GUTTM: How to Think About Time Management

I’ve been reading about time management, personal organization, and even taken a course about product management (which turns out to be a similar subject). I do this periodically in a what amounts to a personal grail quest for the perfect time management system.

Clock with no hands

Most recently I have generally used a personalized version of GTD (David Allen’s Getting Things Done) for a few years now. I owe a lot to Allen’s book and my thinking is heavily influenced by his system. But there are good reasons to deconstruct time managment and have a theory of how it operates. Our needs evolve and so do our tasks. So I’ve found it worth revamping my system sometimes. To avoid getting lost while doing this revamping I came up with this G.U.T.T.M. (Grand Unified Theory of Time Management) to determine the basic elements and help me to think about re-designing my system.

d gThere are four key parts to any time tracking/personal management etsystem:

  1. Collecting: The input. Tracking all the possible things to do that you realize you need to do or that get sent to you to do.
  2. Reviewing: Figuring out what needs doing and what can be deferred, delegated or just dropped.
  3. Ranking: Determining the ordering and priority of our to do items.
  4. Doing: Focusing on the particular task at hand once we’ve figured out what to do.

It’s possible that you might want to add a fifth item: Tracking necessary general information. But today we all have searchable email and note tracking apps (iPhone Notes, Evernote, Google Docs and many more) to handle this. And those tools are all available on our phones. So I tend to think of this as the separate task of information tracking (which is greatly alleviated as a problem by good search features) vs the core problem of organizing what needs doing and in what order.

I’ll cover these four parts later. Some other elements: what are the to do items?

  • Tasks, the things we need to do
  • Projects, collections of related tasks for a common goal
  • Goals, what we’re trying to accomplish with our tasks and projects
  • Lists, how we collect and manage our tasks, projects, and goals

But it’s not just about getting things done, it’s about getting the right things done. As Tim Ferriss and others have said, it’s not just about efficiency, it’s about effectiveness. We need to also think about how we’re managing out time, not just what we’re managing. We do this by considering our:

  • Principles, our ethical foundation
  • Values, what’s important to us and what’s interesting or useful to us
  • Capabilities, what are our abilities and what abilities do we need to develop?
  • Environment, what going on around us and with others working with us?

What are we managing?

You can be cooking breakfast and realize you need to get more eggs. This is a simple task, but event simple tasks have background information and context here. Perhaps you like the kind of eggs from a particular store or a particular size of eggs, this is the supporting information for the task. Also you don’t want to get them on the way to work and store them in the office fridge so you’ll get them on the way home. That’s the context for this task.

What about priority? The eggs are not really important now, but tomorrow morning it will be if you don’t buy them today. Priority can be time-based, “I need this by tomorrow morning”. It can be urgency-based, “this is critical now because the system is down”. It can also be importance-based, “We need to figure out our product strategy before we green-light any new work.”

At work you might add another task to your to do list when your manager comes by and says, “Good work on the server analytics last week. It’s clear that the database is a bottleneck, can you look at that and see what we need to do?”

This “task” starts generating all sorts of new tasks. What’s the database bottleneck? Is it hardware, software, db design? How will we figure this out? What do we do when we figure it out? Bigger servers or redesign our db or our software?

This task is really a project with a goal: “resolve the database bottleneck”. Sounds like part of this project if figuring out the tasks involved. It will continue to make more tasks until you’ve reached that goal. Projects are tasks related by the same goal. Goals can be open-ended like this one, or specific as in “resolve the db bottleneck before the new marketing blitz starts in two weeks”. The time element of a goal is the key difference between the two types of goals.

Goals need to be measureable in some useful way. What does “resolve” mean in the above example? There needs to be some system measurement in this case. It needs to be a way of telling yourself that you’ve accomplished that goal, whatever it is. We need a definition of “done” for each goal.

Sometimes the goal is simple and obvious and can simply be omitted or implied. Some are these are one-offs like the “get eggs” item. Or, perhaps you’re slipping on your exercise. You might value exercise and so set a task to exercise three times per week. Tasks can be recurring as well as just single items. (Many off-the-shelf systems don’t incorporate recurring tasks well.)

