Why try to improve your time management?
- Manage the stress of the overwhelming crush of task
- Feel confident that you’ve been working on what’s important
- Feel greater ease when leaving work at the end of the day
What are the constraints on your time?
You’ve got limited time at work each day say about 8 hours excluding lunch. Of that time you might have about 2 hours of meetings on average (data pulled from clockwise). Heading to and from meetings, starting work and stopping work are all going to take time as well. Say another hour of time.
So you’re maybe looking at 5 or fewer hours to get it all done. But then on top of that it’s hard to stay focused more than 30 min and you get sleepy in the afternoon!
When faced with limited time one solution is to simply work longer hours. Sometimes this is unavoidable however it’s rarely sustainable. Better is to maximize the amount of productive time available and then to use it efficiently.
How to maximize the amount of productive time
Don’t let meetings control your life.
- Minimize meetings by asking yourself critically if you are really needed. Seeing an agenda beforehand can help you understand if you are needed. Alternatively can you contribute asynchronously or attend only part of the meeting?
- Try to group meetings together. This allows you to maximize larger chunks of time for heads down focused efforts. Tools like Clockwise can automatically move meetings for you.
Guard your most productive hours.
- You may find you’re most productive in the morning or perhaps at the end of the day. Whatever it is it is worth putting a block on your calendar and trying to protect that time.
- You can set your working hours in google calendar to help block off those hours and Clockwise can help with this as well.
How to make the best of the available time
Work on the most important thing first.
- At the beginning of your day pick the most important thing. Then do that before thinking about anything else. This strategy is simple and therefore a good place to start.
- This is sometimes called Eat the Frog and is based on how humans tend to work. Getting a key task done gives you momentum and picking just one thing helps you combat inherent optimism about how much can truly be done in a day.
Beware the interruptions.
- When you’re heading into your productive time set yourself up for success. A quieter environment is good whether attained through headphones or changing location.
- Notifications can be silenced by setting work hours on your Mac and by setting do not disturb in Slack. I sometimes find it helpful to actually close Slack when I need to focus.
- Hide your phone!
During long stretches of work take deliberate breaks to stay sharp.
- Humans tend to maintain focus on a task for about 30 min but pretty soon our eyes and mind tire. At this point it’s worth taking a little break to recoup.
- During your breaks avoid screens so as to rest your eyes. For example getting water, going to the bathroom, stretching or doing a quick house chore might work for you.
- Methods like Pomodoro can help you manage these time intervals (Pomofocus, TogglTrack, Be Focused Timer).
How to keep track of it all don’t try to keep it all in your head.
- Tons of little things will come at you during the day. You’re only physically capable of remembering about 7 of them so rather than fight the chaos write down these tasks as they come.
- By writing things down you give yourself a chance to process and decide what is actually important.
- There are a ton of tools to help you with this. Feel free to experiment and see what works for you: Remember the Milk, Todo.txt, Orgmode, Trello, Asana, Roam, Notion
Prioritize what is important instead of urgent.
- “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” - Eisenhower (possibly)
- Urgent things like Slack messages can feel important but rarely are.
- When looking at your tasks there will be some things that are important and urgent that need doing first after those are done you should ideally be spending most of your time on longer term important tasks.
It is ok not to get everything done. That isn’t the goal.
- You will rarely get everything in your list done in any given day. That is ok because your time is limited and you’ve hopefully been doing the important stuff first.
- Periodically you’ll want to clear out old tasks which are likely no longer important.
- If you’re constantly stretched and find that you’re not getting important stuff done that is a sign that you need to be changing something. Say no to more work and let people know you’ll be dropping the ball on things.
Debugging your time
You probably don’t know where your time goes.
- Periodically it can be really informative to perform a time study. This will let you see in detail where your time goes and allows you to decide if you’re really doing what you want with this limited resource.
- I recommend committing to recording your time usage every 30 min for a typical week to get a sense of where your time goes.
- Tools like TogglTrack or a simple spreadsheet can help.
Procrastination isn’t about being bad at time management.
- Procrastination is likely a way for you to avoid tough emotions rather than a personal failure.
- If you find yourself procrastinating it may be a good chance to ask yourself how you’re feeling about the task. Is it scary? Are you worried about failure? Forgive yourself for the procrastination and seek to address the underlying emotion. Meditation can help a lot. The NYTimes has a great piece on this. NPR does too.
- Catching yourself when you start procrastinating is hard but there are some tools to help like RescueTime and iOS and Android app time limits. Mac also has Screen Time settings in system preferences.
A summary of weekly practices
On Monday morning
- Look at your calendar and ask if you really need to attend all those meetings.
- Block out focus time on your calendar proactively.
- What’s the one important thing to do today. Start on that.
During the day
- Add tasks to your tracker as they come.
- Reprioritize tasks as you check things off.
- Reevaluate your system because your current tools may no longer be working for you.
- Remove old tasks from your tracking system.