Today I have a special treat for Litemind readers. I am honored to interview Mark Forster, one of the foremost thinkers in the field of time management. He is the author of three books on time management, including the innovative (and intriguing) Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management.
Unlike many other experts, Mark goes way beyond the ‘getting organized’ approach, and acknowledges that very human problems — such as procrastination and resistance — are the main roadblocks to higher creativity and productivity.
Mark, like most of us, struggled for many years with unproductive behavior. He was only able to create his methods out of direct experimentation and learning along the way. In fact, Mark is not afraid of keeping experimenting and sharing both successes and failures in his website in a very authentic and open way.
Today, a lot of people had their lives transformed and use Mark’s methods on a daily basis (yes, that includes me). That’s why I’m really excited about this conversation: in the same way Mark has had a daily impact on my life with his work, I’m sure you can also learn a lot from him.
1. Your most popular book Do It Tomorrow has a completely different approach to that of other books on time management. The main idea of leaving tasks undone for the day is rather intriguing at first, but one that is liberating after you understand and apply it. Can you explain how this can be such a life-transforming concept?
It’s actually a very similar concept to the queuing systems which are springing up in places like shops, post offices and railway booking offices.
Instead of having a scrum of people turning up and trying to find the shortest queue, they are put into one orderly queue and dealt with in a methodical manner – which is much quicker than the old multi-queue system.
What these systems do is put a buffer between the customers (who arrive in a completely random way) so that they can be dealt with in an orderly manner.
So what I am suggesting is that in a similar way we impose a buffer on all the bits of work which arrive in a random way over the course of a day. That means we can deal with them in an orderly fashion instead of rushing from one thing to another. The default buffer is to “do it tomorrow”, which means we can deal with things like email, paperwork and tasks by batching up similar items. Dealing with similar items in batches is far faster and more efficient than dealing with them piecemeal.
Of course if you have something that really has to be done today, then you do it today. The key is to resist the temptation to do things immediately which really don’t merit that degree of urgency.
2. Litemind readers may already be familiar with one of the cornerstone concepts of the Do It Tomorrow, the ‘Will-do List’. In a previous article, I focused on how it frees us from the tyrannical rule of the never-ending task list. Can you elaborate on the importance of the ‘Will Do List’ in the grand scheme of the Do It Tomorrow productivity system?
I called it the “Will Do” list in contrast to the traditional “To Do” list.
A To Do list comes in many shapes and forms, but generally speaking it is a list of possible items from which you select your work for the day. Mine usually ended up longer at the end of the day than at the start because I kept adding to it!
By contrast, a Will Do list is a statement of intent about what you really mean to get done that day. The aim is to finish it every day. If you don’t finish it, then you should look at why and do something about it. It’s very simple to construct a Will Do list if you are “doing it tomorrow” because yesterday’s incoming work can be easily batched up to form the list.
Because there’s a tie-in between one day’s incoming work and one day’s outgoing work it’s much easier to diagnose what the problem is if you can’t do all your work than with convention time management systems.
3. I know many people who steer clear from productivity systems claiming that adopting them would hurt their creativity. Many of them — especially the ‘artistic types’ — tend to see these two concepts almost as diametrically opposed. How do these two variables — creativity and productivity — relate to each other?
I’ve coached lots of artistic people over the years, singers, musicians, painters, architects and so on, and what I’ve found is that their artistic ability is often held back because they are so disorganized. It’s very difficult to be creative if you are worrying constantly about unpaid bills, the income tax return which you haven’t filled in, the fact that you haven’t done anything about publicizing your new show, etc., etc.
It’s not a case of either/or. It should be both/and, so that order complements and assists creativity.
4. I love how you honestly proclaim that resistance and procrastination are the biggest life-management problems, not just getting ‘tidy’ or ‘organized’. How are your methods different from others when it comes to dealing with these problems?
What I’ve found is that being on top of a task or project gives an immense amount of energy, even if one doesn’t particularly enjoy the subject.
