Interruptions: one of the costs of maintaining a time-management system

November 5th, 2006 by jose

"Write down everything" is one of the premises of most time-management systems (at least in GTD and DIT). The importance of the concept of "getting things out of your head" is obvious. As David Allen says, "your head is a good place to have ideas, but not to hold them".


This is great also because it it makes you conscious of what you what to do, protecting you from random factors. For example, if I write down ’mail pic to friends’ instead of jumping to that task in an impulse immediately after I have come up with it, I may be able to finish the task I was doing.

But writing everything down has at least one disadvantage: we need to stop doing whatever we are doing to actually find our trusted medium and write it!

In fact, for each task, no matter how insignificant, you come up with you have at least three costs.

  1. Write it down. This cost may be decomposed into finding the right place to write the task and actually writing it. If you use paper and pencil, you may count the time it takes to move your eyes away from the screen, find the paper, the pencil, and write the task. If you use a daily planner, agenda, or calendar, the added cost is to find the place where the task belongs. If you use a computer. the cost is to bring the Personal Information Manager (PIM) program to focus, and then finding the place where the task belongs.
  2. Review. After you collect a bunch of tasks you have to do some mucking around with them, e.g., grouping them, tagging them, assigning them to projects, and for the most extremely ordered, assigning effort, urgency and who knows which other attributes :)
  3. Find, and cross out (update) the task once it’s done

These are tiny tasks. The problem is not so much the time it takes to do them, but the fact that they interrupt your flow. (see graph: the times *I* use the program are the green bars; they are spread all over my working day!). I have measured the time I spend on my current time-management tool, Agenda at once. Although it decreased with time of usage, the average is still quite high, at 11 about minutes and a half per day. I have also logged times when I was using MyLife Organized and ToDoList for about the same number of days (let me know if you want to see similar graphs) and the average times where 17:30 and 14:35 respectively. People using paper and pencil may think that they spend less time doing this, but as far as I know nobody has measured the length of the interruption of finding pen, agenda or paper, looking for the right place to annotate the task, etc.

This is not something I can ignore. About 20 mins a day can get you a lot of things, e.g., learning a lot of vocabulary in a new language.

But the main problem is that you have to stop for each task, no matter how insignificant, and do your little ’writing down ceremony’; This can break the work flow. So that is the forth cost (and in my view, the most important one) of having a time-management system in place.

So is it worth it to keep a time-management system? I still think so (I do use one), but I think we should be aware of the costs as well.

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10 Responses to “Interruptions: one of the costs of maintaining a time-management system”

  1. SilviaNo Gravatar Says:

    I am using teh Jot function is Slick run you’ve recommended. At the time to process, I select all copy and paste to Edit Pad and put things in TR ( Thinking Rock).

  2. Mike BrownNo Gravatar Says:

    Costs are important, but balance them against value and benefits. As the value of a system rises, I think costs (if they’re stable) become negligible.

    The benefit of a well-ordered system is that it can recover from shocks and interruptions and resume where it left off. People who are unorganized and interrupted likely suffer a greater disruption.

    What would be the costs of trying to remember the item rather than writing it down? What would be the cost (the ULTIMATE cost) of ignoring the interruption and continuing with one’s task? The brief amount of time it take to note interruptions or ideas on a single piece of paper, which is then processed at the end of the day (or even the next morning), is well worth it.

    I’m probably not as efficient as you (come on, I’m writing a comment to a blog posting! how time-efficient is that!?!), but I don’t sweat 20 minutes lost to maintaining my system throughout the day. Entropy/chaos/life happens, man, and no system exists that can beat it, except regular attention and maintenance.

  3. joseNo Gravatar Says:

    Silvia, that sounds like an efficient method: collect thoughts in the fastest way possible, and process them in batch mode later. I’ll try that for a while.

    Mike, I agree that the benefits are large in managing your time with a systematic approach. Still, I find myself spending time looking for the right application, or how to streamline my system better, and that is also a cost.

    I’m sure you know this:

    His entire point is that saving time in little chunks (e.g., 20 min a day) can add up and give you a good chunk of time a year!

    But I agree, 20 minutes are not worth the fuss… IF they were in a single chuck! The problem is that they are spread all over my day.

  4. Mike BrownNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi Jose — Oh, I have no doubt that systems can always be made more efficient and improved. But given the plethora of choices vs the plethora of things that have to be done, I’m settling more in my old age for “satisficing,” aka “good enough.” Having 75-85% of my day go well is good enough for me, so that I can sustain the little shocks of interruptions, writing things down, maintaining my system. etc.

    When I think about how much time and money I spend just to keep my Windows PC up and running (I’m not talking about productivit applications, but spyware/virus / firewall/ defragment / etc.) ie just on MAINTENANCE!, I’m appalled.

  5. BastienNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi folks,

    i’m using org-mode, the native organizer of Emacs. As expected with Emacs, org-mode files are plain text files. As a consequence, editing todo lists, organizing tasks by categories (or even tags), planning appointments, taking notes, composing drafts for e-mails… all of these activities are done in just one single place. Hence living in my organizer is my way of saving time, not wasting it… (at least i don’t have the feeling i’m wasting my time – which could easily be quite subjective!)

  6. joseNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi Bastien,

    I used to do that on Vim (prepare for battle :) … ), but the lack of calrendar, recurrent tasks, and reminders kiiled the deal for me. Since them I have even moved my notetaking from vim (plain text) to oneNote (the dark side is calling me, I can feel it :)

  7. BastienNo Gravatar Says:

    (Please consider the following not being part of the battle ;)

    Well org-mode interacts with the Emacs calendar to provide recurrent tasks, reminders and even time-clocking funcs. But one another fact I didn’t mention above and which is quite important: using text files for complex todo lists is more convenient when your job mostly consists in writing stuff (email, reports, etc.) – which is the case for me… but i’m aware most people make a difference between fiddling and working :)

  8. joseNo Gravatar Says:

    Well, the problem with simple text files is that it is difficult to do reports on what you have completed per week, month, etc.

    What I used to do is to use an outliner (vim TVO) and delete (pressing the d key twice: dd) the tasks that were done. No intergration with calendar, no reminders, etc. I went like this for a long time. In my view, it is important not only to do the stuff but to see which things get done and which dont. For that, some weekly/monthly reports are needed… I haven’t checked emacs in a long time, maybe everything is there now.

    Do you delete the tasks as you do them?
    How do you keep logs of tasks done? Of course you could use a versioning system, but looks like overkill for a simple task like this…

  9. BastienNo Gravatar Says:

    Org-mode is fully integrated with emacs calendar facility. You can check for deadlines, schedule tasks, display weekly/monthly reports of what has been done, etc. You can even produce a clock-table showing the time you spent on differents projects/tasks… but er… i’m not such a fanatic!

    Losing time is something i plan to have time for (someday).

  10. JohnNo Gravatar Says:

    I agree that stopping and looking for paper or waiting for your computer / pda to power up or even to open the application interrupts the process.

    I started using Jott and even though it’s not perfect and now it’s not free anymore, it was pretty easy to speed dial then speak whatever it was I needed. The transcribing wasn’t always perfect, but good enough so I would be reminded of whatever it was I wanted.

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