Time management basics: becoming productive amid chaos

Susan R. Johnson, M.D., M.S.
Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology, and Epidemiology, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, College of Medicine, University of Iowa

Summary of the essential message

  • Collect all "incoming" tasks systematically
  • Keep a master list of every commitment
  • Identify next actions
  • Do 2 minute tasks immediately
  • Plan once a week

Try to replicate the amazing efficiency with which you work the day before vacation

Why bother to manage your time?

  • To pack more activities into your day
  • To cut your current activities in half
  • To keep your activity level the same, but reduce stress, meet deadlines, etc
  • To change from "I can't do this now" to "how can I do this now?"

First step required: de-clutter!

Clutter is anything that is not where it should be. Clutter can be paper, possessions, activities and thoughts.

How to de-clutter: For each item, ask:

  • Do I have to act? No. Toss it out, delegate it or file it
  • If I do have to act, what is the next action?
  • Do it – if it takes less than 2-5 min
  • Or put the item on a list and define the next action
  • Lists are very important:
  • Master list has every multi-task project to which you have made a commitment.
  • This is different that a "someday, maybe" list which includes any project, idea or other possible activities to which you have not yet made a firm commitment. For all the items you must deal with either.

You must do it now or you must put it on a list and define the next action.

Items on the next action list are single tasks that you need to do and can be done now. This list consists of tasks that emanate from 1) the Master List; that is, individual tasks that make up the overall multi-task project that is on the list; and 2) individual "stand alone" tasks that come up during the course of the day (e.g. telephone calls to be returned, errands to run, etc).

You also need to develop a system to store accompanying material (e.g. files and folders, "real" and/or virtual) so that they are available when the item is dealt with. Also you need to have a list of things you are waiting for.

How to do weekly planning

  1. Review and select tasks to be done this week from:
    • The master list
    • Areas of responsibility
    • Calendar (next 3 weeks)
    • Pending items
  2. Add these tasks to your next actions list
  3. Start each day armed with:

    • Updated list of everything you have to do
    • Each with a clearly defined "next action"
    • A set of priorities for the week/day
    • Each day identify the "must dos" and do them first
    • Beyond that – do what feels right
    • Daily goal – a balance between "today's work" and long term project

    Step one and forever: collect all clutter in an "inbox system". All unprocessed items from others and from yourself. Only items you have not looked at.

    Step two: for each item in the "inbox system" put each in or out of your life

    Step three: for each item that is "in," either do it now or put it on a list and define the next action.

    Step four: for every item you cannot complete, put on a list, define the next action, and store any accompanying material

    When you are starting out and have to de-clutter

    It is helpful to:

    1. Put everything in one stack
    2. Start at the top of the box/list
    3. Work thru each piece – no skipping

    After that you need to switch to maintenance. Try to deal with each new item on the spot or in small batches

    Interruptions: a re-frame

    • Things you don't really need to do – figure out how to avoid them
    • Things you do really need to do – just do them, like any other task
    • Identify the (few) tasks that really need our undivided attention – find a strategy for these: early AM, closed door, leave office, turn off phone, etc

    Why we don't act:

    • We overestimate how long little tasks will take
    • We over-prioritize
    • We don't have the correct tools
    • Our emotional reactions slow us down
    • And for big projects we are overwhelmed...
    • "Inefficiency begins when you avoid a few trivial, unpleasant tasks. Soon the backlog grows into a hideous monster, devouring your mental energy, obscuring your vision, and strangling your will to shape your future. "(Duncan Maxwell Anderson). NEVER SKIP.

    Jump in: "Mark Twain said, "If you are going to eat a live frog, don't spend too much time looking at it first."


    "The Personal Efficiency Program", by Kerry Gleeson; John Wiley & Sons, 1994.

    "Getting Things Done. The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" by David Allen, Viking, 2001

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