Everything Takes Longer Than Anticipated: Hofstadter’s Law [Mental Models]

Think of your weekend days. You typically wake up and think of all the free time at hand. You plan a day of leisure. You intend to run some errands and get a few things done around the house. Yet, at the end of the day, you’ve done barely half of what you originally set out to do.

People Habitually Underestimate the Time Tasks Take

Almost everything that humankind has ever wished for—from renewing a driver’s license to achieving peace between countries at war—seems to have not completed within the time originally planned.

As the following case studies will illustrate, interruptions, deferrals, and delays characteristically result in cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and disputes.

  • Sydney’s Opera House was originally forecast in 1957 to be completed in 1963. The magnificent performing arts complex formally opened only in 1973 and cost 15 times the original budget.
  • Hofstadter's Law: Boeing 787 Dreamliner Delays and LossesWhen Boeing first launched its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2004, it ambitiously planned for first flight in September 2007. After six delays in the design and prototype phases, the 787 first flew only in December 2009. First aircraft delivery was scheduled for 2008, but didn’t happen until September 2011, more than three years behind schedule. Then, after a series of early in-service technical and operational problems, Boeing embarked on serious drawn-out repairs on 787s. Following yet more production delays, the 787 started flying full-fledged only in 2013. The innumerable delays and cost overruns associated with the 787 program became a financial nightmare for Boeing’s investors. Boeing took nine years to get the Dreamliner off the drawing board and into mature service at a total development cost of $32 billion—twice as long as the company’s original estimation and more than five times more expensive.
  • Less than 50 days before the start of last year’s Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity” citing severe delays and acute cost overruns. The New York Times reported, “The city is a huge construction site. Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017.”

Hofstadter’s Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things Take

Hofstadter's Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things TakeThe American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter conceived an ironic and recursive rule to characterize the observation that everything takes longer than planned.

Hofstadter’s Law states, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”

Hofstadter first discussed this law in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book popular among American computer programmers.

Underestimating Task-Time Means Constantly Rushing to Finish Things

According to planning fallacy, when people predict the time it takes to complete a task, they make their estimations by considering the various steps they have to take, but fail to imagine the pessimistic conditions where things could go wrong.

Project Delays: Hofstadter's Law, Planning Fallacy and Optimism BiasIn other words, thanks to optimism bias, people are generally too optimistic about the time it takes for them to complete a task, even when they are explicitly asked to think about potential obstacles.

Hofstadter’s Law also alludes to,

  • Superiority Bias where people overrate their own positive qualities and abilities—and underrate their negative qualities—when compared with others. “This takes three hours for the average Joe, but I am smarter, and I can do it in two hours.”
  • Beneffectance Bias where people perceive themselves as selectively accountable for the desired—but not the undesired—outcomes. “Last week, this took me 45 minutes, but the delay was because of conditions beyond my control. Today, I have full control; so I should take just 20 minutes.”

Idea for Impact: The problem with unforeseen delays is that you can’t foresee them, no matter how comprehensively you plan

Though somewhat silly in its recursive character, Hofstadter’s Law observes that, irrespective of how carefully you plan, every project will be prone to something unanticipated that will hinder its timely completion. The law’s recursiveness affirms that, even if you know a project may overrun and build that expectation into your planning, the project will overrun even your new estimated finish time.

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress [Mental Models]

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress {Mental Models}

People Remember Incomplete Tasks Better than Completed Tasks

When you listen to a song that’s unexpectedly cut off in the middle, your mind will repeatedly inject your thought stream with bits of the song in an attempt to remind you that you’re not yet “done” listening. But, once you listen to that song completely, your mind moves on.

Psychologists identify this tendency for interrupted tasks—and thoughts—to be evoked better than completed tasks the Zeigarnik Effect.

Ruminating about Unfinished Tasks Causes Anxiety

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik who reported Zeigarnik Effect when working with research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of BerlinThis phenomenon was first reported in the 1920s by the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Working with her research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of Berlin, Zeigarnik observed that restaurant waiters seemed to remember a complex order just so long as the order was in the process of being prepared and served, but not after it was finished.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik effect is in force when an episode of a TV series ends with a cliffhanger leaving the audience in suspense until the next episode. Teachers who conclude their lectures by posing a perplexing question stimulate the class to think about the answer until the next class.

