Well, let’s come to a very hard nutshell in personal time management, which are tasks that are important but not urgent. Such tasks might be immensely important, completed at the right point in time, perhaps help you to make a career move, or have bad consequences if you postpone them too long. In addition, such items are constant companions in moving targets. Then tasks become a demotivator only, means get rid of them fast.
Assigning the right amount of processing time to such tasks is really not easy. Whenever you put such a task on the work-in-progress stack, you run the risk of being overtaken by the day-to-day business in its urgency and importance.
What is in focus of this text?
- Attend a certified training course, which is a requirement for the next job level
- A master thesis or whitepaper for a conference far into the future
- Practicing for the company run next year, because your team wants to race at the longest distance next year
- Clean up, structure, expand to achieve more capacity
If above tasks are constantly ignored because of the important-and urgent-tasks, the job is not awarded even though a position has become vacant by chance, a conference is missed or a mediocre result of the master’s thesis is submitted, the team has to start on the short 5 km route or you cannot handle a sudden increase in orders, even though it would have been possible if the extension had only been done in time.
Before we take a look at strategies to prevent this, I have to explain the usage of the German term “innere Schweinehund”. I wrote this article in German language about terrifying the “inner pig dog” which is close to the “inner couch potato” part of everyone. Ok, now I try to shock a vegetable instead. We will see, if this works.
Sometimes important tasks become long-term-zombies because they have not yet been thought through, understood or granular enough. This has nothing to do with the methods presented here, but it is a common mistake. Before a task reaches time management, it should be mature and well thought over. If the task is unclear or not comprehensible, this research and development of the task should be carried out.
Process scheduling with aging
There was something interesting in computer science, wasn’t there? The problem with the important but not urgent “jobs” is nothing else than job queues, which have to be so fair that tasks do not stagnate (starvation). In fact, such a principle can also be built into Kanban or Eisenhower matrix, for example by adding aging weights to the value or urgency of a work. This can be visualized by sticky dots, marks or similar.
The way it works is somehow like this: At the end of each week you increase the urgency of the tasks remaining on board. At the end of the week you stick a dot on the card of all “Ready”-tasks. This can be combined with sticking or drawing an initial urgency on new cards. The new card “Shirts for cleaning” already has three points, because the wardrobe is almost empty.
This method requires discipline, because in the daily view the task is not actually becoming more important. If you do begin to cheat yourself here, the method will fail.
These weights work really well with tasks that would result in little disasters. Let’s take the task “Taking shirts to the cleaners”. The initial weight of 3 sticky dots and an increase of one dot at the end of each day should be a good method for having fresh shirts on the last minute.
Blocking time firmly
Activities that are still a while away, but have a completion date, even if this is just a custom date, you can grant a specific amount of time. Calculate backwards, don’t forget some buffer, then e.g. block 2 hours every Friday morning, the first Wednesday of every month or something reasonable.
This works quite well for tasks like practicing for the company run, the whitepaper, student evening classes, etc. But wait, still there are a few things to consider.
Choose a time that corresponds to your work and private life. Depending on your working style and family live this may be every Wednesday morning, because during the day there are so many urgent additions that evening hours are often no longer productive or overloaded. But also entire days about once a month are a good idea to register them as being absent in the calendar and treat them as such.
You know for yourself what exactly helps you to protect these time slots. Even if some of you are now thinking, my boss overrides me anyway. I want to contradict that: on the first hand transparency, routine and agreements help. Also the time management system itself will help, since you improve to keep promises on time. This means statements like “boss the task is done in 3 days, although tomorrow is my blocked course day” become much more trustworthy.
If you really can’t think of how to protect those times, imagine something very very important, “the new darling would like to go to the café with you every Thursday at 4pm”. Hope this triggers your creative thinking, because I am sure you would be able to clear that challenge as well in a very transparent way.
However, we still have a sleeping animal waiting to go wild. Uuups sorry, we are in the English version, sorry no pig dog goes berserk, we are going to wake a potato.
Putting the procrastination couch potato to drag the carriage
Presumably you know light forms of procrastination: You are assigned to a job which can be very important and scheduled, like a presentation, a research paper, a whitepaper, etc. For simplicity’s sake we assume this job is already coarsely thought out, divided into tasks, scheduled and you have plenty of time for it.
