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05 Sep

There is a time for structuring and a time for doing


Datum: 2012-09-05 12:00

Some peo­ple I meet think that they are going to improve their struc­ture lat­er, when they have time. 



Per­haps they have tried sort­ing out the piles, but got­ten stuck after a few min­utes of orga­niz­ing and come to the con­clu­sion that it sim­ply takes too long to make their sit­u­a­tion and them­selves more struc­tured and effi­cient. Espe­cial­ly if you have as many piles as I do.”



The pur­pose of struc­tur­ing what is oth­er­wise left in piles (of papers or of e‑mails) is that we get a grip on what they con­tain and what we need to do with what­ev­er is in them (if action is needed). 

In order to get this type of con­trol it isn’t nec­es­sary that we do all the to-do-tasks the piles of papers or e‑mails sug­gest we need to do. 



This is where we tend to bite our own tail. 

Not the same

You see, there is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between struc­tur­ing and doing. You might even say that there is a time for struc­tur­ing and a time for doing”. 

  • Struc­tur­ing” here implies to take the top leaf from the pile, look it over and think about what it means to us, that is to say, deter­mine if some­thing needs to be done, if it needs to be saved, if you will need it at some point or if you can throw it away. You then cre­ate to-do-tasks (with­out com­plet­ing them), save the mate­r­i­al where you keep your ref­er­ence-mate­r­i­al, et c.
  • Doing” means com­plet­ing the to-do-task we iden­ti­fied when going through the pile. Oh that’s right, I need to write that report.” or Ops! Here it was. I need to sched­ule that meet­ing right away.” or OK, and here is that mate­r­i­al. The next step here might be to fol­low up the quo­ta­tion we sent them last week.”. It is when we con­fuse doing” and struc­tur­ing” what struc­tur­ing takes so long.

Doesn’t this just mean more work?

Now the part of us that prefers mess might ask but why spend time struc­tur­ing first and then doing? Isn’t it bet­ter to do right away and just be done with it? No, there is a val­ue to struc­tur­ing first. 



We are nat­u­ral­ly striv­ing towards doing the right thing right now, so that we won’t have to dis­cov­er lat­er that we should have been com­plet­ing some­thing else while there was still time.

This is why we need to get an overview of all the things we need to do quick­ly and eas­i­ly, hence enabling our­selves to choose the right thing to do right now. This is the pur­pose of struc­tur­ing first.


If we were to sim­ply get on to work with what­ev­er the first leaf in the pile sug­gests we need to do, it might take a very long time to get a com­plete overview of our sit­u­a­tion (if we ever get one at all). 
In oth­er words, we would be pri­or­i­tiz­ing ran­dom­ly rather than consciously. 

Do this

Try these steps if you wish to process the paper- or e‑mail-piles you have in an orga­nized manner:

  1. Set the count­down timer on your phone (or an egg timer if you hap­pen to have one at your office) to 2 minutes. 
  2. Start with the first paper or e‑mail. Ask your­self what it implies or means to you. 
  3. If you con­clude that the first item entails doing some­thing that prob­a­bly will not take long to do, do it right away.
    (If you on the oth­er hand con­clude that it will take longer than just a few min­utes, make a to-do-task out of it and move on to the next item, paper or e‑mail. If you find some­thing that can be thrown away, you will of course throw it away, and if it needs to be saved, you file it away where it belongs.)
  4. If the count­down timer alerts you that the two min­utes are up and you still have work to do to fin­ish the task, abort what you are doing and cre­ate a to-do-task out of what remains to be done and add it to your to-do-list. 
  5. If you com­plete the task before the two min­utes are up, con­tin­ue pro­cess­ing the next paper or e‑mail and set the timer for anoth­er 2 minutes. 
  6. Con­tin­ue doing this until you have processed the entire pile, e‑mail inbox or you need to stop what you are doing and go to a meeting. 

This way there is time to be structured

If you stick to just struc­tur­ing when you intend to just orga­nize and struc­ture your work (and do not fall for the temp­ta­tion to start doing), you will have time to process the piles; per­haps not all at once, but at least one item at a time. I promise. 

What is your way?

How do you make sure you keep improv­ing in your way of work­ing even though you are busy and have a lot on your plate? Leave a com­ment to share your insights.

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