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The Zengenda Approach

Mixing key time-management insights for awesome results

I've spent far too much time thinking about how to lay out my time and my to-do lists. It was really just a way to kill time, a way to daydream about the things I was going to accomplish. And the truth is, I'm still far too inclined to dream up great systems for keeping on top of everything.

The way to be on top of everything, though, is to make sure that your everything is manageably small. This is such a profound, difficult truth that I'm going to ignore it for the moment.

Other aspects of time management yield more directly to point-by-point analysis, assuming you can come to some sort of peace with having not-too-much to do. Like just about everybody who worries about these sorts of things, I've found David Allen's Getting Things Done to be rather useful. It's not much of a book to read, honestly--it makes an enormously complex discussion out of a relatively few essential strategies--but it does deliver the basics of a system for not losing control of what you're supposed to be doing. You may or may not actually be getting things done, but even if you're not doing them, you aren't forgetting them.

So, GTD is a place to start, but for me it's not enough to make for sustainable effectiveness. After dealing with my own deficiencies for a number of years, it seems to me that a couple of other points are critical in the struggle to become effective. These points have to do with focusing in the moment on the task at hand, with letting gradual accumulation work to your benefit, and with creating discipline by managing akrasia.

As far as that first point goes, probably nobody finds it easier than me to focus on everything at once, then shift myself over to perhaps the least important bit for what turns into an hour, and then get nothing of consequence done. I've been reasonably successful in life, I guess, but it's all come despite a constant battle with this tendency. And I don't have it entirely licked.

Indeed, I probably never will have it entirely licked, but I think I've gained something by at least realizing that I have to continue the battle. I hate that it's a battle. I have a filter set up on my Web browser that prohibits me from checking most news sites because I simply can't stop myself from doing it and it is entirely about wasting time. There's almost never news that can't wait till after I've accomplished something for the day.

My wife, as an aside, thinks that keeping up with the news is a good citizen's duty. I actually don't agree, but honestly, there is very little news that's of any lasting import. Life is better when you just catch the weekly summaries. In fact, you might wind up a little smarter for having read the deeper analyses that can only be produce when the initial breaking news has been digested a bit.

Anyway, just avoiding the news doesn't exactly make the focus problem go away. One of the better tricks I use is completely simple. I just start my iPhone timer for a ten-minute interval and start working. I can usually get my subconscious to play along with a mere ten minutes of focus. And when the ten minutes is up, I just start again without thinking about.

This makes twenty minutes, which is almost what the Pomodoro people refer to as a "Pom." I don't really do the tomato thing, but it was the tomato thing that got me thinking about just concentrating for ten minutes, fer chrissake.

So I focus, at least a little, and I have a certain number of projects that I'm am getting done by doing a

All of this leads me to a concept that I have started calling "Zengenda." It's kind of silly to give it a name, it's so obvious, it's sort of project management 101, but I've met almost nobody who does this with their personal life, have found only one tool that (only very approximately) addresses what I'm trying to do with Zengenda, and perhaps not entirely coincidentally it turns out to be fairly hard to do well. In a nutshell, it's figuring out when the various things you're doing are actually going to be finished.

In other words, you've got to know what you're trying to, be able to accurately estimate how long it's going to take you to do it, and then combine the length of what you're doing with information about how long you'll work each day, what other kinds of obligations you have during each day, and so on, and be able to say for each task X, what is the day and time on which you'll finish.

More on this to come. If you want to experiment with a tool that at least gives you something of a suggestion of how this might work, have a look at DoneByWhen.

Robert Richardson is the chief nomad at ModeNomad.
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