Few disagree that time is one of our most precious and fleeting resources. Yet, when I ask, I find that few people manage and more importantly optimize their time by using a better-than-average system. It is hard to be a great carpenter if you don’t use good tools and techniques.
First, time management is a strange phrase: we really can’t manage time, as it flows by no matter what we do. What we can do is decide how we use the time that we are given, which makes the challenge one of planning and decision making. That reality invariably leads to several important questions: what are your goals (and why), what is your foremost priority now, and what are other crucial and urgent tasks that are important to you. If you have no goals, your task management will often adopt someone else’s priorities.
What is the average system?
In a word, lists. The good news about written lists is that they outperform the average memory, but most people just jot things down, then look them over from time to time.
What’s above average?
While we are still working with two dimensional lists, I usually see four improvements:
- Lists are organized by project.
- Due dates are added to certain tasks, and alerts are triggered to remind the person to get things done at the right time.
- The user adopts the idea of writing everything (that he or she ‘accepts’ as a task) down, not just some tasks — this is very useful because it relieves one’s brain from periodically churning and worrying about forgetting key tasks.
- Your task / list system is available for you no matter where you are (which means available on smartphone and desktop for nearly all of us).
What if you want to be top 20%?
Four concepts must be added to your system (and your actual system must make these easy-to-do on an ongoing basis):
- Planning ahead is crucial, so that you know what is on your personal agenda for this month, this week, and this day.
- Tasks must be distilled to individual, actionable, next steps, so that when you decide to work on a task, you are empowered to take action without a new round of thinking and distilling.
- The one truly “next” task needs to be identified by project.
- You must have scheduled reviews to keep your system fresh and re-prioritized, with minimal effort.
In essence, you have the ability to view your tasks by various dimensions — not just by project and date. As your system becomes more sophisticated, you can view projects by priority, by next step, by status (for example, waiting on someone to get back to you), or by delegate.
What if you want to be top 10% in your time management?
Filters and blocks of time:
- The core idea is — assuming that you pre-plan every task — you can use filters so that you only see the tasks for today, or tomorrow, or this week, which helps with your focus and stress reduction.
- Filters should accommodate ‘context’ so that you only see the tasks that can be done given based on where you are (for example, you can’t mow the lawn or throw the baseball with Jimmy while at the airport, so why add stress by seeing those tasks out of context).
- Use calendar appointments to block your time for strategic progress bursts. Most people struggle with turning off the ever-present distractions but that is exactly what is needed. (See pomodoro technique)
- A bonus feature is if your system makes it easy to log how you spent your time so that you get feedback and become smarter in your approach over time.
How do you become a top 1%er?
To be a top one-percent time management black-belt, one must transcend just having a great system, learning the habit of aligning daily effort to short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals, blocking considerable daily time to the pursuit of what is truly important and strategic. This leads to saying “no” often, without losing valuable personal relationships, which is a difficult balance. It also means habitually disconnecting from distractions, such as email and text messages, by setting the expectations of those who send you those frequent messages.
What system do you use now?
How does your system stack up compared to this best practices checklist? As you start this new year full of optimism, perhaps it is time to move to a better system. The system itself won’t do it alone — you need the crucial habits of pre-planning, breaking into actionable steps, writing everything down, filtration, calendaring — but never bring a knife to a gun fight either.