Management The art of choosing what not to do

The Taste of the Day

Think of this. You have a job where, whenever you need to, you can find the absolute truth. When someone asks you, “Phil, why is this happening?” you are 100% confident that you can figure out the precise answer.

This is the idyllic situation many engineers on the planet Earth live in, and, well, it’s just a great gig.

I exaggerate. Engineers do have blind spots, but for their work, for their specific pile of bits, they are omniscient. They’re their bits and they constructed them into their specific system where they are intimately familiar with the rules because they defined them.

Outside of my career as an engineer, I’ve been a store clerk, a butcher, a video rental clerk, a lawyer’s assistant, and a bookseller, and while it’s been over 15 years since I’ve done any of these jobs, I remember the sense of naive pointlessness: “What do I build? Well, I sell stuff, cut stuff, or type stuff. I don’t really build anything, I… do stuff.”

This made the first engineering gig a revelation. “You. We are building a database application and you own this specific part. It is entirely yours. Don’t fuck it up.”

Delicious, delicious structure. Sweet, sweet definition.

These basic and essential elements of job satisfaction are at the root of why many engineers make horrible managers. They are trained and love to be control freaks.

The New Gig

Now you have a new job. You have an office and you have a door. On your desk, there’s a timer that tracks the number of seconds that it’s just you alone in your office. Whenever someone else walks into your office, the timer magically resets to zero.

Today’s record for consecutive uninterrupted seconds is 47.

This is not a world an engineer is used to, this interrupt-driven day full of people and political calculus. This is where the reputation that your manager does nothing begins. It’s your manager who thinks it. It’s the close of the day and your manager wonders, “Did I actually do anything today except contend with a constant stream of people coming into my office?”

Try as you might, the structure and definition of your quiet engineering gig is gone. Your days of digital omniscience are over.

This is the big switch between the engineer and the manager. You are leaving the comfortable world of bits for one of bafflingly configured atoms, where you need to figure out how to trust those you work with. Where you need to train folks to make decisions for themselves, but also help them understand it’s ok to escalate for help. It’s a gig where you need to keep track of everything, constantly re-prioritize, but remain strategically limber.

And to do all of this, you need a task tracking system that allows you to strategically forget.

The Taste of the Day

This is my system. It’s a mix of my ability to be a systematic thinker with the fact that there is more to do than I can ever complete. I’ve been using some variation of it for ten years now and it’s how I run my day and my week.

It all orbits around a task system. Your first question will be: “What task tracking system do you use, Rands?” The answer is a simple: “Whatever works for you”. I’ve used a homegrown Excel system, Tasks, and I’m currently using Things, but as you’ll see, the strategic key here is not identification of the task tracking system, it’s using it — all the time.

This system is designed to create a living, breathing, manageable list of things you might actually do, and it starts with…

The Morning Scrub

The first task of the day is to set my head. What kind of day am I getting myself into? A quick glance at the calendar gives me the first hint of what to expect. Is this a quiet get-things-done day? A meeting hell day? Or a sky-is-falling day? Each day has a different taste and the Morning Scrub forces me to set my head appropriately. It gives me a rough sense of my capacity, the people I’ll meet, and what they might need. More importantly, it reminds me that Priority is Relative.

Three Different Tastes

Humans suffer from bright’n’shiny complex, where we’re titillated by the new. Think of it like this: have you actually done anything with that last domain you bought? No. You had the idea for it on Tuesday morning and you got all fired up, so you bought the domain the moment you got in to work. At lunch you furiously doodled your design in your notebook, fully intending to get home and get started on the HTML/CSS, and then you got home… and watched Lost.

Take the bright’n’shiny complex and apply it to your entire group, where everyone is prioritizing their day by their particular inspiration and you’ll realize it’s shocking that we ever collectively get anything done.

By taking a deep breath and considering your entire day, I’m attempting to ditch all the bright’n’shininess and gather perspective: “What is going to matter today?” With this rough priority scale in mind, I do a complete scrub of the to-do list. Yeah, the whole thing. If you can’t get through this list in 5 uninterrupted minutes, your list is either too long or you’re bad at scrubbing. Don’t worry about that yet.

The purpose of the Morning Scrub is to land each task into one of three buckets:

  1. Today. This task must be completed today.
  2. Later. Not today. Later.
  3. Never. Yeah, I’m never going to do this task. It’s gone. This is an important essential decision that we’ll talk about in a moment.

Initially, getting through this list is tricky because, invariably, a task will be so delectable that you’ll want to jump into immediate action. Don’t. The point of this scrub is not forward momentum; it’s complete prioritization. Any deviation from the scrub decreases the chance you’ll get through the whole list.

