Approximate reading time: 8 minutes (while eating an apple).
A friend recently asked me for advice on time-management, she having noticed that I seem to get quite a lot done in a typical week without killing myself. In this post I’ll share a few time-management tips and tricks that work for me. Many of these come from trying and testing different methods I’ve come across, most notably in books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The 4-Hour Work Week; others are common sense approaches which most people fail to use consistently.
Before we get into it, I should note that the term “time-management” is a bit of a misnomer. You can’t manage time. It keeps on ticking no matter what you do. It’s a non-renewable resource which can be used either constructively or destructively. All you can hope to do is manage yourself to make the best use of your time. That is, you can decide to spend it productively on the things that are most important to you. You can invest your time wisely instead of letting it go to waste.
On to the tips…
Prioritization is of the utmost importance. You need to figure out all your goals and give yourself some targets. If you have no targets, you’ll have nothing to aim at, and so you’ll surely miss.
I like to sit down at least once a quarter and figure out my priorities and goals. I use Steve Pavlina’s method for doing this, as described in his Truth and Awareness podcast. Basically, you write down how you feel about several different areas of your life and score each out of ten according to your level of satisfaction. This gives you a good idea of what your focus should be going forward. (For example, if you score 2/10 for physical health, you know that this is an area where you should be focusing a lot of your time and energy for the next few months.) From this exercise, I usually end up with about five things I want to focus on going forward, and I’ll rank them in order of importance so I’ll know which should take precedence during a conflict.
I can’t emphasize the importance of prioritizing enough. Once you’re clear on what your top goals are, you’ll be able to plan your time better to ensure you achieve them. Think effectiveness rather than efficiency. Busy people are often very efficient, but not always very effective. Doing something efficiently doesn’t make it important. Prioritizing helps you make effective use of your time.
Having figured out your priorities, you should now be in a better position to eliminate as much fluff as possible, keeping only the important items on your task list. The Pareto principle states that 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes, meaning that a lot of the things we do have very little impact; the majority of our investments produce poor returns. We need to weed those out.
Since I’ve started prioritizing and setting goals, I’ve found that I’m much more self-assured and able to make good decisions quickly. I just have to ask myself if the action/inaction I’m considering will move me closer to one of my primary goals. If the answer is no, I drop it and move on to something else. If the answer is yes, I plunge ahead with confidence.
For this reason, I never play video games anymore and I spend very little time watching television or following the news. Those activities don’t move me closer to my goals at all, so I mostly consider them a waste of my time.
What are the things that you spend a lot of time on? Could that time be better invested?
3. Say No more often
Perhaps even better than elimination is prevention. We can free up more time for important tasks by saying No to unimportant tasks. I’ve gotten much better at this over the years, and it’s amazing how much free time it has opened up for me. Sure, there’s often some sacrifice (and occasionally some backlash or hurt feelings) involved, but it’s definitely worth it in the long run. An example for me would be helping friends and neighbors with their computers. Because I’m “a computer guy,” I often get asked to troubleshoot various problems, but fixing computers is something I’m not very good at, nor do I get much enjoyment from it. So I started saying No, and now I have more time to spend on other, more meaningful and enjoyable activities.
If you sometimes feel guilty for saying No, realize that your time is your time and nobody else’s. You get to spend it however you like, and it’s okay to be selfish every now and then.
4. Let bad things happen
This is good advice from Tim Ferriss. To achieve your goals, you occasionally need to let bad things happen. For me, that means ignoring help requests for the Coda-Slider gizmo I built. I could reply to all the posts in the forum and to all the e-mails I receive about Coda-Slider, but that would take time away from other things I’d rather be doing.
The skill here is the ability to tell which stuff you can let slide without suffering serious consequences later on.
Automate whatever you can then forget about it. A simple example for me would be my finances. I used to have to write a rent check every month, but then discovered that my bank can send out a check to my landlord automatically. I also have automatic savings transfers and bill payments. It didn’t take much to set all that up online, and the result is a nice chunk of extra time (and peace of mind) each month. Here’s a good post to get you started on automating your finances like I did.