In another prominent use of the cliffhanger and the Zeigarnik Effect as a literary device, the English novelist Charles Dickens released most of his novels in the form of serial publications, i.e. in monthly or weekly installments. Dickens’s cliffhangers initiated such anticipation in reader’s minds that his American fans would gather at New York City’s docks for the latest installment to arrive by ship from England. The installment format also allowed Dickens to rework his character development and his plots depending on audiences’ reactions.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik Effect and the Need for Closure: Task Management

Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik’s research showed that the human mind hates unfinished tasks. Zeigarnik theorized that incomplete tasks incite “psychic tension” in you, which can be a persuasive impetus to complete the task. As long as you leave the task unfinished, your brain is in an uncomfortable position. Thoughts of the task serve to remind your brain of what it needs to do to get “comfortable” once again. As soon as you complete the task, this tension is alleviated, and in so doing, your brain lets the mind to release thoughts of the task from consciousness.

In other words, much mental effort is required when your tasks are interrupted or are still in the process of being completed.

From a time-management perspective, uncompleted tasks and unmet goals have a propensity for popping into your mind and worrying you persistently until the task is completed and the goal reached.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) According to John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, further research in cognitive psychology has suggested that the Zeigarnik effect exists not just until you actually finish a task but also until you make concrete plans related to the task.

… turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

According to Willpower, one research study asked students to think about an important exam. Half of the students were asked to put in writing specific plans of what/where/when they would study. Later, all students were asked to do a word association test. The group of students that did not write any study plans produced more word associations related to studying because studying was still on their mind; the group who did write down their study plans did not exhibit a comparable bias during the word association test.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

The Zeigarnik Effect is the central theorem in David Allen’s legendary “Getting Things Done” method for task-management works.

Allen reasons that the dominant cause of everyday anxiety is that you are never truly sure of all the ‘things’ you’re supposed to do. You know you’ve got things to take care of and haven’t. Therefore, your mind keeps incoherently revisiting all that’s important but not yet completed. These “open loops” occupy much of your cognitive effort and debilitate your attention, causing anxiety, sapping your energy, and draining your willpower.

The primary benefit of using Allen’s Getting Things Done system is to reduce anxiety by emptying your mind of nagging tasks, filing away (or writing down) everything that must be done, placing them into a processing system, and scheduling chunks of time to single-mindedly do important things.

Human Mind Hates Unfinished Tasks

'Getting Things Done' by David Allen (ISBN 0670899240) According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unresolved and interrupted tasks thieve the attention of your brain until you have a clear—if subconscious—proposal of what you’re going to deal with them.

Just the simple act of capturing a task that reaches your head can achieve that sense of completion. Even if you haven’t completed the task, you’ll know that you’ve accomplished what could be done up to the moment.

Here’s three clever ways to use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage:

  • Use the Two-minute ‘Do-It-Now’ Rule. See my previous article on this task management discipline—in a nutshell: act immediately upon a contemplated task if it can be completed in less than two minutes. Don’t add it to your to-do list.
  • Make a Concrete Plan. Whenever you have a task in mind, stop doing whatever you’re doing, take a blank sheet of paper, and invest one minute to plan and record how you intend to tackle the task. If you intend to write an essay, write an outline; if it’s a report, start the list of contents.
  • Judiciously Use To-Do Lists. Establish and peruse a trusted system to capture your projects and tasks, and the commitments you have to yourself and others. According to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, your human brain is an ineffective and unreliable repository of all the things you try to cram into it. All this “stuff” collectively clutters your headspace. Getting all your stuff out of your head and into a trusted system can bring about a profound sense of relief.

How to Decline a Meeting Invitation

Meetings Suck

How to Decline a Meeting InvitationIt’s not without reason that everybody gripes about meetings. Meetings distract people from meaningful work.

However, when purposefully conceived and efficiently run, meetings are not wasteful. Meetings are important instruments of organizational endeavor—they provide a chance to pull resources together for communication and decision-making. There are, therefore, only two serviceable objectives of a meeting:

  1. To inform and update
  2. To seek input and make collective decisions

Participating Effectively in Meetings

Participate in a meeting only if the agenda includes something important, timely, and worthwhile for you.

Ask the following questions to decide if you need to participate in a meeting:

  1. Has the meeting been well-defined? Do you have all the information you need to decide if you need to attend this meeting? Are the purpose and agenda of the meeting clear? Do you have the relevant background material? Are all the relevant participants invited?
  2. How will you benefit from this meeting?
  3. Is the decision being made at this meeting important to the success or failure of your team / organization?
  4. Does the meeting really need you? In other words, will your presence influence the discussions and the expected outcomes?

