Four D Time Management
If there is one "soft" skill that has served me the best during my two decades in Information Technology, it has to be time management. There are many approaches to time management. Entire systems have evolved to help. One of these is Getting Things Done, or GTD, based on the book of the same name by author, David Allen.
You can get as involved in GTD as you want. This is not that kind of post. This is a post about the decision making process at the core of GTD that you can use right now, without changing a single thing about how you work. This is GTD distilled down to the very core - do it, defer it, delegate it, drop it.
Among the core concepts in GTD is not keeping information in your head. Keeping information in your head represents a cognitive load that slows you down, and will keep you awake at night. Our brains are horrible at tracking the myriad details that come with our lives in the modern era. The important information that should be in your head relates to your profession, not to the processes of the details that surround it.
When new work arrives at your desk, in whatever form it may arrive, you have a decision to make. The decision is seemingly simple, yet we quickly arrive at analysis paralysis. Your email backs up. You start dropping important tasks. Missing opportunities. This is exactly because we are trying to keep all these details in our heads. To resolve this problem, GTD provides a decision matrix consisting of four simple categories - do it, defer it, delegate it, drop it.
When new work arrives at your desk, first ask yourself "Do I have time to address this right now?" If you do have the time, then do the work. Get it done.
When you do the work, I suggest putting the time you spent into a calendar. Over time this collection of work that you completed will give you a better picture of how you work, and the type of work you deal with most frequently. I even color-code the blocks of time in my calendar. More on that later.
When new work arrives at your desk, if you do not have the time to "do it" then defer it until later. You accomplish this once again by heading to your calendar. Estimate the time that the work will take, and find a place for it on your calendar. Block off that time.
When the time comes around again, be true to yourself, and do the work. If something else has come up, then move the block to a time when you can take care of it.
Also of importance is the details of the work to be done. I load my calendar blocks with all the pertinent details that relate to that piece of work. In this manner, when I come to the task at some point in the future, I do not have to spend time digging up the references and refreshing the information in my brain. If the information I need is in the calendar block, then I am immediately brought up to speed on what it is exactly that I need to do. Deciding what is pertinent can require some experience to refine. When in doubt, put everything you think might be related into the appointment block.
When new work arrives at your desk, it may not be work for you to do at all. Sometimes somebody else can take the work entirely, or at the very least, may need to take action on the work before you can proceed. When work of this nature arrives at your desk, you delegate it.
This comes with a caveat. While you may be master your time management, that does not mean that others are doing the same. They may still be trying to run everything out of their brains. They may be dropping things along the way. To account for this, turn once again to your calendar, and decide on a time to follow-up on the work. Block off time in your calendar to circle back on the progress with the person to whom the work was delegated. And again, be sure to put all the details in the calendar block.
When the time in your calendar comes back around in the future, you can follow-up with the pertinent individual. If they are not done with the work yet, then schedule an additional follow-up time in the future. In this manner, you transfer the cognitive load to somebody else until it is time for you to actually do the work. When the work is ready for you, then block off time in the calendar to do it.
When new work arrives at your desk, there are times when you do not really need to do that work at all. Or there could be old work that you deferred or delegated that you no longer need to do. This is a moment for brutal honesty. Is this work something you really need to do? If the answer to that question is "no" then drop it.
Just as with deciding what information to put in your "do it" calendar blocks, this also takes some experience to get right. As you settle more into using the decision matrix, you will find that since the cognitive load is less, that the decisions become easier. That the decision becomes more clear. You may find that there was a significant amount of work you used to think was important, but that it was really just stuck in analysis paralysis.
I personally tend to be pretty heavy handed with "drop it" work. There is a lot of noise in the modern workflow. Dropping the work that is not actually important clears up the signal.
While the work may not be important now, sometimes it becomes important later. For this reason, it it important to have a reliable archive system in place. This can take a number of forms. Depending on how often your email gets archived, filing the work away may be a good option.
I have found that email archive and search is not particularly robust or reliable, so I create Markdown documents for work that may become important in the future. These generally take the form of "YYYY-MM-DD-work-label.md".
Color coding your blocks of time can be a helpful tool. In one glance, you can quickly get an idea of where you are spending your time, and how your might choose to optimize. When I am traveling, I expect to see large blocks of time dedicated to getting to the airport, sitting on a plane, and getting to my destination. When I am ramping up for a major deadline, I expect to see large blocks of time dedicated to doing work. If I do not see these colors, then I know I am missing something, or that I am not appropriately aligned with the work that needs to get done.
The labels I currently use for these colors are defined by where I work, Amazon. Amazon has a robust set of Leadership Principles (LP) that are infused across the company. You rarely go a day without hearing an LP. My labels are:
These labels have changed over time, and continue to do so. This reflects the changing nature of my work, the nature of my role, or the employer for which I work. These labels may not work for you, but hopefully they are a good guide to get you started.
Before I had color codes and labels, I set out with blocking time using the decision matrix. After a month, I looked back at the time blocks and decided general categories that I saw surfacing.
Do it. Defer it. Delegate it. Drop it. The "Four D" system of time management thanks to a heavily distilled Getting Things Done. This requires no new tools. Only a calendar, and the occasional Markdown file are needed. You do not need to subscribe to some new service. You do not need to memorize shorthand symbols. You just put time on your calendar, and stick to it.
Done effectively, with practice, people will begin to wonder just how it is that you get so much work done. You will be "that person" that always seems to be a step ahead of the curve. Meanwhile your cognitive load has declined significantly, you sleep better, your do not miss opportunities, and you generally feel less stressed. If that sounds good, then I encourage you to give it a try.