The 4 Ds principle

I believe that I can safely say that most of my colleagues would describe me as being an organized person. I tend to get things done when I say I will do them. I am human, so I fail sometimes, but, most of the time, I am on track. I do not achieve this because I have any special skills or work particularly long hours. In fact I am always interested in developing ways to work less hard. Maybe I will post a blog on focussed laziness another time. My time and work management is accomplished because I have a system, which I am more than happy to share.

But it has not always been like that …

For the first few years of my career I was a software developer and then later a team leader. At that time, I typically had between one and four projects on the go. Most of the time, it was clear what needed to be done. I hardly used a diary or calendar – only for the odd meeting or trip. Then I changed course a little, as I felt I wanted to deal more with people, and joined a company who sold embedded software development tools [that was Microtec Research, who were later acquired by Mentor Graphics] – though the term “embedded” was not yet in use. My job was technical support for pre- and post-sales, customer training, fixing PCs and so on. I was the only techie in Europe, so my brief was quite wide.

The nature of this work was such that, instead of one to four projects, I had dozens of different threads of activity on the go. And nobody had ever taught me how to deal with this situation. Over time, it gradually crept up on me. Eventually, I realized that something needed to be done. I was showing the physical signs of stress [headaches, bad sleep etc.] and my office was a mess. My desk and table were covered in stuff, several inches deep. My standard mode of work was fire-fighting. Somebody phoned or a fax [remember those?] arrived and this pushed me in a particular direction. I knew that something had to change. I needed to learn to manage my work and my time better.

So, I read up a little on time management techniques, figured out how they might be applied to my situation and set to work. The office was closed for the days between Christmas and New Year, so I took advantage of this quiet time to put my new system in place. I cleared all the piles of stuff, a large proportion of which went out in black bags [we were less good at recycling in those days]. The rest was organized and filed and I started using my new system when we returned after the holiday. I still use the same approach today, as it has adapted well to a world were Tyrannosaurus Fax is extinct and email rules.

The system is called the “4 Ds”. The broad idea is that, when a piece of work arrives [by whatever means], you apply one of the 4 Ds: Do, Dump, Delay or Delegate.

Do – Clearly some things need to be actioned immediately because they are urgent. Also, if you receive a piece of work which will only take a short time [say, 2 minutes or less] to perform, it is almost always sensible to just get it done straight away.

Dump – Sometimes no action is required or you decide that you are not going to do anything, so the item can just be trashed or filed away.

Delay – Very commonly, it is best to put aside a piece of work until you can spare the time to deal with it. So, select a suitable time to do it and make a note on your To Do list. Then file the item away such that you can find it when necessary. If it is an email, for example, do not leave it in your inbox, where it will constantly scream for your attention and steal your time. Just move it to a “pending” folder or somesuch. It may be that, when it pops up for attention on your To Do list, you choose to reschedule for a later time; that is fine, so long as it is a conscious choice.

Delegate – It is very nice to be able to simply pass on work to someone else, but bear in mind that, more often than not, you cannot also pass on the responsibility as well. So hand it over, give the recipient a [realistic] deadline and make a note on your To Do list to follow up.

The most important thing is not to apply the “5th D” – Deliberate. Do not just leave the email in your inbox or paper on your desk where it will just be a distraction.

To apply the 4 Ds, you need just two tools: a To Do list [which may be part of your calendar – mine is] and a filing system [which may be as simple as pending folders for email and paper]. The To Do list may be on paper or electronic. It could be on your PC, your phone or even online – whatever works for you. I use a Google calendar incorporating Google Tasks, which is quite flexible. I also use a mind mapping tool for planning and make a map for each week to bring my appointments and To Dos all together in a compact way; I find it quite satisfying to look ahead to the next week – I usually do this on a Friday – and see what is coming up. I use a few other tools on my computer to help me stay on track, but I will post about those on another day.

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  • It is tempting to add a fourth “D” for Destroy (reserved for particularly unwelcome incoming missiles). Do you recall a colleague who had three desk trays, marked “IN”, “OUT”, “SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT” ?

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/04/15/the-4-ds-principle/