While this title seems to promote procrastination, rightly understood it is the complete opposite. It is actually the name of a book by Mark Forster on time management which presents a response to Arnold Bennett’s question on how one can live on twenty-four hours a day.
Even before the beginning of chapter 1, Forster presents a summary of his method:
Quick Start Guide
How to get everything done by doing it tomorrow
- Put all the work that you are behind on in backlog folders (email, paper, etc.) and put it where you can’t see it.
- Collect all your incoming work during the day and deal with it in one batch the following day. Group together similar activities like email, paper, phone calls and tasks. Aim to clear the lot every day.
- If anything is too urgent to leave to the following day, write it down on a separate list and action it at a convenient time during the day. Never take even the simplest action without writing it down first.
- Spend some time on clearing the contents of the backlog folder( s) first thing every day. When you’ve finally cleared them, find something else you want to get sorted and start doing that first thing every day instead.If you follow this simple process you will be totally on top of new work by tomorrow and you will be well on your way to clearing your backlog.
This book will tell you much more about how to do this, but the method essentially consists of these four steps.
Forster’s first step is to collect together all the work where you are behind and to “put it where you can’t see it.” While there is obviously a sort of psychological motive for this, we can understand it better by looking again at a passage from Bennett’s essay:
Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!
For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.
Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say:—”This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.
As we noted in the last post, Bennett is comparing time and money. Here he points out a difference: you can borrow money, spending it in advance, so that money you receive later will be already owed to another. You can get into debt. You cannot do this with time. There is no way to borrow time and spend it in advance; you can only spend the time you have now. Each day you receive anew 24 hours to spend as you will, just as everyone else does. In this sense, it is impossible to “get behind” on anything. No matter how much work you have neglected in the past, your day today is just as intact as everyone else’s.
Forster is taking advantage of this fact in order to relieve people of the burdensome feeling of “being behind.” There is a sense in which the feeling does not correspond to anything real, and consequently it is not helpful. Drop the feeling, Forster advises, and just take today as it is. This is somewhat analogous to Jesus’s advice, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Just as it is better not to worry about tomorrow, so it is better not to worry about yesterday.
As a second step, Forster says, “Collect all your incoming work during the day and deal with it in one batch the following day.” Wait a minute, you might say. What about today? If you’re going to take care of all of your incoming work tomorrow, what work will you do today?
And indeed, if you are just beginning to follow Forster’s advice, there is no need to do any work today. All you need to do is gather your “incoming” work so that you can do it tomorrow. If you receive some emails, do not answer them. Leave them for tomorrow. If people ask you to do some things for them, do not do those things. Leave them for tomorrow.
On the second day, however, you will have some work to do. You will have all of that work that you collected yesterday and did not do. Do this work, and insofar as possible, no other. Anything else that you are asked to do, collect together to be done the next day. So each day you do one day’s worth of work, and collect the next day’s work for the next day.
Why do this? Basically it a method of budgeting, of living within one’s means in terms of time. At the beginning of each day, you will have a list of work gathered yesterday. This is all the work you need to do today, more or less. If it is impossible to get that list done today, and if that happens regularly, then do not say, “I don’t have enough time to finish my work, so I will just have to leave it for later. I’ll do it when I have more time.” As Bennett said, you will never have more time, because you already have all of the time there is, and there will never be more. If each day, you are being asked to do more than a day’s worth of work, you will not do it later: you will not do it at all, because no one will ever have more than a day of time within a day. If this is happening to you, therefore, you are not living within your means, and the only thing to do is to cut your expenditure of time. Do not save those emails and say that you will answer them someday; delete them, or save them if you wish, but admit that you will not answer them at all. You will only be living within your means when you stop accepting more than a day’s worth of work within a day.
By saving today’s incoming work for tomorrow, this kind of budgeting becomes much easier, simply because it is perfectly clear at the beginning of the day how much work you plan to do. If you simply respond to things as they come up, on the same day, it will not be clear whether you are accepting more or less work than you can actually accomplish in a day, and this budgeting process becomes far more difficult.
Forster’s third step concerns things which actually cannot be put off until tomorrow; incoming work that actually must be done the same day. He suggests that you write it down on a separate list. The idea is that the list you wrote yesterday is only allowed to diminish today, not to increase, to ensure that you can finish it. Additionally, he says, before you do that extra thing for today, make sure that you write it down. By doing this, at the end of the day you will have a specific list of the “urgent” things that you did during the day. If that list is very long, and if this is typical, there is a problem, because you will likely be unable to live within your budget of time. Also, you will be able to look at the list and consider, “Is it truly urgent, or is it possible to put it on tomorrow’s list, as is the norm for work coming in today?” Writing it down presents an additional opportunity for reflection.