So we have (restating in more detail):

  • Tasks which can be single or recurring. Each task can have context information about when and where we want to do them, supporting information about what we’re doing in this task, and priority information.
  • Projects which are collections of tasks all to further a particular goal. A goal needs a measurable result and can be open-ended or specific. Specific goals have a deadline. Projects can also have a context, supporting info, and priority, but the tasks in a project can have their separate context, supporting info, and priority. This lets you think about what’s tasks are necessary in overview for a project.
  • Goals are what we’re trying to do. If we do a task or a project we’re trying to accomplish something. This might be trivial (have eggs for breakfast tomorrow) or it might be something more significant. Goals can be open-ended or have a date, a time, or a deadline associated with them. But goals need to be measurable in some way that’s useful to you. Otherwise you don’t know if you’re done. If you have a goal that doesn’t have a measurable aspect, it’s a dream. Dreams can become goals.
  • Lists of projects, tasks and goals to start with. The lists might be organized by context, by priority, or by deadline. One downfall of some organizer apps is the inability to easily change the way your lists of tasks and projects are organized.

How are we managing our to do items?

The last section talked about what we’re managing. But being good at time managment means we’re not just getting things done, we’re getting the things done we want to accomplish. How do we know what goals we want to reach?

We have our principles and our values that guide us. Our principles are those that we’ve inherited or learned from our society or our families and others we’ve determined for ourselves.

“Thou shalt not kill” is a common and good principle, but what about self-defense? Most people will make an exception if they have to for that. Many will also make an exception for killing chicken, pork, beef, and fish. But a vegetarian would have principles that extent to not killing them too.

Principles are the specifics of our ethics and are our hard and fast rules. As in the above examples, they can get involved.

Our values are the things that are important to us, but are not ethically based. Again, they can be inherited or learned or something specific to us. Values can be our preferred way of doing things, our own interests, our biases as to what’s good and not good or important vs non-important.

We also have our capabilities. Some of these may unfortunately decline over time like physical capabilities. Some are more skill-based or mental and may be expanded over time as we learn more.

Our choices in how we manage our tasks and projects are based on our principles, values, and capabilities.

Some of our principles and values are explicit, they’re something we can describe easily. But a surprising number are implicit and are things that we’ve learned early or that are just pervasive and that we’ve simply accepted and often accepted without fully realizing it. It’s useful to occasionally consider just what those implicit items are and how they’re helping or hurting us.

Our capabilities also need a periodic review. If we’re basing decisions on not being able to do something well and we’ve gotten good at it, then it’s time to change.

Last, we don’t exist in a vacuum. We work with other people who might be doing related projects that affect us, we have relationships with others and want to coordinate with them. We often have to factor in the things external to us that are in our environment. This can affect how we rank to do items, and sometimes can remove to do items if someone else did something that separately resolves some goal.

All of these point to the need to periodically (quarterly, yearly, perhaps monthly if things are changing quickly) reevaluate oneself and one’s goals

A special word on tasks

In the next section I’ll talk about the four parts of a time management system to deal with tasks, projects, etc. But tasks are key items in any time management system. So figuring out how to make a task well is a critical skill.

Tasks should have an clear, self-contained and elemental quality to them. Remember tasks are used to describe something you want to do. You want to change something in the world, what is that something? If you can’t adequately understand that from your task description, you’ve not captured it.

In our shopping example above, “get eggs” was clear. We might have other tasks that are related like “get chocolate”. But I wouldn’t write a “grocery shopping” task. It doesn’t tell me what’s involved. In this case I’d want a set of smaller tasks. Although it’s one shopping trip, all the tasks come up more or less randomly and are otherwise unrelated.

My wife and I keep a shared “errands” list of tasks for shopping. That way we add to it whenever items come up and capture our tasks easily. Either one of us going to the store can have a quick and ready-made shopping list. (Essentially it’s like a floating perpetual project.)

Bigger tasks like “resolve the database bottleneck” are really projects that get broken up into actual tasks. In this case, “analyze database system metrics” might be the first task with the implicit goal of finding the hot spots in the database performance.

In some ways, writing a task or a project is similar. Both have some goal, although usually a project’s goal is more explicit, both need to be self-contained and not overlap with other tasks or projects. (It’s hard to manage two things do so the same result.) And both should be clear (ie clear to you).

Tasks can often be written as simple <verb><noun phrase> like “get eggs” or “analyze db metrics”. Projects are similar, but less concrete and more broad. Goals have what you’re doing, how you know you’re done, and by whey (if not open-ended).

Tasks are also focused to do items. I’ve experimented with trying to make sure tasks are sized to a few hours at most. (In practice this ends up requiring too much estimation to be useful. But it’s a good exercise in learing how to write tasks.) Projects can be open-ended. And goals are often longer-term, although they’re not required to be long term.

