Every useful personal development tool worth its salt has a catchy and easy to remember acronym or moniker, and so it is with the subject of this week’s blog, the 4 Ds* of effective time management. It’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by the thought of all the things you need to do; whether immediate or less pressing, work-related or at home, practical or more abstract. Sometimes the very act of listing tasks down is helpful, allowing you to quantify the size of the job in hand and tick things off with a great sense of achievement and satisfaction as they are completed. I’ve talked before about to-do lists, and they remain one of the most simple, yet effective, methods of managing your time.
On their own however, to-do lists will not help you prioritise and plan; it’s all too easy to tackle the small wins or fun stuff first. Yet by answering four simple questions you can bring order to the (undoubtedly longer than you’d like) list:
- How long will it take?
- Does it need to be done now? (If not when will I do it?)
- Do I need to do it? (Can I delegate it? If so to who)
- Does it actually need to be done at all?
The answers will allow you to allocate each task to one of four approaches, the 4Ds:
- Defer it
- Do it
- Delegate it
- Ditch it
*Amusingly also known by the acronym FART (File, Act, Refer and Trash) to help anyone whose humour tends more towards the child-like!
You can apply this 4D rule to anything, from big projects to the little tasks that seem to take up all your time, such as how you deal with your post. When the post arrives through your letterbox, what do you normally do? Chances are, you stop everything and sort it out there and then? The problem is that you become distracted from the task in hand; a much better system is to open everything when you have a few minutes – junk mail gets ditched straight away, urgent or quick things get done and non-urgent mail can be deferred until you get time later with a coffee to sit down and action it. This technique works equally well with emails and interruptions at work – ask yourself “does this need my attention now?” And if not, book it into your day later on. Do be honest about what can realistically be deferred – putting off your own dental check-up for the fourth time is more a reflection of the fact that you are scared of what it might find rather than you simply not having time to fit it in. And bumping the call you’re dreading to that difficult client into another day will only ultimately make it more awkward, as she’s annoyed it’s taken so long for you to get back to her.
Most time management gurus agree on a ‘one-touch’ rule for the do it stage – if you can quickly and easily get it done there and then, there’s no point writing it on the do list if you have the time to sort it. However, if you need to speak to someone else, do some research or look through your files to find more information, then add it to the defer pile and move on.
By taking five or ten minutes at the end of the day to tick off what has been done, identify what you need to do tomorrow, what worked well today and what needs to be tweaked for tomorrow you’ll be able to stay in control of your workload. To avoid feeling stressed, keep your plans flexible, build in extra time when necessary (especially if you know interruptions are likely) and manage the expectations of those around you.
Back in the day, a to-do list was most likely to be scrawled on a scruffy piece of paper that was never to hand when you needed to cross something off or add it on. Perfectionists would be irritated by the use of different coloured pens and having to go onto a second page or reverse side, whilst anyone with even the slightest tendency towards tidiness could easily be driven ever so slightly mad by the sight of all the crossings out. (Or is that just me?!) Fortunately we now have apps and mail tools to help create and manage to-do lists on our smartphones, so your ongoing list is only ever a couple of taps away and can be kept to a manageable length. You might also find it helpful to create different lists – work, home, hobbies, CPD etc. – and use the 4D system on each.
As always, it’s about finding what works for you.
“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
If you would like to take control of your life and career, my online personal development programme MyLifeStrategy can help you to overcome the personal and professional challenges you face on a daily basis and learn practical skills and techniques to make a real difference to you and your life.
I’ve developed the Time Management for the Time Poor module to help you to get the most out of your time. It will show you how to manage yourself and your behaviours, how to optimise your time, how to prioritise, delegate, stop procrastinating and put yourself back in control of your life and your time.