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Personality: Time Management Secrets

Years ago (some-time in the mid 90s), there used to be an advertisement on CNN, about what - I do not remember now, but what I remember are the words:

"Time is Money, and Money can be Lost in Seconds"


Time management as we all know is our ability to plan and regulate how we spend the limited number of hours in our day; with the sole purpose of accomplishing our goals. The definition is a bit misleading because time is an entity that never 'stops'. Hence, we cannot 'manage' it ! The best we can do is to manage the tasks and events at hand, "in relation to time".



WHY ?

At times, don’t we all feel the need for more than 24 hours in a day? (I do) :)

But all we get is 24 hours, or 1,440 minutes, or 86,400 seconds each day !!!

We have to juggle the time between the different aspects of our lives. Be it work, home, friends, interests, etc., depending on the need and situation, one may take precedence over the other. Thus, it is important to establish clear goals and priorities among the tasks.


"Poor time management can be related to procrastination, attention problems, or difficulties with self-control" [1]. All these stress factors release Cortisol, and these constant flight and fright reactions can age you !!!


As humans, we value money so much so that after our and our loved-ones’ lives (a trait we share with all animals), we are usually most protective of our money.

But does time hold a similar control ?

Probably, in fact often, not ! However, time, like money is limited; and hence requires similar discipline in its protection and use. Treat your time as you would treat your money. Read the CNN ad. quote again. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it ?

HOW ?

In the following, I share some of the strategies and techniques I find inspiring to get the right things done in less time. Notice the words:

  • Right things

  • Done in less time

What this essentially means is that out of the zillion tasks at hand, you choose only the "right" ones, and then strategize to complete them in "less time".


1. Focus on what needs to be done

Whatever your circumstances, your first work or task-related activity (after you wake up) every day should be to set clear goal(s) for that day. Ask yourself, what is it that you want to do/complete that day? Focus on this question, before doing anything else, e.g. checking your email or messages. It may very well be that you do not have a set goal for a given day, and that is totally fine as well. For example, you may be just headed for work. But again, work is not "just". What is it that you want or need to accomplish at work today ? Even if it is the 'same ol, same ol', how can you improve, or reduce accomplishment time ?


Setting an achievable goal, and focusing on it may be done in a few minutes, and will definitely save hours of wasted time and effort.


If your task is a multi-step process, list all your sub-tasks at hand.


On your free/off days, you can make a list for an extended period of time, spanning over days, weeks, or even months. Which type of list to make is entirely up to you. However, do not get carried away in the list-building, and not over-do it.


It is better to not maintain multiple lists, and keep things simple with singular lists and non-overlapping tasks.


2. Set task priorities

Now that you have a tasks-list, you need to assign priorities. You may develop your own scale, something like:

  • Urgent / Time Sensitive

  • Important / Absolutely Required

  • Necessary / Essential / Required

  • Somewhat Required

  • Not Required but Good to Have

  • Can Pass / Don’t Do This Unless Completely Free

This list is not exhaustive, and you can make any additions or deletions that you deem fit. For example, some researchers limit the categories to four quadrants: urgent, not urgent, important and not important [3].


The point is to make a distinction between the tasks [2]. For instance, a task may seem important, but not urgent. Whereas another task may seem urgent, but let’s say it is not important.

Which one should you focus on ? Definitely, the important one !

But what usually happens is, that the urgency of the second task forces us to act on it, and valuable time and effort may be spent in a non-important activity.


Our goal should not be to mark off most items from the list, but the highest priority ones [2]. Again, remember, resist the temptation to clear smaller, unimportant items first.

(P.S. You can / should list the expected completion time with the task also)


3. Be Dynamic

Dynamicity is the word !

You need to be dynamic, and the list in the previous step needs to be updated regularly during the day. Strike off items as soon as they are done, and add new ones as soon as they (may) appear. If a task is taking longer than expected, write that. Similarly, if you get done earlier on another task, document that as well.


This time log-keeping will show you how you are managing and using your time. A good strategy in this regard is to divide your time in intervals (say 15-30 minutes), and see how you are progressing along your task-list.

(Similar to the 'POMODORO technique' from Day 1)


This may indicate (if you already are not aware) the best time of the day for you, i.e. when you are most productive; or even point out the distractions along your timeline (a colleague may be wasting your time in idle chit-chat) ! Moreover, you may see how your time is spent, on work-related tasks, on family matters, on friendships, on facebook, etc.


