Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

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Friday, October 19, 2012

List-maker Shares End Zone Time Management Approach

Have you ever had a to-do list so long that it’s hard to feel like you are making progress? I’ve had days where I started with a list of 60 things I felt I had to do; I accomplished 40 of those items, but still ended up with 72 things on my list. That’s because assignments came in faster than I could complete them. It was like digging in sand.

Imagine you were quarterbacking a football team and you had to drive to the other end of the field but the length of the field kept changing, in fact, at times you were so far away from the end zone that you couldn’t even see the goal posts.

This is how I’ve felt at times, especially on those days when I accomplish a lot and still end up further away from the end zone than when I started the day. I work hard. I want to run into the end zone and celebrate every now and then. So that’s why I developed a time management system I call “Define the End Zone.”

Here’s how it works. You put your to-do list into a numbered word document. Then you pull from that to make a short list of just the things you want to accomplish before noon. That might be just six or seven items on your list. It might look like this:

  1. Take the mayonnaise jar out of my backpack. 
  2. Return Mitt Romney's call.
  3. Finish "zinger document" for President Obama. 
  4. Call back Clooney and tell him I do not want to meet Friday at 9:30 p.m.
  5. Work on the Bloomberg report of the Zero Project for 60 minutes. 
Now, I may have a huge list but this is all I need to think about between now and noon. I do the same thing between noon and 5 p.m., and 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.

So, how do you deal with unexpected interruptions that derail your list and threaten to push the end zone back? Let’s say that you are just about to call Mitt and the fire alarm goes off. Because you hate it when you literally catch on fire at work, this instantly changes your priorities. It’s okay. The end-zone approach is flexible.

You must then calculate in your mind how long you think this interruption will take and, if your office doesn’t burn up while you are away, you make an adjustment when you get back. Let’s say that you figure this should be a 15-minute interruption. When you get back you adjust your list by knocking 15 minutes off the last item. Now the last item on your list reads: “Work on the Bloomberg report of the Zero Project for 45 minutes.” The end zone hasn’t moved.

Now you don’t deduct how much time the interruption actually took because, in the case of a fire alarm, you could make that detour last all morning if you are a creative procrastinator. That wouldn’t be fair to the other team. You also have to decide which things can never be deducted such as processing e-mail. I need to force myself to be less attentive to e-mail, so if I stop to go through my e-mail more than once before noon, I’m just making it harder to reach the goal posts. I don’t knock anything off the bottom of my list to compensate for e-mail time or low priority things  that use up valuable seconds such as gazing at the vending machine.
You hit the end zone if you can cross all the items off your list before noon. That’s worth three points. If you do it with 30 minutes to spare, that’s worth 7 points. If you fail, you just punt, make a new list for the new block of time and go after it again. Don’t forget to give the other team its points – seven points if it takes you more than 30 minutes past your deadline to finish your mini-list.

This approach works best when you have a moderate level of incoming traffic. If things are changing too fast, it becomes a distraction. If it’s a quiet, peaceful day where you know you can work on just one project all day, then you don’t really need it.

Since I was in junior high I have been in search of the perfect time management system. In my job now I get to interview many top executives, consultants, and entrepreneurs and I usually try to squeeze in a question in about how they manage their workload.

Their answers are interesting. One executive told me the secret was just to get a good administrative assistant and let her take care of managing all your appointments, priorities and life. Others have talked about getting up early in the morning and never multi-tasking. Someday I’ll write about what the late Stephen R. Covey, the Huntsman Presidential Chair in Leadership (2010-2012), told me when I interviewed him in his home. His focus was on being very clear about your mission and eliminating those tasks from your life that don’t help you reach your most important goals.

Once I took a top executive of a major company out to lunch to find out his approach. He said I should just delegate everything and if there were still things on my list I have to do, I should then do the ones that interested me most. If I neglected an important task, eventually a subordinate would work up the courage to bring it up to me again. Obviously, we were on different worlds. I live on “Planet Delegation” where ideas thought up in meetings and on airplanes come to live on long to-do lists.

I’ve never found a system that works effectively in all situations. The end-zone approach is just one of several strategies that work for me and I don’t do it every day. I find when I use this approach I get to the end of the work day with nothing left in the tank. I leave it all on the field, which is good from a work point of view, but not so good if you get home and you need to actually interact with other people. If my wife wants me to mow the lawn, take out the garbage and explain why I left the back door to the house open all night that can prove very difficult to do on three brain cells.

I have an approach I use when my brains are totally fried at the end of the day but I know I must keep going. I have a strategy for when I want to sprint and set records. I have a marathon approach for when I know I must endure a long list of intimidating tasks that have to be dealt with even if the sun goes down. I have a scheduling approach that brings an unbelievable euphoria of total control at first and then eventually, by the end of the second day, a complete mental breakdown.

If you have a system that works for you, I’d love to hear about it. Send me an e-mail at

I recognize that there are very few sane people out there who will relate to this blog post. If this blog causes others to stage an intervention for me, I will keep such posts to myself in the future. But we are expected to dare mighty things here at the Huntsman School of Business, right? Well, maybe I’m trying to dare my mighty things in a defined end zone. Don’t be surprised if you catch me suddenly raising my arms in a victory punch or doing pushups in my office. I probably just scored.

Steve Eaton

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