What else can you automate? Can you subscribe to a magazine instead of going to the store to pick up a copy every week? Could you use Amazon’s Subscribe and Save service to have frequently used grocery items delivered to your door? What online tools can you use to speed up your browsing activities?
6. Use lists (to-do and not-to-do)
To-do lists are a no-brainer for productivity, but so many people fail to use them regularly. I use three lists at work to help me keep on track and stay productive:
One big job list. Every job I get goes on there, and I check them off once complete. I review this regularly to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
A daily to-do list. This I prepare every day right before I leave the office, quickly writing out at least a half-dozen tasks that I want to complete the next day. This eliminates procrastination and indecision in the morning because I know right away what project to launch into.
A daily not-to-do list. Like the to-do list, I prepare this quickly every evening. It usually contains items like “don’t check e-mail until 10:30 at the earliest” and “no Facebook except at lunch time.” Essentially it’s a list of mini self-discipline challenges for the day, and it helps me cut out distractions and stay focused.
7. Set Reminders
Ever forget to do some small thing, and suddenly it’s a month later and that small thing has become a huge problem that needs your undivided time and attention? Or you’re just left kicking yourself because you missed out on a great opportunity?
That rarely happens to me, simply because I set reminders. See, I don’t trust my memory very much, and so I’ll set up regular reminders and be safe in the knowledge that I’ll be alerted long in advance of any possible emergency. I use Memo To Me and sometimes Google Calendar for my reminders. Just last week I got an e-mail from my past self reminding me to pay my vehicle registration, and yesterday I was reminded that it was about time I changed my extended-wear contact lenses.
I’ve gotten pretty good at remembering birthday’s, too 😉
8. Set deadlines
Remember Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Back in college, we’d be given two weeks to write an essay, and the vast majority of the class would end up rushing to the printer on the final afternoon, having just pulled an all-nighter to get the damn thing finished. Of course the two-week time frame had little to do with that panic. It would have been the same story with a one week or a one month deadline. We humans just have a tendency to put things off as long as they’re not deemed urgent. And then, when they do become urgent, we magically find a way to get them done.
So, if you want to be more productive, give yourself deadlines on tasks and goals. Giving yourself a deadline forces you to prioritize and hustle. Last summer, I’d been slacking for months on getting this and my dot biz website coded and launched. Then, on September 1, I decided that I’d have the two sites completed before the calendar flipped to October. Lo and behold, what I’d been putting off for so long got done. The deadline made all the difference.
It’s important not to set easy deadlines, too. You’re looking to create a sense of urgency, to set yourself a challenge that excites you. That will get you focused. If I’m slacking at work, I’ll sometimes halve my deadlines to ensure I don’t sit around wasting time all day.
A good question to ask yourself: How would I handle this task if it had to be done in 15 minutes?
9. Be proactive
Laziness is a snowball rolling down a hill. If you sit down and watch TV for half an hour, you’re not likely to want to go and do something productive afterwards. But fortunately, productivity works the same way. Getting things done begets getting things done. Hence the saying, “if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”
Now that’s not to say you should always be busy. Obviously there’s a lot to be said about taking time to relax and recharge (see the next point). But don’t cheat your future self. Make the most of idle moments to tidy your desk, do the dishes, send that e-mail, etc. Use those idle moments to invest in your future, even if it’s something as simple as doing your groceries during Thursday lunch so you can sleep in an extra hour on Saturday.
If you have more energy, you can get more done. Now how do we get energy? Mostly we get it from food, rest and exercise.
Food. Fuel for your body. Put good fuel in, get good performance out. Try to eat foods that don’t require too much digestive energy. That is, mostly plants. Cut back on heavily processed foods, and drinks like alcohol, coffee and soda. Try not to eat late at night. Pay attention to how your energy levels rise/fall after consuming different types of food. There’s no one diet out there that’s perfect for everyone, so you’ll need to experiment to find out what works best for you.
