Time Wrangler

Time and Task Management Strategies

We have a finite amount of time on this Earth, so why not make the most of it? I have so many friends and acquaintances with personal goals, big ideas, and desires to make a difference in their life, community, and world. The sad part is only a fraction of them will ever see those things through. It is nothing against the people themselves; there is no way to accomplish everything you ever set out to do. However, the one excuse that is absolutely unacceptable to me is, “I don’t have time.” How many times have you used this excuse to justify falling short of your goals? I know I am guilty of it.

The one excuse that is absolutely unacceptable to me is, “I don’t have time.”

You Always Have The Time
Credit: Flickr, Reign 60

One day, I started to look at my routines and how I was spending most of my time. It was mainly an efficiency evaluation for how I was getting work done. I realized that before that point, I had not really tried to measure personal efficiency. This exploration led me to begin tracking my use of time and, specifically, time spent on various activities. What I discovered through a couple days of tracking was that I had a good completion time for most of my daily chores, but there was a lot of time wasted on distractions like email, web surfing, and good old day dreaming. This was a point in my life where college was coming to a close, I was running my own business part-time while working for 2 companies on the side, and personal fitness was something I deeply wanted to obtain. It sounds like a lot to manage, but by employing a couple simple strategies, I was able to chunk my time and fix my attention on the most important items each day, raising my personal efficiency and overall satisfaction with life.

I would like to share some of my personal time management strategies below. This list is just my personal experience and what works for me; I am not a task-master by any means and do not claim to be an efficiency expert. However, I hope my experiences can provide a good framework for developing a system that meets your individual needs.

1) Goal-setting is the Foundation

Goals provide direction. Our energies are wasted without direction. As the leader of a company, setting goals is an important part of what I do each quarter and each year to see progress. But I never lose track of my personal goals, and I try to take an inventory of those things that I set out to accomplish once or twice each month.

This year I have adopted a new goal-setting strategy, influenced by Peter Bregman. His amazing book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done , really helped me put my goals in perspective and actively reflect on whether or not I am spending enough time accomplishing the things I want to do.

His method is simple: at the start of the year, identify five things you want to accomplish and write them down (there is a nice template for completing this exercise on his website). These five things should be the focus of 95% of your time every day. On your list, there should be space for a sixth item, which is outlying items and things you absolutely have to do (Peter calls this the “other 5%”). With your main focus areas established, you write simple to-do items beneath each one. These to-dos are a way to make small steps toward your overall goal. At the start of each day, look at the list and plan to make progress toward your goals; when the day ends, before you turn-in for the night, you should reflect on your list and the day asking yourself, “did I make progress toward the things I really want in my life?”

By practicing Peter’s method every day (essentially taking only 18 minutes, hence the book title), it forces you to keep your goals at the top of your mind and make conscious efforts to do what you want. I am a big fan of meditation, and this could be considered a form of meditating on what you want to accomplish. It has helped me keep my passions alive in times of intense workload and stress. I highly suggest reading the book to make the most of this method.

2) Structure Your Life

Structuring your life sounds really intense, but it can be as simple as making a to-do list when you get to work in the morning. Without structure there is no order, and without order, we tend to get lost, confused, side-tracked, and ultimately it wastes a lot of time. I firmly believe you cannot be a successful professional without routine. Routine is akin to consistency, and consistency is the foundation of professionalism.

Routine is essential to time management
Credit: Flickr, Fabrizio

The way you structure your day is not as important as executing upon that structure. A recent article I found shows how famous creatives like Beethoven, Dickens, and Darwin, among others, structured their days. It is very insightful and it shows that many of them shared similar structures. Like I said before, the actual structure is the first step and is important, but execution and consistency is of the utmost importance.

3) Stick To Your Structure

Have you ever tried to start a new workout routine, only to give it up after a few days? I have been there, and it made me feel worthless, as if I could not accomplish something as simple as spending 30 minutes a day exercising. But when I think about the workout routines that I have stuck with, they all took a week or two to really become an established part of my day. The same holds true with your life structure and how you are spending your time.

Despite our best efforts, sometimes life just gets in the way and spoils our plans. There are many outlying factors that can creep into your structure and completely break it. The best method I have discovered for managing distractions, and this really gets to the root of my post about time management, has to be the Pomodoro Technique®.

Using a timer and chunking out blocks of focus and blocks of resting are the essential ingredient to my time management recipe. It really helps facilitate a flow-state and fly through a task list in no time. I have my own variation of the Pomodoro method, but essentially it is the same format as the conventional method. Most of my work is done at a computer, so I like to use an online timer I found, called Moosti. Here is how I use the Pomodoro method:

  1. I start the day by creating a list of the tasks I have to accomplish. The most important or time-sensitive things go at the top.

    One of my daily goals sheets
    One of my daily goals sheets
  2. I set the timer for 25 minutes and begin the first task, focusing only on that task for the entire time.
  3. If I get interrupted in the middle of a working session (by email, texts, phone calls, people in my office, etc.) I will note the thing that came up beside my main list of tasks. If it is something that cannot wait, I will stop the Pomodoro timer. My rule is a Pomodoro must be completed in-full or it does not count.
  4. After the 25 minutes is up, I will add a tally mark beside that task to indicate the total Pomodoros it takes (this post has taken me 2 Pomodoros to write).
  5. I take a 5 minute break after each 25 minute working session. In that 5 minutes, I get up and walk around, refill my water bottle, use the restroom, and stretch or do pushups/squats/yoga poses.
  6. After 3 consecutive Pomodoros and breaks, I will take a longer break (usually 15 minutes). This give me time to step away for a while, go outside, talk to friends, or get a quick snack.

My favorite part about the Pomodoro method is that it leaves you with an accurate record of how much time was spent on a given task. As someone who is self-employed, it helps me to understand my task efficiency and also how to budget my time for projects in the future. I have not taken this efficiency measuring to the level of compiling spreadsheets and generating reports, but there is always room for improvement.

Keep in mind that Pomodoros are a great way to burn through a to-do list, but sometimes I will feel like working less rigidly and just go with the flow. As with anything in life, take it in moderation and keep things fresh.

That is the whole of my time and task management methodologies. Take it for what its worth. Just remember that there is always time to do the things you want to do in life, you simply have to manage yourself well and make time to do what you want.

If you have your own method and would like to share, please do so in the comments section below.