My Best Thoughts on Time Management

A one-size-doesn't fit all approach.

Posted Feb 03, 2019

Prairie Kitten, Flickr CC 2.0
Source: Prairie Kitten, Flickr CC 2.0

Effective time management requires you to consider three things: caring enough, being aware of time, and using the most potent efficiency tactics.

Caring enough

Many people who claim to have poor time-management skills have an underlying problem: They don’t believe it’s worth the effort to manage time better.

Of course, managing time well is key to improving your life enough to feel it's worth the effort. If you’re unemployed, it could be because, at least in part, you’ve managed your work time poorly, whether playing on the Net on company time, taking sick days when not sick, or being inefficient in how you tackled work tasks. If you have poor relationships, it might be because you spent too much time with people unworthy of your time and too little with better ones. So, ongoing, might you want to ask yourself, “What’s an efficient thing I could do now?” That can improve your life, including your motivation to even better manage your time — Success breeds more success.

Another reason people don't care to manage time well is that they don't believe we have an obligation to be responsible, to recognize that we earn our spot on this earth by being contributory to our family, workplace, society, and, in turn, to ourselves. That's preachy, but responsibility is core fuel for most people who manage time well and live a life well-led. The good news is that by focusing on work you do well, that contribution time can be as pleasurable as recreation. Of course, some tasks aren't fun for anyone, for example, preparing your income tax returns, but, where possible, doing what you do well and having contribution trump happiness can yield a quite pleasant life.

A third reason that some people don’t care to manage time well is that they feel it won’t make enough of a difference to others. The impact even of presidents is limited, but life’s meaning may reside primarily in making as big a difference as we can within our sphere of influence. For a person with a small sphere, that can be as basic as being kind to as many people as possible—when you feel it’s worth the effort. For other people, it might be working long hours using their best skills in the service of making the biggest difference. That needn't mean helping people with the greatest deficit. The good time manager focuses on helping people with the most potential to profit or on tasks that build or disseminate the worthiest products or services.

Care to write your pros and cons of getting more serious about managing your time?

Becoming more aware of time

Some people are naturally time-aware. Alas, others wonder where the hour, the day, even their life went. These tactics may help:

Simplest is to write on your palm, “Time.” That will help keep you aware. or use a memento mori: a an object,  typically a dollar-sized coin you keep on your desk to remind you of your mortality and thus it's important to make the most of our time. Are those too simple? Try setting the timer on your phone or a small kitchen timer that you keep with you during the day. Set the timer for 30 minutes. Every time it chimes, it’s a reminder to be aware of how you’re spending your time. You might even use your phone’s notepad or an old-fashioned memo pad — I use the convenient FlipNote — to jot down what you were doing each time the timer chimed, and at the end of the day, reviewing to see if you want to change anything about how you use your time the next day or even that evening.

Other people underestimate the time a task will take. There's only one way a task can take the minimum time and countless ways it could take longer. That's why wise tradespeople appropriately add a perhaps 25 percent fudge factor to the amount of time they think a project will take. If you tend to underestimate time, add 25%.

And if the reason you underestimate time is because you enjoy trying to cram in as much productivity as possible in a given time, ask yourself if that's working for you.  For some people, (including my wife and me, that's enjoyable and productive without causing too many errors.  But if you think you're paying too big a price for cramming, should you confine your adrenaline addiction to watching scary movies, riding roller coasters, or playing competitive sports—of course, while not being a cheater or golf-club thrower? The latter is a fast way to be deemed a loser.

Shadow an efficient person. Consider asking an efficient person, at work, or otherwise if you might shadow him or her, if only for an hour. It can be enlightening.

Efficiency tactics

These can help wring hours of extra benefit from each day:

The simple system: A calendar (on your computer, phone, or book) for your scheduled appointments and a 3x3 memo cube you keep on your desk for the not-time-defined tasks you want to do today or perhaps tomorrow. Crucial: You check both throughout the day. If you'd like to use a project management tool, Trello keeps track of what you (and if you wish, your teammates) are doing regarding various projects.

The Voice. As I’ve been implying, having a little voice in your ear, ever asking yourself, “Is this a good use of my time?” can be valuable. It’s my most potent tool for making the most of my day, indeed my life.  For example, rather than prepare time-consuming meals, my typical breakfast consists of yogurt and fresh fruit or oatmeal, lunch a salad, bread and fruit, and dinner, a piece of broiled meat, microwaved seasoned vegetables, and fruit, yogurt, or a pastry for dessert. That single choice probably saves me 10 hours a week, that's 500 hours a year. Think of what you could do with an extra 500 hours each and every year?

