Understanding and Managing Time

David Allenby DAVID ALLEN

You can’t manage time. Time just is. You don’t mismanage five minutes and wind up with four, or six. So what is this thing that has been mislabelled for so many years, and why did it get an inappropriate name? Time management is really managing what we do, during a particular time. But it’s easier for people to say that time is what needs to be managed, rather than themselves. It’s easier to make time the enemy and parade our worthiness (I have so many big, important things to get done), rather than to say “I don’t keep my agreements.”

Time management is really agreement management. At the end of the day, how good you feel about what you did (and what you didn’t do) is proportional to how well you think you kept agreements with yourself. Did you do what you told yourself to do? Did you accomplish what you think should have been accomplished? Wasting time only means that you think you should have been doing something other than what you were doing. Sleep is not a waste of time if you think you need it. Taking a walk instead of rewriting your strategic plan is not a waste of time as long as you think taking a walk is the thing to do at that moment. It’s when you wind up not doing which you agreed to that the trouble begins.

In order to be clear, you must first know what all your agreements are — and there are very few people who have them all defined and contained.

The most basic agreement is to show up at a designated location at a specific time (appointment). The most subtle and sophisticated agreement is to be doing what you think you should be doing with your life (are you fulfilling your purpose, living according to your values?) And there are all kinds of agreements lying in-between. Most people have between forty and one hundred projects, a “project” being defined as something they want to finish that requires more than one action step (get a new car, hire an assistant, take the family skiing, launch the new product line, restructure their board, get a new set of golf clubs, etc). Those projects are driven by ten to fifteen key areas of responsibility in their job (strategic planning, asset management, staff development, liaison with the board, etc) and in their life (health, relationships, career, money, etc). Next, the actions (allocation of personal resources) required to execute all of those commitments — emails to send, phone calls to make, conversations to have, documents to draft, proposals to read — number often in the hundreds.

Caught in the Busy Trap

Recently while coaching a leader, I discovered another level of the busy trap — the syndrome: “If I can just do something that feels like I’m working with focus, I don’t have to deal with the angst about all the other stuff I should be doing.”

Just like in a computer, where the RAM does all the work based on when it is given that work and how big it is, psychic RAM tends to bring to awareness items based on criteria of latest (most recent in time) and loudest (emotionally); unfortunately, unlike a computer, this is hardly the most effective file-and-retrieval system. Similarly, if your system of action reminders are haphazard (post-its on the screen, phone slips on the desk, notes on your chair, people interruptions), your busy energy momentum will glom onto the easiest thing to maintain itself.

Do what you need to do to feel as good as you can about what you’re doing. You can never be busy enough to dispel the need to be busy. “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” said Albert Einstein.

The Levels Of Your Work

Aside from the fact that the volume of what people need to organise is often light years beyond what they imagine, there is much more to getting a grip on your work, with respect to the time on hand, than most realise. Managing the flow of work can be approached from many altitudes, as there are many different levels of defining what your work really is. While we may have some lower levels in control, there are often incomplete and unclear issues at higher levels that need to be addressed. And often there are issues about the nature and volume of work that cannot be resolved viewing it from an inappropriate level. We have roughly categorised work into six levels, or horizons of focus, using an airplane model.


This is the ground floor — the huge volume of actions and information you currently have to do and organise, including emails, calls, memos, errands, stuff to read, stuff to file, things to talk to staff, etc. If you got no further input in your life, this would likely take you 300-500 hours to finish. Just getting a complete and current inventory of the next actions required at this level is quite a feat.

10,000 Level

This is the inventory of your projects — all the things you have to finish, that take more than one action step to complete. These projects include anything from “look into having a birthday party for Susan” to “buy Acme Brick Co.” Most people have between 30 and 100 of these. If you were to fully and accurately define this list, it would undoubtedly generate many more and different actions than you currently have identified.

20,000 Level

What’s your job? Driving the creation of a lot of your projects are the four to seven major areas of responsibility that you at least implicitly are going to be held accountable to have done well, at the end of some time period, by yourself if not by someone else (e.g. boss.) With a clear and current evaluation of what those areas or responsibility are, and what you are (and are not) doing about them, there are likely new projects to be created, and old ones to be eliminated.

30,000 Level

Where is your job going? What will the role you’re in right now look like 12-18 months from now, based on your goals and on the directions of the changes at that level? We’ve met very few people who are doing only what they were hired to do. These days, job descriptions are about moving targets. You may be personally changing what you’re doing, given personal goals; and the job itself may need to look different, given the shifting nature of the work at the departmental or divisional level. Getting this level clear always creates some new projects and actions.

40,000 Level

The goals and direction of the larger entity within which you operate heavily influence your job and your professional direction. Where is your company going to be, one to three years from now? How will that be affecting the scope and scale of your job, your department, and your division? What external factors (like technology) are influencing the changes? How is the definition and relationship with your customers going to be changing, etc? Thinking at this level invariably surfaces some projects that need to be defined and new action steps to move them forward.

50,000 Level

What is the work you are here to do on the planet, with your life? This is the ultimate bigger picture discussion. Is this the job you want? Is this the lifestyle you want? Are you operating within the context of your real values, etc? From an organisational perspective, this is the Purpose and Vision discussion. Why does it exist? No matter how organised you may get, if you are not spending enough time with your family, health, spiritual life, etc, you will still have “incompletes” to deal with, make decisions about, and have projects and actions about, to get completely clear.

The Threefold Nature of Work

Why do people complain that there’s no time to get their work done? Because there is more work to do than the work they think they have to do.

Many times, people we work with express frustration that they “can’t get any of their work done” because of the overwhelming amount of interruptions, email, and other inputs that show up during the course of a normal day. “I can’t get my work done, because there is so much (other) work to do!”

If you are ever in that frustrated state, it might help to understand the threefold nature of what constitutes your “work.”

You have a choice of doing three very different things when you work — pre-defined work, ad hoc work, and defining your work.

1. Pre-defined Work

This is what you would be doing all day if you’ve got no new input or interruptions of any sort. You would probably be working off the inventory of actions and projects that you came in with — work that you have already determined needs doing. There are the phone calls you need to make, the documents you need to draft, the ideas you need to outline on the project, etc. That list of things to be completed, when you have some discretionary time, would be challenging enough to sift through, given your volume (most professionals have 150-200 of these discrete actions). But what you are very often faced with is the necessity (and opportunity) to do…

2. Work As It Appears

The phone rings. It’s not on your lists or your calendar. But you take the call, nonetheless, and consequently spend twenty minutes talking to a client of yours about a potentially important, or at least an interesting, topic. Before you’re off that call, your boss sends you an instant message to schedule a half-hour meeting in the afternoon to update you on a new development and get your input on it. You acknowledge back “OK” while you’re still talking to the client. For that meeting, though, you know immediately that you are going to need to update two spreadsheets and surf the web about a company that’s been on your radar pertaining to this project, before you walk in. That means do it now, or not eat lunch. In this scenario you are doing the work as it shows up to be done. You are actually defining your work rapidly in this case, and choosing to do the new stuff instead of any of the pre-determined potential activities. Many of us have such days of this nature. We can’t get to anything on our action lists because the ad-hoc nature of the day wound up defining and requiring our total focus, non-stop.

That, added to our inventory of pre-defined work, creates a substantial volume of on-deck options for things to be doing. But then there are emails constantly filling up your in-basket. And meeting notes from last night still on the legal pad on the corner of your desk. And the fourteen voicemails that you keep saving because they mean something you might need to do, but you don’t know exactly what yet. And more voicemails coming in during the day. So, in addition to all the stuff on your lists and all the stuff coming at you during the day that you have to engage with as it shows up, you know there’s still the on-going requirement to be.

3. Defining Work

This is processing and emptying your in-basket, your email, your meeting notes, etc — assessing the new inputs and making decisions about what needs to be done about them. You may do some quick actions as you define them, delegate things to others (to be tracked on your “Waiting For…” list), and you will probably be adding more action items and projects to your inventory of defined work, as you review and think about the meaning of the content of those notes. “Oh yeah, I told Raphael I would call him back about possible times to meet next week…”

This activity of defining work, based upon the constant flow of new incoming information and communication, requires an average of one hour per day, for the typical professional. That’s just to stay current — not to clean up and process any backlog that may have accumulated prior to today.

So what? Everything I have described so far is common sense, or at least a common awareness about the way things really are. Here’s the rub: I have noticed that many people act as if it is some sort of burden to endure, and is some irrelevant activity aside from their work. “I have my list of things to do. Why am I being burdened with things that aren’t on my lists, and why am I now in addition having to deal with all of these emails, voicemails, conversation notes, business cards, receipts, and tons of other inputs coming at me from my outside world?”

I don’t get it. It’s all your work. Some is done when it appears, and some is done when you choose to do it instead of what’s showing up. And processing input is required to trust that the inventory of your pre-defined work is complete enough to evaluate its contents against your new options of things to do.

Are you truly pretending that your boss doesn’t have the authority to reallocate your focus toward a new and unexpected priority? Get real. Are you honestly saying that now the world is at fault for reconfiguring itself to present you with things you weren’t aware of twelve hours ago? Get a grip. And how long can you honestly say you are comfortable doing anything, without checking your voicemail or email?

The key is how efficiently and effectively you know how to process new stuff, and how functional your system is for maintaining and reviewing your inventory of commitments. Then you accept and manage the input processing as a critical component, you review the whole game frequently enough to know (in your gut) how to evaluate the surprises and unexpected work, and you have a sufficiently functional system for capturing and managing all the various rivers and streams of this complex environment, to feel at least OK about what you’re not doing. Master key to life.

How much of which kind of work to do and when is the eternal dance of the workday. You can’t really do more than one of them at a time, though you can get really fast with processing work while you’re on hold on the phone, and waiting for meetings to start. There may be interruptions that are allowed that are not functional or valuable, but managing those is just tactical to your definition of your job. It’s an eternal challenge of allocating limited resources (the definition of “management”) – it’s not an inherent problem.

How much of your day and week do you need to assume is going to be ad hoc and unexpected? How much of your day really is required for cleaning up your in-baskets so that you can trust your backlog doesn’t have landmines and unseen priorities lurking? When are you dedicating critical executive time for updating your contents and maybe improving your own process for capturing, clarifying, organising, and reviewing your work?

Get your habits and your systems up to handling it. And get used to it.

David Allen is an author, consultant, international lecturer, founder and chairman of the David Allen Company. He is widely recognised as the world’s leading authority on personal and organisational productivity and has been named one of the “Top 100 thought leaders” by Leadership Magazine. He is best known as the creator of the time management method known as “Getting Things Done”.


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