Harnessing Down Time

July 29, 2007 by
Filed under: Agility, Process 

We all have far more that we would like to get done than we have available time to do these things. This is true in the workplace and outside as well. Wouldn’t it be great if we could take advantage of all the down time we seem to have during our day to accomplish more?

Think of all those moments that seem like stolen time, where we are waiting for someone to arrive or something to happen. You actually get to a meeting or training session on time, but it takes others another 10 minutes to show up, usually rushing from their previous meeting (remember, though, that when the shoe is on the other foot, you are the one stealing time from them…). You may have made it through all the security checks at the airport only to find that your flight has been delayed by another hour. Perhaps you are building your system, and the entire process (which is automated, right?) takes 20 minutes or more.

We all have moments like these, every day. There are a few steps to take so that we can actually get things done during this time, and end up with a lot more accomplished at the end of the day.

To start with, you need to have a list of things that need to get done. Not something that is committed to memory (as most of our lists are way too long for that), but something in writing. My preference is the task list that is synchronized between my laptop and PDA, but a paper-based solution can be just as effective. It is important to have everything on that list. Just as it is important to manage all potential drivers for change on software projects on a common basis, the same holds true for your task list. If you keep some items to do on Post-its stuck to your screen, some as e-mails left in your inbox, some in your head and some on a task list, there is no way you can manage them effectively.

You need a list, just one comprehensive list. The nice things about managing it electronically are that I’m not constantly carrying forward items as I used to when I used engineering journals, I can automatically handle repetitive tasks (I have one for this newsletter that fires off weekly, for example), and it is easier to sort and prioritize the list. The bigger tasks on the list will usually be too large to wrestle with, and often get continuously deferred, even of they are quite important strategically. Break down the big ones into smaller, manageable chunks.

Sort and prioritize the list in a way that works for you. Some will have hard deadlines, some will be dependent on others before they can be started. You may find it valuable to estimate effort in some way, I tend to just break the bigger ones down until each one is something I can finish in an hour or two. I find that going to more involved project management approaches is overkill: I never build a network of dependencies between tasks, though there are times when activities on my task list have been derived from a more comprehensive project plan that sits elsewhere.

If you have all your things to do on this list, it can then become the driver for what you plan to accomplish for the day. Start each morning by reviewing the list, identifying the ones you want to bite off during the day. Ideally you can carve out chunks of time with specific things to get done in those slots. Don’t plan out your whole day, we both know that there will be surprises and interruptions to deal with.

There will always be some tasks on your list that can be done in fits and starts, with proper preparation. Ideas for newsletter articles, reviews or edits of some of your peer’s work, catching up on that stack of reading that never gets smaller, killing off the new items in your inbox. Some things will require that you are online, but many are simpler to accomplish.

I always keep my task list close at hand, and always carry a file folder with the things I would need to work on things if the moment arises. A draft of a paper that needs reviewing is in there, as is a magazine that arrived today and a couple of business cards for people I need to contact. Depending on my frame of mind and the length of time I have available, I could attack any or all of these, because I sat down at the start of the day and made sure that I had these things with me.

I’m not so stressed anymore if someone is late for a meeting, and when my flight was delayed last Sunday, I managed to get quite a bit done. It takes a little organization and preparation, but I find that I’m far more able to stay on top of things that otherwise would seem to pile up. Knowing that these opportunities will arise during the day, doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of them? – JB

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