16 steps to effective time management

[UPDATE, Feb. 19: Yup, I added one step: nr. 14, to be precise 🙂 ]

A few months ago I attended a one-day classroom training on time management. Absolutely brilliant! I still can’t believe that it actually works.

All my life – that is, ever since I got my first homework assignment in primary school, a moment I vividly recall as "the end of childhood" – I’ve struggled with my time.

At times I wondered if I was manic-depressed, one moment riding on waves of creative flow and then again falling into pointless empty purposeless. My productive cycles always seemed out of sync with my deadlines and commitments.

I’ve designed dozens of tools over the years in efforts to get my planning under control. Yet my discipline would always run out within a week and I’d give in to the next wave of inspiration, the next "great idea".

(what comes to mind is nightly hacking sessions, Coke cans, empty pizza boxes, at mobile Internet startup bunkers in the late 1990s)

But as those "highs" were always really productive and gratifying, and a more structured approach never really worked for me, I’d also grown reluctant to believe that time management could ever work – or even be a good idea; what if a disciplined approach would actually kill the flow forever and I’d be doomed to mediocrity?

(Okay, I hear you thinking: “Well, well, well. Jos, get a grip!)

At that course I learned about two new little boxing schemes.

One of them puts people on a scale between the ideal-type "convergent" and "divergent" personalities.

A convergent person is motivated by order and structure, enjoys working in a step-by-step manner, and prefers to focus on just one thing at a time. A divergent person, on the other hand, is motivated by freedom and choice, likes lots of variety and finds it hard to focus on just one thing.

The other scale stretches between "monochronic" and "polychronic" people.

A monochronic person sees time as a limited resource and takes deadlines seriously. A polychronic person, on the other hand, is easily distracted and interrupted, sees time as an unlimited resource, and sees deadlines as something to aim at.

As you may guess, I scored fairly high on divergent and polychronic, a deadly combination from a time management point-of-view.

But my life has changed. I have changed.

Perhaps the most revealing insight I took away from the course was that one should NOT want to have ALL tasks from now until eternity in ONE view.

That single overview, the timeline, the year planner, the mindmap, the urgency-versus-importance diagram, the dashboard – or whatever you want to call it – is, first of all, way too daunting and, secondly, kills all the excitement and motivation to execute.

With all such tools, the fun is in designing the overview, the calendar, the master project plan. Once that is done, there’s no fun in actually starting task number 080102001a, with ten thousand to follow.

Anyways, short-story-long, what has actually worked for me during the past few months is a handful of simple tricks. It goes like this:

  1. Take a good look at your typical work week. Which percentage of your time goes to routine, recurring tasks (such as correspondence, administrative tasks, recurring meetings, routine shifts…)? We’ll call the remainder of your working time "free project time". Write down the two percentages, e.g. 40%-60%, 80%-20%, whichever applies to you.
  2. Ask yourself if you are happy with this distribution. What would be ideal for you?
  3. Start working towards your ideal "routine vs. free project time distribution" by adjusting your role where you can. The happier you are with your time distribution, the more motivated and productive you will be, and the better you will be able to manage your time.
  4. Plan your routine tasks. In your calendar, make reservations for the time slots you need to do your routine work. Also block out lunches and tea breaks. (and by the way, block out a 40-minute slot for time management every Friday afternoon)
  5. Now let’s look at your "free project time". For our purposes, we’ll consider a project to be anything that requires more than one step. In this sense, a typical knowledge worker has between 30 and 80 projects going on at any given moment.
  6. Count how many slots of 40 minutes "free project time" you have left in your work week. Let’s assume you’ve got 8 slots left.
  7. If you have 8 "free project time" slots of 40 minutes each, then take inventory of your 8 most important projects.
  8. For each of your 8 projects, determine the "next action". This task may not require more than 40 minutes of your time. Less is okay. Determine the time required for each "next action".
  9. The reason why these slots shouldn’t last for more than 40 minutes is that your concentration for the task at hand will go down after 40 minute. Changing to a different task will restore your energy level.
  10. Draw a table with 3 columns. In your left column, list your 8 projects in order of priority. In your center column, write down the "next action" for each project. In your right-hand column, list the times required for each next action.
  11. Every Friday afternoon, during the routine slot that you have reserved for time management, you draw a new table with fresh lists for the week to come. It is important that you do this on Fridays, rather than to start figuring out what to do on Mondays. Now, with this table, you can give yourself a head start on those pesky Monday mornings.
  12. The order in which you execute your "next actions" can be flexible. When your next "free project time" slot comes along, pick whichever task feels good at that moment. Depending on what you’ve done just before, you may have the right mindset or context to execute a particular task more efficiently or effectively, or with more motivation than any of the others.
  13. That Friday-afternoon list has been the secret to my time management. But there is more you can do, and I’ll just point out three more things.
  14. Before having a break, start a new task. Your subconscious mind will already start "working" on the new task during your break, and you’ll be more motivated and inspired when you return to your desk.
  15. Be aware of your energy levels throughout your week and throughout your day. Use the higher performance level hours of the day (for most people between 9 and 12 am.) for concentration-requiring, important tasks, as well as "eat-that-frog" tasks (e.g. important tasks that you tend to postpone because you simply hate to get started with them). Plan for learning related tasks on lower time pressure days, such as Mondays and Fridays. Plan for problem-solving tasks on higher time pressure days, typically Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
  16. Don’t let email get in your way. Keep your inbox tidy. Make folders. Use filters. Unsubscribe from email lists. Turn sound and visual interruptions off. Check your email only once or twice, maybe three times a day. Decide when you check and answer your email. If it keeps you from being distracted, take your email client OFFLINE at all other times.

One remark about the core premise of NOT having all tasks in ONE view. This is not to say that a top-level overview shouldn’t exist anywhere. It just shouldn’t be a central part of your weekly and daily time management.

The projects that you prioritize should have a natural connection to the Master Plan of your life. One of the heaviest weighing criteria for deciding which projects you should take on in the first place is, whether it brings you closer to your primary goal, your purpose in life – more efficiently and effectively than any other project you could decide to take on.

Well, this is turning into a separate topic, really. Let me just refer to a few books that I have found useful when thinking about purpose and focus:
* ‘The e-myth manager’, Michael Gerber.
* ‘Where is Your Lighthouse?’, Knoblauch e.a.
* ‘Passion @ Work’, Lawler Kang.

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One thought on “16 steps to effective time management

  1. I think that my problem is that I am all 4 types :0)
    I use something that I call a BOOST Circuit that is similar, until step 10.
    I love it and will be trying it with your additions, I can see how it could be amazing.
    Thanks!

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