Rest. Not just sleep, but also things like meditation, vacations and deep breathing fit in here. Basically, anything that allows your mind to relax and your body to recharge. Allowing yourself ample time to rest and recuperate is crucial if you want to be able to perform consistently at a high level. There’s a fine line to walk here though; be careful not to slip into lazy territory.
Exercise. It’s easier to win the race when you’re in great shape. You only have one body so treat it well, take it out for a run every now and then, play a sport, dance, have fun. You don’t have to become an athlete, but keep your body active. It’s a sound investment. You can also use exercise as a way to socialize, relieve stress and practice goal setting/achievement.
Do you put a small amount of fuel in your car each morning, or fill it up once every few days? Which makes more sense? Which saves more time? Apply that logic to more areas of your life.
Here are a few examples of how I use batching to save time:
E-mail filters. One of my Gmail filters is for Facebook alerts. Anything that comes in from Facebook skips the inbox and sits in a folder waiting for me. That way I don’t get distracted by Facebook messages when I log in to check my e-mail. At lunch I’ll take a minute to go through all those alerts and be done with them. I use Gmail filtering excessively for this type of thing.
Movies and TV. I don’t watch much TV as it is, but when I do, it’s rarely in real-time. I’ll record basketball games and TV shows and watch them later, allowing me to fast-forward through all the ad breaks. That way, an hour-long TV show can be watched in less than 40 minutes. For movies, I save time by using Netflix (no need to go to the store).
Lunch. I’ve been making my own lunches and bringing them to work for a couple of years now, but just recently I started batching them. That is, I make all my lunches for the week in one batch at the weekend. So instead of getting out all the ingredients and utensils five times a week, I now do it just once.
Mail. I don’t check my mailbox everyday. More like twice a week, and I try deal with everything right there and then.
12. Measure, then manage
What gets measured gets managed. Try to boil things down to cold, hard facts. Think you might be spending too much time on trivial tasks? If you recorded your time vigilantly for a week, you’d know for sure.
If you work with computers, RescueTime is a good tool for tracking your productivity (the Solo Lite version is free). Away from the screen, you may have to resort to the old pen and paper approach. Be careful not to go overboard though. Remember that the long-term goal here is to free up more time to do fun stuff, and the payoff shouldn’t be obsessively counting seconds and stressing out for 30 hours a week.
Measuring before managing isn’t just applicable to time either; you can use it to get ahead in many other ways. For example, a few weeks ago I calculated all my financial expenses and figured out how much cash I can afford to play with each week. I now know exactly where I stand with my money, and can make decisions accordingly.
What measurements can you take to help you manage your time/finances/health/whatever more effectively?
13. Ride the wave
Go with the flow when you can. Doing something when you feel like it is much more effective than forcing yourself when you’re really not in the mood. As such, recognize when you’ve got a good flow going and ride it for as long as possible. This often applies to me when I’m writing. Sometimes the words and ideas flow out easily and other times it can be a gigantic struggle to write a single paragraph. When I feel that flow, I’ll do my best to milk it, moving things around on my schedule to accommodate if necessary.
This isn’t to say that you should just admit defeat and give up if you’re not in the zone. As Liz Gilbert talked about in her TED speech, you have to show up for work every day regardless.
14. One thing at a time
Don’t have the TV on while you’re trying to study. Don’t talk on the phone while reading a book. Don’t have one on eye on your inbox while writing an article (I’m always suspicious of people who e-mail me back in a hurry).
Multitasking has been proven to be ineffective. Some people might get more done by simultaneously juggling several tasks, but the quality of their work suffers at the expense of quantity.
Focus hard on one thing at a time. Block off a chunk of time, give that one thing all your attention and see how fast you can rip through it. Once it’s done, check it off your list and move on to the next thing.