Time management – that eternal promise of self-control, discipline and oodles of productivity. Oh, how we wish it was as easy as following any of the countless pieces of advices floating online, and turning ourselves into productivity powerhouses, but it clearly isn’t.
For some reason or the other, putting as many hours to good use is still just about the hardest thing there is. Somehow, there’s always that email that we forgot about, or a project that we thought would take one month ends up getting stretched in to three. Time management webinars/seminars from the gurus and $9.99 internet courses don’t seem to help either.
Is there a disconnect somewhere in time-management?
So, what gives? Clearly there is a (huge) disconnect between the way we act and what we have heard. This rather prevalent trend begs the question – could it be that we are looking at this whole thing wrong? I have come to think so.
First off, the whole idea of time management revolves around our ability to predict. We anticipate future events and visualize how our day will look. The problem is, painting a precise picture of how our days (or weeks and months) will look is highly impractical.
Here are a couple of reasons why.
We cannot anticipate every event besides the ones that we wish to direct our energies to. Since such occurrences are sudden, we rarely know how much time they will require.
Random events can manifest as single, huge bottlenecks that demand a lot of attention, or small, continuous botherations that eat up our time.
More often than not, we grossly overestimate our ability to handle the work load.
Of course, this means that we are left with fewer hours and less energy to engage in productive tasks. For example, you may have planned to work on a software update project all week.
Then your boss asks you to complete a report, handle a sales presentation and fix a pressing issue that a client is facing. With fewer hours to dedicate to the main project means that meeting the deadline has become that much harder.
That being said, while the events themselves cannot be predicted, what we can anticipate is their occurrence (of course, something will get in our way) which is what we need to take into account.
Here are some strategies with which we can cope with the shifting nature of reality.
Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
Since hustling is in right now, we are always trying to fit in as much work in as little time. This is particularly true for startups that have to answer to investors and get their product out the door ASAP.
But rushing through work can actually have disastrous consequences for productivity. The thing about moving explosively right off the bat is that we can gloss over subtle, yet important issues, expend more energy (or money) than is needed and of course, make mistakes.
The slow is smooth, smooth is fast maxim owes its origins to the military (who better to learn efficiency and productivity from).
“…Within that context, moving fast (or rushing it) is reckless and can potentially be fatal. However, if you move slowly, carefully and deliberately, you’re actually moving as fast as you can without needlessly increasing the risk on your life.” – Source
This actually makes perfect sense for productivity too. Being in a constant reactionary state where we are always responding to immediate challenges means that we spend less time on long term goals, and even introspecting whether we are on the right path.
Writing is a huge part of my job and I will be the first to say it can get tedious to the point where every productivity problem that I could imagine (and even those that I couldn’t) ended up happening. While big picture thinking is great for planning and visualizing, it turns out to be a very persistent stumbling block when it comes to actually realizing that picture.
However, I noticed that if I told myself to focus only on 100 words at a time (that would take a few minutes to complete), instead of a complete 2,000 word article, the anxiety simply vanished. This “hack” is essentially a smaller version of the pomodoro technique.
I break my task into three “sets” of five minutes in each of which I try to complete 100 words. Every 15 minutes, I take a quick break by walking around or stretching up for a minute or two (the pomodoro technique recommends 30 minute batches). I was surprised to find that my productivity increased by leaps and bounds as a result, even though I was only focussing on 100 words at a time.
It stands to reason that we all have our unique “productivity thresholds,” beyond which things will begin to seem daunting to the point of paralysis. Try and break your work into small batches that seem manageable to you and then take small power-breaks between them to recharge, you should see more time materialize.
Use productivity tools.
While technology has made our lives more chaotic, it is not to say that it’s all bad. Productivity tools designed to track work are a great way to take the remembering out of the equation and streamline your process.
In fact, these tools are all the more important today when you are being bombarded with tasks from all sides. Two types of apps are particularly useful here.
Time tracker apps are useful.
Time tracker apps are designed to help you record the amount of time that you are spending on tasks. A time tracker is particularly useful when you are breaking down your tasks into small batches since tracking time between them can become harder.
Online timesheets are some of the most popular ways to log billable hours, however they come short, as the time logged in is based on guesswork rather than an accurate estimation.
