This post is migrated from v1 of this site - there might be couple issues left around formatting or links. One day this might get fixed, but in the meantime consider yourself warned.
Reactions to time management/self-improvement topics vary, but especially among the more skeptical cultures (like Poland) and communities (programmers), you can get some flak just by mentioning them. And I'd dare to say there is some substance behind allergic reactions I have sometimes seen - a lot of the accusations against coaching, Time Management and general self-help industries are not coming from thin air.
Still, unless you are completely satisfied with how your life is going right now, some of the proven techniques and grounded in science ideas can help. At least a little bit. My goal here is not to persuade you to anything, nor promise you life-changing results. However, I hope to show you what I stumbled upon in the last few years and what I'm convinced has at least some merit to it.
Keep in mind that none of the below concepts are deeply explained. There are whole books dedicated to every single one of them, thus I only aim to to gather my thoughts in a roughly sensible manner. And if any of below inspires you to dig deeper, that would be just a bonus.
Table of contents
- This table
- Core Tenets
- There is no such thing as time management
- Time management is a skill
- Main topics
- Managing energy
- Overcoming bad habits
- Making new habits
- Keystone habit
- Habit chaining
- Bad habit or an addiction?
- The Eisenhower Method
- Being busy vs being productive
- Feedback and planning
- Current state and Quantification
- Objectives and key results (OKR)
- Base tactics
- Time blocking
- Environment control
- Regular planning
- To-do lists
- Getting things done
- Ulysses contracts
- Checklists and automation
- Main myths
- Visualization / self-affirmation
- Working more
- There is a single trick, 10 step guide, or a blog post that will change your life
- Minor concepts
- Pareto principle
- F*ck it effect
- Inbox 0
- Barbell strategy
- Via negativa
- Todo list
- Other notes and wrap-up
There is no such thing as time management
Time moves in one direction and disregarding experiments with sublight velocities no one has ever affected the way it works. What we can manage is ourselves - our actions, attitudes, and emotions. Thinking in terms of managing time as moving blocks of seconds between buckets of activities skips the beautiful complexity of our messy brains and their evolutionary legacy.
Another critical point here is that time is the ultimate constant - everyone, you and me, have the same 24 hours of a day. While the external forces and their personal history make each person's challenges unique, the allocation of those 24 short hours is the only control we have - and the only way to make a difference.100 blocks a day52 weeks a year
Time management is a skill
And skills take time to acquire.
- You can't expect to be good at any of the techniques the first time you try them
- Failure is part of learning
- Theory without practice is useless
- Repetition is not learning (deliberate practice is a separate skill/concept)
- Working on more than one substantial change at a time is a guarantee of failure
No matter if you subscribe to Gladwell's estimate of 10000 hours of practice to mastery, or Tim Ferriss's 6 months, one of the key ideas to remember is that time management is a little bit like cooking. If you keep your ego in check, have good sources or mentors and keep experimenting you can quite quickly get to the point of having solid basics.
No amount of methods or programs are going to make a visible impact on your life if any of the physical pillars are off:
One of the most annoying scientific facts is that you need 8 hours of sleep. Sleeping only 6 hours per day in the long term leads to a permanent decrease in performance equivalent to not sleeping for 2 previous nights, but - here is the twist - without any awareness that you are effectively sleep-deprived and ineffective. Yes, I’ve personally tested this.
Keep in mind that our bodies love routine and there is no way you can feel fresh if your wake-up time is scattered between 5 am and 11. Also, watch out for blue light, screens and late evening coffee. I use f.lux for years already, but modern devices seem to be getting screen color control as a basic system feature.
On a side note, when you wake up in December and it's still pitch dark outside at 7 a.m. don't expect to be productive in the morning. Hooking up your lights with an automatic dimmer does wonders for your sleep cycle if you can get them to slowly brighten up before your alarm clock and gradually dim before you go to bed. I use a small set of Philips Hue smart bulbs but in a hindsight I would look for a cheaper option - they are great but not on the price/value ratio while there are many new competing products.Paper on long-term sleep deprivationMatthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Regular exercise is hard. It takes time. It takes motivation. And lots of people look at time management to help them with establishing a fitness routine, as I do, and maybe you. Egg and a chicken.