The aim is to be aware of your time, and more importantly CHANGE anything that is non-productive. Why check your phone a zillion times, when you can devote a 10-15 min window at lunch, etc. Change any expectations in the future, i.e. bring your task-list and time required close to reality (for future management).


The time log you have, should give you a quick overview of everything that’s urgent and important. For example, you can color-code the items, use highlighters, use an app., etc.


4. Discipline the Interruptions.

After a couple of weekly iterations of the items mentioned above, you can identify the activities that tend to disrupt you. Items that cause disorder in your otherwise managed time ;)

Examples include checking email, reading news, watching sports scores, texting, video watching on Insta, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. These are all interruptions ! and any of these can break your train of thought, and the flow of your work.

In turn, the time required to get back on track may translate that a task that should take X minutes, ends up taking 2X or more minutes.


5. Get Organized

Any task item, be it tangible or intangible, needs to be organized.


Tangibles are often categorized into three groups: Useful, Give, Throw. We keep the useful items. The non-useful items should either be given to someone else who can use them, or simply thrown away.


The inherent hoarder in all of us tends to mark many items in the Give/Throw category and assign it to Useful. Avoid this !!! Avoid the clutter !


The intangible items (e.g. information) can be organized in 5 ways:

  1. Work / act on it. The sooner the better.

  2. Delegate. Give it to someone else to work / act on it.

  3. Mark it for future work. For example, till you get additional information, or a specific time lapses. Note that the trick is to not forget it.

  4. Save / file it. So that you can find it later when needed.

  5. Delete / Throw it. It is not needed now, or in the future.

Organization is not an easy task to master. But it is perhaps one of the most important ones in terms of time management !


6. Procrastination Discontinuation

We all have been there ! We all tend to put things in the “Mark it for future work” bin stated above; for a variety of reasons.


But do we want to procrastinate ?

Obviously not !

No one wants to procrastinate, and no one likes to.

Then why does it happen so often ?


There are two main reasons (and variations thereof): Overwhelming, and Undesirable.


Before we discuss these reasons, I want to talk about confidence. Some people are confident of their abilities, or the time required to do a certain task. They say “I know I can do it in the available time, but not now”.

Is this procrastination ?

Somewhat !

There is a fine line in being confident, and overconfident. If you know you have to do something, do it !

THIS is where task priorities come in. If you are at a point when you should do a task (based on your priorities and time log), then you should do it. Even if you have enough time, you simply cannot procrastinate (even if you are confident).


If a task seems overwhelming, break it down. Complete it in steps. Divide and Conquer !

But remember to establish realistic deadlines for the sub-tasks.


And if something is undesirable (say clean the tub, or organize the garage, etc.), if you are the person responsible for it, then no matter how abhorrent it may seem to you, you need to overcome your feelings, and do it.

What’s the point in delaying the inevitable ?

Some researchers even say that you have to complete the unpleasant tasks early in the day, and to allow yourself small rewards once you’ve completed them.


7. Shun multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is bad !

What ? What did you just read ?

Yes, you read it right. Multi-tasking is not desirable. You need to avoid it. You need to evade it. You need to limit it. You need to bypass it.

But why ?

Well, research has shown that multi-tasking often does not save time for humans (where thought and focus is involved).

Machines on the other hand are capable, and adept in context-switching. The new devices we all have can easily manage switching from one browser window to a video file to a coding program to a word processor and so on. But humans are not able to switch contexts in a similar manner.

We can lose time switching from one task to another. We lose our focus, and are hence less productive [4].


Do each task in its assigned time-block, and if you find yourself multitasking inadvertently, stop. Take a break, and then work on one single task at a time.


8. Learn to Say NO

Don't bring unnecessary tasks into your task list. If you are asked to do something that you are not primarily responsible for, know how to decline. Yes, helping others is a good thing, but if it comes at a price not beneficial for you, learn to say no.


9. Review your day/week/month/year.

Daily Exercise Here

References


[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/time-management


[2] MacKenzie, A. (1990). The Time Trap (3rd ed.). New York: American Management Association.


[3] Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, R. R. (1994). First Things First: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster.


[4] Rubinsteim, J., Meyer, D. & Evans, J. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology – Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

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