The Productivity Book That Changed Everything
How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life
A remarkably influential book was written in 1973. Half a century later, in 2023, it has essentially been forgotten. Not only did Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life sell over 3 million copies, it also outlined the main characteristics of Pomodoro and GTD, as well as most other recent productivity methods.
In my research for Monotasking, I felt like Ezra when he returned from Babylonian exile and reintroduced the Torah in Jerusalem. By recursively following references, I consumed a plethora of productivity books from the past century — McCay, Cooper, Engstrom, MacKenzie, and Bliss, among nearly a hundred entries.
It did not take much imagination to translate the efficiency solutions from the manual paper office into the realm of today’s digital office. For example, sorting incoming papers directly into Archive, Delegate, To-Do, and Trash is a technique that is comparable to how Merlin Mann’s Inbox-Zero manages emails.
Of all these aged self-help books, one stood out. And I wasn’t the first to be impressed. Bill Clinton praised this particular book in the prologue to his own autobiography:
When I was a young man, just out of law school and eager to get on with my life, on a whim, I briefly put aside my reading preference for fiction and history and bought one of those how-to books: How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein. The book’s main point was the necessity of listing short-, medium-, and long-term life goals, then categorizing them in order of their importance, with the A group being the most important, the B group next, and the C group last, then listing specific activities under each goal that are designed to achieve them. I still have that paperback book, now almost thirty years old. And I’m sure I have that old list somewhere buried in my papers, though I can’t find it. However, I do remember the A list. I wanted to be a good man, have a good marriage and children, have good friends, make a successful political life, and write a great book.
Similar to the Eisenhower box, importance takes precedence over urgency in Alan Lakein’s ABC system. That is, rather than firefighting, what contributes to our long-term goals is where we focus our attention. For Alan Lakein, this approach means that effectiveness trumps efficiency:
Please don’t call me an efficiency expert. I’m an “effectiveness expert.” Effectiveness means selecting the best task to do from all the possibilities available and then doing it the best way.
Wind up the Kitchen Timer
This advice is true not only for strategic goal setting, but also for actionable activities. The sailor learned long ago to look up and navigate using the stars whenever the surroundings in all cardinal directions seems unfamiliar. Hopelessly lost in some arbitrary detail of a challenging task, we better ask the question: “What is the best use of my time right now?” You may, for example, think of Thomas Edison’s effort to extend the lifetime of lightbulbs. He performed thousands of experiments with different types of filaments. It was not until he added a better vacuum pump that the lightbulb became an industrial success. To intentionally free our minds, Alan Lakein suggested that we use a simple kitchen timer:
Perfectionism is a waste of time on labors such as ironing every last wrinkle out of a sheet or rechecking a low-priority letter for typing errors. Once you get immersed in some activities, they seem to acquire momentum of their own. You may then be carried along without control, drifting with the tide.
One way to combat this drift is to set yourself control points for reviewing your progress. Check every fifteen minutes or half hour — or go on until 3:30 and then review. One way to remember to do this is to use a kitchen timer. If you’re not benefiting from continued effort, stop and do something else.
Inspect and Adapt Frequently
Alan Lakein seems to have been very proud of the phrase, “What is the best use of my time right now?” since he referred to it as Lakein’s Question. He instructed readers to ask the question not only when the kitchen timer rings but also in many other situations:
A particularly good time to ask Lakein’s Question is when you have been interrupted by a visitor or telephone call (assuming the interruption is desirable or necessary in the first place). When it’s over, check whether you should go back to what you were doing or on to something new.
Also ask Lakein’s Question when you notice that you are becoming distracted. Are you listening to a conversation in the next office? Wondering who just walked down the hall? Daydreaming about next year’s vacation? Pop the question!
Also ask when you intuitively feel you may not be making the best use of your time. Or you detect a tendency to procrastinate. Or when you pause momentarily in the middle of doing an A-1. Or when you find yourself shuffling paper rather than processing it.
Ask it when you’re torn between two different projects. When you run out of steam. Or at points where it seems natural to make the transition to something else.
This type of strategic analysis, combined with flexible inspect-and-adapt, is more 2020s than 1970s, more resilience than robustness, and more complexity than systems. In other words, the process is better suited for humans than for machines. Alan Lakein also emphasized that what he meant by “getting control” of our time and our lives was not becoming super organized, super busy, or preoccupied with every moment as it slips by:
The kind of control I am recommending is in many ways analogous to good muscle tone. It is the sort of control over your time (and your life) that is neither too tight (i.e., compulsive, restrained, obsessive) nor too loose (i.e., apathetic, indifferent, lazy). This kind of control will help you get things done and also allows you to be flexible and spontaneous. The ideal is balance.
Although How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life has not been republished for a long time, there are many used copies out there. If you purchase one, you can read more about The Life Goals Exercise, The Value of Trial and Success, How to Put Holes into Swiss Cheese, and many other awesome techniques to organize and streamline your life.
And, frankly, what could be a better use of your time than reading this little book right now?
Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf. You can also read The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated on Medium.