A Cofferdam for Time Management

A question I often hear from workshop participants is this: How can I get started on long-term projects, when there is so much day-to-day work to get done? My answer is to have them picture a cofferdam. A cofferdam is a structure that engineers and construction workers use, when working on bridge foundations or related projects that are positioned underwater and can’t be moved out. Essentially a “fence” is installed around the site, which is then anchored to the river floor. The water is pumped out, leaving a “hole” in the river where the workers can operate dry and safely. The river continues to rush by, but the walls of the cofferdam stop it from entering this one small place.

Our daily tasks are much like a river. They continue to flow towards us, in a never-ending fashion, and it seems the more we can get done, the more there is to do. Because of this, I often remind people that there’s no use in wishing for the ability to move faster, write faster or speed-read, because the faster you can do these things, the more tasks appear that need to get done. It’s a type of ergonomic inflation.

So, given that the flow of the “river of tasks” will never stop, I encourage people to instead put up a cofferdam in their day. Maybe 20 minutes, maybe half an hour – given over to at least partial progress on a longer-term project. Yes, there’s always one more short-term project that could be done in that time, so it is up to us to push back – to push the flow of tasks back and create a small hole in the day, in which to work on something else – something longer-term that will eventually be important enough to justify this act.

The second and equally important fact supporting this is a concept that I call “carryover momentum,” which means that your mind can “pick up where it left off” on any task quite easily. Whatever day it is right now, as you read this blog, think about what you were doing exactly a week ago. If it was something unique – a lunch with someone, or a place you visited – you’re probably thinking to yourself, “wow – was that a week ago? It seems just like yesterday.” That’s how the mind works. It picks up threads very quickly and efficiently. Carryover momentum means you never have to wait for that fabled three hours of totally undisturbed time to come along before getting started on a challenging task. It’s an excellent hedge against procrastination, because just working on a small part today is enough. Your memory will carry over the momentum of your thoughts and will pick them up very easily the next day.

Creating a cofferdam is one of the time management techniques we have to do ourselves. It will never be assigned to us or bestowed upon us. The permission must be granted by us, and the authority to place it on the calendar is a professional choice that we can make and then defend.

It can be done. You can organize your life. You can put up the cofferdam. You can push back the waters and clear a space to get started on, or continue on with one small part of a larger task. People and other tasks will slide around it, and will find their place; and eventually, just like real-life bridge engineers, you will no longer have to look down at the scattered pieces of a project, but instead, you will be able to gaze at a completed structure, built, step by step, inside a hole in a river.


Want to learn more? Check out my books: Cool Time: A Hands-On Guide for Managing Work and Balancing Time and Is This the Day I Get Fired? Info available here.

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