David Allen vs. Mark Forster

Mark Forster remarks on time management systems:

There’s a well-known quote about the evolution of fishing boats:

Every boat is copied from another boat… Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied… One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Alain (Emile Chartier), 1908

It occurred to me that exactly the same could be said about time management systems or methods. The best will naturally rise to the top because the people promoting them will have better time management than those who don’t use them.

“One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is time herself who fashions the methods, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

If you want to know what the best time management system is then look at the most successful ones for the authors themselves. Using that criterion I think Getting Things Done (GTD) would still win the prize.

There may be a problem with this criterion, since people have different personalities and different systems may work better for them. In particular, my guess, based on Mark Forster’s blogging, is that he has much more of a problem with procrastination than David Allen (the author of Getting Things Done). And consequently Mark devotes a lot of attention to developing a system that might address procrastination in his personal situation. But procrastination is essentially a problem quite different from the problem of time management. We can see that by considering the comparison between budgeting time and budgeting money. If you earn $50,000 in spendable income per year, you can devise a reasonable budget that tells you how much you can spend in each category. Likewise, since you absolutely must live on 24 hours a day, you can devise a plan on how much time you can spend on various things during a day. That kind of planning, in each case, is budgeting. But nothing prevents you from creating a budget and then going and spending your money or your time on other things instead. Time management is therefore creating a reasonable budget with your 24 hours. Procrastination is simply what you do when you spend your time on something else instead.

This does not mean that it is impossible to devise a system for avoiding procrastination, but this is different from budgeting your time, and even if you do devise such a system, there will be no guarantee that you will in fact follow the system rather than doing something else, and thus no guarantee that you will actually avoid procrastination.

In terms of budgeting time as such, Forster’s system is objectively better than Allen’s system, because Forster’s system forces you to watch yourself and to decide how much you can really get done in a day. David Allen refuses to budget time in this way. Thus he says:

Reminders of actions you need to take fall into two categories: those about things that have to happen on a specific day or time, and those about things that just need to get done as soon as possible. Your calendar handles the first type of reminder. Three things go on your calendar: time-specific actions; day-specific actions; and day-specific information.

No More “Daily To-Do” Lists Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else! I know this is heresy to traditional time-management training, which has almost universally taught that the “daily to-do list” is key. But such lists don’t work, for two reasons. First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list in writing on the calendar, which must then be rewritten on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The “Next Actions” lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily.

Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. If I have to call Mioko on Friday because that’s the only day I can reach her, but then I add five other, less important or less time-sensitive calls to my to-do list, when the day gets crazy I may never call Mioko. My brain will have to take back the reminder that that’s the one phone call I won’t get another chance at. That’s not utilizing the system appropriately. The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments.

The idea in Forster’s system is that the day is almost entirely planned out from the beginning, in that almost everything you are going to do is already on a list that already exists at the beginning of the day, the list having been created the previous day. Allen clearly wants nothing to do with such a system. You might have a list with two or three things on it, the things that “absolutely have” to get done that day, but not anything like a list of nearly everything that you are going to do.

Obviously we are talking here about detailed practical matters where there can be substantial differences in different cases, but I think that to a first approximation, Allen is simply giving bad advice here, basically like saying, “There’s no need for a budget. You never know what you might have to buy next. Just spend the money you have, and maybe set aside a small amount for some absolute essentials.” And indeed that can work to some extent, but it will often mean you don’t have money for things that you feel you need, because you already spent it on something else. The same kind of thing will happen if you refuse to budget your time.

Let us look for the source of the problem. Consider Allen’s statement that “constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time.” Again, this may be more or less true depending on the particular work a person is doing, but a large part of this is simply a necessary result of the way Allen deals with incoming work.

When you have some incoming item that requires action, Allen proposes this decision process:

Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It Once you’ve decided on the next action, you have three options:

1. Do it. If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.

2. Delegate it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, ask yourself, Am I the right person to do this? If the answer is no, delegate it to the appropriate entity.

3. Defer it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, and you are the right person to do it, you will have to defer acting on it until later and track it on one or more “Next Actions” lists.

The reason that things taking longer than two minutes are not done immediately is that this is a process for dealing with immediately incoming things. It would be extremely disruptive to try to take care of everything the instant it comes to your attention.

