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A time management tool that works

Updated on May 3, 2013
are you overloaded?
are you overloaded?

Is this your average day?

It’s 9:30 in the morning. You are at your desk. “Today will be different” you think to yourself as you start writing down your “To Do list” while slowly sipping your coffee.

Once the list is complete you smile to yourself as you rehearse it one last time .You click on your first job folder and skim through. It is a big project with so many details, you cannot possibly finish it in one setting so you stop and look for something you can easily finish just to warm up, then the email client buzzes. It is a message from a client asking for some urgent amends. You shift gears and start working on his request when the door knocks and Vanessa; your colleague gets in with a big smile on her face. “I got a new brief from "World Tourism Organization" for a new logo, some brochures and sign posts”. You leave the folder and sit down with her for the details. 90 minutes later you are back to your folder when the phone rings…..

Does this sound familiar? It should be, the average work day has evolved into a stream of interruptions punctuated with a few minutes of focused work, and I am sure you have tried many time management tools and techniques before but bear with me for a couple of minutes while I show you a simple technique that is easy to do and requires no fancy planners or software, yet it can greatly increase your productivity.

There are two main reasons behind most of our time management issues

· Interruptions

We can rarely focus on a task for more than a couple of minutes before being interrupted .As a matter of fact research shows that the average American is interrupted every third minute .The 20 minute rule will show you how to adapt to this reality instead of fighting back.

· Procrastination

One of the main reasons behind procrastination is the complexity and length of a task.

We usually put things off because they seem daunting and we know we cannot finish then in one setting.

Why other time management methods fail?

Many of the available programs fail because they focus too much on strategy than tactics , they concentrate on the big picture while our main problem is the Nitty gritty details. This is why the emphasis of the 20 minute program is on tactics and real world how to.

So let’s get down to details of the 20 minutes method

example of today's task sheet with one 20 minute chunk crossed out
example of today's task sheet with one 20 minute chunk crossed out
kitchen timer
kitchen timer

The tools

All you need is 2 sheets of paper, a pencil and a timer.

  • The inventory sheet

This is your first sheet where you write down a tasks inventory; just fill this sheet with all incoming tasks with no certain classification.

  • Today sheet

Here you write down the tasks you plan to be doing today. This is important since it focuses your attention on what you really need to be doing today. It gets the other inventory items out of your sight and prevents distractions

  • Timer

Any sort of countdown timer will work (alarm clock, kitchen timer or software on your pc

check this free tool

Applying the 20 minute rule

  • Check your inventory sheet and select the tasks you need to finish today based on their importance or urgency.
  • Write those tasks on your today sheet.
  • Estimate how many 20 minute chunks you will need to finish each task and to the right of each task draw small circles equal to the estimated number of 20 minute chunks.
  • Set your timer for 20 minutes.
  • Start working on your first task.
  • Don’t allow anything to stop you till the 20 minutes are over.
  • Never switch from a task to another during a chunk.
  • When the alarm goes off , you have finished a chunk and can now put an x on one of the circles
  • 3 scenarios will happen:
    • You complete the tasks in the estimated number of chunks. Great you have accurately estimated how long you needed to finish a task.
    • You finished before the estimated number of chunks. Where you will end up with some non-crossed out circles. Good, now you can better estimate the time you will need for such a task.
    • You crossed out all the chunks but the task is not finished yet. No problem , now you have to re-estimate how many more chunks you will need . next you will decide whether you will continue on the task today or move the remaining part into your inventory sheet for another day

break time
break time

The break

  • The break is as important as the work time. When the alarm goes off you must stop and take 5 minutes break even if you feel that you are in the flow. You have to move away from your desk if only to stretch and have a few fresh breaths.
  • When you get back, you have a fresh choice either to continue on the activity or start a new one depending on the priorities for the moment.
  • Keep crossing out chunks until the planned number is finished.

Unplanned and urgent tasks

  • As expected some urgent and unplanned tasks will emerge during the day.
  • Draw a horizontal line after the today tasks and add those unplanned activities below that line
  • If the emerging situation is urgent. stop the task at hand and do the urgent one
  • If it is unplanned but not urgent you can add it later to your inventory sheet

The void

If you had to stop during a chunk you must consider it void don’t calculate it otherwise you are building a habit of responding to interruptions and the whole idea of chunking is destroyed.

Evaluate and analyze

Here comes the time for evaluation this is a critical activity. Now you count number of work chunks and number of finished activities. How many have you been able to finish today? How long have you been able to commit to your schedule? How many interruptions stopped you?

What if I cannot commit to 20 minutes?

No problem, just start with 15 or 10 or even 5 minutes as long as you can stick to it.

Once you get in the habit of doing 5 minutes chunks then you can add more time until you reach the 20 minute threshold.

Advantages of the 20 minutes chunk method

  • The great thing is that you will build confidence and momentum as you finish one task after the other.
  • The rule helps you use your conditioned reflexes; the alarm rings you start, the alarm rings you stop and so on
  • It helps you get rid of anxiety due to complex projects, because you only have to work for 20 minutes at a time .
  • A great tool for flexibility: the schedule you plan in the morning is not carved in stone. You set your tasks in the morning but you can reassess your priorities after each chunk .If something comes up that is more important or urgent you shift gears, do it the same way then get back to the task you were doing.
  • A tool to maintain level of work performance :one of the main problems with long stretches of work is the dropping performance, you start a little cold then you pick momentum for a while where you are most productive, but eventually your performance declines and if you push yourself the rest of the work will be of lower quality .If you use the chunks technique you will guarantee a homogenous level of performance .
  • A great eye opener we are all familiar with the fact that tasks take more than we estimate. The chunking technique will first prove it and second help you deal with it. At the end of every day you will do an inventory of the day’s activities .You have two goals; first to assess what you have done and what is left .Second you will compare your forecast to your actual performance ,this way you will get better at estimating your work load and productivity.
    • Continuous improvement: this is a great tool to keep improving. You plan in the morning, apply your plan, evaluate and adapt. Day after day you get better.
  • And it works great for big complicated projects simply chunk them down into 20 minute tasks and just chop away at one by one .

I hope this simple method can help you get more out of your days

Give it a try and let me know how it worked for you

Here is a great time management book I recommend


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    Post Comment

    • nasser deep profile imageAUTHOR

      nasser deep 

      5 years ago

      Thanks Chris. I have been using this technique for a while and it helped me focus on doing the tasks at hand instead of worrying about the to do list.

    • profile image

      Chris B 

      5 years ago

      Great idea. I'm just about to start using it. Your idea is very similar to The Pomodoro Technique. You should check it out if you haven't already.

    • nasser deep profile imageAUTHOR

      nasser deep 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for your comment. The good thing about the chunking method is that it takes the stress out and lets you focus on actually doing the tasks at hand

    • Sugahware profile image

      Robyn D Bera 

      5 years ago from California

      Great information here, thanks for sharing. I will try your 20 minute chunk method and see if I can get more done. I do use daily checklists but tend to over schedule myself.


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