How many Today tasks are left when you’re done with the scrub? I don’t know because I don’t know who you are or how granular your tasks are, but I usually end up with between 10 and 20.

With the Morning Scrub complete, I create the Parking Lot. This is a blank legal size piece of paper that sits directly to the left of the keyboard. New sheet. Always legal size. Every morning.

Anyone who has sat through an offsite knows exactly what this paper is for. It’s the landing spot for any idea/task/thing that is worth remembering, but, if acted upon at the moment, will derail the productivity train. Like the Morning Scrub, the art of capturing a bright’n’shiny idea and landing it in the Parking Lot is an acquired skill. You’re going to want to move on the new, and sometimes that’s the right move, but you need to honestly and quickly answer the question, “Is moving on this new thing more important than finishing what I’m doing right now?”

Practice Productivity Minimalism

As I’ve already mentioned (and written about), this is not a piece where I’ll debate the pro/cons of various productivity tools. You get to find a tool that fits your personal quirks, but whatever that tool is, I have some brief advice how to use it relative to assessing your personal Taste of the Day:

  • My task list has no hierarchical organization. I’ve used systems before that allow me to lump tasks by projects or by theme and, inevitably, I end up maintaining the structure rather than getting shit done. This pisses me off.
  • I do use tags within Things, but only to track who the most important person is, if anyone, for a given task. This is a handy way to run 1:1s. “Show me all Bob-related things.”
  • No priorities. Really. Again, priority is relative, and while slapping a priority on a task when you create it feels right, it’s wrong because two days from now the priority will be different. Priority is a big deal — as a manager you want to get the right stuff done at the right time, but the priority that matters is the one sitting in your head right now rather than the one you dreamed up a week ago.
  • No dates. I’ve got to be pissing off productivity nerds now. I don’t track due dates, either. I fully scrub my to-do list every day, which means I’m constantly making real-time calls regarding scheduling tasks.

As an engineer, your natural inclination is to build an increasingly complex system for tracking your tasks. The risk is that the more structure you put into your list, the more you need to maintain it, and the more you maintain it, the less time you’ll have to actually get work done.

The Evening

After work, after dinner, or just before I go to sleep, I complete another scrub. The process for the Evening Scrub is slightly different.

First, I scrub the Parking Lot into the Later bucket. This is the first taste I get of how the day actually went. Lots of new tasks? Ok, what kind? With the Parking Lot scrubbed, I take a moment to size up the day. How’d I do on taste? My original read was “meeting-infested nightmare” — was I right? This is another priority leveling exercise. It doesn’t matter if I made the right call on the day; the point is to again set your head appropriately.

Finally, I scrub unfinished items in the Today bucket. For each item remaining, I ask, “Ok, why didn’t I get this done?” Very often, the answer is, “Not enough time”, so the item gets thrown back into the Later bucket, but sometimes it just gets deleted.

Your question is, “How did a task that was scrubbed into the Today bucket this morning suddenly become irrelevant?”

The efficient, version control-loving information pack rat in you is going to have a problem punting a task into oblivion. Your thought is, “Sure, it might not feel important right now, but WHAT IF!?”

Stop. Delete it. We’ve already wasted 37 seconds noodling on this semi-essential but tasteless task. Nuke it. By getting this task off your list and out of your head, we’re making space. Don’t worry, if the task is actually important, it’s going to find its way back to your Parking Lot.

This deletion is advanced management kung-fu and it’s based on insight I don’t like to give to new managers because it’s a total productivity buzz kill. The insight is: “You will never complete everything you should.”

“Rands, I can do anything!”

Of course you can.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”

I’m not. What I’m telling you is that management is the art of choosing what not to do, which means you need to be ready and willing to look at the task at the end of a day and ask, “Ok, I made this urgent this morning. A day has passed and I had time, but never got to it. Does it matter?”

Priority is relative. What felt so important last Wednesday loses importance five days later when the larger context of your week, your month, and your career shows up. You need to develop a practice of strategic information shedding where you are constantly and intelligently jettisoning ideas and work.

A well maintained to-do list gives you a daily sense of professional well-being. It constructs the pleasant illusion that you have a degree of control in a world where you have no idea how tomorrow will taste. The system I’ve constructed to maintain this list is lightweight, built using the practical use of constraints, designed to sift through an endless crapload of information that passes me during the day, but it’s a system that is incomplete.

A glance at my current Parking Lot demonstrates this incompleteness. It’s a list of things I need to do. It’s a list of tactics that I need to do to keep the management engine running, but dutifully following these to-do’s isn’t management; it’s task execution. You need another list, one that represents the strategy for your team, your career, and your values.

And that one is called the Trickle List.

35 Responses

  1. Thank you for pointing out that maintaining a process for maintaining processes takes time away from actually maintaining the process.

