08 November 2006
Marty Neumeier
Marty Neumeier

We graphic designers are anti-time management. A steel door in our brains slams shut at the very mention of the concept. This is because graphic designers are pro-serendipity, pro-spontaneity, pro-go-with-the- ow. Our ability to stay open to surprise and accident is what determines our value as creative people. Except when it doesn't.

Pablo Picasso, the very definition of a prolific artist, worked at a frenzied pace. At least half of his success was due to the amount and the range of his output. The problem was, it took a terrific toll on his personal life and
on the lives of the people around him. By all accounts, Picasso ran on a mixture of adrenaline and emotion an explosive formula that can fuel great art, but can also lead to highly destructive behavior, as many of Picasso's lovers and acquaintances have attested.

While some graphic designers have patterned their careers on the Picasso model, most of us want more not just a satisfying career, but a satisfying life. Adrenaline and emotion are not enough to arrive at this more sophisticated goal. It also takes self-discipline. It takes (stay with me here) time management.
But before I tell you the stunningly simple secret behind time management, I'd like you to measure your assumptions against seven myths that can keep you from embracing it.

Myth #1: If you don't sweat, you don't get.
Stella Adler of the Actors Studio often told her students, "If you want more, pay more." While there is undeniable truth in this advice, results are not always related to hard work. Keeping your shoulder to the wheel and your nose to the grindstone will only assure you of two things: a bad back and a at nose.

Myth #2: Activity is productivity.
Many people confuse keeping busy with achieving results. At the end of the day, however, you can easily get the feeling that you haven't accomplished anything. Two issues ago, on the cover of Critique #14, James Victore pointed out that Thoreau's statement, "Simplify, simplify," could have been simpler. But Thoreau had the right idea. "It's not enough to be busy," he said. The question is: What are we busy about?

Myth #3: Efficiency means effectiveness.
Designers are suspicious of efficiency, because we know that creativity often takes the scenic route home. But efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. Efficiency is aimed at doing the job right, while effectiveness is aimed at doing the right job. Being effective in your work - doing the right job - can double or triple your productivity.

Myth #4: A genius burns the midnight oil.
As design students, we learn to do whatever it takes, which usually means staying up late to finish our projects. We then carry this habit into the workplace, seeking the same rush of professional pride by working evenings and weekends to finish what we couldn't finish during the normal workday. Here we unwittingly cooperate with Parkinson's Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available.
Most designers don't realize that if a task takes two hours, but could have been done in one hour, the time savings would have multiplied the studio's profits by as much as 600%.

Myth #5: If you want a thing done right, you have to do it yourself.
This applies to design managers who have built their reputations on their own work. Yet the habit of micro-managing comes with two crippling disadvantages: you rob your subordinates of responsibility and therefore learning and you spread yourself too thin to be effective. Devoting a little of yourself to everything means committing a great deal of yourself to nothing.

Myth #6: More discipline means less freedom.
Discipline has gotten a bad rap. We creative people have an aversion to being told "no" - first by our parents, later in grammar school, and finally by our bosses and clients. As a result, we also develop an aversion to disciplining ourselves. But the truth is that self-discipline is the key to high-level creative freedom.

Myth #7: We work best under pressure.
This belief is insidiously seductive because it encourages procrastination, excuses shoddy work, and rewards us with a reputation for being a "pressure player." Eventually we're found out, as we always suspected we would be, and in the meantime our self-image has suffered from coping with alternating bouts of laziness and fear.
If you can admit to falling prey to any or all of these myths, you re already on the road to recovery. All you need now is a simple technique for reversing your time-wasting habits. Are you ready? The secret of effective time management is the "to-do" list. That's right, the to-do list. And the magic behind the to-do list is the Pareto Principle.

The Pareto Principle, sometimes called the 80/20 Rule, was invented by 19th-century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Boiled down, the Pareto Principle says that you can be 80% effective by achieving 20% of your goals. If you complete only the one or two most important tasks on your list each day, it states, you've still done most of what you needed to do. Or at least you can sleep well, knowing that you've done the best you can.

People have been surprised to hear that I not only run a magazine but a design studio, in addition to designing, writing articles, and going on the road for several weeks a year on speaking tours and still find time to take vacations (though not as many as I'd like). It's not due to some elaborate piece of time-management software. It's not because I carry a beeper into the bathroom. And it's not from working twelve-hour days. It's because of my to-do list, and my willingness to submit to it.

A to-do list is not so much about keeping a record of tasks as it is about prioritizing those tasks.

But while some people spend hours every week grouping and regrouping items into tidy columns of high-priority, low-priority, and nice-to-do tasks, you can skip all that and keep one simple list for everything. After all, we're not mapping the human genome here.
But there's a catch to a to-do list you have to tackle the most important item on your list. That's where the self-discipline comes in. You can t move one thing to the top of your list, then decide to rebel against your own authority and do something else, just because it s easier or more amusing.

Of course, you can buy any number of manufactured products that will lend structure and ritual to your time-management efforts. There are personal planners, both paper and digital; hand-held electronic organizers; and networked software programs designed to facilitate collaboration. At last count there were over 70 time-management software products on the market, all promising to make you a more successful, more organized person. Without refuting the claims of any of these products, I believe there's a distinct danger that you'll spend more time with the product than you will with your work. Much better to start small, develop a technique that works for you, then streamline it later with an off-the-shelf system.

Rather than suggest a one-size-fits-all technique, I'll simply explain how I use my own system, and leave you to design a system for yourself.

I keep two lists a general list on a yellow pad, and a specific list in my calendar (Week at-a-Glance, $5.95). My general list has all the jobs I need to complete in the near future including all the studio's work in progress plus parts of jobs that are especially large. My calendar list contains specific tasks for each day, such as meetings, phone calls, and deadlines, along with a few items I hope to accomplish sometime during the day. If I fail to get around to them, I move them to the next day.

Every morning I check both lists. I'm looking for two things: what's most important to do, and what's most urgent to do. For example, it may be important to build a relationship with a Critique contributor, but it may be urgent to apologize to a client before he gets upset and fires the studio.
Difficult as it may be, I do the urgent thing first, because it'll lead to time-wasting complications if I don't. I'm always eager to add new items to my list, and I'm just as eager to finish them so I can cross them off. I consider this the natural ebb and flow of business, like breathing or the movement of the tides. Although I rarely complete every task on my daily list, when I leave the studio I can usually forget about work entirely, knowing that I did everything I reasonably could to keep things moving.

That's it. You can read any number of treatises on time management, but most, like this article, are cribbed from a classic self-help book called Working Smart by Michael LeBoeuf. While I could have adopted a more structured system, such as the one LeBouef suggests in his book, I feel that a little less structure allows for a little more of the serendipity, spontaneity, and flow I need to feel creative.

Your own system, whether it contains more or less structure, will probably deliver the same magical results as mine, as long as it's based on the Pareto Principle. You'll find that by becoming a willing slave to your to-do list, you'll become the master of your working day. And then, whenever you need to get away, you can simply add "take vacation" to the top of your list. Tunis, anyone?

About this article

This article by Marty Neumeier appears here with permission from Critique Magazine. Copyright 2000, Critique Magazine.

About Critique Magazine
Critique is a beautifully designed quarterly magazine that makes sense of graphic design, and is devoted to clear discussions of aesthetics, communications, strategy, and audiences. Critique Magazine explains the thinking behind the styles, and the methods behind the messages, and brings in leading designers and experts from other disciplines to discuss the developments in business, psychology, and technology that will affect design tomorrow.