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.
I’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.
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.