Rafael works as a regulatory affairs manager in an engineering firm. He has a near-superhuman workload, but he’s one of the best people I’ve seen at finishing what he starts. The secret to finishing what he starts is in the way he plans and executes using a “do” list that utilizes “bigger chunks of time. Smaller chunks of work.”
He keeps a schedule and a to-do list. But he also keeps a “do” list. He showed me his system. He keeps two whiteboards mounted on the wall on either side of his desk. One whiteboard tracks Rafael’s longer-term “Projects” (detailed in the left column) and his “Ongoing Responsibilities” for each project (detailed in the right column). That whiteboard was full when I saw it, and each item was color-coded to indicate its priority (e.g., red was his current priority number one).
The other whiteboard outlined Rafael’s current day, and it also had two columns. The heading on the left column read, “today,” and it listed time slots in one-hour increments. The right-column heading read, “do.”
I was surprised to see that this second whiteboard was mostly empty, which I found odd because Rafael was always so incredibly productive. Isn’t “today” supposed to be where all the action is? The few things he’d listed on that whiteboard were in blocked-out time frames of thirty to sixty minutes. He had marked each time block with an arrow pointing to the “Do” column, where he’d written a brief notation (or a shortlist of notations).
You might think Rafael’s system was a version of the common practice of using whiteboards to track goals and schedules and maintain to-do lists. But Rafael said no. “That’s my ‘do’ list,” he told me, “not my ‘to-do’ list.” And, “That’s not my schedule. Those are the only gaps in my schedule.” He explained, “My schedule is back to back to back with meetings and conference calls. So I find and mark out those gaps every day because those are my chance to focus”—and get sh-t done.
The two whiteboards are a great metaphor: while the longer-term list is relatively static, the daily list changes, not just every day, but all day long. Rafael said, “Those ‘do’ items almost never roll over from one day to the next. If it’s on my ‘do’ list, I get it done and erase it.”
So, don’t just keep a to-do list. Start keeping a daily “do” list. And don’t just keep a schedule. Identify your schedule gaps every day and use them for focused execution of the items on that “do” list.
Two-part strategy to take control of your time by slowing down.
- Increase your smallest increments of time, the time spans spent on one activity before shifting activities. That way, you will start juggling more slowly, even if you are still juggling. The more you increase the time frames during which you are focused on one activity, the more you will get done.
- Meanwhile, try to set aside more dedicated, bigger chunks of time (thirty to forty-five minutes) for focused execution on top priorities. The more dedicated time chunks you set aside, the more you will get done.
The goal is to start doing everything in larger increments of time and dedicating more and more big chunks to your most important activities.
So, do you know what your most important activities are right now? You will if you are going vertical and are aligned up and down your chain of command. What would your boss say were your most important activities? What would your boss’s boss say? What about your direct reports—do they know what they should be devoting their own time chunks to?
Are you aligning with your sideways and diagonal working partners? What are their priorities? Where do those square with those of your chain of command?
What are your own priorities? Set priorities and revisit them regularly. What are your most important tasks, responsibilities, and projects? What is the most important right now at work? Why? Are you sure? What is number two? Number three? Do you have time for any more than three right now? How are you allocating your time among your top three priorities right now?
It’s OK if you have five or ten or fifteen priorities. But you can- not, absolutely cannot, have more than three right now. What is right now for you? Today? Tomorrow? This week? Next week? Three weeks from now is a vision. It is not here yet. What are you going to do right now? Answering that question is how you gain control of your time right now.
If you have limited time and too much to do, then you need to set priorities—an order of precedence or preference for your tasks—so that you control what gets done first, second, and third. Today, what’s going to be first, second, and third? Nothing else matters today.
That means, every week, every day, plan every step of your work. Break big projects into manageable tasks, estimate accurately how long they will each take to complete, and set a time- table based on those realistic estimates. Sure, you will still have to juggle some. But remember, you are trying to quit.
OK, here’s the twist. If you are going to start getting more and more done, then you must expand your units of productive capacity and increase the number of increments in your day when you can set aside focused execution time. At the same time, you must break your work into smaller and smaller chunks.
How small? That depends. As small as it takes to keep you moving from one concrete action to the next, from one next step to another, so you can finish what you start. Every concrete action can be broken down into smaller and smaller components, and each small component itself can be broken down into still smaller components.
Whenever I’m working with anybody, at any level, who is get- ting bogged down, working like crazy, but somehow not getting enough done, I always do the same thing: I help them break each concrete action into smaller chunks. Smaller and smaller chunks. Smaller and smaller. Until, if necessary, I am saying, “Send a message from your brain to your right index finger. Type the “m” key. Now send a message from your brain to your left index finger. Type the r key.” And so on.
It might sound crazy or extreme, but try it. Any time you get bogged down, break every task into its smaller and smaller components, and then start tackling them one small chunk at a time. You’ll see it works. You will start moving forward.
Bigger chunks of time. Smaller chunks of work. That’s the ticket.
Bite-Sized Chunks of Work and Bigger Chunks of Time
There are a million metaphors for breaking bigger tasks into smaller pieces—projects broken into intermediate goals; inter- mediate goals into smaller goals; specific lists of concrete actions in between each of the smaller goals.
This is the metaphor I prefer: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I think of every concrete action as a bite-sized chunk of an elephant. Here’s why that’s my preferred metaphor: you have to chew and swallow one bite of the elephant before you can take the next bite. So, don’t stuff your mouth with an elephant. Carve up everything into bite-sized chunks. Then bite, chew, swallow. Look around: do you need to tune in to an interruption? Let’s hope not. Bite, chew, swallow.
You don’t have to eat the whole elephant in one sitting. Set aside chunks of time every day—without interruptions—for focused execution, ideally thirty- to forty-five-minute time blocks. How many bite-sized chunks can you eat at one sitting?
Everybody is different. You need to figure out your optimal time chunk for focusing and your optimal bite size. Maybe you’ll have different time chunks for different sorts of bites. Whatever it is, start there.