The Single Best Time Management Tip Ever

Last Updated Apr 28, 2011 6:51 PM EDT

I spent most of my life at war with time--and time usually won. I'd read every book and taken every course along the way, and with a few exceptions (like David Allen's excellent Getting Things Done), most of it seemed to rehash common sense. The feeling of being overwhelmed and underproductive was relentless.

The big breakthrough came when I was first teaching at USC and a student with severe dyslexia asked for help. Not knowing what to do, I turned to an expert on learning disorders. She advised that I let the student take the exam in my office, giving him short breaks every 20 minutes. The student did very well, surprising us both, and I was intrigued. After years of working with 20-minute segments, the Multiple Put Down technique was born. I've used it to write four books, a dissertation and thousands of speeches.

Here it is: work on a task in 20-minute increments, with absolute focus, and then put it down, over and over, until you're done. In this case, the gold is in the details, so please follow them exactly:

  1. Alert your brain that a task is coming that will require its recall, creativity, and brilliance (yes, your brain is brilliant--thank your parents). Then let some time pass--a day, perhaps.
  2. When you're ready to start, set a timer for 20 minutes, such as the stopwatch feature on an iPhone. Set your cell phone to airplane mode, turn off your email, and silence all other distractions. Then hit start on the timer.
  3. During the 20 minutes, you must focus on that task without interruption. And unless the building burns down, do nothing but work on that task until the timer goes off. You may hit the wall, but keep going. The vast majority of people find they can work on that task "in the zone" until the timer goes off.
  4. After 20 minutes, you have a choice: keep working or take a break. If you keep working, reset the timer to 20 minutes and go through the process again, without interruption until the next 20 minutes are up. If you decide to take a break, it can be short (such as refilling your coffee cup), medium (returning a phone call) or long (going into a meeting, or working out).
That's it. You pick it up and put down over and over, hence the name "Multiple Put Down." Some data, my own experience, and reports from the thousands of people who have learned the technique is that you are much more efficient--often finishing a task in 30-50% of the time it would take if you worked on it in one sitting. Even better, the quality of the work is far superior than if you followed your mother's advice of "start early and just get it done." There are other benefits, too: less stress, reduced frustration, and a general feeling of being brilliant. Multiple Put Down will save you hours and it can be even more powerful when combined with a Life Repair Day.

There are several advantages to the Multiple Put Down technique. The first is that your brain is brilliant at running processes in the background, but is awful at multitasking. While you're driving to work, in the shower or answering email, your brain will be working in the background on the task, so that when you're ready, it'll drain through your fingers, into your computer or notepad, for about 20 minutes. The break allows your brain to restock the supply of brilliance. Each time you go through the process is a "productivity unit."

Here are some tasks that are perfectly suited for Multiple Put Down: writing a report, preparing a pitch for a client or boss, figuring out how to solve a tough problem. Fans of Tribal Leadership might be interested to know that the book was written in 1106 productivity units.

Here's my challenge to you: right now, take a task that's nagging at you and use Multiple Put Down on it. I hope you'll share how it goes by posting a comment below.

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Photo courtesy wwarby, CC 2.0.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.