Time management: A couch potato renders important things urgent

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.

Ready?

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.

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.

Activities where this weighting really works perfect are tasks that would lead to small catastrophes, aging weights move them upfront. Let’s take the task “Bringing shirts to dry cleaning, when x shirts are still in the wardrobe”. The weight “3 sticky dots mean x minus 3 shirts” should be well suited to have fresh shirts at least on the last minute.

Eisenhower matrix with aging weights

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.

 

Nicht ganz ein Schweinehund, aber läuft davon
Not quite a pig dog – original photos are just very rare

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.

P.S.: This is a future section of a little publication about time management with Kanban. It’s still a bit down the road, so I decided to publish some useful chapters in advance.

 

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.