Review: Do It Tomorrow

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a book on personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship – books not directly related to personal finance, but deeply relevant to personal success.

Do it tomorrowI’ve long been a fan of time management books. My philosophy is that if you can get just one really useful nugget out of a time management book and apply it in your life, you’ll eventually save enough time to make up for the time spent reading the book and more, making you more efficient in the long term. The only problem is that once you’ve read a few time management books, you tend to find more of the same – record your thoughts, make a to-do list, prioritize it, and so on.

I stumbled upon this book a while back and, based on the title, expected it to be more of the same. I read a few quick Amazon reviews of it, but it was a brief excerpt from the start of the fourth chapter that really stood out to me:

The two things I want to examine are the concept of prioritising by importance and the frequently used tool of making a to-do list. Both of these tend to be the sacred cows of time management, and I believe both of them are fundamentally wrong. The reason is the same in both cases: they tend to make us do more of what gave us the problem in the first place.

Interesting perspective, really – tossing two of the “sacred cows” of time management out on their ear immediately. My favorite book on time management – Getting Things Done by David Allen – did much the same, eschewing to-do lists in favor of just jotting down your ideas and going through them later. Needless to say, I was intrigued.

But did Do It Tomorrow (by Mark Forster) live up to the promise? Let’s find out.

1 – What This Book Is About
Forster opens the book with the argument that most of the challenges people have with time management are a result of conflict between our rational nature and our reactive nature. For example, when I’m sitting here focused on writing an article, I’m using my rational nature. However, if a phone call interrupts that message, I switch into my reactive nature. Since that switch isn’t immediate, we end up losing time in the transition between the two states. This makes a lot of sense – I can get into two different kinds of “flow” based on which state I’m in. I can sometimes get in the zone when writing a long, focused article (my rational nature) or when I’m handling little tasks and dealing with a sequence of small interruptions (my reactive nature).

2 – The Principles
But how is knowing that distinction useful? Forster identifies eight key principles for maximizing the benefits of our two natures and suggests an exercise or two for each one. The one that really clicked with me was focusing on one thing at a time, and it provided a very good exercise that contrasted well with other time management guides. Forster suggests making a list of all of the things you’d like to get done sometime, both personally and professionally. Then, take one item from that list and focus on it – and completely ignore the rest. Don’t take any action on the others until that one you’ve chosen is done. In other words, instead of moving reactively from project to project, focus on just one and get it done. Then, move on to the next one. I tend to get bogged down on doing too many things at once – and when I do that, I usually don’t get anything done and feel rather frustrated. The solution? Just do one of them and finish it.

3 – Creative, Ordered and Effective
Forster makes the point that creativity is stifled by a lack of organization, and organization is useless with a lack of creativity. For example, if you have a disorganized office, you’re in the middle of a creative task and are focused, and you can’t find a particular resource you need, you are forced to break that focus. You have to shift from your rational mind (doing the task) to your reactive mind (looking for the missing resource). Since you’re most productive when you have long swaths where you do one or the other, you’re better off devoting some time each day or each week to keeping your office organized. This is the big reason why organized people often seem more productive – with organization, they can remain focused on their tasks and don’t lose valuable time to the switch between being reactive and being rational.

4 – The Problem with Time Management
According to Do It Tomorrow, there are really only three problems that cause people to feel pinched for time (and thus feel the need for time management): we are working inefficiently, we have too much to do, and we have too little time to do it in. Forster argues that a to-do list and prioritizing don’t actually solve any of these problems, they merely postpone them or make the symptoms a little less painful. For example, take your current to-do list and ask yourself how long each item has been on that list, and also ask how long that item would take if you did nothing but work on it. If it’s longer than a day and you have stuff on there you haven’t addressed for a week or more, you’re jamming too much onto that list and it’s not a functional tool.

5 – Real Work v. Busy Work
Here, Forster distinguishes between busy work and real work. Real work is what advances your business or job – busy work is everything else, often stuff that could be delegated to someone else because it doesn’t require the particular expertise that you have. From my perspective, the real work is my writing and research and the busy work is all of the other peripheral stuff I do, such as approving comments, listening to pitches from people, and so on. Forster recommends that I delegate this in whatever way I can. This is basically the same logic behind much of The 4-Hour Workweek.

