September 29, 2020

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Time Management

I recently wrote about how saying no is one of the best ways to guard your time so that it doesn’t get eaten away by other people’s demands.

It got me thinking about some basic principles people can follow to squeeze the most value out of their time, which resulted in this; a quick and dirty guide to time management. No fluff or unnecessary detail, just simple nuts and bolts you can use without too much thought.
The keys to effective use of time are:

  • Clarity of objective. It’s easier to hit your target if you know what you’re shooting for.
  • Task prioritisation; knowing what to focus on and when
  • Doing the work. Once you’ve figured out what to do, show up and do it. Consistently.

Here’s the process:

  • Identify your priorities
  • Write them down (this helps with clarity and frees up your brain to focus on execution rather than memorisation)
  • Block out time for key tasks — your calendar is your friend
  • Say no to everything else 
  • Get it done

Once your priorities are taken care of, go wild. It’s less stressful and more rewarding than putting things off until later.

Here’s a great tweet that explains the concept simply:

Some things you may find helpful:

Have no more than two things on your to-do list for the day. They should be the two most important things you need to get done in the immediate term. Say no to everything that takes you away from those two things until they are done. This is prioritisation in action.

Don’t add lots of small, separate items to your to-do list. A long list dilutes your focus and can make you feel overwhelmed. Instead, group small related tasks together and treat them as a single item. Batch process everything you can. Especially email (see below). It stops your attention from getting fragmented with repeated distractions and requires less mental labour than constant task switching. Block an hour or so out in your calendar and work through tasks like admin as a batch. Then forget about them. 

How to deal with email: Unless you work in a customer service role that requires fast response times, turn off your notifications so you don’t get distracted from your main duties by incoming messages. Instead, block out a dedicated chunk of time each day to process your email and do it all in one go. Make sure you schedule this for after your priority tasks have been tackled. It’s rare someone needs an immediate answer, so don’t get sucked into responding to emails as they come in. That’s a sure-fire way for the day to slip away from you. 

Identify what time of day you work best on different tasks and use this to plan your work schedule. For most people, that means focusing on the big stuff before lunch while your brain is fresh and saving the lower-level things for later in the day.

If you want to get a better sense of how you spend your time, track it in a spreadsheet. This is kind of dull, but it only takes a couple of minutes each day. Within a few weeks, you should have a decent sense of where you can claw time back from your schedule and make better use of it. Plus, if you use colour coding for different tasks (e.g. research, admin, procrastinating) and do it for long enough, you end up with a pretty chart to look at. 

I thought I had a good handle on how I spent my time until I tracked it by the hour for three months. Then I realised how much time I wasted. The experience made me way more productive and required minimal effort.

Find a way to automate repetitive low-level tasks so that they don’t eat up your time. If they can’t be automated, delegate or outsource them. Trying to manually process everything once you hit a certain scale is a death knell for productivity or growth. You’ll be so busy with things like admin that the more important stuff will never get done.

And that’s it—no need to overthink things or get fancy. Just prioritise and execute, as Jocko Willink says. If you’re craving more detail around time management and productivity, read my in-depth guide.