How to Politely Decline a Meeting Invitation

How to Politely Decline a Meeting InvitationIf you’re been invited to attend a meeting that you think is avoidable, try to persuade the meeting’s leader that your productive time may be better used elsewhere. Share your rationale so that the meeting’s leader has some context for why you’re not participating. Here’s how to decline the meeting:

  • “May I send somebody else to fill in for me?” Find a delegate who could represent your interests.
  • “May I suggest somebody else?” Propose other participants if the items on the meeting’s agenda are not within the purview of your role, or if you don’t have the expertise and authority to impact the conversation and the decision-making.
  • “May I provide my inputs in advance?” Take some time to review the agenda items, do your homework, organize your remarks or inputs, and brief the meeting leader or other participants beforehand.
  • “May I participate in the most relevant segment of the meeting?” If one or more items on the meeting agenda aren’t relevant to your goals, attend just those parts of the meeting that are applicable. Consider asking, “Could you please move my agenda item to the top of the meeting? I can’t stay for the whole meeting.”
  • “Could you please postpone this meeting?” Or, “May I skip this week’s update … I am still working on my task. Therefore, I am not yet ready for a productive conversation yet or give you a status-update.”
  • “I am sorry, given my department’s goals for this year, I don’t find this meeting helpful.” Request a summary of the meeting and follow-up as needed.

The key to saying “no” to a meeting is to say it decisively without appearing to be dodging your responsibilities. Make a deliberate effort to meet the needs of all the meeting’s participants.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Become Hostage to Meetings

Being in too many meetings can wreak havoc on your schedule and pinch your ability to focus on larger, more-worthwhile goals. Just go to all the ones you absolutely need to, and delegate or curtail your participation in the rest.

The Art of Taking Action: Use The Two Minute “Do-it-Now” Rule

The Art of Taking Action: Use The Two Minute Do-it-Now Rule

Many tasks that people tend to procrastinate on aren’t really difficult to do. People have the ability, energy, and time to undertake such tasks, but just aren’t disciplined enough to not dodge starting them for one reason or another.

One particular habit that robs people of time is putting all their tasks on a to-do list, prioritizing the list, and then tackling the tasks by priority. But it’s often wiser to skip the to-do list and simply do many tasks immediately. This constitutes the Two Minute Do-it-Now Rule, a discipline popularized by David Allen in his bestselling time management book, Getting Things Done. This rule directs you to act immediately on a contemplated task if it can be completed in less than two minutes.

  • You’ll not only save the time it takes to put the task on your to-do list, but also prevent the buildup of tasks hanging over your head.
  • By limiting the time you’re allocating to get the task done, you can finish it more efficiently and avoid being perfectionistic about it. (See my previous article on Parkinson’s Law, which states that work tends to expand to fill up the time you give it.)
  • You’ll avoid procrastination by getting the task done straightaway and not letting it fall through the cracks. Therefore, this technique has the added advantage of making you appear responsive.

Idea for Impact: Don’t put a task on your to-do list if you can get it done within two minutes. You’ll be surprised at how many tasks you tend to put off that you could get done in two minutes or less.

How to Leave Work at Work

Employees are expected to be 100% on

Leave Work at Work There was once a time when people went to work, clocked in, put in their hours, clocked out, and forgot all about work until the next day. They fully disconnected from work and took real vacations. They maintained a healthy separation between their work time and their personal time.

Alas, those good times are long gone. Today’s challenging and competitive workplace demands of people not only their stamina to work exceptionally hard but also their hearts-and-minds’ commitment to bring creativity and insight to their efforts.

The pressure to constantly prove themselves is also exacerbated by how modern society judges people by their professional and financial successes—what they do, what they’ve accomplished, and how quickly they’ve accomplished it.

People are expected to be 100% on, take work home, and check in during their vacations. The upshot is that many people have real trouble turning work off. Work-related thoughts encroach upon their off-work hours. Some even lose sleep or wake up in the middle of the night thinking about their work.

