Time Passages

When I was a kid, I read an essay by humorist Robert Benchley about time management called “How to Get Things Done.” Essentially Benchley’s method involved giving the highest priority to all those things we do to avoid doing what we should be doing.

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.

The psychological principle is this: Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

Many of us find ourselves using the Benchley Method of Time Management—our friend Jeffrey Hedquist calls it “bright shiny objects,” or “BSOs” for short. The fact is, effective time management is like the perfect stain remover: plenty of candidates, but few that actually work.

Or do the techniques work, and we merely fail to work them?

You might be aware of the apocryphal story of, I believe, Andrew Carnegie, who after hearing the advice of a time-management advisor, wrote that advisor a blank check. The advice? Take all your projects and assign each one a letter—A, B, or C. Tackle the A projects first; tackle the B projects second; discard your C projects altogether.

Well, duh. That simple prioritization routine is at the core of every time-management system I’ve ever seen. In fact, almost every time-management system I’ve ever seen can be life-changingly effective. All you have to do is follow it.

But there’s the rub. Organizing your time requires discipline. It also, ironically, takes time. But those who study such things tell us that we are twice as productive if we devote 25% of our time to manage the other 75% of our time.

I find that kind of depressing, in the same way that I find depressing those who tell us we are only using about 10% of our mental capacity. What a waste!

Actually, for me, what works the best—when it works at all, which is up to me—is the “TRAF” system suggested by Stephanie Winston: Handle everything that comes your way in one of four ways: Toss, Refer, Act, File. You could read Winston’s book (The Organized Executive), but everything you need to know is right there in the acronym, which is elegant in its simplicity.

Probably the most organized person I know is Dean Sorenson. I asked him once how he managed to be so organized and effective; he told me, “It’s a constant struggle.

Well, this is been fun, but I’d better move on to the next thing on my list. It just so happens that it is vitally important: alphabetizing my sock drawer.