But I suggest that Allen’s first rule, that you should do anything that takes less than two minutes immediately, is the basic reason that he feels that his day is constantly being reconfigured. We do many more such things than we realize; working an eight hour office job, you might well be spending two hours every day on tasks that take less than two minutes each. Additionally, you might suppose a quick phone call will take less than two minutes, but it might end up taking 10 instead. In such a case, if the need for the call came up suddenly, and you did it immediately on account of Allen’s rule, you will begin to feel that your day is being disrupted. And it is, but it is the rule that is disrupting it.

Consider Forster’s response to whether you should respond immediately to an email that requires a one-word response:

Remember the degree of urgency of the response depends on the urgency of the request, not on how easy it is to respond. I would be fooling you if I said that I would never reply to an email like this the same day. But if I do I usually end up regretting it, because once I start responding to one email I tend to go on and respond to others. Also I find that a too rapid reply to an email can lead to emails batting back and forth all day. My advice is not to answer it today unless your colleague says it’s urgent.

Answering it immediately is like an impulse purchase. Sure, it won’t affect your budget in any significant way to spend $2 or $3 that you didn’t plan to spend. But unless you have some budgeted spending money, you are already starting down the wrong path, in terms of budgeting, as soon as you do it once. And if you find yourself doing it repeatedly, soon you will no longer be following your budget. In the same way, a one-word response is not going to ruin anyone’s plan for the day. But the feel that you need to deal with it right away, just because dealing with it doesn’t take that long, is already going down the wrong path, in terms of budgeting time.

Allen’s system would be improved by removing this rule completely, and not having anything done at the time it is processed as incoming, or it could be improved somewhat less by reducing the time: e.g. it could be processed immediately if it would take less than 30 seconds. But complete removal is better.

Nonetheless, Allen does have a point about trying to make a list that will include everything you are going to do that day, both because at least a few things might come up that really do need doing the same day, and because if you are already committed to a full day’s worth of work every day, it is very difficult to ever fit in anything new. These factors make it easy to overfill a day, and make it difficult to reduce your commitments once this has happened.

Forster summarizes the system himself, and remarks on advantages and disadvantages:

Brief Summary

The book’s basic premise is that we get behind on our work because we don’t pay attention to the basic formula “One day’s outgoing work much on average equal one day’s incoming work”. The idea is that one day’s worth of incoming work is collected for action the following day in a dated “Task Diary”. A line is drawn at the bottom of the day’s list so that each day there is a finite amount of work to do. Tasks which arise during the day and have to be done that day may be added to the list “below the line” but the default is to add tasks to the next day’s list. If one falls more than a few day’s behind, then it is important to audit the outstanding work in order to cut it back so that one can keep up. There is also the concept of the “Current Initiative”, by which one project is focused on first thing every day. This is particularly suitable for backlogs, work on improving systems, and getting major projects up and running.

Advantages

By providing a finite amount of work to be done each day, the system enables you to know when your work for the day is finished. It makes it easy to diagnose what the matter is if you fall behind. It also introduces several important concepts which are made further use of in the subsequent Autofocus systems, such as little and often, recurring tasks, and so on.

Disadvantages

The two main disadvantages are that people are often reluctant to carry out a proper diagnosis when they fall behind. This considerably reduces the effectiveness of the system if it is constantly running behind. There is also a considerable effort needed to push through to completing a day’s work, which can lead to resistance building against the system.

Why are people “reluctant to carry out a proper diagnosis when they fall behind?” This may be partly because they feel tired because of feeling overworked, and so not wanting to put the effort into the diagnosis. Likewise, they do not want to admit that they are over-committed, and do not want to take anything away from their plans.

The “considerable effort” that is needed to do a day’s work of course should just be exactly the amount of effort that is in fact needed for a day’s work. But since as I said in the comment here, our commitments tend to increase to fill all available time, this tends to imply that “a day’s work” will tend to grow as much as it can, until you can barely fit it into a day, even if you are following the system correctly.

I am personally using a sort of hybrid system, adopting elements from both systems. The basic idea is to apply Do It Tomorrow, but to first restrict “a day’s work” to quite a bit less than I can actually do in a day, but not restricted to the degree that Allen is doing by saying that you should only schedule things which are absolutely essential for that day. In other words, rather than “diagnosing” the problem when I cannot finish, I run such a diagnosis even when I can finish, if the list is actually using all of my time. This is a lot like setting aside $500 from your salary and budgeting the rest of your money.

