Time management is the process of planning and exercising conscious control of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity. 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, efficiency, and productivity. For me, it means increasing the amount and quality of work per unit of time or effort. Understanding work as any task that gets me closer to a goal. It doesn't necessarily be related with professional work, it can be applied to a personal project, cleaning or hanging out with friends.
The rest of the article describes the approaches I use to maximize 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 productivity we can:
- Reduce the time spent doing unproductive tasks.
- Improve the way you do the tasks.
- Improve how you manage your tools.
- Improve your state and environment to be more efficient.
Reduce the time spent doing unproductive tasks⚑
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 time that we have.
Minimize the context switches⚑
Each time we switch from one task to another, the brain needs to load all the necessary information to be able to address the new task. Dumping the old task 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.
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 work 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 task and time planning.
Interruptions are one of the main productivity killers. Not only they unexpectedly break your workflow, 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 work on a task for 20 minutes without checking the interruption channels.
Fill up your own interruption analysis report and define your workflow 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 to another workspace so it's not where you're used to see it.
Don't wait, switch task⚑
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 task management well, the context switch toll gets smaller enough that whenever you hit a block in the task you're working 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 working on. Try to have as less processes as possible, less than three if possible. If there is only one active process, look at the task plan for the next step that could be done in parallel. As both processes work on the same task, they share most of the context, so the switch is cheap. If there is none, go to the day plan to start the first step of the next task in the plan.
Improve the way you do the tasks⚑
Improve how you manage your tasks to:
- Reduce your mental load, so you can use those resources doing productive work.
- Improve your efficiency.
- Make more realistic estimations, thus meeting the commited deadlines.
- Finish what you start.
- Know you're working towards your ultimate goals
- Stop feeling lost or overburdened.
- Make context switches cheaper.
Improve how you manage your tools⚑
Most of the tasks 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 working workflow, 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 productivity.
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 work efficiently, manage your tasks 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 work on to improve your state are:
- Sleep better.
- Work out.
- Hang out.
- Isolate your personal life from your work life.
- Procrastinate mindfully.
- Don't be a slave of the interruptions.
- Improve your working environment.
- Prevent illnesses through hygiene and exercise.