Each day, you’re dealt a hand of 24 hours. Do you spend it on “big” things or “small” things? Or does time management say there is something else? That’s our focus today.

There’s an old story that takes many forms. In this version, a man approaches his friend with a specific question: “Can you recommend a good one-armed lawyer?”

The friend finds the question odd and asks the reason for this request.

The man replies, “Every time I ask a lawyer a question, he will start by saying, ‘Well, on the one hand…’ and will proceed to give me the most logical answer. I can follow his thinking perfectly. I know exactly what to do.”

But then, he will say, ‘But on the other hand…’ and proceed to give me an entirely different argument. I wind up being more confused than when I started.

I’m looking for a good one-armed lawyer.”

For more variations on this story, visit this post.

Time Management’s “Big Things”

On the one hand, time management literature is filled with references to using time for the “big things.” We read about the “big rocks” in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The story of Ivy Lee and his conversation with Charles M. Schwab highlights the idea of identifying the important tasks and starting the day with them. The popularity of Cal Newport’s Deep Work argues for the need to focus without distraction on tasks that require concentration.

If you spend your day on the “small things,” the real reason could be avoidance of the “big things.” It’s a form of procrastination. Watching one video leads to watching another…and another. Before you know it, half the day is shot. When you finally get around to the “big things,” you’re too tired to do anything.

The advice for the small things is to “eliminate, automate, and delegate.” I’ve read that phrase so many times from so many sources, it’s hard to know where it originated.

Time Management’s “Small Things”

On the other hand…works such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done stress identifying small “next actions.” Work becomes a matter of “cranking widgets,” as David Allen puts it.

The emphasis is placed on organizing tasks around the contexts in which they can be done…organizing errands together, for example, so they can all be handled together. The big errands, the small errands…they’re all errands and need to be done at some point. So run them all.

As noble as it seems to work on the “big things,” someone has to empty the dishwasher. And unless you are wealthy enough to have “staff” around the house, that someone is you. With very little thought, you could list an entire page of things you could be doing right now that have to be done at some point and there’s nobody around but you to do them. You can’t eliminate them. They can’t be automated to any greater extent than they already are. And, there’s nobody to delegate to. Welcome to the world of “roll up your sleeves and get busy.”

Time Management’s “Two-Handed Truth”

The two-handed truth is both arguments are true.

Without an overall game plan for our future, life can become a series of tasks designed to just get us through the day. The two-handed truth is that we can devote part of each day to planning. During that time, we can identify the “big things.”

The two-handed truth is that we can break them down into “small things.” Further, we can designate parts of the day where we focus on goals and pushing forward projects of value. For most of us, the morning likely provides that time. For others, it may be a period of solitude at night. Identify the time that’s right for you to concentrate for an extended period of time.

The two-handed truth is also that we use other parts of the day for maintenance…for handing those small things that serve as the lubricant of life.

Depending on your situation, you may be able to devote an entire day to the “big things.” I like the record a series of podcasts and YouTube videos back-to-back. All the “little things” have to wait.

In contrast, I devote other days where I spend the entire day handling the small things…the articles I want to read, the household maintenance items, or the errands I need to run.

Here’s How to Get Started

The following practices serve as a way to accomplish both the “big things” while avoiding the friction of “small things” neglected:

  • Spend a few minutes today to plan tomorrow. Look at what was scheduled for today but was not accomplished. Look at what is already scheduled for tomorrow.
  • Shift tasks so your days become reasonable. Using a digital task list makes this practice easy. Reassign due dates to postpone tasks to the future or to pull future tasks into the present.
  • It’s not necessary to finish everything on the list. It is necessary you are at least able to look at every on today’s list. Worrying about what’s lurking, unseen, somewhere at the bottom of the list must never be your reality.
  • Plan your day with a flow. Designate your “Fab 5,” followed by tasks for the morning, afternoon, and evening. This post provides more direction in that area.
  • Use tags to help batch tasks. This post shows exactly how to do it.
  • Word tasks clearly. What’s easy gets done. When you look at the task, you should have a clear picture of exactly what to do.

When it comes to managing your day, you don’t need a good “one-armed” time management coach. Instead, realize the two-handed nature of how our world works. Break the big things down.

You’ve got to think about the big things while you’re doing the small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction

-Alvin Toffler

Want to get your desk clean and everything you have to do in one place? I’ve got two free gifts for you that do exactly that. But it’s only for email subscribers. Want to join? You get them both. Plus, each week you’ll hear from me with nuts & bolts tools and strategies to make life easier and more productive. You’re one click away from making it happen