Don’t bring work home in your head

  • Get a Life. Have a life to go to after you leave work. Develop a rich social life. Invest more time in your relationships. Get involved in absorbing activities, events, and hobbies. Schedule fun activities—you’ll have something to look forward to at the end of your workday.
  • Organize your workday. Structure your schedule to prevent hustling through work towards the end of the day. Be realistic about what you want to accomplish. In the middle of the afternoon, review the tasks ahead. Prioritize, reorganize, and pace yourself to wind down your workday. Do not answer phone calls or email during the last hour.
  • Organize and prioritize your next day’s schedule before you leave your office. Clean off your desk at the end of each day. This not only brings about a feeling of order and completion, but also helps you tune down and free up your mind.
  • Create a buffer between work and home. Stop by a gym, go shopping, or visit a friend. After you get home, change clothes, go for a walk, or do something relaxing to mark the transition and create a relaxed mindset for the evening.
  • Vent if necessary. Ask your loved ones to give you a few minutes to “let it out.” Expect them to just listen and be non-judgmental.
  • Don’t bring work home. Leave your briefcase, laptop, reports, and work-related reading at your desk.
  • Disconnect. Modern technology makes it easier for you to stay connected, but also makes it more difficult than ever to leave work at work. Leave your laptop at work. Turn off email and instant messaging on your phone. Resist the temptation to check your email on the family computer. Don’t visit the business center at the hotel when you’re on vacation.
  • Delegate and cross-train your staff to handle some of your responsibilities while you’re away.
  • Stop checking in with the office, especially when you’re on vacation. Your team will get along fine without you around. Crises will get managed, production will continue, customers will continue to be satisfied, and you’ll still have your job when you return. Let your team know how to find you in a dire emergency, but ask them not to bother you with the inconsequential stuff.

Idea for Impact: Don’t let work take over your life. Establish boundaries.

Don’t let your work run you. Don’t take work home literally (in your bag/briefcase or on your laptop) or figuratively (in your head). Enjoy your downtime.

Learn to disconnect from work unreservedly and spend time with your family. Play with the kids. Quality time with your loved ones is often more rewarding than your time at work. And perhaps by doing less work, you may end up loving your job more.

Survive Stress & Manage Time Better Using Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law proclaims, “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

'Parkinson's Law, and Other Studies in Administration' by Cyril Northcote Parkinson (ISBN 0395083737) This adage’s namesake is British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who first detailed it as an opening remark in his famous 1955 The Economist essay.

Parkinson’s Law has spawned many serviceable corollaries:

  • A wardrobe expands to fill all the available closet space.
  • A hoarder’s corpus of unwanted items and junk expands to fill his available space—in closets, cabinets, attics, garage, etc.
  • Data expands to fill the space available for storage.
  • Boredom expands to fill the space and time available to an affected individual.
  • Meetings expand to fill the time available. (Appropriately, if you set an hour for the meeting, people will use the entire hour, in spite of how much is on the agenda.)
  • No matter how much money people earn, they tend to spend the entire amount and a little bit more besides.

Parkinson’s Law for Stress-Management and Time-Management

Parkinson's Law for Time Management From a stress- and time-management perspective, the functional implication of Parkinson’s Law is that tasks take as much time as you allot for them. In other words, the amount of time that you have to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task.

For example, if you have two hours to process engineering data, clean your wardrobe, bake a cake, or build a birdhouse, you are likely to fill those entire two hours performing that task, even if the task need not necessarily take as much time if you were efficient enough.

Idea for Impact: Put Bookends on Your Activities

According to Parkinson’s Law, work can contract to fill in the time you give it. You can apply artificial limitations to your work in order to finish it more efficiently. Consider setting time limits on all your activities.

Set a timer for each task you’re trying to get done. If you reckon something may take 90 minutes, set a timer for 90 minutes—or better yet, challenge yourself to be more efficient by setting a timer for 60 minutes. During that time, allow no interruptions and distractions. Keep your nose to the grindstone, apply yourself thoroughly to the task, and get it done.

For habitual procrastinators who tend to put off looming tasks to a later time and exert themselves at the “last minute” prior to an imminent deadline, one other corollary to Parkinson’s Law may be helpful: “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do,” possibly producing mediocre results.

Advice for the First-Time Manager: Whom Should You Invest Your Time With?

Advice for the First-Time Manager: Whom Should You Invest Your Time With?

Before you were a manager, success was all about your individual performance. When you become a manager, success is all about growing your employees. It is about bringing out the best in people who work for you—making them smarter, pushing them to perform better, and advancing their professional development.

