Anyone with too much to do is already setting posteriorities.
A stop-doing list merely brings things into the open
It surely can’t be a coincidence that Peter Drucker, who died in 2005, was (a) one of the few management thinkers to talk almost unbroken good sense, and (b) the only one, as far as I’m aware, who was influenced by the writings of the angst-ridden Danish philosopher and all-round barrel of laughs Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard believed the modern world, alienated from God, had been plunged into existential meaninglessness; Drucker, who spent several decades as a consultant and sat in on countless corporate meetings, may have been left with a similar impression. “One either meets or one works,” he liked to say.
Drucker’s expertise was the art of managing people, but it was “by no means adequately proven”, he wrote self-effacingly, that this was even possible. A better bet was to learn to manage oneself – and 45 years ago this year, he summed up his views in The Effective Executive, one of the most boringly named books ever published. Let’s just say its content is more compelling than the title suggests.
It’s striking how much modern advice on time management, productivity, “lifehacking” and suchlike are mere footnotes to Drucker: he said it already, and more concisely. Forget multitasking, he pleads, as “we rightly consider keeping many balls in the air a circus stunt”. Be bleakly realistic about how much of your time you control – for senior executives, he argues, it’s rarely more than 25% – then do anything you can to consolidate it into big blocks: 90 minutes of focus is worth immeasurably more than six 15-minute “driblets”. When crises blow up – the territorial battle between managers, the failed launch – resist the temptation to see it as a one-off; instead, ask what deeper systemic problem it’s a symptom of. And if you’re a boss, develop the habit of asking your underlings -, “without coyness”, the one question that will trigger more improvement than any other: “What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?”
But Drucker’s most valuable contribution to self-management may be the notion of “posteriorities”, as in the opposite of priorities: the things you make a point of deciding not to do. In organisations big and small, Drucker saw priorities set for all the wrong reasons: to soothe managers’ egos, or even, absurdly, to soothe the egos of things that don’t actually have egos, such as products that “deserve” to do well. A good place to start, he advises – and this also applies to life outside work – is to ask: “If we didn’t already do this, would we start now?”
This means more than just learning to say no – the point about posteriorities is that you specify them, creating what Jim Collins, a Drucker disciple, calls a “stop-doing list”. But this won’t be pleasant: “Every posteriority,” Drucker writes, “is somebody else’s top priority.” Still, it’s essential, and not just for chief executives. Anyone with too much work to do is already setting posteriorities, whether they mean to or not; a stop-doing list merely brings things into the open. Might you, for example, resolve never to check your emails before a given time? Stop going to a pointless weekly meeting, even if that raises eyebrows? If you’re self-employed, start declining work from the highest-maintenance, lowest-profit clients, the entrepreneur Tim Ferriss advises. After all, you’ll never please everyone. Effective executives are just better at choosing, consciously, whom to annoy.
Follow Oliver Burkeman on Twitter