Contrast washing up immediately after each meal, and only washing up when dirty dishes have filled the sink and are heading towards the ceiling!
As “Do It Tomorrow” is designed to keep you on top of your work at all times, resistance and procrastination tend to fade away of their own accord.
5. You mention the concept of the rational and reactive brain. I am sure many readers can relate to the fact that we seem to show utterly different behaviors when planning and when actually trying to do the tasks. We may be fired up with enthusiasm and have the best of intentions when planning, and still dread and procrastinate when it comes to the actual doing. Could you explain how this ‘dual-brain’ principle works?
This is a very oversimplified model of how the brain works of course, but for time management purposes we live in tension between the “reptile brain”, which reacts to anything it perceives as a threat or a pleasure, and the “rational brain” which makes plans and intentions. The thing to realize is that the reptile brain is stronger than the rational brain. So when your rational brain has made a brilliant plan about how you are going to lose weight, and your reptile brain is confronted with a delicious chocolate cake, the rational plans tend to go out of the window. That’s an example of reacting to a pleasure. In the same way whenever the reptile brain perceives something as a threat, like a difficult piece of work or confronting a superior, we will tend to experience paralysis however much our rational brains are telling us the task needs to be done.
The rational brain has one great advantage over the reptile brain. It’s capable of outwitting the reptile brain. Much of what I teach is about how it can do that.
6. In the book Get Everything Done, you mention that the secret to good life-management is to do what you are resisting the most at any one time. Can you provide further insight on that concept for those not familiar with the book?
Our natural way of working is to follow the path of least resistance. If we are given a list of tasks, we will tend to do the easy ones first. The problem with this is that when we get to a certain level of difficulty, there is a tendency to invent more easy tasks to avoid having to do the more difficult tasks. That is one of the reasons people get submerged in a sea of trivia. If we reverse this and do the tasks we least want to first, then our day will get progressively easier and there will be no need to invent any more “busy work”.
I don’t though think that it’s necessary to follow this principle when using the DIT system, as any new “busy work” you invent will not affect what you have to do today.
7. In your books you slay the sacred cow of time management: prioritizing. Many systems have complex schemes of organizing tasks by urgency, importance or by a myriad of other factors. Your approach is to avoid prioritizing altogether. With the ever-increasing amount of work in our lives, is this possible?
It’s not really possible to avoid prioritizing by urgency, though I distinguish between tasks that are really urgent from tasks that are only urgent because I didn’t get round to doing them earlier. It’s prioritizing by importance that I have issues with. I strongly believe that if you have taken on a commitment then you have committed yourself to doing all the work associated with that commitment. For example, if you are building a car, which is more important – the engine or the rear windscreen wiper? Obviously the engine is, but customers are not going to be very pleased if you deliver cars without the rear windscreen wiper if that’s what they ordered. So it really doesn’t matter which is more important – you have to do the lot!
So the level at which you decide what you are going to do and what you are not going to do must be at the level of commitments. It’s no good identifying which tasks are important – that’s too late. You have to keep your commitments well audited.
8. Well, you not only talk about avoiding prioritization, but you also suggest that many times doing the least urgent project first is the way to go. Can you please elaborate on that?
I need to stress here that this is a way of dealing with projects not tasks.
What tends to happen is that we leave a project until the very last moment and then have to rush to get it done. What I am suggesting here is that we start working on a project as soon as we receive it. That means that we can take advantage of all the time available to do it and will not find ourselves running up against the deadline.
9. Mark, your books Do It Tomorrow and Get Everything Done are permanent references in my shelf when it comes to time management. I haven’t had the chance to read your book How to Make Your Dreams Come True as it’s currently out of print. Can we expect to see a reprint? Are there any plans for a brand new book?
I’m actively considering whether to make Dreams into an e-book or possibly even to put the text onto my website for free. I do have various ideas for a new book but nothing has coalesced enough yet!
10. If you had to highlight one advantage of Do It Tomorrow over other time management systems, what would that be?
Its simplicity. And also the fact that you can go to bed at night knowing that you have completed your work for the day.