Do It Tomorrow

by Mark Forster

Cover image

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Copyright: 2006
ISBN: 0-340-90912-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 203

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For the last couple of years I've been reading and thinking a lot about time management, and have been using a variation of Getting Things Done on a day-to-day basis (sometimes more effectively than others). But with both GTD and the Cycle system from Time Management for System Administrators, I've been running into both motivational and organizational problems with how I accumulate work. Do It Tomorrow is the first book that I've seen that tackles my core problem directly; if you have the same problem with traditional time management systems, I think this is a book you'll want to read.

The focus of Getting Things Done is organization: getting everything you're committed to doing out of your head and into a system, working from that system rather than making your brain remember your to-do list, and trusting the system so that you can stop rehashing work in your head that you can't yet do. This is great so far as it goes. But I accumulate a lot of work that I see and want to do, which means those to-do lists tend to grow quite large. Allen discourages prioritization and encourages working directly from one's next action list, and this always creates psychological tension for me. I like to finish things, but lists managed in that fashion at best stay the same length from day to day and often grow.

The Cycle system from Time Management for System Administrators tries to address this by creating a list for each day, completing as much of that list as possible, and then rolling the list over to the next day. Future tasks are written into some future day so that one can stop thinking about them until one reaches that point. This can be better, in that it provides a sense of competion for each day and a narrowed focus. But in practice, when I was using that system, I found myself creating the bulldozer list of doom. I'd never finish everything written in for one day, I'd follow the system and push the remaining tasks forward to the next day or spread out over the next few days, that would create more tasks for those days and then I again wouldn't finish, and eventually I was pushing forward a constantly growing pile of "stuff" and just depressing myself.

Do It Tomorrow is packed with ideas and approaches that I found helpful, but the core of the book is two ideas: work from closed lists rather than open lists, and you have to be able to do a day's worth of incoming work in one day.

Closed lists is how Forster tackles the lack of a sense of completion from GTD. The basic idea is one that I was already applying since the large GTD to-do lists were driving me nuts: make a list for each day of the things one is actually going to work on for that day, and then aim to complete it. Forster puts some more formality and other interesting suggestions around this (such as making it the night before instead of in the morning), but it's a simple idea. However, for me at least, it makes a huge difference. It takes some time to determine how long that list should be, but it both gets me to work on things I've been putting off and gives me a sense of completion.

Even better for me is that Forster tackles head-on the problem of having more work than one is getting done. This is the place where most time management problems happen for me, but other time-management writing tends to give lip-service to it at best, or digress into prioritization. Forster has a useful take on prioritization: never prioritize tasks, since you should aim to accomplish all of them. Instead, prioritize commitments. The goal is to do everything that you've committed to, at which point it doesn't matter too much what order you do it in (particularly if you use a short committment horizon of a day). Instead, move up a level and realize tasks are generated by commitments. If you're not getting a day's worth of work done each day, one of three things are happening: you're not working efficiently, you have too many commitments, or you're not keeping clear enough time to work. You have to be aggressive about recognizing this situation, deciding which of those three is applicable, and doing something about it, and Forster spends lots of time in this book approaching this from various angles and providing lots of tips.

Again, none of this is earth-shattering, but for whatever reason Forster phrases things in a way that clicks with me and immediately gives me better courses of action to try. I came away from this book making a list of things in my life that generate commitments and then took a hard look at which of those commitments were currently active and cut back, opting to do fewer things so that I could work on each current commitment close to daily. This is the hardest part of time management for me, and Forster's the first author who I felt spoke directly to my difficulties.

One more tip from the book that I want to mention: the initiative slot. Forster recommends reserving a spot at the start of each day, before doing anything else at all, for working on one's current initiative. You're allowed to spend as little time as you want, as low as five minutes, but you have to do something every morning, and there can only be one current initiative. You work on it until you've reached a well-defined finished point, and then switch to a new initiative. I've realized for some time that doing something first thing each day rather than starting with e-mail or other open-ended commitments is wise, but here too Forster gave me a framework for thinking about it that helped my resolve and structure. And it's emotionally satisfying to see that initiative slot make solid progress on something that's been stalled.

Do It Tomorrow is thankfully free of the corporate management terminology and presentation that plagues Getting Things Done, and while it's not quite aimed at people like me, those like me will find it friendlier and more natural than the GTD presentation. Forster does like to pose questions and exercises to the reader with enough frequency that at times the book can feel like a school exercise, but the good part about not being in school is that one doesn't have to participate. He always immediately provides the answers to questions, and those answers are generally interesting and insightful, whether one bothered to try to answer them first or not.

Time management structures, books, and tools are highly individual. Each person has their own life structure, their own organizational strengths and weaknesses, and their own surrounding culture. I think the only way to approach this topic is to read widely, pick and choose, and try to find the approaches and presentations that click with you. Because of that, ratings and recommendations of these books must all come with the significant caveat that, to the extent that you're not me, books that work for me may not work for you at all.

That said, Do It Tomorrow is, for me, the best book in this genre that I've read. Forster directly addresses my biggest time management problems, phrases things in a way that makes immediate intuitive sense to me, gave me new insight into at least a half-dozen things that had been bothering or blocking me, and made me feel energized and excited about trying some of his recommendations. I've been using most of his system over the past month in a hybrid with GTD, and it feels like the most productive and balanced month that I've had so far this year. This will flag over time, I'm sure, but I was very impressed.

If you have similar problems with GTD and time management that I do, get this book, and don't worry about the short length. There's a lot packed in here.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-06-28

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