The gas pedal. Sometimes, you want to proceed on cruise control, that is, delegate to someone or, importantly, to not do a task when you have something wiser to do. Sometimes you want to press the pedal lightly — that is, go slowly, doing the task carefully. Sometimes you want to press moderately; that’s your default. And sometimes, you want to push pedal to the metal — where speed imposes little risk of crashing—or you've procrastinated your way into needing to do a rush job. Keeping the gas pedal metaphor in mind can improve your efficiency. People often ask how I've managed, atop a full-time career counseling practice to have written 12 books, 3,500 articles, while having a good marriage and recreational life. The answer lies in the gas pedal. I'm always thinking what could I write that is of value but could be written quickly. And when I'm writing, if I don't know something, I usually just do a Google search to find the best information. (I have taken the time to learn how to use GoogleSearch very well, so I make the most of this potent yet fast tool. I've written about that HERE.

The queue. At your desk, keep a memo cube with the day's to-dos that don't have a scheduled time attached to it. That simple strategy can keep you focused. and not forgetting.

Ritualize. Tie a regular-occurring or large single task to a particular time or activity. For example, if you want to work on your taxes, pick a time you'll be most motivated to do it, say Saturdays at 9:00 AM. (Research indicates that some people are genetically morning people or evening people.) Write it as an appointment on your calendar and treat that as inviolate as a doctor's appointment. I ritualize the entire work activity. Automatically, non-negotiably so it's not a choice, as soon as I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is go to my desk, screen (time-effectively) my email, and start working on something that I need a fresh mind for.

Another example of ritualization: Tie your unpleasant task (exercise, writing, whatever) to a desirable one, for example, exercise right before dinner. Make that inviolate, as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth every morning before leaving the house.

The Pomodoro Technique. This merges the benefits of structure, rewards, and forcing yourself out of your chair. As they say, sitting is the new smoking. Set a timer for 20 minutes. It needn't be one of those tomato-shaped kitchen timers after which the Pomodoro Technique is named. Work for 20, then take a 5-minute break, work 20 more and take a 5-minute break, work 20 more and a 10-minute break. That's a pomodoro.

I make myself do something physical during the break, which thus clears my head and provides that antidote to sitting too long. Because I work at home, it might be vacuuming,  cleaning the toilets, or mopping the kitchen floor, but if I were working in an office, I'd get up and walk briskly to the break room, down and up the stairs, around the block, or even just stretching and breathing exercises at my desk.

The one-second task.  If you're procrastinating a task you know you should do, ask yourself, "What's the first one-second task?" It could be as simple as opening the file. That's a friendly, intimidating prospect. Then do the next one-second task. Often, just a few one-second tasks are enough to build momentum...an object in motion tends to stay in motion.

The one-minute struggle. People tend to avoid tasks because they recall long struggles with previous tasks. The one-minute struggle technique can help. Struggle with a roadblock for just one minute. At that point, decide whether to not do the task, get help, or do the task without having to conquer that roadblock.

Be accountable to someone. Sometimes, fear of embarrassment will drive us to avoid procrastination. So you might share your goal, for example, completing that report by Monday at 9 AM with a friend or on social media. You might even give the friend a $50 check to a political party you dislike and tell him or her to mail it to that party if you don't get the task done by the agreed-on date

Multitask. Multitasking has acquired an undeserved bad rap. Even top surgeons chat and/or listen to music while cutting people open. Often, multi-tasking is both pleasant and efficient. For example, most days, I hike with my doggie Einstein to Trader Joe’s. I bring my thorniest problem that I need to think about, jotting notes on my Flipnote. Meanwhile Einstein and I are getting our exercise and I get my shopping done.

A work-centric example: If you're on the phone with a long-winded person, during parts of the droning that seem unimportant, you may derive net benefit by simultaneously looking at your routine email.

Learn to say no. If your boss asks you to take on the extra work of the person going on vacation, ask, "As you know I have a full plate. What would you like me to not do?" If the boss fires you for that, you have the wrong boss. If some relative or friend  yet again wants you to join a pity party, go to some ball game when there's a project you'd be wiser to do, develop the courage to say no.

Sponge up dead time. We all have dead time: driving or on mass transit, waiting for a meeting, doctor’s appointment, for your car at the quick-lube, etc. Bring that audiobook, Kindle, printed book, or article, or just a problem you need to ponder. Using sponge-time well is an easy way to wring more from each day.

Making time management part of your life

Is there at least one item mentioned in this article that you'd like to try? Do you want to write it somewhere you'll frequently look at, for example, as the computer screen's wallpaper, or simply on your palm?

I offer a 16-minute talk with similar content on YouTube.