The couch potato beast in you will now prefer small routine tasks, shopping is done, the vacuum cleaner had a walk, the vinyl record collection is sorted, the game console is brought back into operation, YouTube videos are watched until the day is over. Sadly that day ends with a great sense of guilt and the intent to do better tomorrow, you will finalise even twice the number of tasks. When the next morning starts you feel a strong appetite for croissants, even though there is fresh bread in the house… …and the story continues…
Up to the day when even the inner potato beast wakes up and bites in shock, because time has become really super tight and the task is almost impossible to accomplish. The experienced procrastinator will work all night and yield a not so bad result, but the outcome will remain far below his possibilities. Also the look back is not pleasant at all, because you went to bed with constantly rising feelings of guilt. Since the highscores on the video console do not help and also the memories of fnny YouTube videos are fading.
However, the pulling powers of the startled beast can be used effectively. Why don’t you install a public rehearsal before the premiere, as an early trigger to wake the beast before the actual submission day. How would it be to hold a presentation for colleagues one month before a whitepaper is submitted? Such artificial events have to be very obligatory and promoted to a large audience beforehand, so that no way out is possible without the bite of the couch potato beast.
Okay, if this method is too harsh for you, you can also set up a series of sessions in to present partial results and discuss them with colleagues. It is important that these appointments are so important that the inner couch potato will trigger the panic. You should also abandon the idea that you don’t have time for such extra sessions. This is what you do instead of sorting the vinyl collection.
Arrange critical success factors
Unless you’re afflicted with a lot of postponementitis, but occasionally lose the overall view, it helps in any case to give an important-but-not-urgent task a timeline. Certain tasks may not have a due date at all, such as “I always wanted to get a sailing license”, it is exactly those type of tasks that need a defined timeline, milestone plan or critical success factors in the calendar.
- Timetable for something that only requires a time budget: Run practicing, Run 15 km weekly, Run 30 km weekly, etc.
- Milestone plan for projects where a straightforward planning is fine: have read a technical book, have passed a trial exam with 100%, take a theory exam, have practical lessons, etc.
- Critical success factors for projects that require feedback and follow-up: 2 kg of weight loss, 1.5 kg of weight loss, etc.
Schedules with a fairly challenging timing can also be useful if you tend to be perfect, but the 80:20 principle is more effective. Research work, inquiries or training in new fields are good examples. A challenging schedule should also force you to be satisfied with 70% to 80% of final results. After the finishing a milestone 80% the next task of the job starts immediately.
Sharpen you vision
Beware beneath the important-but-not-urgent tasks, are some dreams that can significantly influence your life: Apprenticeships, world travels with family and friends, certificates, PhD theses, research, whatever. If you perform such tasks, a fortunate coincidence may help in the right moment. At your favorite university a position becomes available, just when you finalize the PhD thesis. What a dream!
Most of those dreams, however, also mean burden and frustration. Imagine the position becomes vacant and the PhD thesis has not yet been started. My advice is to place a number of those tasks on a time schedule, start estimating how much time they will take, be realistic and wipe a lot of the remaining dreams off the to-do list. They don’t disappear from the brain, they just deliberately don’t enter as active tasks. If the doctorate position now opens up, it has to be clear that the PhD thesis was not due anyway. This avoids frustration and makes dreams much more realistic.
Time management retrospective
Once a month – not more often – you should retrospect your time management system. Are there goals listed that will not be addressed in the next 3 years? Are too many targets important but not urgent? It might be worth it to delete some ideas. If a deleted task keeps bothering you, start planning it.
Conclusion: an overview
The methods presented here have to be practiced and not every one of them will suit you. Do a test drive, fail, fail better. If you do something, it has to be done with rigor, which unfortunately needs a great deal of discipline. Unfortunately I can’t sell you a Silver-Bullet.
- Aging weights support when enough time can be made available at short notice, but focus is lost from time to time.
- Blocking times ensures a certain time-capacity of long-running tasks, workouts, researches, investigations or recreations fit well here
- Deliberately scaring the procrastination beast is a very effective treatment for certain people. The more panic you get, the better.
- Fixing times for milestones and successes is the most sensible way of shaping things, but also requires the most discipline, if you are sloppy with yourself here, any effect disappears immediately.
- Dealing with or deleting tasks helps to grip tasks drifting around more strongly or to push them far into the future.