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I recently had the privilege of reading the book Master Your Workday Now! by Michael Linenberger. I daresay this is the best book on workflow management I’ve ever read — and I’ve read a LOT of books on that subject.
The book just came out this week, and last I checked it was in the top 30 books on Amazon.com (#1 in the Time Management category).
I met Michael at a leadership retreat in January, and we spoke on the phone for about an hour last week to discuss some of his ideas. He shared what I considered some truly elegant workflow management strategies, so I was eager to read his book and learn the whole system he developed. I’m seldom impressed by time management books these days since I’ve read so many of them, but I must say that Michael’s Workday Now system impressed the heck out of me.
I’ve been gradually implementing changes to my own processes based on Michael’s ideas, which are so intuitively and logically sensible that I can easily see they’re going to make my workflow management significantly more effective. Many of his ideas made perfect sense because he was often one or two steps ahead of me in terms of refining workflow processes I’ve been using for years now.
It’s hard not to compare Workday Now (WN) to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), which has been an extremely popular time management book, especially in the blogosphere. GTD deserves its position as a classic in the field, but in my opinion WN presents a superior overall system. I loved GTD when it first came out, but I had to make numerous tweaks to the system to make it more practical for me, and there were certain elements of the system that bugged me, like the tediousness of the weekly review, the potential for truly massive Next Action and Someday/Maybe lists, and the questionable Waiting For list.
The WN system is in many ways similar to GTD. Both of them start with a bottom-up approach to time management, encouraging you to first take control over the out-of-control elements of your work in order to reduce stress and restore a sense of order to your life. Both involve creating and organizing task lists and identifying next actions. Both stress the importance of processing your email inbox to empty and not using it as a surrogate to-do list. Both systems are complete in the sense that you can trust them not to leave loose ends if you work them as the authors propose.
What’s different about WN, however, is that it focuses your attention on a specific time horizon, looking approximately 10 days into the future. This is called the Workday Now Horizon. Michael suggests that somewhere in the 1-2 week range is the natural time horizon people use when thinking about their upcoming to-do items. Beyond the 2-week range, most of us think of our to-dos as being somewhere “over the horizon” and not of immediate concern. We don’t need to deal with them until they become more urgent.
This Workday Now time period is further subdivided into the Critical Now (tasks which are truly urgent and MUST be completed today) and the Opportunity Now zone (tasks which are pending within the next 1-2 weeks but which don’t absolutely have to be done today. All other tasks and projects are placed on an Over the Horizon list.
The Opportunity Now zone is limited to 20 tasks maximum. It’s an evolving list that you’ll update each day. Once you complete your Critical Now tasks for the day, you set to work on your Opportunity Now tasks as time permits. The nice thing about your Opportunity Now list is that since it’s fairly short, it keeps your attention focused on what needs to be done soon. You aren’t distracted by tasks and projects that are weeks into the future; this was a problem with GTD’s Projects and Next Actions lists, which could grow massive in size for busy people.
If you end up with more than 20 items on your Opportunity Now list, you have to push some of them onto your Over the Horizon list. This disciplines you to consider only on what can be accomplished within the next week or two when planning your current workday. Then at the end of each week, you can review your Over the Horizon list and pull some items onto the Opportunity Now list.
I really like this method of managing tasks because it offers an elegant way of balancing urgency and importance. Urgent tasks are a business reality. They must be dealt with in a timely manner. In the WN system, the truly urgent tasks are given top priority, and less urgent but still important tasks are given the next priority. By managing urgent tasks effectively and not allowing them to overwhelm you, the WN system helps you get control of your workflow, thereby freeing up time for important but less urgent tasks. This is a very practical approach because it doesn’t compel you to over-organize long-term tasks and projects that you may never get to. In fact, WN assumes that you probably have more to-dos on your plate than you can reasonably complete. WN helps you take control of the urgent with a simple yet effective approach, so you soon become less urgency-driven.
WN fills in a lot of holes and solves many of the weaknesses of GTD. I would say that overall, WN can be more complex than GTD if you implement every element of each system, but I think WN will be much less burdensome to manage. WN’s complexity is presented in layers of different options. The core WN system can be managed with nothing but a pen, two pieces of paper, and only minutes per day. I’d say that you can begin putting WN into action and getting results with it in less than an hour after you learn it. The basic GTD system takes a lot more work to implement because you must do so much pre-processing up front, typically on the order of 2-3 days’ worth. As you get comfortable with the basics of WN, you can then begin adding more layers of refinement to suit your particular situation.
If you’re already familiar with a system like GTD or if you use some other planning or workflow management system, then you’re way ahead of the game; you’ll likely find the extra subtleties in WN to be particularly useful; their practicality should be readily apparent.
What I described above is really just the first third of the book. The second third explains how to integrate higher-level goals into your life, including how to activate them with emotion. The final third explores how to connect your workflow to a greater sense of life purpose or mission. These sections are well-written too, but since these topics overlap my own work so much, I didn’t personally get as much out of them. However, I agree wholeheartedly with the strategies Michael presents in these sections. I especially like his idea of setting goals that balance vision (the passionate image of an outcome) and targets (the specific deliverables to be achieved).
My only real criticism of the book is that I felt that the second and third sections could be better integrated with the low-level workflow management system in the first section. The lack of top-to-bottom integration was a major weakness in GTD, and while WN goes much further in achieving such integration, I still felt it stopped short of the completely integrated top-to-bottom package I was hoping for. Nevertheless, it gets pretty darned close to that ideal, closer than any other book I’ve read to date.
I give Master Your Workday Now! a huge thumbs up, and I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in improving your personal effectiveness, getting your e-mail under control, and aligning your actions with your life’s purpose. This is not a book to be read in a single sitting and tossed aside. This is a book you’ll want to keep as a reference, so you can refer to it again and again. I expect you’ll gain powerful and practical insights you can apply from nearly every chapter.