6 – Emergency, What Emergency?
Forster’s argument here is that most of the stuff we allow ourselves to be interrupted with – forcing our mind to switch from rational to reactive – is actually not that important and should be put off or ignored until the task at hand is complete. His only exception to this is if you work at a job that focuses on reactiveness – if you’re a cashier, for example, or a waitress. Otherwise, if you’re regularly getting interrupted, you need to cut those interruptions off through delegation and clear limits, because each time you’re interrupted, you lose more time than just the time of interruption – you also lose the time it takes to switch back and forth between a rational and a reactive mindset. Also, you can just simply schedule significant tasks to be done tomorrow when they come up instead of trying to jam them into today.

7 – Closed Lists
The idea of a “closed list” is much like the “rocks and sand” idea proposed by Stephen Covey in his worthwhile First Things First: you should define a short list of things that you can easily get done in a day and focus on actually accomplishing those tasks. Then, if there are interruptions and emergency response tasks, let those fill in the extra gaps in your day. In essence, Forster argues that a shorter to-do list makes you more productive – it shouldn’t ever be longer than what you can easily accomplish in a day, which then gives some time to the small interruptions and other tasks that are a part of most worker’s lives.

8 – The Manana Principle
The two previous chapters point to a workflow. Each day, you get through the small number of doable tasks on your to-do list – which should be only long enough to include stuff you can easily get done today – and between (and after) those tasks, you deal with the reactive stuff: organization, answering messages, dealing with phone calls, etc. These reactive tasks should help you fill in the things that need to be done tomorrow, and so you create that list for tomorrow as you go, adding items (and sometimes removing them). You can also keep a “future” list if you’d like, consisting of larger tasks that need some focus, but don’t need to be done today, but that’s not a real to-do list, just stuff that you hope to delegate to others or will only tackle if you happen to have a day with less on your plate. Doing this guarantees you get tasks done well, keep things organized, and still always have an idea of what to do next.

9 – Task Diary
Forster recommends keeping both the list of things to do tomorrow as well as an ongoing list of the little tasks you need to get done in your gaps today in a task diary, along with lists of other tasks and procedures that you regularly follow (as well as a “future” list, if you need it). I find that this actually works pretty well for me – I have started using TaDaList to handle my “task diary” for me. By default, I have a spot open to add to my “GTD inbox” (meaning any idea that I might have as I’m working on a task), then when the task is complete, I process that GTD inbox, moving things to my to-do list for tomorrow. If anyone’s interested, I’d be glad to write a detailed post on how exactly I manage all of this stuff.

10 – Current Initiative
Here, Forster introduces the idea of the “current initiative,” which basically means it’s the major project you’re wanting to focus on right now. In order to make it happen, he suggests devoting some time to it every day at the start of the day – an hour or two. So, at the end of the day, you might want to have the first thing on your to-do list for tomorrow be another task in moving that project forward, followed by the other work tasks in your day. This way, whatever that current initiative is, you’re always moving forward on it. After reading this chapter, I picked out one of the projects I want to be working on and made it my “current initiative,” slotting an hour and a half at the start of each day for focusing on just that project. It’s moving forward now, full speed ahead, and it feels pretty good.

11 – Will Do v. To Do
One key part to remember is that your list of things to do tomorrow is more like your “will do” list – they’re the things you will do tomorrow – tasks, daily procedures, and so on. Of course, we often have many more tasks on our plate that we’d like to be working on and it’s worthwhile to record those as well – they’re on our “to do” list. Whenever you need more fodder for that “will do” list, you turn to that “to do” list and choose things that fit in there.

12 – Completing the Day’s Work
What do you do, though, if you simply have too much that has to be done as a matter of course? Your list of things that have to be done simply fills up your day beyond capacity, and nothing helps? Forster suggests simply adopting the idea of the “will do” list for a while – and throw all of the other stuff on the “to do” list, drawing from that only when your “will do” list is empty. Then, focus on getting the things on that “will do” list done to completion before even thinking about another task. If this still doesn’t work, you may need to talk to your supervisor about cutting back on commitments, because you may simply be overcommitted.

13 – Keeping Going
Once you get into this routine, how do you keep it going? Forster has a bunch of ideas here, most of which are pretty common fodder for time management. Keep yourself healthy. Take regular breaks. What’s really amazing for me is that when I start feeling behind (like after a long weekend with the family) and I eschew some of these elements in order to “catch up” or “get ahead,” I might get a very short term productivity boost, but it’s not long before I realize I’ve spent a day not being all that productive. I’m better off taking a jog, taking a shower, and taking breaks regularly to read something personally enjoyable.