Exercise not only helps with avoiding death from any of the cheerful consequences of white-collar chair-sitting. It's non-negotiable for getting maximum performance of your brain.
Move.Eric Hagerman, SparkScott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
Diet is a controversial topic. No matter which particular approach you mention, someone will throw a bunch of research papers and hateful words in your direction. But what we eat defines how we feel physically. A right diet that doesn't make you sleepy throughout the day, nor hate yourself and the person who invented tofu, is a long way to having a high-quality life.
Question, learn and experiment.Michael Greger, How Not To DieScott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
Your energy levels are also affected by time of day, environment and people. Are you most effective in the mornings? Is your brain offline after lunch? Do the people you talk to make you happy and motivated? Does the clutter on your desk make you depressed? Do you have enough of the D3 vitamin?
Trying to solve complex problems when your body is focused on digesting is not going to be efficient. Organizing emails when your brain is sparking with power is just a pure waste. Measure, plan and experiment.
We are creatures of habit, and most of our decisions are automatic. The science behind this topic is solid, and its insights are essential to help tune your life.
Overcoming bad habits
- Why do you want to change this habit?
- What is the trigger? What is the reward?
- Replace the habit with a new one leaving same trigger and same reward.
While trying to remove the trigger rarely works - good luck removing 'feeling stressed' - when working on replacing the routine it's useful to lock yourself out of the bad alternative. For digital habits, there are blocker applications that cut you off from websites, and many routers have this option.
Technically-able can also edit the /etc/hosts file or write their own scripts that blow up your system if you 'accidentally' get lost in 'one more turn' mode. That's my personal approach right now, but I tried the popular blockers before, and they did also work.
Making new habits
- Decompose your goal into a smallest possible action - Tidying bedroom -> making a bed -> spread out the bedding
- Decide on the trigger - I woke up
- Setup a reminder - sign, place, notification (physical is better than digital)
- Dependingly on a habit, you may need between 3 weeks and a 2/3s of a year
- It's impossible to build more than one habit at a time
As a physical pattern in your brain emerges you will switch to autopilot. And exercising, planning, reading, healthy eating, or whatever floats your boat - will be completely effortless. Having no need to force yourself in any of the routines you always wanted to have sounds good, right? In fact, if you skip for whatever temporary reason, you are going to feel quite weird.
On a side note, willpower is a separate topic. We can train willpower just like a muscle and people use it to do incredible things. But in everyday life habits eat willpower for breakfast.
Some of the practices have disproportionate effects on overall life quality. Removing a single worst lousy habit can completely change your direction, like getting back 2 hours of time a day that would be allocated to passive social media browsing. Getting a habit of regular exercising makes you feel better and more energetic.
Also, see the Pareto principle (20/80).
It's easier to add additional loops on top of existing ones.Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Bad habit or an addiction?
That's a question you can ask your psychologist. Some of the most common bad habits are on the verge of addiction, like excessive Facebook browsing, Netflix binging and drinking 1 liter of coke a day. It's a serious civilizational problem - technology is breaking our brains.Nicholas Carr, The Shallows
Our mindsets are kind of mental habits - they ways we think, worry and generally talk to ourselves are rarely conscious. We can take control over them though.
If your mind hates you and talks to you in pathological patterns ("You did it again, idiot.", "Why does this happen to me always?" ), there is a need for change. Also, being able to shut down your mental chatter when falling asleep is a superpower.Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain EnglishAlbert Ellis, A Guide to Rational LivingMarilee Adams, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life
Whatever your dreams are, start taking them very, very seriously.
The first association to time management is probably a to-do list or a calendar. But those are only tactical measures that can make you more efficient in your current efforts. If you are working on wrong things at work, or overall pursuing an unfulfilling career, you need to go back to the strategic layer.
We need a purpose in things we do - no amount of to-do lists is going to compete with a single vision and some determination. Understanding your own values and what you really want to get out of life is really hard and takes deliberate effort. Every action has to have a 'why.' Preferably - a written down one.Dan Ariely, TED talk: What makes us feel good about our workStephen R. Covey, The 8th HabitChris Guillebeau, The Art of Non-ConformityDaniel H. Pink, Drive
Another important aspect is the base limitation of things we can do within the 24 hours of a day. Fun fact: initially, the word priority had no plural form! Choosing 'the one' thing is an art itself.Greg McKeown, Essentialism
Flow is a state when you are completely immersed in an activity. When all your worries are gone and 4 hours feel like 14 minutes, that's flow. And that's when we create the best work we can.
To get into the flow, you need a meaningful task that is right on the edge of your skill level.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
The Eisenhower Method
A core distinction between what's urgent and what is important.7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Being busy vs being productive
We live in a culture that promotes busyness. People are proud when they work around the clock and are constantly hooked to a stream of news, posts and notifications. No great work was ever created when switching between email, slack and the piece itself.
Long story short, multitasking doesn't work. As well as cramming your schedule to 105%.American Psychological Association summary of multitasking researchGreg McKeown, Essentialism
Feedback and planning
To risk a cliche, if you improve 1% per day for 365 days, you are going to improve by 3778% in a year. 1.01^365 = 37.78
Hundreds of different systems and ideas can help you to be more effective. Some will work for you, some won't, but will for others. Some will, but not today. And some are just bonkers. As long as you keep an attitude of constant experimentation, you can work out a satisfying routine that moves you toward the impact you want to have on the world - however big or small your vision is.Jordan Peterson, How to set goals the smart way
Current state and Quantification
What are you spending your time on? What makes you feel good? What drains your motivation?
Without understanding where you are now, you can't plot the route to achievement. Consider:
- life audit - writing down every single thing you do for 2-3 days; also useful for understanding your energy levels in a day
- time logging - toggl enables you to consistently log your productive (and unproductive if you choose to do so) time split into different buckets
- automatic logging - some tools, like RT record everything you do on your device / in your browser and report the results
Goals are necessary, and there is a whole science behind goal creation (also a very profitable industry). The minimum pattern of SMART means that goals should be:
Objectives and key results (OKR)
OKRs are a state-of-the-art practice for goal-setting, especially prevalent in successful companies:John Doerr, Measure What Matters
Goals do not work. Anyone who has made a New Year's resolutions can attest to that. The alternative approach is to create systems that push you in the right direction every day. So, instead of having a goal of writing a book this year, make a system of writing 150 words every day. And decide when, where and how you will be writing them.
Consider systems as goals done well with supporting latticework of habits and environment design.
- Single point of achievement - constant state of pre-success failure
- Delayed gratifications
- Large and uncertain - cause anxiety
- Everyday progress - feeling good every time you apply the system
- Continuous gratification
- Small and manageable
Contrary to how economists would like the world to work, people for most purposes are inherently crazy. We fail our goals, skip diets and predictably make horrible decisions. On the bright side, there is a lot of research on human irrationality already done. Understanding central insights in this area helps to prioritize your next summer body over half a liter of a milkshake.
official Wikipedia's list of biases is really, really long. Consider starting with the books. Some
of the obvious-yet-enlightening ones include
- Hyperbolic discounting - discounting reward in time, overvaluing short-term gains
- Optimism bias/planning fallacy - we are consistently bad at estimating anything.
Procrastination is a chronic avoidance of tasks, whether self or externally imposed. It's closely connected to some of our biases (especially Hyperbolic discounting). Long story short, ambitious, uncertain and important goals cause mental resistance. You can break down those problems with good systems that turn massive undertakings into a small, manageable series of steps.
Procrastination is also often a second-degree effect of
- lack of vision
- overcommitment (lack of prioritization)
- deeply ingrained bad habits
If you find yourself procrastinating consider shrinking the task to a smallest possible bit - 'I will open a notebook.' Pomodoros also help. And a small technique suggested by R. Wiseman: making a deal with yourself that you are going to work 'just for a few minutes' instead of making a deal that you will browse Facebook 'just for a few minutes', which we both know just doesn't work.Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds
Breaking your work into 25-minute long high-intensity, full-focus intervals with breaks between.Pomodoro technique
Building your schedule on large blocks of focused time. 9-11 deep work, 11-12 bureaucracy and emails, meetings 13-15, etc. Ideally planned tasks should correspond to natural cycles of your physical energy.
Hint: never plan more than 80% of your time. Buffers are crucial.
There is no such thing as multitasking. Any kind of creative work requires focus, and there is no way you can get into the flow when you get interruptions every 10 minutes.
Turn off notifications and work in a silent environment. Or at least get a reasonable pair of headphones and use white noise to drown out noises made by those pesky humans.
You need to spend time to save time. 30 minutes on Sunday for a week planning session does wonders, as well as a quick daily check on the most important thing to achieve the next day.
Since we are naturally horrible at estimating (which also explains a lot of the IT industry), creating large buffers for tasks is a valid technique to avoid failure. Historical data solves this problem also. If a small size post takes me 6 hours, I can expect next one to not deviate too much. However, if I'm estimating a new work - a large post with heavy research - and I come up with 15 hours top-down, it's safe to look at the 30+ hour range.50 minute mini-course on improving your planning from ClearerThinking.org
We can hold at best 2-3 things in our brains. To not get lost in the sea of bills, calls and life goals it's essential to have a log of things left to do. Creating effective to-do lists is a vast topic. Some pointers:
- Tasks should be as small as possible, whole projects are not tasks and therefore not for to-do lists
- Visit everyday
- Have separate lists based on time - today, this week and future is a common choice
Don't forget to get things done.
Getting things done
Complex, overhyped system enabling you to do wrong things very efficiently. Based on to-do lists. Sarcasm aside, it's really great and lets you take back control over large amounts of tasks in all areas of your life.David Allen, Getting things done
Making early commitments that prevent your future you from making bad decisions. Uninstalling time-wasting apps, blocking infinite-scrolling websites on your router, inviting friends over so you have to clean up your flat, etc. Creating artificial deadlines and getting accountability partners who reward and punish you also fall into this category.
Checklists and automation
Checklists are the first step to automation. You shouldn't be spending computational cycles of your brain on what to take for next trip, nor which groceries to buy at the beginning of a week. On the other hand, a lot of our tasks can be automated or outsourced - paying bills, doing the dishes, checking your daily set of blogs for new posts.
Visualization / self-affirmation
Thinking about your best future successful self does not work - at best, possibly it's even harmful. There may be some merit to thinking about concrete steps of your journey and visualizing yourself doing the work required though.Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds
Overtime and generally pushing yourself over the limits doesn't work besides single occurings with significant rest periods afterward. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
There is a single trick, 10 step guide, or a blog post that will change your life
Making yourself more productive means fighting against 30, or however old you are, years of reinforcing experience and 7 million years of evolutionary history. Getting better is hard. And easy answers usually are either incomplete or completely wrong.
Procrastination as a physical force of nature.Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Stop doing everything, start doing essential things.Greg McKeown, Essentialism
20% of work gives you 80% of resultsJordan Peterson, How to set goals the smart way
F*ck it effect
I ate one piece of pie so I might just as well finish whole. Having contingency plans and non-hostile mindset ('what can i do better next time?' instead of 'I'm a failure' helps).
Keeping your email inbox completely empty by making quick, radical decisions. When poorly applied leads to an explosion of meaningless emails in your team/organization. When applied correctly helps you remain sane and productive.
Mediocrity kills, results are on the extremes. Sharp focus with good rest afterward is an order of magnitude more effective than messing about the whole day.Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
Inversion of planning. What I absolutely must not do if I want to have a fulfilling life.Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
Improvement in face of failures and stressors. Applies both to systems (chaos engineering) and humans.Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
There is really no magic here, as long as you can plan your schedule it works. It's a little easier to create recurring events and time-blocks on digital calendars, but they are easier to ignore and disconnect physical sensations from the act of planning.
Mentioned above.Try Trello
Or any other app from the hundreds you can find.
You can also try
- Time loggers
- Website blockers
- Habit builders (I prefer physical ones to digital, but there is obviously an app for that)
- Decision journals
Other notes and wrap-up
Besides external links above, some of general references and inspiration for this post include:7 Habits of Highly Effective PeopleFarnam Street
Also it's worth mentioning countless time-management and related trainings (including those delivered by me over the years), attended courses and lengthy discussion with a whole lot of smart people, including a quite terrific course by Piotrek from produktywni.pl that I attended literally yesterday.
Yes, there is a lot of things you can try, and the amount of information might seem overwheling. No, don't panic. Start small!