in the office, which leads to tasks being collected in another medium while you are traveling.

In any case, use few places where you have to supervise tasks or even delegate tasks. On the other hand, it is not necessary to have a single file containing all your tasks. Your project has a Kanban board, you have your own to-do list and the family even has a whiteboard? That’s a great match, if you ask me. These tasks between mentioned lists should usually not mix at all, the project gets e.g. 75% of your working time, your own list tasks let us say 25% and the family time should be a fixed part of your work-life balance anyway. I wouldn’t include family tasks or project tasks in my own personal to-do list, that would mean repeating myself and annoying.

Paper based KanbanPaper based Kanban

Only touch things once

Not all tasks need to be in a list or a board. That is a good rule, nevertheless I am kind of cautious here in this blog, because that tangles  decisions in your self-management. Find your own way, e.g. if you notice that some central tasks are not followed up like “sports every week” then add them to the list. Let me add some examples of activities that I don’t manage in my time management system because they are managed in a different medium.

Imagine a contract negotiation will commence next week, the contract is almost ready, before the final discussion there will be a short internal coordination phone conference. Simply set an appointment including a link to the contract document plus add the customer call to the calendars, done. No to-do list activity required here. Time management means keeping the overview and working on tasks according to importance. Even if 5 such tasks are booked as appointments in the calendar, this will work easily, time management is not about a maximal completion of the time.

Occasionally even quite large activities do not necessarily have to be listed. You go to a vocational training course or such for the upcoming 6 weeks. Maybe you have to book time in your calendar so everyone can see that you are occupied. The probability of losing track of such big endeavor is hopefully pretty small.

Sometimes a task can also be remembered in context. You have to bring a letter from the house, just cover your entrance key with the letter.

A storage example, when three different activities of an action have to be done, one is in an e-mail, one as PowerPoint, one as WhatsApp. Before you do that three times, summarize everything into one file. Forward the mail to yourself, attach the PowerPoint to it as an attachment, and copy the text from the WhatsApp. You can also edit emails, more details on this later.

2 minute rule

From Getting Things Done we get the rule: If an activity requires less than 2 minutes, it must be completed immediately. Activities that need to be completed quickly are not worth to be reordered, prioritized or managed. Keep it simple. Do not ponder whether 10 of 2 minutes tasks should be prioritized lower than a task of 8 minutes. Just do it.

This is a good opportunity to mention that your time management has an influence on your communication partners. The co-workers learn very quickly whenever they work according to your time management system, tasks are automatically served faster and better.

Place yourself in the shoes of a project manager Max, who receives the following mail:

Hi Max,
what do you think?
Cheers Moritz
The enclosed mail thread contains some discussion about software products not yet known to the project manager. The attachments are a pile of product catalogs and price lists.

After a short skim of the mail, Max the project manager hopefully picks up the phone and calls Moritz. Moritz explains to Max that a sub-project wants to buy software, product A is the best and costs about 500 EUR. Now Max hopefully also takes a few minutes to explain to Moritz how the mail could be better phrased.

Hi Max,
Sub-project Gamma demands a certain software. Product A is suitable and costs 500 EUR. Is this fine with you or would you like to evaluate product B and product C together with us? 
I will be happy to send you catalogues and prices.
Cheers Moritz

A reply to this mail in 2 minutes is fine also this mail is now precise and unmistakable. The first mail is actually a impudence, but unfortunately such misbehavior is not quite uncommon.

Reprioritizing of lists

In Kanban and Scrum the prioritization by a sequence is actually very well solved. Other to-do lists or action trackers work with ” low, medium, high” or similar prioritizations. On the one hand, priorities of this kind are difficult to assign. Because if you have a list of 10 activities classified with “low, medium, high” and when the eleventh activity shows up it becomes difficult. Activity 11 is more important than activity 5 the “medium” but not as severe as activity 8 which was classified as “high”. That makes you think and waste time.

Reprioritizing existing lists is usually a time-consuming and frustrating task. A system of  “low, medium, high” is always problematic and not fixable in my view. The Eisenhower matrix as well as any other classification according to effect and urgency seems to be okay. It is best to sort the list according to value. To compare the importance of two tasks is often easier for human minds and such a sequence has to be revised less often to my experience.

However, what I recommend is to periodically review the entire time management system. About once a month is a good choice. Have I missed (routine) tasks because I didn’t write them down? Which activities in my time management system annoy me? What can be optimized? Not to mention which tasks of little impact and urgency had to be simply deleted.

I hope to have added some useful thoughts to your self-management attempt. Time management always remains an individual way, do something out of it.

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