14 – More on Dealing with Projects
If you have a large task that’s too big to be completed in a single day, try to break it down into smaller tasks that can be swallowed. If that doesn’t work, you should just keep re-entering it on your task list for the next day (your “will do” list) until it gets done – and don’t add any new things from your “to do” list until it’s taken care of.

15 – Sorting Out Systems
For many, setting up an organizational system seems like a waste of good, productive time. Why do it when you could be getting “real” work done? The truth is that all of the time you spend organizing yourself – both your time and your stuff – makes the time you spend on your “real” work much more efficient. You can find stuff, handle regular requests easier, focus on the stuff that needs to be done, and not switch back and forth between reactive and rational thinking as often. While you may have invested significant time up front in getting organized, that time will be earned back and more over the long run because you’ll be more productive with your “real” work. It really is an investment.

Some Thoughts on Do It Tomorrow
Here are some things I think I think about Do It Tomorrow.

The concepts in this book complement what I was already doing very well. I was already using a simplified form of the Getting Things Done philosophy to manage my time, but there were several tidbits here I started using, most importantly the idea of the “will do” list and the “current initiative” idea. Any book that has stuff that you can immediately start applying is worthwhile.

The biggest issue I always have with time management schemes is how to deal with jobs where you are constantly interrupted. I have a friend who does a lot of tech support for his company, but also does some programming. He has a very difficult time getting his programming tasks done because of the constant interruptions. I think his best solution is to have him simply talk to his boss and get some uninterrupted time each day to program.

No time management book in the world helps if you don’t use the ideas inside to change your habits. Just like personal finance books, they’re useless unless you actually try the stuff and put some of it into action in your life. If you’re stressed out about your time and are reading a book on the topic, don’t just let it end there – try some stuff.

Is Do It Tomorrow Worth Reading?
Aside from Getting Things Done, Do It Tomorrow is the best time management book I’ve ever read. It is filled with tons of useful actionable stuff, but more importantly than that, it is more than just a recitation of all of the tired old time management materials. The stuff like just making a to-do list and prioritizing it with color coding simply doesn’t work all that well, and Do It Tomorrow knows it and gets it.

As I said in the review, I’ve already folded several of the principles into how I manage my time and tasks each day, and it’s really helped me to get started on at least one major project that I’ve wanted to get started on, but always felt like it was just too big to chew on today. Making it a “current initiative” and giving it some time right off the bat each day has moved things ahead, and I look forward to showing the results to my readers in the future.

Forster’s perspective is very positive and he presents tons of little, simple actionable pieces that almost anyone can adopt that aren’t just tired rehashes of other ideas. While it may not be as powerful (for me) as Getting Things Done, it does include tons and tons of stellar ideas – and that, to me, makes for a book well worth your time to read.

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  1. A. Dawn says:

    Sounds like a book worth reading. I tried following GTD. I remember I only followed it for two weeks, and then I gave up. This is the problem with motivational books or programs. We only follow it once we finish reading. And then after a while, we become what we were before.

  2. A. Dawn says:

    Trent,I just came across an old article of yours. Here is the link – http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2007/09/28/the-one-hour-project-keep-an-idea-notebook-in-your-pocket/ I have been doing this for two months (even without reading your post) and it works out very well. I hope other readers will find it very helpful keeping a small note book handy at all times.
    Thanks,
    A Dawn
    http://www.adawnjournal.com

  3. SteveJ says:

    Trent,

    I’d like more details on your system.

    I picked up a technique somewhere of making three columns: must, should, could, and then putting three items in each. At times it works really well, and other times my tasks just aren’t the right size to make it go, I’m either stuck on must #1, or finished all nine tasks in two hours. I also find that it only works for me on a daily basis, it’s busywork at best for planning beyond the next day. I’ve also tried to keep a backlog of ideas, todos etc, (the future list?), but I find it’s just exhausting to maintain, I’m adding 12 items for every 1 I knock out.

  4. JJ says:

    The details regarding your system could be really helpful. I’ve tried several ways of organizing tasks and none have really worked all that well, so I’d be keen to see something that actually works well for someone.

  5. “Real Work v. Busy Work – Real work is what advances your business or job – busy work is everything else, often stuff that could be delegated to someone else because it doesn’t require the particular expertise that you have.”

    So it sounds like Forster wouldn’t count anything done by a stay at home parent or a homemaker as “real work.” Laundry, cooking, cleaning, yard work, bathing kids, and changing diapers – those aren’t *real* work, just “busy work.” I’m sure he didn’t intend to be so slighting to the very serious labor contribution of homemakers and child rearers. But as none of the above tasks advances anyone’s career, that’s apparently how he sees it.

