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Time management

Time management is the process of planning and exercising conscious control of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness and efficiency. It involves a juggling act of various demands upon a person relating to work, social life, family, hobbies, personal interests, and commitments with the finiteness of time. Using time effectively gives the person "choice" on spending or managing activities at their own time and expediency.

To be able to do time management, you first need to define how do you want to increase your effectiveness and efficiency. For me, it means increasing the amount and quality of actions per unit of time or effort. Understanding actions as any process that gets me closer to a goal. It shouldn't be related with professional work (abajo el trabajo!)but to personal projects, cleaning or hanging out with friends.

Anticapitalist approach to time management

Time management is being used to perpetrate the now hegemonic capitalist values. Its a pity because the underlying concepts are pretty useful and interesting but they are oriented towards improving productivity and being able to deal with an increasing amount of work. Basically they're always telling you to be a better cog. It doesn't matter how good you are, there is always room for improvement. I've fallen on this trap for a long time (I'm still getting my head out of the hole) and I'm trying to amend things by applying the concepts on an anticapitalist mindset. The turning point was to read Four thousand weeks: Time management for mortals by Oliver Burkeman, the article will have book extracts mixed with my way of thinking.

Some (or most) of what's written in this article may not apply if you're not a male, white, young, cis, hetero, European, university graduated, able-bodied, """wealthy""" person. You need to be at a certain level of the social ladder to even start thinking in these terms. And depending on the number of oppressions you're suffering you'll have more or less room to maneuver. That margin is completely outside our control so by no means we should feel guilty of not being able to manage time. What follows are just guidelines to deal with this time anxiety imposed by the capitalist system with whatever air we have to breath.

Changing the language

The easiest way to change the underlying meaning is to change the language. Some substitutions are:

  • work -> focus: Nowadays we use work everywhere even if it's not in the laboral environment. For example I work very hard to achieve my goals. Working is the action of selling your time and energies in order to get the resources you need to live. It has an intrinsic meaning of sacrifice, doing something we don't want to do to get another thing in return. That's a tainted way of thinking about your personal time. I find focus is a great substitute as it doesn't have all those connotations. There are similar substitutions based on the same argument, such as: workspace -> space of focus, workflow -> action flow or just flow.
  • task -> action: Similar to work a task is something you kind of feel obliged to do. It uses a negative mindset to set the perfect scenario to feel guilty when you fail to do them. But you're on your personal time, it should be fine not to do an action for whatever reason. Action on the other side fosters a positive way of thinking, it suggests change, movement in a way that helps you move forward. There are also other derived words such as task manager -> action manager.
  • productivity -> efficiency: Productivy is the measurement of how fast or good you create products. And products are something that is made to be sold. Again this introduces a monetary mindset on all aspects of our life. Efficiency on the other side is the quality of achieving the largest amount of change using as little time, energy or effort as possible (Cambridge doesn't agree with me though :P. It may be because universities are also another important vector of spreading the capitalist values :(). So using efficiency we're focusing more on improving the process itself, so it can be applied for example on how to optimize your enjoyment of doing nothing. Which is completely antagonistic to the concept of productivity.

Changing the mindset

There is a widespread feeling that we're always short on time. We're obsessed with our overfilled inboxes and lengthening todo lists, haunted by the guilty feeling that we ought to be getting more done, or different things done, or both. At the same time we're deluged with advice on living the fully optimized life to squeeze the most from your time. And it get's worse as you age because time seems to speed up as you get older, steadily accelerating until months begging to flash by in what feels like minutes.

The real problem isn't our limited time. It's that we've unwittingly inherited, and feel pressured to live by a troublesome set of ideas about how to use our limited time, all of which are pretty much guaranteed to make things worse. What follows are a list of mindset changes from the traditional time management bibliography that can set the bases of a healthier Anticapitalist one.

Time is not a resource to spend

Before timetables life rhythms emerged organically from the tasks they needed to do. You milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvest time. Anyone who would tried imposing an external schedule on any of that, for example, doing a month's milking in a single day to get it out of the way would rightly have been considered a lunatic.

There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life. In those days before clocks, when you did need to explain how long something might take, your only option was to compare it with some other concrete activity. They were untroubled by any notion of time "ticking away" thus living a heightened awareness of the vividness of things, the feeling of timelesness. Also known as living in deep time, or being in the flow, when the boundary separating the self from the rest of reality grows blurry and time stands still.