As a manager and a team-leader, your performance as an individual matters in the sense of how you cultivate your team’s efficacy and foster their self-confidence through coaching and feedback. Your success will be measured less by what you do and more from the reflected glory of your team.

Given a team to manage,

  • Don’t invest the same amount of time for each employee. Treat employees differently, based on their responsibilities, strengths, and their developmental needs. Do spend some time every week chatting with each employee. Then prioritize and invest more time with:
    • those who ask for your help.
    • those who need your help, but may not ask for it—especially those employees who may be struggling with some assignments because of their weaknesses.
    • those who are transitioning into their roles or may be experiencing changes.
    • those whose ideas and performance have the biggest impact to the organization—now or in the future.
    • those competent employees who understand the responsibility you’ve assigned them and the results expected. Especially with employees who need little help and direction getting things done, focus on ensuring that your expectations and priorities align with theirs.
  • Give your employees the freedom and responsibility to do their jobs. Set high standards and make them accountable for achieving the results.
  • Give your employees continuous, timely feedback: not just during the HR-required mid-year or end-of-year performance reviews. Thoughtfully use every meeting, design review, brainstorming, project closure, or client-presentation as a teaching moment.

To Become Time-Conscious, Always Ask, “Is It a Priority?”

To Become Time-Conscious, Always Ask, 'Is It a Priority?'

As I wrote in my three-part series on time logging, time analyzing, and time budgeting, life is all about values and the relative priorities you attach to these values.

Priorities imply choice; you get to make a choice in almost everything you do. Every choice involves tradeoffs: when you choose to do something, it implies that you choose not do something else.

Before being sucked into doing anything, ask, “Is this the best use of my time?”

Another way to think about this is in terms of “opportunity cost.” Everything in life has an opportunity cost. Whenever you take up one opportunity, you forfeit another. When you choose to go to a movie with a friend, it means you aren’t going to the library to work on a research paper that’s due next week. When you choose to spend this month’s savings on new furniture, it means you can’t add to your retirement account. So, when making decisions about anything, keep opportunity costs in mind. Be aware of what you’re giving up.

One of the most important choices you make—often subconsciously—is how you use your time, which is your most important resource. Before doing anything, be aware of what you are giving up; decide whether the benefits are worth the time you’re investing in the task.

The Nagging “5-5-5” Questions

Is It a Priority Poor time management often has less to do with your packed schedule than with your indecisive, unorganized, or undisciplined mind. To improve your life, stop wasting time on things that don’t matter. Have a little voice in your head that constantly nags you by asking the following “5-5-5” questions:

  • Is this a priority?
  • Will this matter in 5 days?
  • Will this matter in 5 months?
  • Will this matter in 5 years?

The “5-5-5” questions will prevent you from being caught up in little tasks and trivialities that aren’t truly important.

Idea for Impact: Be time conscious; constantly ask yourself, “Is this time-effective?”

According to my world’s shortest course on time management, “There are countless things you can do. There are numerous things you want to do. There are several things others expect you to do. There are many things you think you are supposed to do. However, there are only a few things that you must do. Focus on those and avoid the rest.”

As I mentioned in my article “don’t say ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’,” don’t be vulnerable enough to be pulled along by forces that are beyond your control. Be accommodating when you can and assertive when you must. Be intentional about how you choose to use our time. Your life depends on it.

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

“He who every morning plans the transactions of the day and follows out that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life. The orderly arrangement of his time is a like a ray of life which darts itself through all his occupations. But where no plan is laid, where the disposal of time is surrendered merely to the chance of incident, chaos will soon reign.”
Victor Hugo

“A Guaranteed Formula for Success”

Ivy Lee's A popular legend recalls a time management trick that efficiency expert Ivy Lee showed to Charles Michael Schwab (1862—1939,) the American steel magnate and President of Bethlehem Steel, then the second largest steel manufacturer in the United States.

Lee famously advised Charles Schwab and his managers to list and rank their top priorities every day, and work on tasks in the order of their importance as time allows, not proceeding until a task was completed. After implementing the suggestion, Charles Schwab famously said that Lee’s method for managing priorities had been the most profitable advice he had ever received and paid him $25,000.

When Charles Schwab was president of Bethlehem Steel, he confronted Ivy Lee, a management consultant, with an unusual challenge. “Show me a way to get more things done,” he demanded. “If it works, I will pay you anything within reason.”

Lee handed Schwab a piece of paper. “Write down the things you have to do tomorrow.”

When Schwab had completed the list, Lee said, “Now number these items in the order of their real importance.”

Schwab did, and Lee said, “The first thing tomorrow morning, start working on number one and stay with it until it’s completed. Then take number two, and don’t go any further until it’s finished or until you’ve done as much with it as you can. Then proceed to number three and so on. If you can’t complete everything on schedule, don’t worry. At least you will have taken care of the most important things before getting distracted by items of less importance.

“The secret is to do this daily. Evaluate the relative importance of the things you have to get done, establish priorities, record your plan of action, and stick to it. Do this every working day. After you have convinced yourself that this system has value, have your people try it. Test it as long as you like, and then send me a check for whatever you think the idea is worth.”

Mary Kay Ash Helped Her Beauty Consultants Juggle Spouse, Children, and Career

'You Can Have It All' by Mary Kay Ash (ISBN 0761501622) Mary Kay Ash, American beauty products entrepreneur and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, had a variation to this technique. In You Can Have It All, she writes:

Each night, I put together my list for the following day. If I don’t get something on my list accomplished, it goes on the next day’s list. I put the hardest or most unappealing task at the top of the list. This way, I tackle the most difficult item first, and once it’s out of the way, I feel my day is off to a good start.

Mary Kay Ash taught her cosmetics sales consultants this technique of prioritizing their work and thus avoid being stretched too thin. Most of Mary Kay’s cosmetics sales consultants were women filling multiple roles as mother, wife, and businesswoman.

We try very hard to get our consultants to organize themselves. The best way I have found is a little pad of paper we issue called “The Six Most Important Things.” I teach consultants to write down the six most important things they have to do the next day every night before they go to bed. I suggest that people organize things by priority. First, put the thing they most don’t want to do at the top. Then write down the six most important things—not sixteen, because this is frustrating, but six.

Idea for Impact: Squeeze the Most out of Your Day

The best way to start your day is by accomplishing something instead of fiddling around with email or contemplating the day’s priorities. So, every evening, before you leave the office, write down the most important tasks you’ve got to get done the next day. Leave it on your desk along with any support material you need to work on it. This will help you get rolling first thing in the morning.

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Email, instant messages, and alerts have evolved into our primary mode of communication. From project management to socializing, everything at work and in our personal lives centers on electronic messages. Many of us have found the unending tide of these messages unmanageable.

Research has shown that checking messages just a few times a day can help reduce stress and prevent the feeling of being incessantly ‘invaded’ by emails.

If you feel weary, annoyed, and unproductive from a daily deluge of messages, try the following techniques to regulate your electronic communication.

  • Turn off alerts on all your devices. Productivity studies have shown that people take 15 minutes on average to return to serious mental tasks (thinking about a project, writing reports, or debugging computer code, for example) after being interrupted by an incoming email or an instant message.
  • Maintain a zero inbox, i.e. consistently process all incoming email and get your inbox to zero messages. See my previous article on this productivity technique.
  • Set up and use subject-specific folders to hold your incoming and sent messages. This makes it easier to retrieve emails later.
  • Relieve Inbox Stress and Email Overload Do not check emails continually throughout the day. Instead, process only three times a day: once in the morning, once during lunch, and then again before going home. Don’t waste the most productive hours of your day doing email.
  • Reserve time to focus on email. Set a time limit on your activities and blast through the messages without interruption. Stop when the time runs out. (Remember Parkinson’s Law: work will expand to fill the allotted time.)
  • When you process email,
    1. If you can respond to a message in less than two minutes, do so right away.
    2. If a response may need more than two minutes or you must look up information, defer it. Leave the incoming email in your inbox or file it in a ‘Draft’ folder. Dedicate the last email session of a day to respond to such emails and clear the Draft folder.
    3. Delete, file, or delegate.
    4. Process all emails and fully clear your inbox by the end of the day.
  • Tell people you correspond with the most (your boss, employees, peers) that you check email only a few times a day. Let them know that if they need to reach you immediately, they could come over to your desk or call you. If possible, encourage them to follow your email discipline.
  • Limit off-the-clock correspondence. Don’t make a ritual of catching up on work email after dinner or during the weekends.

Idea for Impact: If your inbox is driving you crazy, some discipline can help you process—not just check—emails and mitigate some stress.