  6. Trent says:

    “So it sounds like Forster wouldn’t count anything done by a stay at home parent or a homemaker as “real work.” Laundry, cooking, cleaning, yard work, bathing kids, and changing diapers – those aren’t *real* work, just “busy work.””

    I think you’re being massively defensive, Kate.

    From my perspective, a stay-at-home parent is a person who has made the choice to effectively make a career out of parenting so they can do it with a high level of excellence. Thus, laundry, cooking, cleaning, bathing kids, or changing diapers are clear examples of “advancing your job” – it keeps your children healthy and happy, which is the real goal you are chasing, right?

  7. lanshin says:

    Kate,

    Everyone has “busy work”, both working parents and stay-at-home parents. As a mom who works both outside the home and does all the homemaker tasks, I know that “Laundry, cooking, cleaning, yard work, bathing kids, and changing diapers” _are_ busy work.

    My real work while wearing my homemaker hat includes creating “meals calendar” to make grocery lists and cooking chores more predictable and less time-consuming. My meals calendar advances my ability to be a better parent by letting me spend less time managing the cooking aspect of being a parent.

    Likewise, making sure I spend some time every day finding ideas to teach thru play (crafts that use math, games that require letter recognition etc) are my real work as a parent. By comparison, laundry and cleaning is just busy work (except when I’m teaching my kids to do the chores with me!).

    To my mind, the “real work” is the stuff that needs extra thought, focus or planning but really makes a difference and makes me a better parent.

  8. Sarah says:

    I just found your blog a few weeks ago and I have been enjoying reading through your archives. What I’ve read has really helped me pull together all of the ideas that have been mulling around in my head and make a more cohesive savings plan. So thanks!

    I’m a SAHM and as I was reading this post, I realized that I should be applying these principles to my chores and goals for the kids and the house. Seeing as how there are daily, weekly, monthly and even seasonal chores that have to be done, I tend to view everything as an interruption to my regular day but I think if I changed my thinking to view most of it as “the work” and organized it accordingly, maybe I would get more done. Hmmm, food for thought!

  9. andrew says:

    One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that when I have TOO much time to do a task.

    For example, I had all day to do this paper that’s due Tuesday – and I’m starting tonight. I could have a majority, if not all, of it today, but I didn’t feel like it.

    Too much time can certainly be a bad thing.

  10. geen says:

    Mark Forster! I read another book by him titled “Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play”, which I thought was the best book I’ve read on time management. He really threw out lots of sacred cows in that book, which i found really refreshing.

    I think the best tip I got out that book was to be realistic about how much we can do and not over commit ourselves. Really simple, but made a big difference to me.

  11. I’ve had a hard time finding this book, but I have looked at Forster’s blog from time to time and it’s quite enjoyable.

    I love the idea of the Current Initiative.

    Always enjoy the book reviews here -thank you!

  12. Maybe I am being defensive, but not of parenting, because I’m not a parent. I think it’s more a case of questioning the underlying assumption of the universal desirability of “careerism,” and the tendency to distinguish between “real work” and all the other stuff that just has to happen to keep things running. I completely understand the treadmill feeling that housework and parenting chores create. But I suppose I’m moving in the direction of seeing and honoring these things as “real work” even though the work may be repetitive, unpaid, unglamorous, and all too frequently unrecognized. Keeping things running IS real work. Just think of the garbage men, the farmers, the repair and maintenance crews, the janitors, and everyone else whose work is routine, invisible, and not highly respected.

    I acknowledge the point that their innovations and time saving ideas are great and rewarding for them. But to even imply that the vast majority of their work isn’t “real” is rather insulting. By saying that such work should be delegated to people with less expertise than his reader, so that his reader can focus on the “real work,” Forster, apparently, further contributes to the idea that all routine work is less important and less valuable. So everyone should try to fob off as much busy work as possible on someone with less expertise than themselves? I’m saying that honest labor IS valuable, whether society wants to confer that recognition or not. Efficiency and productivity are great, but let’s not idealize efficiency so much that we see the basic chores of our lives as demeaning.

