Time Management for the 21st Century

My friend and friendly Brighton competitor Graham Allcott of Think Productive offers this article on time management training for the 21st Century.


Time Management Training used to be so easy:  First, work out what the boss has given you to do.  Second, work out which are the biggest priorities and start with those. Thirdly, look at the next set of priorities, do these and then work your way down your list until you’ve got everything finished.  I remember going on a workshop like this many years ago and thinking it was all common sense stuff: I was doing most of it already and there were a few extra bits that the course allowed me to add.  But then things began to change…

Fast forward a few years later, when I was a Chief Executive of a small national charity.  I can picture vividly my desk, and my memory zooms in on my computer screen to see hundreds upon hundreds of emails. Emails I’d read, emails left unread, but all piling up.  On the desk itself, reports, post, expense claims and financial reports to sign off and a hundred things piled up needing my precious attention.  It characterizes how I used to work: controlled by my email inbox, struggling to lift my head above the parapet and consumed by the stress of information overload.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  I’ve changed all that now, but in order to do so needed me to think about time management in a whole new way.

We live in the information age.  What you can’t do is ignore the problem and hope it goes away: our consumption of information is rising.  Every study about email points to the number of emails we receive on average per year rising by between 10 and 20%.  That’s not to mention the relatively recent additions of social media consumption, easier internet browsing and the free availability of tools that turn information consumers into content providers too.  Expect these to rise exponentially, like it or not.

Let’s start by defining the problem.  Peter Drucker, many years ago coined the term ‘knowledge work’.  Put simply, our jobs in the ‘knowledge work economy’ involve adding value and creating value from information.  At the heart of the Drucker definition is the idea that in order to add value or create value out of information, we need to define as well as do.  Put simply, we are simultaneously taking on the role of boss and worker all at the same time, rather than in conventional, old-fashioned functional work roles where there is a clear task for us to do, where the speed at which we must work is determined not by our energy or motivation, but by the speed of the conveyor belt or the course words of an evil supervisor.

The phrase we most often hear is ‘information overload’.  Information itself is actually not the problem at all.  The problem, as defined so brilliantly by David Allen, author of the best-seller, ‘Getting Things Done’ is ‘potential meaning overload’. It’s the ‘potential meaning’ of each piece of information as it gets our attention that is so overwhelming.  Why?  Two reasons. Firstly, the meaning could potentially be a gold-mine (extra funding, helping the charity achieve its’ mission, new opportunities for exciting partnerships) or a land-mine (‘if I miss this deadline we’ll look bad’, ‘we need to comply with this’, ‘we can’t afford to not be involved’ and so on).  As civil society organisations, adding the right value to the right information is arguably more critical than anywhere else: rarely in the private or public sectors is it a matter of life or death to organizations or even our users.

Secondly, our brains are limited in their ability to retain information.  If you don’t believe me, think back to that childhood party game, “I went to the shops and I bought…”  Very few people can retain more than about ten things in their mind without starting to drop things, yet most people decide their brains are the best place to try to retain all their projects and commitments rather than externalizing this properly into lists, project plans and so on.  It’s so much easier to see the wood from the trees – and make intuitive decisions about comparative value – when you can actually SEE all the trees!

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all, you’re not alone.  Realise that there are actually 4 distinct disciplines in knowledge work.  At Think Productive, we have adapted some of the key principles from David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ (which is a popular self-management system taught by a ridiculously small number of training companies, including both Integration Training and Think Productive) into what we call the CORD workflow model:

CAPTURE & COLLECT – the gathering of all information, as it arises.  This goes a long way to eliminating the stress created by fearing we’ll miss or forget things, as long as you know you will come back and process this information later.

ORGANISE – systematically analyzing what you’ve collected and making up-front decisions on what the final conclusion and next action will be for each piece of information, or of course, deciding things aren’t worth doing at all.  The discipline of keeping action-orientated lists, where you have already defined the next action, the location and what the finish line looks like is one of the most underrated skills in knowledge work.

REGULAR REVIEW – regularly practicing two distinct forms of review: the ‘in the moment’ review of your ‘next action lists’, designed to make the decision about ‘what next?’ and ‘what adds the most value?’, and the ‘weekly review’, where you revisit your list of projects and make sure that you know the next action for each and every project you’re committed to and get a wider perspective on things.

DO – As Seth Godin calls it, ‘Shipping’.  There’s nothing more satisfying in your quest to avoid information overload than clearing the decks with some good old fashioned action.  But recognizing that there are three other phases we need to complete before a lot of the magic happens can make the ‘doing’ part so much more enjoyable.

Recognizing these four distinct phases on knowledge work can be a great help when we’re faced with information overload – where’s the ‘blockage’?  Is it too much information coming in? Is it too much information remaining undefined, with no sense of the potential meaning? Is it because you need to take a step back and revisit priorities?  Or is it that the time for thinking is over and you need to clear the decks by simply getting on with delivering on your commitments?

From a personal management point of view, what this means is that the question “what can we fit into the time?” is no longer the most critical question to ask.  Given that our potential success as well as our sanity is largely based on our ability to define meaning and create value out of ever-increasing volumes of uncertainty-laden information, our new critical question should be “where should I put and how should I use my attention and energy?”.  This might seem like a subtle change.  It’s anything but.

There is, of course, a cultural dimension to this too.  Work/life balance policies, excellent line-management, good communication and a healthy attitude to innovation and the possibility of human failure all play a part in making an organization a healthier place to work where the ‘too much information’ syndrome can be addressed quite explicitly.  I work with organizations across all sectors to confront this very openly, helping to get email inboxes to zero, improve email and information etiquette, implementing the CORD model mentioned here with teams and helping to apply clarity and focus to meetings.  Doing this openly creates a culture where we can reclaim our time and attention, control our information flow rather than letting it control us and ultimately create more value and meaning on our quest to make the world that little bit better.

Graham Allcott is a Brighton-based social entrepreneur and the founder of Think Productive, a specialist time management training company offering workshops with ‘at desk coaching’.  They run email training, such as ‘Getting your Inbox to Zero’ and ‘Email Etiquette’ as well as a practical facilitation training course called ‘Making Meetings Magic’.


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