There's one huge drawback in giving so little thought to the abstract idea of time, though, which is that it severely limits what you can accomplish. As soon as you want to coordinate the actions of more than a handful of people, you need a reliable, agreed-upon method of measuring time. This is why the first mechanical clocks came to be invented.

Making time standardized and visible in this fashion inevitably encourages people to think of it as an abstract thing with an independent existence, distinct from the specific activities on which one might spend it. "time" is what ticks away as the hands move around the clock face.

The next step was to start treating time as a resource, something to be bought and sold and used as efficiently as possible. This mindset shift serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today. Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, ant to berate yourself when you feel you've wasted it. When you're faced with too many demands, it's easy to assume that the only answer must be to make better use of time, by becoming more efficient, driving yourself harder, or working longer instead of asking whether the demands themselves might be unreasonable.

Soon your sense of self-worth gets completely bound up with how you're using time: it stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you fell you need to dominate or control if you're to avoid feeling guilty, panicked or overwhelmed.

The fundamental problem is that this attitude towards time sets up a rigged game in which it's impossible ever to feel as though you're doing well enough. Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally "out of the way".

Ultimately it backfires. It wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives. And it makes it all but impossible to experience the flow, that sense of timeless time which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead.

If you don't disavow capitalism an increase in efficiency will only make things worse

All this context makes us eager to believe the promises of time management frameworks (like GTD) that if you improve your efficiency you'll get more time to enjoy your life. If you follow the right time management system, build the right habits, and apply sufficient self-discipline, you will win the struggle with time.

Reality then kicks in you never win the struggle and only feel more stressed and unhappy. You realize that all the time you've saved is automatically filled up by more things to do in a never ending feedback loop. It's true that you get more done, and yet, paradoxically, you only feel busier, more anxious and somehow emptier as a result. Time feels like an unstoppable conveyor belt, bringing us new actions as fast as we can dispatch the old ones; and becoming more efficient just seems to cause the belt to speed up. Or else, eventually, to break down.

It also has another side-effect. As life accelerates, everyone grows more impatient. It's somehow vastly more aggravating to wait two minutes for the microwave than two hours for the oven, or ten seconds for a slow loading web page versus three days to receive the same information by mail.

Denying reality never works though. It may provide some immediate relief, because it allows you to go on thinking that at some point in the future you might, at last, feel totally in control. But it can't ever bring the sense that you're doing enough (that you are enough) because it defines enough as a kind of limitless control that no human can attain. Instead, the endless struggle leads to more anxiety and less fulfilling life. For example, the more you believe yo might succeed in "fitting everything in", the more commitments you naturally take on, and the less you feel the need to ask whether each new commitment is truly worth a portion of your time, and so your days inevitably fill with more activities you don't especially value. The more you hurry, the more frustrating it is to encounter tasks that won't be hurried, the more compulsively you plan for the future, the more anxious you feel about any remaining uncertainties, of which there will always be plenty.

Time management used this way serves as a distraction to numb our minds:

  • It may hide the sense of precariousness inherent to the capitalist world we live in. If you could meet every boss's demand, while launching various side projects on your own, maybe one day You'd finally feel secure in your career and your finances.
  • Divert your energies from fully experiencing the reality in which you find yourself, holding at bay certain scary questions about what you're doing with your life, and whether major changes might not be needed. As long as you're always just on the cusp of mastering time, you can avoid the thought that what life is really demanding from you might involve surrendering the craving for mastery and diving into the unknown instead.

Embrace the finitude of time

We recoil from the notion that this is it. That this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we'll get a shot at. Instead, we mentally fight against the way things are, so that we don't have to consciously participate in what it's like to feel claustrophobic, imprisoned, powerless, and constrained by reality.

Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from this same effort to avoid the painful constrains of reality. And most of our strategies for becoming more efficient make things worse, because they're really just ways of furthering the avoidance. After all, it's painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won't have time for all you once dreamed you might do. It's also painful to accept the limited control over the time you do get: maybe you simply lack the stamina or talent or other resources to perform well in all the roles you feel you should. And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless. We push ourselves harder, chasing fantasies of the perfect work-life balance, or we implement time management systems that promise to make time for everything, so that tough choices won't be required. Or we procrastinate, which is another means of maintaining the feeling of omnipotent control over life, because you needn't risk the upsetting experience of failing at an intimidating project if you never even start it. We fill our minds with busyness and distraction to numb ourselves emotionally. Or we plan compulsively, because the alternative is to confront how little control over the future we really have.

Heal yourself from FOMO

In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won't have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do, and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing. Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default, or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all. It also means resisting the temptation to "keep your options open" in favour of deliberately making big, daunting, irreversible commitments, which you can't know in advance will turn out for the best, but which reliably prove more fulfilling in the end. And it means standing firm in the face of FOMO (fear of missing out) because you come to realize that missing out on something (indeed on almost everything) is basically guaranteed. Which isn't actually a problem anyway, it turns to, because "missing out" is what makes your choices meaningful in the first place. Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn't, and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.

Embrace your control limits

The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control and freedom from the inevitable constrains of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead, and work with them, rather than against them, the more efficient, meaningful and joyful life becomes. Anxiety won't ever completely go away, we're even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations. But I'm aware of no other time management technique that's half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.

Time pressure comes largely from forces outside our control: from a cutthroat economy; from the loss of the social safety networks that used to help ease the burdens of work and childcare; and from the sexist expectation that women must excel in their careers while assuming most of the responsibilities at home. None of that will be solved with time management. Fully facing the reality of it can only help though. So long as you continue to respond to impossible demands on your time by trying to persuade yourself that you might one day find some way to do the impossible, you're implicitly collaboration with those demands. Whereas once you deeply grasp that they are impossible, you'll stop believing the delusion that any of that is ever going to bring satisfaction and will be newly empowered to resist them, letting you focus instead on building the most meaningful life you can, in whatever situation you're in.

Seeing and accepting our limited powers over our time can prompt us to question the very idea that time is something you use in the first place. There is an alternative: the notion of letting time use you, approaching life not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history.

Embrace the community constrains

Moreover, most of us seek a specifically individualistic kind of mastery over time. Our culture's ideal is that you alone should control your schedule, doing whatever you prefer, whenever you want, because it's scary to confront the truth that almost everything worth doing depends on cooperating with others, and therefore on exposing yourself to the emotional uncertainties of relationships. In the end the more individual sovereignty you achieve over your time, the lonelier you get. The truth then is that freedom sometimes is to be found not in achieving greater sovereignty over your own schedule but in allowing yourself to be constrained by the rhythms of community. Participating in forms of social life where you don't get to decide exactly what you do or when you doi it. And it leads to the insight that meaningful efficiency often comes not from hurrying things up but from letting them take the time they take.

Live for today not tomorrow

It doesn't matter what you do, we all sense that there are always more important and fulfilling ways we could be spending our time, even if we can't say exactly what they are, yet we systematically spend our days doing other things instead. This feeling can take many forms: the desire to devote yourself to some larger cause, continuously demanding more from yourself, desiring to spend more time with your loved ones.

Our attempts to become more efficient may have the effect of pushing the genuinely important stuff even further over the horizon. Our days are spent trying to "get through" tasks, in order to get them "out of the way", with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we'll finally get around to what really matters, and worrying in the meantime, that we don't measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move. We live in a constant spirit of joyless urgency.

How to manage time

The rest of the article describes the approaches I use to apply this idea of efficiency. If you have a different understanding, goal or your brain works in a different way than mine, most of the guidelines may not apply to you, but they could spark some ideas that you can implement on your daily life.

To increase the efficiency we can:

Adjust your roadmap

To be able to efficiently use your time and energy you need to identify where and how to do it given your current circumstances. Roadmap adjustment gathers the techniques to make and review plans in order to define that optimal path.

Reduce the time spent doing unwanted actions

Sadly, the day has only 24 hours you can use. There's nothing to do about it, we can however reduce the amount of wasted time to make a better use of the one we have.

Minimize the context switches

Each time we switch from one action to another, the brain needs to load all the necessary information to be able to address the new action. Dumping the old one's information and loading the new is both time consuming and exhausting, so do it consciously and sparingly.

One way of improving this behaviour is by using the Pomodoro technique.

