Saturday, 11 June 2011

Thoughts on time management

Douglas Wilson offers some advice on time management. I have often spoken of working smart, not (necessarily) hard. And that productivity is of more concern than hours worked. Although I appreciate Wilson's concept of fruitfulness over productivity which adds the dimension of usefulness to productivity, ie. there is no point in being extremely time efficient producing what is useless or detrimental.

I am also aware of the concept of diminishing returns. 1 hour of work may do a 50% job, but 2 hours may only add a further 25%. Those with perfectionist tendencies need to be aware that while some things require greater than 99% completion (eg. air traffic control), many do not (eg. housework) and can easily become time wasters. Wilson addresses this in item #3

Seven Thoughts on Time Management
  1. The point is fruitfulness, not efficiency. You should want to be fruitful like a tree, not efficient like a machine.

    But this fruitfulness is a function of God's blessing, and it is surrendered work that is blessed work. Seek that blessing, and seek it through concrete surrender. Such surrenders are not abstract. Put your Isaacs on the altar. Every interruption is a chance to surrender your work to the only one who can bless your work, particularly when the interruptions come from your kid wanting to play catch.

    We can see the principle with the sabbath and the tithe. Less blessed is more than more unblessed. 90% blessed goes farther than 100% unblessed. 6 days blessed are far more fruitful than 7 days unblessed.

  2. Build a fence around your life, and keep that fence tended. You should have a life outside your work, and your family should be enjoying that life together with you. Go to work at a reasonable, predictable time, and come home at a reasonable, predictable time. Keep your work on a regular schedule, not an absolute schedule. If the barn catches fire, allow that to interrupt your schedule. But if the barn catches fire three times a week, then perhaps some preventative thinking is in order. When you are driven by the tyranny of the urgent, most of the urgencies aren't. Let the fence hold.

  3. Perfectionism paralyzes. Chesterton once wonderfully observed that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. The sign of a fruitful worker is that he understands the critical difference between "that won't cut it" and "that is just fine."

  4. Fill in the corners. I typed the outline for this with my thumbs while sitting in a comfy chair at the mall while my wife was being a merchant ship that brings goods from afar. This was far more productive than staring vacantly at a neon Tito Macaroni's sign would have been. If you have a commute, use the time to listen to books instead of inane DJ chatter. If the books get too serious, or if you do, go back to the DJs.

    Do not despise how much can be packed into small corners. I live in a small town, and so my commute is four minutes, more or less. There have been times when I have arrived at the office with the same song playing as when I pulled out of the garage. And yet I listened to David McCullough's John Adams like that. It was a great steak, and cutting it into little tiny pieces did not diminish the flavor at all.

  5. Plod. Keep at it. Slow and steady wins the race. Truisms are true. Work adds up, provided you are doing it.

  6. Take in more than you give out. If you give out more than you take in, you will . . . give out. Your lake should have snowmelt streams running into it. Every vocation requires constant learning, constant development.

  7. Use and reuse. State and restate. Learn and relearn. Develop what you know. Cultivate what you have. Your garden plot is the same as it always was, so plow deeper. Envying the garden that others have cultivated plows nothing, and brings forth a harvest of nothing.

    Strive for deep conviction more than superficial originality, and deep originality will come. Your tomatoes will take the ribbon at the fair, provided you learned how to grow them in your own dirt.


  1. I find really good time management is about prioritization and proactive planning.

    Plan and prioritize competing tasks so that the prerequiste, enabling or foundational tasks are completed first (even if they aren't started first) and all the corequesite tasks are completed about the same time, and only those tasks that can be "afforded" and deliver benefit are begun at all.

    The point is fruitfulness, not efficiency.

    Unless the task calls for efficiency, e.g. insulating a house, tuning an engine or budgeting money. Further, if the task is being done on behalf of someone else (a friend, cusomer, employer) they not you, determine what is fruitful for them and accordingly the tasks ought be performed as efficiently (without waste, error or delay) as possible. If a task is anticipated to bear much fruit, then perhaps it out to be prioritized higher and allocated the resources to be completed with excellence, as efficiently as possible.