  13. SteveJ says:

    @Kate,

    I agree with your point of view. I haven’t read the book, but based on the review, I think a good chunk of the focus is distinguishing real work as those things that will further your goals. So for instance, as an office worker I can put off a formal status report for months if I have the right set of excuses (more important tasks, sick, on travel, vacation, etc). I also know as a programmer that if there are tasks I put off long enough, they’ll eventually be obsolete, or the project will end. Whereas as a father, if my kids aren’t clean and fed I’m definitely not meeting my goals. Also I can put off laundry for a couple days, but it definitely becomes REAL WORK quickly. But as my kids grow up, I can certainly delegate picking up, bathing, etc.

    I still see labor as real work, growing up we understood implicitly that you worked as hard as you could for as long as you could, because it wasn’t like putting stuff off today would make your life any easier tomorrow. If you bust your butt you might earn yourself some breathing room for a lazy afternoon, but if you just go at it halfheartedly you’d be stuck doing chores forever. I’d see that the same being a garbage man or a custodian(I have uncles that are both), you can’t delegate or delay doing the jobs that need done. Lightbulbs need changed, trash has to be hauled off.

    Could you delegate those sorts of “real work”? I think in most cases you COULD, but it wouldn’t be cost effective to do so. Or there’s the risk it wouldn’t be done well. I think that’s where a homemaker really shines, my good friend is a mother of 3 small children and she’s amazingly efficient. Sure I could do her “work”, but it wouldn’t be up to her standards, and I’d spend a great deal more time and money than she ever would just trying to get to 50% of her level. She’s a master in that domain and I’m not even a padawan.

    So I could see it both ways. In some cases delegating work is a form of management and personal efficiency, and an acknowledgement of self-importance (and possibly the uppity form of better than thou). In other cases, I’m really delegating work to an expert. I could install my windows, but I believe that the time I expend would be better spent doing something I’m good at or want to do and letting an expert handle the job. And I’m minimizing risk and cost, because I know I’ll drop them from the second story ;)

  14. bakednudel says:

    Apparently the author of that book doesn’t work in an office–or has a high enough position that he can delegate many of his tasks! I was hoping for some help because the description of rational and reactive nature exactly describes me at work.

    The problem is that my entire job consists of interruptions and putting out fires. I went in on Sunday to work (which I frequently have to do) and had hopes of completing one (maybe two!) big tasks in five hours.

    Instead there was an email that brought up a problem about a task I (thought) I had finished on Friday. So I spent the whole five hours working on that–which isn’t finished because I’m waiting for some copies to be delivered that I’ll then have to package and send out via Fedex.

    Meanwhile the tasks I’d hope to do on Sunday remain undone.

    Did I mention that all my work involves deadlines?

  15. Marion says:

    @Kate@Living the Frugal Life:

    Get a life and stop making a mountain out of a molehill.

  16. smurfett says:

    For your tech friend, point him to Time Management for System Administrators. It has tips that are very specific to people whose job is to help others and are constantly interrupted. It’s a good book for others as well. But I find that it really helps us SAs because getting interrupted is part of our job.

  17. SteveJ says:

    @bakednudel – If you’re on call 24/7, I’m sorry. I hope you’re not. I often sit down to do “Real Work” on the weekends and my #1 rule is no email. If what I’m planning on doing involves an email, I’ll try to print it out, or I’ve resorted to going into offline mode in Outlook if one of my goals is to clean out the ole inbox. I don’t know if you travel, but on the half dozen times I get really behind, I’ll treat a day like a cross country trip, and I only check voicemail for 8 hours, just like if I’m on a plane anyway. I want to get something done in the airport and on the plane, so I plan ahead to work offline as much as possible. I’ve also called in sick to work at home, luckily my company is flexible enough to allow for that.

    I love email communication and my favorite part is how I can turn it off :)

  18. Suzanne says:

    Please do write more about how you manage your tasks. I’m beginning to do this for myself right now. I hate paper lists, but do get so much more accomplished by writing them in the first place and then by the helpful reminder of seeing them on the list. I’m now venturing into the electronic methods and enjoy learning more about what others do, to find new ideas that will work for me.

  19. Lucy says:

    Very motivating review and insights! I’d love to hear more about how you manage your tasks too.

  20. moises says:

    I too have been doing Getting Things Done for many (more than five) years. I too recently added Mark Forster’s ideas to GTD and found that my productivity jumped significantly.

    I almost didn’t buy Forster’s book, since so much of what passes for time management help is trite repackaging of old ideas. Getting Things Done truly changed my life. Adding Do It Tomorrow was like supercharging GTD.

  21. Chris says:

    I don’t use tadalist for my task diary since it is so so simple. I use http://www.anyinput.com for mine. But anyinput application has too much setup and may be too complex for many. I guess power users might like anyinput

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