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A review of "Time management for dummies" from a GTD perspective

As part of my study of the field of personal productivity I'm reading (hopefully efficiently) as many books on the topic as I can, including ones on time management and organizing. I just finished Time management for dummies by Jeffrey J. Mayer, and (unlike some others) has enough good content for me to want to pass on.

(Note: I'm focusing on the time management portion of the book. The rest of it covers a broad range of topics including managing phone calls and correspondence, doing presentations, promoting yourself, travelling efficiently, and some now outdated technology tips. Check it out if you're interested; I found some useful tidbits in these sections.)

The "Master List," and processing inputs

In some ways, the best parts of the book are like a "mini" Getting Things Done (but missing some important points - described below). For example, to get started he has you go through all the papers on your desk, and sort them into three piles: keep, delegate, and recycle. You then process your keeper file, writing actions on a Master List, and either recycle or file each item as needed. He discourages you from interrupting the process to do anything; just note work on the Master List and continue. In the "get it out of your head" vein he says:
The habit of [writing thoughts on the Master List] is a very efficient way of remembering that you've got something to do. [It] frees you from having to try to remember what those things are. Now you can use your wonderful brain power for something that is considerably more important.
Sound familiar?

After processing the desk, he has you do the papers in the rest of your office, drawers, and briefcase. (He's big on doing sticky notes too.) Importantly, he has you write both personal and work items on the Master List.

Regarding filing, he has you use file folders (even for one sheet of paper), and to hand-write labels for speed. He encourages you to save all related project material in a corresponding file folder, and to refer to it when working on the project. To process reading matter he suggests creating a reading file, and to file only the relevant articles and stories, tearing out or copying as needed. To stay on top he suggests you spend time at the end of the day getting re-organized by processing mail, phone, and email messages, by adding actions to the Master List and/or filing appropriately.

He cautions that it takes time and effort to stay organized, but the results are worthwhile - staying on top of important work, feeling more in control, and increased satisfaction at the day's end.

Where the book lost me

Where I think Mayer's book starts losing cohesiveness is when he introduces using daily planners. In order to integrate with calendars, Mayer tosses out the great idea of a Master List, and has you plan your days and weeks in detail by scheduling tasks "when you think you can get to them," then crossing them off the master and eventually throwing it away. New items go directly into the planner on specific days. He then admits this is problematic because (as Allen points out) life seems to have a way of ignoring even the best plans. As a result, you have to copy tasks that aren't completed to the next best time you think you can get to them.

For me, the book makes its final plunge at the end of Chapter 4 where he summarizes all the problems with paper planners and suggests you start using Act, a contact management program which carries action items forward each day if they're not done. (Note: I haven't substantiated this, but an Amazon review complains that Mayer is employed by the ACT software people.)

Comparison to GTD, and summary

In a way, Mayer's transition from Master List to planner, then from planner to software makes sense, given his perspective of needing to schedule every task on a specific day. What I like about David Allen's system is that he has analyzed the problem with "hard" scheduling (interruptions can't be predicted, which leads to being less agile than desired), and instead splits actions into two very different types, with two correspondingly different artifacts for tracking them:
  • Things that must be done on or by a certain date (tracked using a calendar), and
  • Things that should be done as soon as possible (tracked on action lists)

From this insight, one can almost see the reasoning David Allen might have taken if he read Mayer's book:
"OK, we need to keep time-specific and other actions separate, so use the calendar for the former, and action lists for the latter. This solves the problem of having to carry forward non-time-specific actions when they aren't done. But the action list is too cumbersome, and it's hard to pick out things to do when I'm in different places with different resources available. So why don't we categorize items according to where they can be done - home, computer, phone, etc? And we should probably separate out delegated items, because we need to track them specially, so let's have a list of items that we're waiting for. Cool!"
And so on.

This is fun, but I don't want this little Gedankenexperiment to minimize Allen's contribution. Not only did he crystallize the basic GTD concepts, but he went way beyond actions to consider the role they play in larger projects, identified the five phases of workflow (seen in this pdf - Collect, Process, Organize, Review, Do), and created a straightforward method for doing the Process and Organize steps (found in this pdf). Clear and brilliant!

Finally, I do not want to disparage Mr. Mayer's work. As I said, I think there are some good ideas here, plus other sections that I found useful. And many people praise his work (his site is here). However, after having drunk the GTD Kool-Aid, I now come to every time management book with my perspective having been permanently altered, in a way I think is much clearer.

Reader Comments (2)

What a great summary!

It's a year later and I'm wondering which publication you've found to be the best and most accessible?

I like the simple approach of the Dummies books so any suggestions with that in mind are appreciated.

You can email me if you'd like at

saksiri at hjksolutions dott com

November 14, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersaksiri

Thanks for your comment, saksiri. I continue reading, and so far David Allen's "Getting Things Done" is the best - by far. Some that I thought had good ideas:

"The Personal Efficiency Program: How to Get Organized to Do More Work in Less Time" by Kerry Gleeson

"Instant Productivity Toolkit, The" by Len Merson

Books by Stephanie Winston have many ideas, including "The Organized Executive" and "Organized for Success"

Have you tried Allen's book? If you have some specific questions, I might be able to help. It is relatively complex, though...

Hope that helps!

November 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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