Staying Sane: Do Less More

by abclarke

(5c of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the second step in doing that.

Why Do I Write This Blog?

It’s Friday at 6:30pm now, and as I write this I’m asking myself why. It takes time for me to this, time that would be spent on Vlideshow, time that could be spent at the gym, or time that could be spent having fun. It’d be so much easier to just punt this, and “do it next week”.

Heck, would it really matter if I didn’t write this at all? I mean it’s important to me in the long term as part of my philosophy of running naked(1), but it’s not really urgent. I think I’ll skip it this week.

The Trap

The reality is I have more things to do each day than I can possibly do in the time allotted, and several of those are urgent things. Today for example I had a meeting I agreed to take with another entrepreneur, I had a meeting scheduled with a recruit, I had some Flash coding (yes… I’m writing code these days) for my upcoming Vlideshow user test, a call with a business mentor, a meeting for a board I’m on, and a bunch of other things. And I had to write this blog entry. I was totally overcommitted today, and I knew it as soon as I got up.

I’ve mentioned it’s a trap; and it applies to the Entrepreneur as much as it does the manager. As you progress as a manager and get more successful, you’ll be asked to do more and harder things, but because they are harder things you’ll actually be able to effectively do less and less. The traditional answer is to delegate (less of an option for me these days), and while that’s necessary, it’s not sufficient. You’ll find that even after you’ve delegated all the things you can away, you still have more to do than is possible. You need to do more than just that.

The Answer

The answer is simple: don’t try to do everything. Do less. And the trick to that consists of two parts:

  1. Learn the difference between important and urgent tasks and concentrate on the important.
  2. Recognize you’re not going to get everything done, and choose the right things to not do.

Let’s talk about the first one of those parts.

Urgently Important

Urgent tasks demand attention. Urgent tasks are the person from finance yelling for your quarterly sales projections; Urgent tasks are your boss demanding you to fix a programming bug that is crashing your company’s website; Urgent tasks are the instant-message window that just popped up from a friend asking where you want to go for dinner tonight. Urgent tasks are the e-mail from a development manager asking you to read a 12-page product presentation they have and give them feedback in 2-hours before their meeting with the CEO. They are the things that if you don’t respond in the moment, someone gets upset.

Important tasks are the things that if you don’t do will eventually result in you failing in your goal.

But, it’s worth noting that not all tasks are urgent, and not all tasks are important. Some tasks are urgent but not important (e.g. responding about dinner). Others are important but not urgent (e.g. for me, writing this blog entry). Broadly you can categorize any tasks you have based on how important and how urgent they are and figure out which of the following categorizes it belongs in:

The trick do “Doing Less More” is simple. Each day:

  • Do all the tasks in box 1 that must be done;
  • Do at least one task in box 2;
  • Try to avoid tasks in box 3, but recognize you’ll have to do some of them;
  • Don’t do any tasks in box 4 until they “graduate” to box 3.

Doing Less More

As usual with me, this isn’t something that I invented. Lots of folks have recognized the difference between “important” and “urgent” (sometimes called “tactical” and “strategic”). For example, see Getting Things Done. But here’s how I do it.

  • I maintain a list of “strategic” things I need to do (with corresponding due days), and a list of “tactical bullshit” I need to do (with corresponding due days).
  • Every night, I create my to-do list for the next day. I used to do it on paper (in a black book I would carry) but these days I just do it in Microsoft Word. I always leave the top entry on my to-do list empty to start.
  • I fill in the remaining entries with first any urgent and strategic things that must be done (box 1 above).
  • I then start listing any items from box 3 that must be done tomorrow.
  • And then, I look at box 2. I take one item from box 2, and I fill in the blank top entry on my to-do list. That becomes my top priority for the next day.
  • In the unlikely event that my to-do list has less than 5-7 entries, then I add other things from box 2 to the bottom of the list.
  • If my entry has more than 7 entries, I look at every entry below 7 and find some way to punt it (e.g. delegate, or just don’t do it). Seriously – I kill those puppies. I don’t do it. It sometimes means I piss people off, but that’s the nature of killing puppies.
  • Then, the next day at work, I start working off my list and I DON’T STOP WORK UNTIL THE TOP TASK ON THE LIST IS DONE.

There are two odd things about how I do this (different that things like GTD recommend):

  1. I prioritize one non-urgent but important task (box-2) above all the other urgent-and-important tasks (box-1). Why? In the short term (when I started doing this) it meant I had to work hard to get through all my box-1 tasks and get the box-2 tasks done, but after a while the investment I made in “farming” box 2 started paying off, and my box-1 tasks decreased (because I wasn’t procrastinating as much).
  2. I choose 5-7 tasks because as a manager I found most tasks took me about 10 to 30 minutes, so doing 5-7 filled up about 50% of my day, leaving time for other interrupts. If a task takes longer than 30 minutes, then I schedule fewer things for that day. You need to recognize as a manager that at best 50% of your time will be under your control.

It sounds like a lot, but with practice you can get very fast at it. At this stage, it takes me 60 seconds to do this exercise every night. Most folks I know who have similar systems also spend no more than 1-2 minutes each day maintaining it. And during the day, as things get out of plan, I just start jettisoning things lower on the list. For example today, I punted on my flash code so I can write this blog (which since it’s not on my software critical path right now, is the right decision to make).

What Happens When You Do Less

A strange thing happens when you do less. I’ve found that once I started doing this, I pissed off some people in the short-term, but usually (sorry) they were people who cared about non-important tasks, and there was little long term damage to me. But I also found I developed a reputation for getting “important things” done, and people started giving me more important things to do.

Why is that? Well, come review time it becomes obvious: people care that you got the important things done, not that you reacted quickly to some urgent tasks 4 months ago.

What Happens When You Don’t Do Something

Still, just deciding to “not do something” may seem hard. And it is. But fortunately, there are ways to make that easier too, and that’s what killing puppies is all about. Which I’ll continue next week.

– Art

(1) In the short term it absolutely wouldn’t matter. I know that. But in the long term, if punting became the pattern, I’d lose sight of my goal of Running Naked. I pledged to write long pieces about once every week exploring different topics that are important to me, and if I can keep a track record of doing it, I believe the discipline will help me think through a lot of my approaches to life, and ultimately help make me a better person.