Action TNT

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Action TNT

There are several immutable laws of business and the universe:

•  Everyone has exactly the same amount of time as everyone else... no more and no less.

•  Some people accomplish vastly more than others and  have time to spare.

•  Any given task will eventually expand to fill and then exceed  the time available to do it.

Business and personal tasks are plagued by insidious time-eaters... paperwork, meetings, reports, telephone calls, and changing priorities.  The principles and tips in this viewpoint are simple to understand but they take conscious effort to actually do.  If you have the self-awareness and self-discipline to use these techniques, you will be amazed at the results.

ACTION TNT (Today, Not Tomorrow)

The shortest path between two points is a straight line.  Action Today, Not Tomorrow is a key underlying concept to techniques that save enormous amounts of time.  Consider for a moment, the way you handle the lowly memo.  Most people scan/read memos, letters, and reports five or six times before actually taking action.   They scan the mail for important letters and then set them aside.  Then they review/read the stack again, selecting a few more to take action on. The process is repeated again and again, and with each cycle the same pieces of paper are handled.  The minutes tick away, add up to hours, and disappear.

You can conquer one of the most insidious time wasters by setting a hard-and-fast rule to HANDLE A PIECE OF PAPER ONCE... OR AT MOST, TWICE.  Here’s how:

1.   Set aside a time each day for answering letters.  Then don’t even touch the pile until you’re ready to take action and answer immediate-response letters as you read them.  And get rid of them.

2.   Put letters that don’t require immediate action into a folder labelled:  Answer This Week.  Don’t touch the folder again until you block out a time period to answer the letters in that folder.  Then take the first piece of mail from the stack and answer it.  And get rid of it.

The same rule applies to REPORTS.  If a report requires action, then ACT on it, file it, and get rid of it.  If you can discipline yourself to handling paper ONCE, the time saving can be enormous.


The same principle of organization carries over into planning your work priorities.  There’s a natural human tendency to work on the lowest priority tasks first, because they’re easier to do.  Ironically, most people then defer action on more important priorities, because they’re more complex and difficult.  The solution is to objectively, write down, maintain, and live by a LIST of:

•   (A-list) Priorities that must be done immediately, within twenty-four hours.

•   (B-list) Priorities that must be done by a specified date.

•   (C-list) Posteriorities that will be nice to do when time becomes available.

Organized, effective professionals use lists as a way of life.  When you look objectively at the A-list, it becomes a written unavoidable conscience that forces you to face up to doing the most important things first.    When a priority goes on the immediate list, it is accompanied by a commitment that the task will be done even it means staying late or taking it home.  It WILL be done.  And when it is done, it is removed from the list.

Some people will argue that they don’t need to write down the immediate priorities, because they KNOW what needs to be done.  Well that’s a trap.  Every new priority conflicts with, and must mesh with, all the others.  The written list is the only effective way to put organization, objectivity, and self-discipline into the process.

For date-scheduled tasks, plan and schedule a block of time when the B-list priority jumps up to the immediate, A priority list, i.e. when the time comes, the task must be completed within twenty-four hours.  Then make sure that the block of immediate time is scheduled well in advance of the due date.  When it is finished, it is removed from the list.

The most interesting aspect of this approach is to observe the third C-list of posteriorities.  These are called posteriorities since they are of lesser importance and should come behind everything else.  In the absence of an A,B,C list, most people spend time doing these lesser, C priorities FIRST.   After a while, you’ll discover that many of the nice-to-do, C-list items never get done.  You can begin removing posteriorities from the bottom of the list with the realization that they’re nice to do, but they’re not essential. 


Speech is imperfect.  Listening is even more imperfect.  Most people are reluctant to write things down because they believe it wastes time.  Others operate with the illusion that they can mentally keep track of all their priority lists, decisions, tasks, and requests.  Still others claim they know what to do and when to do it intuitively and that it’s hard to put everything into words.  These are common and dangerous misconceptions.  There is NO substitute for the written word.

If you can’t express your priorities, decisions, or requests clearly and in writing, then no amount of verbal communication will make them clear.  There are three things that define verbal communication and work against it:

A.  What you think you said.

B.  What others think you said.

C.  What you actually did say.

There are often wide variances among these three things.  By contrast, the written word forces you to be specific and to capture the thought in a form that serves as:

A.  A common medium for understanding.

B.  An unavoidable reminder of the request, or decision, or action.

C.  A reference point for reconstructing the understanding at a later date.

Think for a moment of the last time that:

A.  You’ve forgotten a request made to you by someone else.

B.  You’ve missed a target date for an important task.

C.  You have misinterpreted a verbal request, agreement, or decision.

These things happen, unless you say it in writing.  While it does take time to write things down (that you’ve been carrying around in your head), it actually winds up saving a LOT of time.  When you put it in writing, you reduce the chance for misinterpretation, confusion, and time spent going down the wrong action path. 

When you put requests, decisions, and agreements in writing, you can say precisely what you want to say, with the chance to change your words and make them more clear.  You establish a reference that you can use again and again to reestablish the original understanding.  And you save time by not having to remember, rehash, and rebuild the verbal understanding every time the question, issue, or request comes up again.


A key part of using these principles is to clean up, clean out, and organize your office.  If you leave stacks of papers, reports, and books all over the place, it means that you’ll have to handle those papers again and again to find and use what you want.  If you don’t have your files organized, then when you finally do handle a report or letter, you won’t have a place to put it away... and get it out of sight.  And if you don’t put things away, they pile higher and higher and give you the feeling that you’re drowning in paperwork.

Another law of business is that paper will eventually cover, and then pile up on, every available empty horizontal surface (desks, tables, bookcases, etc.)  The solution is to periodically clear the decks.  It helps to pretend that you’re moving and to:

A.  Set an objective of getting rid of 50% of the stuff in your office.

B.  Pack and store boxes with the papers, books, etc. that you don’t need immediately.

C.  Throw out everything that you haven’t used in the last several months and probably won’t use again.

D.  Organize and label basic files in your desk where you can put paper that has been handled... once.

You’ll be amazed at the emotional lift you’ll get by periodically clearing the decks in this way.  It’s a great way to kick off the new approaches to managing your time.  It helps to try to end each week with a clean desk and an empty In-basket.  If and when the paper grows to again fill the horizontal space, then stop and clear the decks again. 


All of these principles and practices are shared by organized, effective high-producers.  They all depend on establishing and maintaining an organized discipline in managing your time.  There’s an old axiom that:  If you want to be organized, then do the same things that organized people do. 

•     Maintain a daily, written TO-DO list of priorities..

•     Start with the A-list priorities... not the  C-list.

•     Take Action TNT (today, not tomorrow).

•     Handle each piece of paper ONCE.

•     Write it down.

•     Clear the decks... and keep them cleared at least weekly.

These principles are time-tested, and they work.  They’re hard to do at first, because they challenge ingrained habits.  They require conscious, sustained effort.  But once you’ve come through the learning curve and made these principles into new habits, the payoff is amazing. 


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All contents of this site are copyrighted 2003 by Mike Harvey .  All rights reserved.
Last modified: 05/01/09