The last point concerns the areas where one was “behind.” You started out with this “backlog”, as Forster calls it. From now on you are not allowed to add anything to that backlog. Each day you do all of yesterday’s work: each day you are doing one day of work, and consequently that backlog cannot increase. And so you consider the act of spending a bit of time taking care of a bit of that backlog as just one of your daily tasks. Thus the backlog will only decrease, and soon it will vanish. In fact, Forster points out later in the book, “Even if you don’t make any effort to deal with the backlog it will tend to get smaller of its own accord.” Of course this is not true in a physical sense, but the idea is that the contents of the backlog will become less and less relevant over time. Suppose you receive 500 emails during the next week, and never do anything with them for the next 10 years. It will surely be pointless by that time to attempt to answer those emails. As long as you are not adding anything to your backlog, it can only diminish, and even if you do nothing about it, it can only become less relevant to your life.
Of course this simple summary does not explain everything, and the rest of the book is not useless. For example, this summary appears to say nothing about dealing with large projects that do not seem like “incoming work” from day to day.
Most people seem reluctant to try following such a system. It cannot work, they say, or at least not for me. There is simply too much that is actually urgent. Or, the book assumes that I am organizing my own day, and I am not. I spend all day at a cash register. Or I spend all day taking care of my children. These are immediate tasks that take my current attention, so I can’t be carrying out a list of things from yesterday. Or, they say, “I have too much to think about right now.” Forster explains:
The methods that I am going to be teaching are very simple. They don’t require years of learning or practice. They are the sort of things you can put into use during the course of an afternoon and find them having an immediate effect. In fact, I will give you a challenge – you can be completely organised twenty-four hours after reading this book! Does that sound possible? Well, I can assure you that it is in the sense that you can be completely on top of all your current work and have a workable plan for dealing with any backlogs of work that you may have.
Some people listen to my methods and their reaction is to say, ‘That sounds great – I’ll put it into practice just as soon as I’ve caught up with my work.’ That’s the wrong way to go about it. Put my methods into practice, and then you will be in a position to catch up with your work!
Much of the work that you consider urgent is probably less urgent than you think it is. But even if it is true that your work is truly immediate, like the work of the cashier or of the mother, this does not change the fact that you must live within your means. You have no other option, because as Bennett points out, you will never have any more or less time than you actually have. If every moment of your day is immediate in this way, then stop worrying about being “behind.” You are already doing everything you can, and nothing more can be asked of you. More likely, in reality you do have some time for yourself, some time where you can decide what you are going to do. In fact, it is perfectly obvious that this is the case, since you are currently reading this blog post. Suppose that time comes to 90 minutes each day. Then everything which does not fall into the “immediate” category is going to have to be done within that 90 minutes. Even in this situation, getting “behind” doesn’t make any sense: you simply have to reduce your commitments until you are only accepting 90 minutes worth of such commitments each day, and carrying out 90 minutes worth of such commitments.
There is another reason people fear putting this system into practice: the fear that it might actually work. The “work” that you have before you is basically a set of commitments. If you carry out the things that you have committed to do, this will affect other people, often with the result that you will receive new work. If you answer your mail or your email, you may receive responses. If you finish a project, you may be asked to start a new one.
On the other hand, if you get nothing done, after a while people will begin to stop asking you to do things, because they will see that asking is ineffective. So doing your work generates more work, and avoiding your work prevents new work from being generated. At some level people understand this, and so they fear getting too much done.
This fear is not entirely mistaken. If you do follow a system like this, one thing that must be avoided is the attempt to “get ahead.” Suppose you are working on yesterday’s list, and you finish at 3:00 PM. There is still more time in the day, so you may be tempted to start doing the work that came in today, namely so that you are working on the list that is actually meant for tomorrow. You might think this is a good idea: “This way, I’ll be totally on top of things, in fact I won’t even have any work that I need to do tomorrow!”
You will find that the opposite happens, unless you typically finish that list at 3:00 PM. It may be that things went really well and so you finished unusually early. If so, if you do more work, in essence you have done more than one day’s work in a day. And since work generates work, this will likely generate more than one day’s worth of work. And so the next day, or anyway the day after that, you will find yourself busier than ever. Instead of doing this, you should limit yourself to one day’s worth of work in a day. And if you finish unusually early one day, the rest of that day is free: do not use it for things which will simply generate more work.
Neglecting to set limits on incoming work is also a reason why someone might end up giving up this system even after putting it into practice and seeing its benefits. If you tell yourself that you will always get everything done that anyone asks you to do, the more successful you are, the more people will ask you to do, until accomplishing everything becomes physically impossible. So the setting of limits is an absolutely necessary part of the deal here.