    Getting things done *is* the imperative, not Getting Things Done.

  2. Lopp, someone just gave me your book, and I was more than a little surprised to learn you were a published author. Not sure why I was surprised — guess I didn’t know you had literary leanings. Should I read it, or does having kicked your ass in Quake so many years ago make me an expert in all things management? Regards,


  3. Great essay. Personally, I love to use mindmaps (tree structures) for both my daily todo list and my larger “whole life trickle-down list”. I highly recommend Freemind (open source mindmapping tool).

  4. Intelligent, informed and well written post is why I read this blog. You never disappoint.

  5. Good post. I’m planning on picking up a Moleskine one of these days, so I’ve been scouring the internets for good productivity system articles. Thanks!

  6. Excellent post, and very relevant to myself and I’m sure many new engineering managers.

    Thank you!!

  7. Another excellent post. I particularly got a chuckle out of “…management is the art of knowing what NOT to do” Boy have I had to learn THAT the hard way!!!

    If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’d been reading my thoughts!

  8. I use whatever paper is available. If it’s not small enough I tear it roughly just around the list. No paper wasted that way, right? 🙂 I too don’t prioritize – I list according to group usually location or program they match. Like today:

    – haircut, get gas, eat lunch, return vcd’s, mail dvd are outside things I have to do when I do go out.

    – respond to comments, edit draft for AfA, rejustify to right side images on fl(another blog) are things I do in one mode (blogging mode)

    – edit wmv’s I did yesterday, splice in elephants and cave shots – video or photo., consider converting for mac users.

    – exercise: rent bike for la fever hill or do same stairs trek, pick up wife from bus station or work.

    Nothing major planned today as you can see. It really helps me to group tasks in ways that will help see them get done.

    Another commenter wrote about mind-maps. I use one for planning everything blogs, sites, books, videos, literally everything that is more involved than a daily todo list – but, I don’t have a printer or a mobile that could display it so I don’t use them for my daily lists.

    Looking forward to learning about the trickle list.

  9. Jonathan Gibbs 16 years ago

    Excellent article.

    One change I made recently which is working out really well for me is before I start my day, either in the evening or early morning, I choose a particular bigger task I feel is important but have been unable to get to. I do that task first as soon as I arrive at work, before making my list for the day and before reading email. Those things all send me off to attack the hot-item of the day, and once that starts it’s hard to block out any length of time longer than a few minutes. I usually spend 2 hours on that first task, and it’s been really refreshing!

  10. Jonathan — DING DING DING

    Genius. I’m going to do that tomorrow. All that shit I keep putting off and letting stress me out — I’ll do it live!

  11. I also sit in a similar position where constant interruption is normal. For the few moments where I get to single task and work on certain program, it feels like a bliss.

    I do, however, use a different system than yours and completely obliterated the list. I only have one item on the plate per day (top priority) and for each interruption, I ask these following questions:

    * What problem are we trying to solve?

    * Does this problem relate to our top goals or is it a distraction?

    * Is this problem important enough to warrant changing our priorities?

    * What is the simplest way to resolve this that will allow us to meet out goals?

    * If we’re struggling to meet our goals, which goal can we drop down to Priority 2?

  12. kdgregory 16 years ago

    > No priorities. Really.

    Triage (“scrub”) is prioritization. But it’s almost always the only prioritization you need.

    Early in my career I had the opportunity to watch a group of MBAs and engineers “die in the wilds of Canada” as they spent 45 minutes debating the pros and cons of each piece of gear, while the “airplane slowly sunk into the permafrost and the sun went down.”

  13. Awesome, i’ve been waiting months for another one of these. Thanks for sharing the info Rands! 🙂

  14. Great article. It’s GTD without all the unproductive futzing.

    My tool of choice for managing my task list/parking lot is VoodooPad, which essentially allows me to create a personal wiki.

    It’s simple and flexible, and I like the ability to search through my “task archive” if I need to recall information about a task.

  15. stevenf 16 years ago

    Rands, do you combine work & personal tasks into your big master list, or do have separate lists for work & personal or what.

    If you are using an application (Things), do you run it on a laptop and take it with you, run separate installations at home/work, or what.

    Sorry, I know this comment is focusing on the entirely wrong part of your great essay. Can’t help it. Engineer.

  16. Brennan Young 16 years ago

    Excellent post!

    Thanks for sharing those important small heresies which I have previously held in private (such as no priorities and no do-by-date except ‘today’).

    I struggle with ‘getting things done’, and this is the first thing I have read on the subject which actually makes any sense. Looking forward to the next part, and reading your book! (Now ordered from Amazon).