So what do I do with the $500, or in other words, with the additional time that this system appears to create? This is the part that which is assigned to a more GTD-like system. In addition to my lists for “today” and “tomorrow,” I also have a vague and indefinite list which is much like all of Allen’s lists. Whenever there is time left over — which should be, and in fact is, almost every day — I do some work from this list.

Forster notes that if you try to do everything you would like to do in theory, you will run into problems:

In yesterday’s article Overcommitment and what you can do to prevent it I drew attention to the formula given in Do It Tomorrow:

Backlog = (Average work coming in each day) – (average work going out each day)

In spite of all our efforts to ignore this rule there really is no way round it. However we can continue to fool ourselves by acting in much the same way as a chronic debtor continues to get further and further into debt. In other words we put things off into the future. In the same way that the debtor always believes that “something will come up”, so we believe in a magic fairytale day in which we have nothing else to do other than catch up with our work. Of course this day never arrives, and if by some amazing chance it actually did the sudden relaxation of tension probably would mean that we spent the whole day goofing off rather than working.

It’s interesting to see how this truth about workload plays out in various situations. How does it work with a “catch-all” list? Now the great advantage of a catch-all list is its completeness. You get everything on your mind down on paper so you no longer have the worry of trying to remember it all. There is however a problem with this. The work does not stop arriving just because you have written it all down. In fact writing it all down may make it less likely that you will get everything done, rather than more. This is because there is a certain natural selection going on with tasks, which means the stronger ones survive while the weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with writing everything down is that this natural selection is inhibited because the weaker tasks can’t take the natural path of dropping out of your memory and your life.

Anyway, as I said in yesterday’s article overcommitment is a systems failure, and the first step with any systems failure is to look at what is happening in our present system. How does this apply to a catch-all list?

Potential candidates to be tasks on our catch-all list come from a multitude of sources, e.g. our own “brilliant ideas”, our bosses, our clients, our colleagues, our families, our reading, social media, the tv, etc, etc, etc. On top of these existing tasks which need further work get re-entered on the list rather than deleted.

Let’s first of all look at the input procedure:

A potential task arrives on the scene from one of the above sources

A catch-all system is designed to catch everything. So the task is put on the list without further ado.

Another task arrives on the scene and is put on the list

and so on

No problem so far. The input procedure is doing exactly what it is designed to do.

What about the output procedure? That’s even simpler:

We do one task after another (according to the criteria of whatever system we are using to process the list)

But it’s here that we run into a problem: the time it takes to do a task is usually longer than it takes to write a task down. Since that means that tasks come in faster than it’s possible to do them, more and more tasks get pushed into the future.

So our problem with the existing system can be summed up as:

Potential work coming in each day is basically infinite

Work going out each day is finite

Therefore the list is potentially liable to expand infinitely

Fortunately in reality this doesn’t happen to quite that extent, but it’s easy to see what the present system is inevitably going to produce. Overcommitment.

My way of preventing this is to make the additional, non-daily list, into what Forster calls a “closed list.” Nothing can be added to it; things can however be subtracted from it, if they turn out to be unimportant or unnecessary by the time I get to them. Nothing ever goes on this in the first place if it is time sensitive in any way, or at least if it is really necessary that it be done within the next month or two; in any such situation I arrange things with Forster’s original system.

The fact that the list is closed means that I have still another list, an open list, to which the “potentially infinite” things are added. This open list becomes the new closed list when the original closed list is completed.

This might naturally lead to the problem that Forster is remarking upon: you can think of things to do faster than you can do them. And since it is currently taking me about two months to work through the closed list, there is no proof that this will not happen in the future. However, judging by the number of items on the open list, I seem to have reached a relatively stable equilibrium, for reasons much like the reasons that people do not in fact go infinitely into debt: there might be an infinite number of things you would like to buy in theory, but you do not even think of most of them, let alone buy them, since it would be immediately obvious that you will not be able to actually buy them. In a similar way I could potentially think of an infinite number of things to do, but there is no reason for me to bother, since there is already enough on those lists. And on the other hand, since I keep my “absolute” and time sensitive commitments below a true day’s worth, there is no difficulty in handling new things of this kind when they come up.

Some of the details here of course are related to facts about my personal circumstances, and thus the details might need to be modified to apply to other individuals. Nonetheless, overall I am finding that it has most of the advantages of both Do It Tomorrow and of Getting Things Done, while avoiding most of the disadvantages.

 

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