The four key parts of a time management system

Collecting tasks is an ongoing thing whenever to do items come up. But the Review and Ranking parts aren’t done continuously. Remember that you’re trying to become both more efficient and effective and spending time managing yourself is overhead and not actually getting done what you want to do. You should do review and ranking only periodically. Perhaps in between tasks or at set pause points during the day (after lunch and at the end of the day perhaps?).

Collecting

A key part of the whole point of a system like this is to make sure important things don’t get lost or dropped. So making sure you can collect the items that need doing is important. With an iPhone you can use Siri “Hey Siri, remind me to get eggs” and Siri will put all incoming tasks like this into a default reminder list that you can review and rank later.

The key thing to do in this part of your system is to make a way that ALL tasks (and possible projects) get captured into one place you can review and rank them later. The one place is important, one of the best ways to lose track of things is to have several places to put them.

Second, capture enough that you know what you mean when you review this later. I’ve been frustrated at trying to figure out what I mean by some scrawled three-word note. Why couldn’t I have taken five more seconds to write something actually useful? Now I can’t figure out what this is or if it’s important or not. I end up dropping it due to lack of information.

Siri doesn’t work well if you’re in an office though. You’ll just contribute to the general noise. I use a notepad on my desk for quick items and this is also more private than announcing everything out loud to Siri! A few times a day I put those into that same default reminder list. At the end of the day that page or two on my notepad goes into the trash. It’s job is done.

Emails that come in also end up having an item in that default list too. I’d likely put supporting info in this task’s notes: “see email, joe 11/22 11:00”. Similar with text chats. With today’s chat systems there’s a history you can refer to in your task, or you can copy-paste the relevant info into the notes (supporting info) for the task.

Hallway conversations and meetings are harder. But that’s why you have your phone with you right? Tap in a reminder now. A meeting can be a bit easier, write something in your meeting notes with an arrow perhaps to remind you to make a task for that. But! At the end of the meeting put that in your “in” list.

It requires a bit of discipline to capture everything and to capture it all in one spot. But it’s really just a matter of setting up some habits.

Different kinds of work will require different approaches. Perhaps you’re only doing time management for your job and don’t feel a need in your private life (in which case I envy you). So an approach that is only in your work environment might do fine.

In any case, the key is to capture all the stuff you’re going to be trying to track. And to capture in it one place so you can review it effectively.

Reviewing

This reviewing tasks part might be combined with ranking tasks, and in practice often it is. I’m treating them separately because they’re separate functions and sometimes you want to re-rank.

Reviewing tasks is the process to convert the inbox list of tasks you collected into well-written, and well documented (with supporting info) tasks or projects that have the context information you need. When you’re doing reviewing your (perhaps) somewhat haphazard inbox list will be filtered into a useable list or lists. You might even consider “reviewing” to be “rewriting”.

When you’re reviewing tasks you are not doing tasks. This is part of your management overhead. So you’ll not want to spend too much time, but just enough so that when you get to working on the task you have the necessary info and can understand the purpose (goal) of that task. This takes some balance which comes with practice.

There’s one exception to the “not doing now” and this applies to the collecting tasks phase too. If you have something that takes a very short time, go ahead and do it now. There’s no need to have the management overhead for something that takes a couple minutes. David Allen uses three minutes in his book, I use five. Pick some value here for you that balances the management overhead vs the expected task time. Do that quick task during collection phase and don’t even put it on your “in” list. Or do that quick task now during review and delete it from your “in” list.

One caveat: There are some tasks that are very quick if you’re setup for them. But setting up for them might not be quick. Don’t fall into this trap. Second, don’t fall into the trap of doing a few quick tasks and then getting distracted and forgetting you’re really reviewing your “in” list!

Reviewing tasks can be possibly rewriting them for clarity and to be self-contained, adding support info, and then placing them on the right list. I use lists to provide context. So a task or project’s context is implicit for me by the list that it’s on. This is not ideal and is a limitation of the tool I’m current using.

There’s an errands list for shopping, and lists for different places I might be: work and home. I also have lists for projects. Each project has it’s own list and becomes it’s own context. Again this is a “figure out what works for you” thing. It’s useful to have a project’s tasks grouped together, but not all time management tools do that well. Many tools just have all-purpose lists.

Typically things that you’ve collected for review are tasks or sometimes projects. But sometimes they’re really goals. In that case you’ll need to add it to a goals list and figure out what tasks or projects are necessary to accomplish that goal. Or, it might be something you want to do at some point in the future but not now. You can set up a “futures” or “someday” list for those.

