On my bedside, there is a certain presence that is at times menacing. It is not uninvited, neither is it misplaced. It is simply mismanaged and I have only myself to blame.
I’m referring to the pile of unread books, which seems to be growing because I buy them in earnest, greedy to read them. In Japanese, the word for this is tsundoku . The word apparently has its origins in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and means to allow something to pile up.
It’s not that I don’t intend to read those books. I allow the pile to grow out of my own inability to create the time. Which is why I think tsundoku is a telling metaphor for another troubling phenomenon most of us grapple with in our daily lives — commonly known as time management.
Like a tsundoku , we have tasks piling up and despite our best efforts, we leave them unfinished or unaddressed. This is where the challenge of prioritisation and managing tasks becomes relevant. As I have mentioned in a previous column, we are mostly incapable of multitasking. At the same time, we do have professional and personal activities we need to take care of. And some of them can’t be allowed to pile up like tsundoku .
There are a zillion management theories, guidelines, tips and books thriving today on how to manage time. There’s the famous urgent/important/not urgent/not important quadrant that can be used to categorise tasks. There’s the curious ‘Eat that frog’ concept made popular by Brian Tracy (borrowed from Mark Twain who said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”)
Eating that frog, or finishing off that huge task, is never a simple affair, and quite often we tend to postpone it only for that reason. We postpone it till the frog becomes a monstrous creature that begins to threaten us with unpleasant consequences. And before we know it, there isn’t one frog but many hopping around us.
At times, the challenge lies in also not being able to recognise which is the task to be handled first. The question to ask ourselves is how do we prioritise? If there are multiple tasks which demand our attention, how do we know which is the one to be tackled first. A lot of this comes with experience, especially in the work environment. But it is also about plain, old-fashioned, common sense.
One can address the tasks that are urgent and require immediate attention first. There will also be tasks that are important but not urgent. Those require attention too. And if we don’t know the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’, we can simply ask a co-worker for context and advice. Choosing to stay ignorant and ignoring or postponing the tasks don’t help in the least.
In my case, I draw inspiration and time management lessons from my husband. I see him going about eating his frogs and addressing his tasks in the most disciplined and discerning manner. It is frustrating at times because I seldom live up to those standards. But then I’m constantly reminded if he can do it, so can I.
The author is a writer and literary journalist. She also heads Corporate Communications at UST Global. @anupamaraju