The simplest time management system in the world

Everyone has their favorite time management system. Except those who don’t. Many people don’t have any system. They look at the choices and conclude that they’re too complicated or, ironically, too time-consuming to use.

Others, try lots of systems and are never satisfied, so they keep looking.

If you don’t have a system that’s right for you, or if you don’t have any system at all, I want to present to you the simplest time management system in the world.

There are three parts to this system:

(1) Write down everything.

Get it out of your head and on paper or in some kind of electronic list. I use Evernote, but there are many alternatives.

What’s important is that you have a place to go to see all of the tasks and projects you have to do, want to do, or might one day consider doing, and that place is not in your head.

(2) Use a calendar.

Anything that is time-oriented–due dates, start dates, appointments, reminders–should be recorded on your calendar. If there is a specific time when it must be done, like an appointment or a conference call, record the time. If not, and you’re using an electronic calendar, record it as an “all day” event.

The key is to only record things you actually intend to do. As David Allen says, the calendar is “sacred territory”. If it’s on the calendar, you do it.

Of course throughout your day you need to look at your calendar to see what’s on it. You can also set up electronic reminders if you want.

(3) Ask yourself THIS question every day.

So the first two elements of this system are nothing new. I’m pretty sure every time management system uses them. Where things get complicated is with what happens next.

Time management systems use many different ways to categorize and prioritize the items on your master list. They uses tags and codes and allow you to put things in different boxes or on different sub-lists. If these work for you, use them. If they don’t, once a day, ask yourself one simple question:

“What are the most important things I need to do today?”

Write these on a separate list. These tasks are your “most important tasks” for the day. If you get these done, your day will be successful, even if they are the only things you do that day.

You don’t need to complete a lot of tasks to make it a successful day, as long as those tasks are important. I usually write down three “most important tasks” (MIT’s) for the day. Sometimes it’s just one or two, sometimes four or five. So the question I ask myself every day is, “What are the three most important things I need to do today?”

And that’s it. That’s the system. You look at your big list, decide what to do that day based on what’s important, and do them. You don’t do anything else on your list, or that comes up during the day, until you have done your “most important tasks” for the day.

What about the rest of your list? Forget about it. You’ll never get everything done and that’s okay. Let it go. Focus on getting the most important things done each day and when you’ve done that, you can go back to your list and choose additional tasks to do if you want to or you can call it a day.

Now, you may be wondering if this system requires you to read through your master list every day so you can choose your most important tasks. No. That’s too much. Reviewing your master list once a week is enough.

But here’s the thing. You probably already know what to put on your list of most important tasks for the day. At least your subconscious mind does. I’ll prove it.

Without looking at any lists or your calendar, ask yourself this question: “What is the most important thing I can do right now?”

I’ll bet you had an answer.

That’s what you should do next. When it’s done, go ahead and ask yourself that question again.

Do you use Evernote? Have you read my ebook, Evernote for Lawyers?

How to prioritize your daily tasks

I use my own version of GTD (Getting Things Done) as the backbone of my productivity system. Every day, when I sit down to prioritize my lists and choose what to work on for the day, I choose three “MIT’s” (Most Important Tasks). If I get my MITs done, I call it a good day.

Some people recommend the 1-3-5 system: 1 big thing for the day, 3 medium things, and 5 small things. Others use the 3-2 method: three big things, two small things. And then there’s the ABC/123 method.

For me, “three things” is about right.

Many days, it’s just one or two MITs. The number really doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am effective because I’m getting important things done.

But how do you decide what’s important? How do you look at a long list of tasks and projects and select three Most Important Tasks?

I don’t know. I just do it.

Sure, there’s a certain amount of logic in the process. I look at deadlines and appointments and reminders. But more often than not, it’s my gut that tells me what to do.

In “The 4-Hour Work Week,” Tim Ferriss offers a suggestion for deciding what’s important. He says, “Imagine you’ve just suffered a heart attack and are allowed to work only two hours a day. What would you do during those two hours? And if you had another heart attack and were allowed a maximum of two hours of work per week, what would you do?”

Ferriss also says, “. . .requiring a lot of time does not make a task important,” and I agree. He is also a proponent of making a “don’t do list,” ignoring things that aren’t important so you can focus on what is, which I wrote about recently.

I like learning about new productivity systems. But most of them are too complicated and time consuming to learn and use. I like the simplicity of focusing on just “three things”.

If you want to know how to prioritize your daily tasks, start by acknowledging that some things are much more important than others. Think 80/20. A minority of tasks, perhaps 20%, will contribute to the majority of your results.

You’ll never get everything on your list done, and trying to categorize and prioritize hundreds of things that aren’t important, or as important, as your three things, isn’t efficient or effective.

This post is one of my MITs for today. Next for me is to finish another writing project. I’ll get to that right after I check my calendar.

I explain my productivity system in my Evernote for Lawyers ebook.

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.