Ranking

I usually follow review immediately with ranking, or just combine them, it’s a natural fit. But sometimes you want to also rank separately. When something’s changed that affects you, especially environmental things, you’ll want to re-rank your affected projects and tasks. This is also something you should take a little time to review weekly to capture things that might have changed that you didn’t see before.

One of the useful things about a time management system is it allows you to react to changes by re-ranking. Thinking about what’s a project lets you think about tasks for that project and to think and plan ahead.

Ranking’s purpose is to prioritize and to determine the order to do things in. These are not the same thing.

Priority can be urgency-based like the “server is down” example. Or they can be importance based as in “determine company strategy” example. In the first it’s a “drop everything, fix this now” kind of task. In the latter it doesn’t necessarily override anything today, but we know it needs to be scheduled soon.

What do we do with a task that’s not important and not urgent? Well, we might want to just drop it. Not everything we collect needs to be done. Some things turn out to not benefit us enough to warrant the time to do them. Cut your losses now and drop those items.

In a “drop everything, fix this” task, just do that task. Don’t run through collecting, review, and ranking. Decide if it’s a crisis task and work the crisis problem. Any time management system is a tool to be used appropriately. The real problem is when you have two or more crisis tasks at the same time. You have to figure out which is more important.

If you are in this kind of situation often, or might get into this situation, make a triage procedure before hand so you have something you can apply to figure out what task to do first. Review and ranking are triage procedures, but aren’t designed for crisis tasks where you need to move very quickly. Make a streamlined version for crisis tasks only and a way to identify what a crisis task really is. Your job in this streamlined emergency review and ranking is to figure out what are the crisis items and what are the most critical crisis items and to disregard all other items. But this is a tool for a crisis only. You don’t want to be overreacting to things all the time, that’s really hard on a person.

Priority can also be time-based. Something can be not urgent now, but will become so at some point later. Getting prepped to interview someone is an example. Time-based items are great items to put on a calendar. Many time management systems have some tie-in to calendaring that you can use.

How do you rank things? Based on your principles, values, capabilities, and your environment. All these inform your ranking or dropping of items. Also some things need to be done before other things, one task is preliminary to another.

The result of ranking is that your tasks and projects are ordered by priority (whatever that means in your case of urgency/importance) and time-based tasks are on your calendar. Ultimately you can only work on one thing at at time, so you have to resolve the urgency/importance dichotomy and decide on what’s first and what’s next. Also you’ve dropped anything that isn’t relevant anymore. Dropping things is good. That means you’re applying the “effectiveness” idea.

When done with ranking you’ll have dropped any non-necessary to do items, and the items left are ordered on your list in the order you’ll work on them.

Doing

You should be spending the large majority of your time here. Which is another way of saying you should be spending most of your time efficiently doing what is effective for your goals.

You are in different contexts at different times, which is a fancy way of saying you can’t do everything at once. If you’re at work, your context is work items, your context at home in the evening might be different from your context over the weekend. Certainly your context on vacation is different from your context otherwise.

Hence the need to list tasks and projects by context. This gives you an easy way to see what you can or should work on now.

In your ranking you’ve ordered your tasks. You can pick your context (I do that by picking which list to look at), then you do the first item on that list. The purpose behind all this is to get the organizational stuff out of your brain so you can use your brain to get useful things done instead.

Congratulations, you’re efficient and effective!

What tool to use?

I use Reminders on my iPhone. This is not ideal. Reminders is good tool at what it does, but it doesn’t support all that I’d like in terms of list flexibility. It’s not designed for a time managment system. I have to use lists for both context and for projects which can be confusing. I’d like “smart lists” that allow me to filter across all projects by context.

This would require that I have some context property field. Right now there’s a free-form text field “Notes” that I use, but not context or other options. Also I use lists for goal lists too which is potentially additionally confusing. I can’t effectively tie goals to projects easily.

There are a variety of apps for time management on a number of platforms. Before apps there were any number of paper systems. None will be ideal. At least none that I’ve tried (and I’ve tried many) have been ideal so far. My approach right now is to use Reminders and adapt to it. At some point I’ll likely get fed up with that and try something else or write something else.

No tool will be ideal. But its better to use some tool that helps rather than trying (and failing) to keep it all in your brain. Your task is to find the “not ideal” situation you can live with and get things done with.

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