A time tracker on the other hand can better capture the amount of time that is spent on various projects and give you a good picture of what your day actually looks like. These apps can create a timeline based on what you did to give you a snapshot of your day and add a layer of transparency that is crucial for accountability.
That being said there’s a catch, any tool should be part of a holistic strategy that utilizes your particular strength and weaknesses.
Some time tracker apps that you might want to try are listed here.
TMetric – Pricing: Free, Pro version – $4/month, Business version – $5/month
Timely – Pricing: Essential version – $14/user/month, Company version – $21/user/month, Enterprise version – $49/user/month
Hours – Pricing: Free, iPhone exclusive
A time tracker is best used in tandem with multiple methods to get best results. Here’s how to use a time tracker along with some well tested tools to notch up your productivity big time!
Checklist apps may be for you.
Checklists are used in healthcare, military, aviation and every industry so their utility as a productivity tool is well established. Checklist apps on the other hand can do what paper based lists did and a lot more.
While they started off as simple apps for grocery lists, a checklist app today is an increasingly sophisticated multi-platform tool that and can help manage huge projects. Here are some awesome checklist apps to try out.
Wunderlist: Pricing – Free, Pro version: $4.99, Business version: $4.99/user
Todoist: Pricing – Free, Premium version: $29/year, Business version: $29/user/year
Trello: Pricing – Free, Business version: $9.99/user/month, Enterprise version: $20.83/user/month
Much like time trackers, checklist apps work best when they are part of a holistic strategy. Here’s an awesome article on how to use checklists to actually become more productive!
Find out what time works best for you.
While 9 to 5 has become the standard time zone of productivity, it is not where most of the productivity happens. Unfortunately, there is no commonly accepted time where everyone magically becomes productive. Check out this article on when some entrepreneurs are most in their element. As each person is different, they need to discover what works for them.
Start by analyzing your focus. Do you feel more “in the zone” during early morning, mid-day or night time? Try and track the way you feel as you go along a day. There will be hours where you will be unstoppable, while those where even the simplest tasks seem impossible.
Over a period of days, a patterns should begin to reveal itself. Time tracking tools can be helpful here, too.
You can also try and determine when you have done some of your best work. Since this usually happens because you got something right, it stands to reason that recreating the circumstances which led to it will yield similar results.
Finally, your coworkers, friends and family might be able to provide some feedback on how you act through a day. Try and find commonalities between their input, so, if everyone seems to think that you look rather tired between two-three, then that time is not when you want to be working on something important.
Create a pre-work ritual.
Jumping straight into a ton of work is like bench pressing 200 pounds straight after entering the gym. Just like you need to warm-up before hitting the weights, your mind too needs a primer before it gets to the tough stuff.
A ritual is any exercise that is performed before a major task in order to achieve the state of mind and body needed to perform said task optimally.
Rituals have been used by professional athletes and even movie stars before performances. The chest thumping we see Matthew Mcconaughey do in Wolf of Wall Street was actually a ritual he does every day on the set to calm his nerves as he was getting started.
We were just lucky that Leonardo Dicaprio caught him doing that and asked him to repeat it onscreen.
There are quite a few scientifically backed rituals that are good for productivity, however, since rituals are a deeply personal thing, everyone should try and find out what works for them.
A ritual will become noticeable as anything that prepares you and helps you in a certain way. Here are a few ways rituals will connect you to your tasks.
Help you overcome distractions.
Boost your confidence.
Increase your energy levels.
Visualize your goals.
Some common rituals that are known to boost productivity are:
Listening to a favorite piece of music.
Moderate exercising to shake off lethargy.
Creating a list of to-dos the night before.
Meditating for 10-15 minutes.
Find out what works best for you and turn it into your personal productivity ritual.
The whole idea of time management tells us that we somehow need to manage the hours in a day such that we can get as much output out of as little time as possible. The idea itself is pretty elegant in its efficiency.
But the way we frame the question has a way of determining the answer, too, and a simple shift in perspective can often have dramatic consequences.
So, instead of constantly trying to beat the clock, our time is better spent analyzing our behavior, and then creating best practices around our strengths that take into account our weaknesses.