  17. Miss Jane 16 years ago

    *contented sigh*

    Tempted as I am to rave (and use too many exclamation marks!!) I would just like to say that this article simultaneously:

    – gives one of the best descriptions of management I’ve read

    – is one of the first productivity articles I’ve read where I think, hmm, I might actually be able to do that

    – makes me feel a LOT better about my day!!

    Sorry, had to use some excited punctuation.

  18. Rands,

    I’ve been a reader for 3 years. Posts like this are why yours is the only “blog” that’s survived that long in my reader. Thanks for your eloquent insights.



  19. @Causalien:

    Much of what I’m learning, by choosing a new orthogonal view on my work flow and department, is that I’m an enabler. I’m generous enough with my time to let people approach me with polymorphic intentions. It’s my own fault that I give up so much of my day.

    Slowly, I’m requiring people to be more pointed. I’m training them and myself. Now, to find the fine line between “asshat” and “taskmaster.”

  20. Zenon Hannick 16 years ago

    Just got sent this link by a colleague. I am two months into my first management job and already have 4 task lists in two different pads. Love the idea of the morning scrub and the parking lot could be a god send.

    Now I just have to get my hands on your book.

    Cheers. You may have just saved me from a world of tasklist pain!!


  21. Steven Fields 16 years ago


    Definitely one of your better posts. Keep ‘em coming.



  22. Murphy 16 years ago

    Excellent article. Thanks very much!

  23. Agree with Khurt and Miss Jane above – fantastically well-written article.

    Consider me subscribed.

  24. S. Gaston 16 years ago

    I see a lot of very effective managers at my workplace use a similar style. Very few of us have anything that could be considered ‘offices’ so the scrub process normally occurs when you feel a noticeable bulge in your pocket from scrap paper.

    Some of the more ambitious try to keep it all in a pocket-sized notebook but I’ve found that that is either too bulky or too small to be useful, and stick with a folded square or two of paper.

    The not-prioritizing is a great insight. One of the more senior guys pushes taskers to his subordinates via outlook with priorities that are ‘set in stone’ possibly MONTHS before the event, minimizing relevancy.

  25. nebulous 16 years ago

    Another excellent article.

    (The real problem with over-designing a system for getting things done is that there’s *always* a better way to organize your tasks. Having no system frees you from the race to the new (or makes the switch to the newest app quick and painless.) Or, as you put it, the bright ‘n’ shiny complex.)

  26. Tim Goh 16 years ago

    Thanks, great post.

    Your system is lightweight and appealing. Think I’ll make a few minor adaptations and give it a whirl.

    Big mistake blogging about this though. You should have written a book about this system with a catchy three word title, thereby adding another TLA to the world and spawning 500 web apps and 100 phone apps that purport to be the best way of adhering to your system. Opportunity missed!

  27. Beautiful post. As some of the other commentators have said it is this type of blog that makes your site a should read.

    Well done.

  28. This is a great essay indeed. I agree with you completely in regard to priorities. Also, when you say:

    No dates. I’ve got to be pissing off productivity nerds now. I don’t track due dates, either. I fully scrub my to-do list every day, which means I’m constantly making real-time calls regarding scheduling tasks.

    I think this is the true key of the whole matter. When I changed my way of organising tasks to this kind of date-less model, my productivity experienced a sudden, perceptible boost.

    Take care,


  29. Paul of Congleton 16 years ago

    SUPERB article. I work in a very small company, doing a mixture of management, design and actual software engineering. Over the last few years, I have creaked and groaned my way to a very similar day-management system, and can honestly say it has kept me sane.

    Folks, this works!

  30. I recently put together a setup that some might find useful. It would certainly work well with Rands’ system. I bought some flexible whiteboard foamboard, cut it into 2″ x 6″ pieces and hot-glued magnets to the back of them. I jot tasks down on each one, and stick them to the metal casing of the cabinet by my desk. These can float up and down in ‘priority’, left and right into ‘long term / short term’, or however you want to move them. The beauty is simply that you can use their position to give meaning, without having to re-write them all the time.

  31. Waiting 16 years ago

    So, where’s this trickle list you mentioned? Did it get punted into oblivion?

  32. A nice long slow thought. Thanks

  33. Daniel Serodio 16 years ago

    As a Engineer-tuned-Manager, I found your article right on the spot. I’ve read GTD, and I’m constantly

    I’m currently evaluating Chandler for task management, and it’s build on the “now-later-done” and “single task list” ideas.

  34. Joshwa 16 years ago

    My approach to deletion is to use Things’ new “Cancelled” feature. Lets me move it to the logbook so I have a record of when I decided it wasn’t important anymore.

  35. I think you’ve just saved my life!

    This fits exactly with how my mind works. Thank you!