Interruption management

We've come to accept that we need to be available 24/7 and answer immediately, that makes us slaves of the interruptions, it drives our attention and personal relations. I feel that out of respect of ourselves and the other's time, we need to change that perspective. Most of the times interruptions can wait 20 or 60 minutes, and many of them can be avoided with better action and time planning.

Interruptions are one of the main flow killers. Not only they unexpectedly break your flow, they also add undesired mental load as you are waiting for them to happen, and need to check them often. As we've seen previously, to be productive you need to be able to focus on an action for 20 minutes without checking the interruption channels.

Fill up your own interruption analysis report and define your action flow to manage them.

Avoid lost time doing nothing

Sometimes I catch myself watching at the screen with zero mental activity and drooling. Other times I endlessly switch between browser tabs or the email client and the chat clients for no reason, it's just a reflex act. You probably have similar behaviours that lead you nowhere. Some should be an alert that you need a break (don't drool the keyboard please), but others are bad uncontrolled behaviours that could be identified and got rid of.

Fix your environment

When we loose time, we don't do it consciously, that's why it's difficult for us to stay alert and actively try to change those behaviours. It's much easier to fix your environment so that the reasons that trigger the time loss don't happen at all.

For example, if you keep on going back to the email client regularly even though you decided only to check it three times a day, instead of mentally punishing yourself when you check it, close the client or move it elsewhere so it's not where you use to see it.

Don't wait, switch actions

Even though we want to minimize the context switches, staring at the screen for a long process to end makes no sense. If you do action management well, the context switch toll gets smaller enough that whenever you hit a block in the action you're focusing on, you can switch to another one. A block can be caused by a long running process or waiting for someone to do something.

If you find concentrating difficult, don't do this, it's a hard skill to master.

When a block comes, I first try to switch back to processes that I was already focusing on. Try to have as less processes as possible, less than three if possible. If there is only one active process, look at the action plan for the next step that could be done in parallel. As both processes act on the context of the same action, the switch is cheap. If there is none, go to the day plan to start the first step of the next action in the plan.

Improve the way you carry out your actions

Improve how you manage your actions to:

  • Reduce your mental load, so you can use those resources doing the actions you want to.
  • Improve your efficiency.
  • Make more realistic estimations, thus meeting the commited deadlines.
  • Finish what you start.
  • Know you're walking towards your ultimate goals
  • Stop feeling lost or overburdened.
  • Make context switches cheaper.

Improve how you manage your tools

Most of the actions or processes we do involve some kind of tool. The better you know how to use them, the better your efficiency will be. The more you use a tool, the more it's worth the investment of time to improve your usage of it.

Whenever I use a tool, I try to think if I could configure it or use it in a way that will make it easier or quicker. Don't go crazy and try to change everything. Go step by step, and once you've internalized the improvement, implement the next.


Calls, video calls, group calls or physical meetings are the best communication channel to transmit non trivial short messages. Even if they are the most efficient, they will break your focus, as you'll need to prepare yourself to know what to say and how, go to the meeting location, and then process all the information gathered. That's why if not used wisely, it can be a sink of efficiency.

Try to minimize and group the meetings, thus having less interruptions. Maximize the continuous uninterrupted time, so schedule them at the start or end of the morning or afternoon.

Once you agreed to attend, make each of them count. Define an agenda and a time limit per section. That'll keep the conversation on track, and will give enough information to the attendees to decide if they need to be there. Likewise, whenever you're invited to a meeting, value if you need to go. If you don't, politely decline the offer. Sometimes assigning someone the role to conduct the meeting, or taking turns to talk can help.

There are more informal meetings where you don't need all these constrains and formality. For example in a coffee break. You know that they are going to be unproductive but that's ok too. Master your tools and apply them where you think they are needed.

Improve your state

To be able to keep your efficiency, manage actions and change your habits you need to have the appropriate state of mind. This last factor is often overlooked, but one of the most important.

To be efficient you need to take care of yourself. Analyze how are you to detect what physical or mental attributes aren't at the optimum level and act accordingly by fixing them and adjusting your plans.

This will be difficult to most of us, as we are disconnected from our bodies, and don't know how to study ourselves. If it's your case, you could start by meditating or to quantifying yourself.

Some of the vectors you can focus on to improve your state are: