I’m sorry, I don’t have time for time management

So you’ve got a big list of things you need to do. You need to decide what to do first and how much time to give it. That way, you can better manage your time.

It’s called prioritizing: figuring out what’s most valuable and important and doing that first (or most).

Got it.

But how do you decide what is most important? Do you “gut feel” it? Or do you use some kind of system where you examine each task, one by one, and give it a grade of some sort, where A is more important than B, which is more important than C?

Harvard Business Review (via Lifehack) recommends the latter:

Break down activities you do into three categories: invest, neutral, or optimize. “Investment” pursuits are areas where more time and a higher quality of work lead to an exponential payoff, such as strategic planning. Aim for A-level work here. In “neutral” activities, more time spent doesn’t necessarily mean a significantly higher return. Attending project meetings is a good example. You don’t need to excel; a B is fine. “Optimize” duties are those where additional time leads to no added value and keeps you from doing other, more valuable activities. The faster you get these tasks done, the better.

Okay, let’s try it.

Today, I have two “most important tasks” (“MITs”) to get done. One is this blog post. The other is to finish writing the last section of the new course I’m working on.

If I follow the Harvard approach, today’s blog post would probably be in the category of Neutral, meaning it’s probably not worth putting in (a lot) more time to make it even better than it already is.

Finishing the course would probably fall into the Investment category because a paid product is judged at a higher standard and because there is a much higher payoff to me than a single blog post.

But here’s the thing. I already knew this. I already knew the relative importance of these two tasks, without spending any time thinking about it or assigning a label. How did I know? I just did.

But here’s the other thing. I need to do both of them today, albeit for different reasons. The blog post needs to get done because I have committed to doing a blog post every week day. The other project needs to get done because, well, I want to get it done and I decided that today would be the day.

I chose my MITs for the day by instinct or whatever you want to call it, and I didn’t have to spend time analyzing and labeling.

The third category is “Optimize,” which basically means “not very important so get them done quickly”. Sure, I’ve got a bunch of those, too. I probably won’t do most of them today and that’s okay. They’re not that important. But when I’m done with this post and done with the course (or done for the day in case I don’t finish), I may do one or two of these less important tasks. Or I may not. Hey, it’s Friday.

My point is that sometimes, the things we do in the name of time management take up more time than they’re worth. Analyzing, labeling, sorting, deciding–sometimes, we spend so much time working the system (and playing with apps), we don’t have time to get anything done.

If what you’re doing now isn’t working, you should explore and tinker and find something that does. But if your system is working, don’t change it.

Even if that system is nothing more than trusting your gut.

I use Evernote to manage my tasks and projects. See my Evernote for Lawyers ebook here.

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