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The 4Ds of Time Management and How To Use Them

Three dimensional image of four Ds standing for the 4 Ds of time management

What Are the 4 Ds of Time Management?

The 4 Ds of time management are a set of four different and complementary actions you can use to prioritize your tasks at work. This time management technique is especially useful when you’re feeling overwhelmed, since they map out exactly what you should do with each task to knock it off your to-do list. With the 4 Ds of time management, you can increase your efficiency and finish your projects faster. 

Below, we break down what the 4 Ds of time management are, and how all types of workers—from freelancers to managers and entire teams—can use them to supercharge their workday.

While it’s unclear exactly where the 4 Ds of time management originally came from, time management experts have been using and recommending this framework for decades. Some of the oldest references online can be found in a 1986 issue of Business India magazine, and in the book Career Comeback: Taking Charge of Your Career by Jacquie Wise, published in 1991.

The exact words used for each of the 4 Ds vary slightly. The Business India article lists them as “drop”, “delay”, “delegate”, and “do”, while Career Comeback substitutes “dump” for “drop” (“delete” and “defer” are also sometimes used). Regardless of the specifics, the idea behind the 4 Ds stays the same: each “D” is a strategy to help you streamline your busy schedule.

Drop

The first of the 4 Ds, “drop”, is about getting rid of unnecessary tasks on your to-do list. Although this may seem self-explanatory, it’s actually easier said than done. After all, if something were really unnecessary, how would it have made its way onto your list in the first place? 

The key to using the “drop” technique is to look for hidden inefficiencies in your schedule. Do you sometimes end up attending meetings that aren’t really required for your job? Do you tend to schedule hour-long meetings when 45 minutes would suffice? What happens when you check your email in the morning—do you spend fifteen minutes wading through spam and promotional emails, when you could just unsubscribe from those lists?

Take some time to think about your daily working routine. You might be surprised to see what tasks you can shorten or cut out entirely, with minimal impact on your job performance.  

Delegate

“Delegate” is all about giving tasks away to someone else. The tricky thing about delegating work is that it can cause anxiety due to the loss of control. You’ll also need to delegate in a smart way, so you don’t accidentally end up wasting more time supervising the person you’ve delegated to.

When deciding whether to give a task away, some CEOs use the “70 percent rule”–if you can find someone who can do the task at least 70% as well as you can, you should delegate it. This rule is an easy way to fight perfectionism, which is one of the factors preventing leaders from delegating. Of course, you might find the person you’ve delegated to brings fresh ideas to the table, and completes the task as well or better than you would’ve done.

Freelancers and entrepreneurs often choose to outsource administrative work, as well as specialized services (like marketing, web development, or accounting). If you’re an employee, you might not be able to delegate your work in this way. However, you can ask your manager or colleagues for support on challenging projects that would take longer to do on your own.

Delay

When you “delay” or “defer” tasks, you put them off until later. The ideal time to delay tasks is when you’re in a state of flow, and someone comes up to you and interrupts you with a new request. Unless the request is an emergency, plan a time to meet with them later. This way, you can preserve your flow and stay focused.

Another way you can apply the “delay” technique is by organizing your to-do list chronologically. For example, if you have a lot of deadlines to meet, make a list and tackle them in order of their due dates. This will prevent you from working on projects that aren’t urgent–which can sometimes be a temptation if the project is easy or interesting.  

Do

The last of the 4 Ds, “do,” is in some ways easiest. Time management is about good planning, but at some point you need to act and do. Complete the tasks on your list.

If you’re confused about whether or not you should do a task, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this task urgent?
  • Do I have the time and resources I need to complete it? 
  • Is it interrupting something else I’m doing? 

If the task needs to be completed now and you’re prepared to tackle it, go ahead and do so. Otherwise, consider dropping, delegating, or delaying it instead. 

Make the 4 Ds of Time Management Work for You

Here are some examples of how individuals and groups can use the 4 Ds of time management to reach their goals and improve their work lives. 

Freelancers: Drop

The first D, drop, is an especially useful technique for freelancers. As a freelancer, it can be difficult to know when to turn down projects. Perhaps you’ve been plagued by “feast or famine” cycles, or long periods when you didn’t have work. If that happens, it can be tempting to overbook yourself during busy periods and try to earn as much as you can.

The problem with this is that overbooking is a bad long-term strategy. It leaves you more susceptible to burnout, and it also means the quality of your work might go down. These problems could endanger your business’ future. If a potential client approaches you when you’re already booked solid, try asking if they’d like to be put on your waiting list, or refer them to someone else to build goodwill. 

Managers: Delegate

Learning how to delegate tasks is an important skill for managers and entrepreneurs to learn.

Ethan Taub, CEO of Goalry, says he initially found sharing responsibilities to be a challenge. 

“In my situation it was extremely difficult, as I built this company from nothing. Its beginnings were only myself, and what I didn’t do wasn’t done.” 

Once you’ve begun to delegate, however, you can expect to reap the rewards. Taub adds that “for some it may be an easier process than others; however, the more heads you have together, the more you can understand from different perspectives.”

So how can you go about delegating effectively? 

Sebastian Schaeffer, Co-Founder and CTO of Dofollow.io, recommends taking stock of where your time is going. “If you break your day and week down into individual tasks and processes, and narrow down which ones are high-impact, you can utilize your employees to help free your time up for those mission-critical activities by having them take over less pressing and usually more tedious ones.”  

Big teams: Delay

Managing a large team means juggling multiple priorities, and sometimes knowing when to delay a project in favor of a more urgent one. Communicating with everyone during this process can be challenging. 

John Buglino, Director of Marketing at Optessa, has previously managed teams of 10+ people. He created a system to help him check in on requests as they were received by the team. “I could not be everywhere or a part of each of their conversations, [so] I set up a communication chain where I was able to stay up-to-date with requests and help them prioritize based on overarching team goals and metrics.”

Small teams: Do

Small teams may find themselves trying to do a lot at once, and needing to figure out more efficient ways of working. The job of a manager is to help employees work together, while also developing their individual skills. 

Mark Coster, Owner and Chief Editor at STEM Toy Expert, says he tries to guide his team members to learn what they are best at, and explore different fields if they want to.

“In our team building sessions, I often ask them if there’s something new they would like to try. I always encourage them to at least dip their toes into an area that is entirely new to them.”

Pros and Cons of the 4 Ds of Time Management

Pros of the 4 Ds of Time Management

It’s clear that many people find value in the 4 Ds, since the framework has been in use for decades. Thinking about tasks in this way can help fight stress and burnout by making your work life more manageable. Knowing exactly what you need to accomplish each day, and understanding that you can ask for help and don’t need to “do it all,” can be a comfort when things seem overwhelming.

Greater productivity will also improve your life in tangible ways. Whether your aim is to get a promotion or grow your own business, high productivity can lead to better results and recognition from others.    

Cons of the 4 Ds of Time Management

Of course, the 4 Ds of time management also has its limits. The framework is only useful if you can figure out exactly what you need to drop, delegate, and delay. In some situations, you might be unable to get much from the 4 Ds because you’re genuinely overburdened with work. Perhaps you’re already making the best use of your time, and all your tasks truly are urgent.

In situations where you have less control over your work life, applying the 4 Ds might be difficult. For example, perhaps your manager expects you to attend meetings you feel are unnecessary, or answer messages right away even when they interrupt your work. In that case, you’ll need to have a conversation with them about how these issues are affecting your productivity.

Time Tracking and the 4 Ds of Time Management

It’s no secret that at Toggl Track, we love time tracking. So how do time tracking and the 4 Ds of time management fit together?

Ultimately, time tracking is the secret ingredient that will help you put the 4 Ds of time management into practice. While time management frameworks are a great starting point for improving your productivity, you need to know where your time is going in order to use them. How can you know what to drop, delegate, or delay if you don’t have concrete data on what you’re doing each day?

Time tracking software will help you understand how you’re currently doing with time management, so you can pinpoint areas to improve. You might be surprised to see that you’re spending two hours each day answering emails, or that three of your recent client projects actually went overtime. As businesses try to streamline their processes by making more data-driven decisions, tools that help you track and manage time are becoming workplace essentials. 

April 22, 2021