Efficient time management is one of the key skills to survive and thrive in modern world. Most of us need to juggle the needs and duties of family, career and personal interests and it can be a daunting task. The day-do-day anxiety and overwhelming sensation that comes every time we see the day coming to an end with a large list of uncompleted tasks; can be transformed in a fulfilling experience if we are able to manage (instead of just spending) time.
There is a not a lot of science behind Time Management (TM), most of the theory and concepts are based on personal experiences, common sense and bit of general management concepts. Certainly there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there a few sound basic concepts that are probably helpful for everybody looking into TM.
There three categories of concepts you need to consider to achieve effective. They are rules, tools and habits.
These are two fairly simple and easy to remember rules
Being busy is very inefficient
If you feel busy or overwhelmed, it means that you are doing things wrong; it reflects you have many uncompleted tasks, you are losing control over them and you are not being able to manage your priorities. If this happens to you, is time to stop all, sit down, set your priorities, review your process and start again. A good analogy is something that Jim Colletti (@jimcollettimd) once told me; “this is like being in the sea, if you are drowning, you need to reprioritize; if you are floating you need to focus on your career and set goals, swimming is when things are in balance, in other words you are in the zone and productively moving forward ”.
Ignore things aggressively
We are just simple people. Sometimes we set our priorities wrong and certainly very few people are able to multitask and manage multiples roles and projects. A constant behavior among efficient people is that they brutally focus in the single most important thing for them, and they aggressively manage their time and tasks ignoring everything that is not important for the single most important goal. If something you are ignoring today is important you may not come to realize it until it is too late.
Goals and Values
This is probably the most important thing in TM, but commonly forgotten or overlooked. You need to know what is important in your life. This is usually an issue of work/life balance but is also an issue of in what time of your life are you and what are your core values. Maybe for a few years you are concentrating in your career and then in your family.
There is no single answer of what is important. Things change with time; but you have to be truthful and insightful and decide what the most important thing is and where you are putting your time and strength.
Priorities are based on your goals and values, when you have that figured it out is time to make it practical. Priorities are different from tasks, usually tasks are a sub product of the priority and commonly are self-evident. Setting your priorities requires a lot of planning and will depend a lot of the resources, needs and external pressures. The old Eisenhower system of doing the important and urgent first, then the important not-urgent and finally the not-important not-urgent is still fairly sound advice.
Finally, when setting priorities try to identify tasks that have the potential to be dominos; meaning that if you do it, a lot of other things will happen as a consequence of that action, like a project that opens the opportunity to other projects or identifying the task/issue that is the bottleneck.
To be efficient, you need to have a pretty clear idea of what you have to do, when you have to do it and have all necessary resources in order to do it. Also, it is very handy to be able to use unexpected free time or waiting time in order to clear some tasks of your inbox. I would recommend to have three types of aids.
(1) To do list
This is probably the spine of your efficiency system, where everything else is built upon. The list needs to capture every single tasks, in all spheres of your life, including personal, family and career. Additionally to the fact of being comprehensive, the To-do list needs to be compose by meaningful, discrete, actionable items; instead of “house chores” you have to use something specific “like cleaning the den”.
Two difficult aspects of the To-do list are the prioritization and the time budgeting. Each task should have some degree of priority based on what is important for you at any given time; a not-very important task due tomorrow will have a higher priority that a very important task due in 6 months. The time budgeting is difficult and is a skill that will improve with practice.
They key to avoid procrastination in a To-do list is to anchor important and high priority issues in the immediate time and try to complete those first unless unfeasible or inefficient. Imagine tasks as rocks, the more important the task the bigger the rock, and the rock is in front of you; you can’t walk another step unless you take care of the rock.
Calendars are very important. They serve as a graphic data representation of your time, contrary to the To-do list which serves as a representation of tasks/things. This tool is helpful to have an idea of things (time units), deadlines, important dates and meetings (arrgh!) coming your way. A key important feature of a modern calendar is your ability to share it with important people in your life; that way they can see if you are available or not and if there are big things coming soon. See the paragraph below about budgeting time.
(3) Information Depot
Day-to-day, we deal with big amounts of data. We manage documents, files, pictures, notes, data clips from websites, etc. A typical error of many people is to keep the data in different places and sometimes in unreachable places. For uber efficiency you have to be able to clean your task load in the spot, and you can do that using down time, particularly unexpected down time. To do so, you need to being able to access your To-do list, calendar and files (information) from anywhere in the world. My usual recommendation is to get a good cloud-based service (like Evernote, Google Drive or DropBox) and backup it frequently in a solid state medium. The key is not to use the cloud, the key is to keep all your data in a unique, consistent, easy-to-access place.
Planning requires planning
It may appear evident, but many people forgets that being efficient requires a lot of planning. You have to invest time creating your priorities, developing a system and refining it until works for you. At the same time, don’t spend too much time preparing, is actually important to do stuff. Either you suffer the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. In other words you can pay now or pay later.
Identification of the actual tasks is usually not a problem. The issue arises from crises and when task appear unexpected. The key skill is to convert an issue in a meaningful task, is not only necessary to identify that you need to do something, it is crucial to identify what is the essence of the task and what actually needs to be done. Chunking tasks in the minimum meaningful unit to then plot it in your To-do list is the most important ability you need to develop.
Budgeting time is difficult. A key characteristics of human is the difficulty to calculate and estimate time. Invariable, for most of us, the time allocated for a task if far less than is actually needed. Fortunately this is a skill that gets better with time. The old rule of estimate a time and then multiple by three is still reasonable. An addendum to the budgeting time is to remember to block time for time for doing stuff and time for you to spend with your family or things to actually like to do (running, cooking, movies, etc.).
Just say no
A common error is to try to achieve as much as possible with the resources (time, intellect, energy) we have available. The caveat is we grossly underestimate the amount of those resources we need to complete the tasks. That lead us with a very full plate and we are barely able to unable to manage. This inability will result in not being able to deliver what is needed or promised, leading to the cardinal sin of being unreliable. Saying yes all the time will lead to overwhelming duties and saying no will lead to disappointed friends and bosses. Certainly you will need to find a balance, but the balance is more in the side of no than yes. Following the previous ideas, success usually comes when you are able to brutally concentrate in what is important and ignore everything else while following your priorities. Keeping you plate small will help to that.
Take care of yourself
The first rule of this is not to become a victim of your time management. The most important priority is yourself (and the people you love). You need allocate resources to take care of yourself. Try to sleep as much as possible, eat healthy and exercise.
Get a space
A space where you can concentrate to complete tasks is a very good thing, but is not a sine qua non. It doesn’t have to be a fancy place or actually not even a real physical space. What is helpful is a time and environment protected for you to produce and to go through your to-do list. Everybody is different, for some people the kitchen table surrounded by loud children is perfect, for others the silence of the public library is necessary or maybe a local coffee shop.
Do not multitask
This is simple, multitasking is probably not possible. Cognitive psychology has shown that multitasking is not a real skill, every time a task is added to another the attention and performance decrease significantly. You have to do is being very good in rapid sequential and quasi-sequential (doing one thing, stop, doing other and come back) tasks performance. As I said ad-nauseam, you need to concentrate in one thing, and one thing only.