    But if the barn catches fire three times a week, then perhaps some preventative thinking is in order.

    Preventing the barn from catching fire should be highest priority and managing the fires while preventive measures are put in place is the next highest priority.

    When you are driven by the tyranny of the urgent, most of the urgencies aren't.

    Agreed. This is a consequence of no priorities. If all tasks are deemed equally urgent, no task is treated with more urgency than any other. If there are only one or two tasks, that's manageable, but many urgent tasks invariably all get serviced at the same low priority.

    Perfectionism paralyzes. Chesterton once wonderfully observed that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

    Hyperbole. Yes, perfection paralyzes but anything done badly wastes time, resources, and fails to deliver the worthwhile benefit. Strive for excellence of result in order of priority. Invariably the lower priority tasks won't get done for lack of time or resources. That's ok. Expending scarce resources on low or lowest priority tasks is neither efficient nor fruitful.

    If you have a commute, use the time to listen to books instead of inane DJ chatter.

    Better still, quietly reflect and review your priorities. Take stock. Working smart usually necessitates smart planning. One needn't stare at Gantt charts in those spare moments; often quiet uninterrupted reflection on problems and progress brings into focus whatever needs attention next, including the not infrequent realization that some time is available for rest.

    Plod. Keep at it. Slow and steady wins the race.

    Absolutely. Schedules should reflect a slow and steady pace. Plan to be slow and steady, don't accelerate delivery dates without realistic means to achieve them.

    Most tasks can be done fast, or right, or cheap. Pick any two. It's all in the prioritization.

  2. Starwind, I am not certain I am the most time efficient. So advice is probably for me rather than from me.

    I think the idea about fruitfulness is a little broader than the task. I don't think Wilson is arguing against efficiency for a task, rather to keep in mind the real goal. That is we can consider which tasks we choose to do under the domain of fruitfulness?

    Most tasks can be done fast, or right, or cheap. Pick any two. It's all in the prioritization.

    Like the aphorism.

  3. bethyada:
    I am not certain I am the most time efficient.

    I suspect you are more efficient than you give yourself credit.

    On a week-to-week basis, I would not categorize myself as time efficient.

    But year-to-year and longer, I am very time efficient. The reasons are twofold:
    1) Because I prioritize and plan, I seldom make big mistakes and hence seldom waste time repeating, recovering, correcting, etc.,
    2) Because I focus on the big priorities which get completed well, I am usually increasing the foundation and flexibility on which depend my future tasks/plans, i.e. my future productivity grows, my leverage increases.

    On a week-to-week basis, I plan to undercommit my time. I leave considerable slack in my schedules (commiting only to high-priority tasks) which permits me to focus on preventing/correcting small mistakes before they become large, and leaves spare time to maintain patience, energy, and "quality" time with loved ones. I don't get burned out. When all the above are done, I can then pick up a small low priority task, without pressure, and fill-out the week.

  4. This is something that I need to take to heart.

  5. I was just emailed this, and it seemed appropriate:

    A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full.... They agreed that it was.

    The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full....They agreed it was.

    The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full....The students responded with a unanimous 'yes....'

    The professor then produced two Sodas from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed..

    'Now,' said the professor as the laughter subsided, 'I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things---your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions---and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car... The sand is everything else---the small stuff. 'If you put the sand into the jar first,' he continued, 'there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls... The same goes for life. [Starwind: i.e. it's about priorities and planning]

    If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Spend time with your children.. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first---the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.... [Starwind: i.e. avoid managing time spent on small stuff, it'll be the greatest number of tasks with the least return]

    One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the Soda represented. The professor smiled and said, 'I'm glad you asked.'
    The Soda just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of Sodas with a good friend.

  6. Giraffe, Good isn't it.

    Starwind, yes, I have read something similar.



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