Time Management 101

Time management is the essential difference between effective, minimally stressed people and ineffective, stressed-out people. We all have the same number of hours in the day, days in the week, and weeks in the year. The key is managing that time – and the key to managing time is prioritizing.

Managing time isn’t hard, but it requires conscious intention and commitment. Time management can look like yet another to-do list item, and so it is, but it’s an item that produces freedom, flexibility, effectiveness, balance, a long-term view as well as a short-term view, and a focus on what matters most. It’s a to-do list item well worth the effort.

The to-do list is where you start.

  • List everything you plan to do today
  • Apply the 5 Ds approach to cull the list down to what you really should be doing today
  • Categorize the remaining items by urgency and importance
  • Recast the list so that the most important and urgent are at the top
  • Estimate the time it will take to do each important item
  • Look at your calendar and make a realistic plan for the day

The first few times you do this, it will seem complicated, even burdensome. Within a week or so, it will become habitual, and not too long after that, you won’t always have to do it on paper. Your mind will automatically do it for you. (I recommend continuing to keep a running to-do list, though – it frees your mind from having to remember things and from having to worry about whether you’ve forgotten something.)

Figure out where your time is going.

Keeping track of your time is annoying, but it’s worth doing for a week or two. You’ll be amazed (even if you’re a lawyer who already keeps time sheets) by how much time gets spent on things you don’t even notice while you’re working. Things like chatting with someone at a communal printer, obsessively checking email and dealing with unimportant messages, getting interrupted, picking stuff up and putting it back down without dealing with it once and for all, buttering bagels in the kitchen, etc., etc., etc. – they all add up. It’s perfectly OK to spend time on these things, but you need to be making a conscious choice to do so rather than frittering time on them when you’d rather be doing more important things.

Here’s a simple form for following yourself around and keeping track of what you’re up to for a week or two. Use it to draw some conclusions about where you might be wasting time or spending it on less valuable vs. more valuable tasks – and reorganize your efforts accordingly.

Use task analysis to focus on what matters most.

When you keep track of where your time is going, you might also find that you’re spending time on things that don’t matter or that no one needs. History and habit play larger roles in group work settings than we realize. In my law department, we discovered by doing a simple task analysis that 17% of the total time being spent by the 60 people in the department was spent on tasks that evidently did not need to be done at all. This wasn’t an efficiency conclusion, but rather a matter of no one being able to remember, imagine or otherwise articulate a reason for doing these tasks. Who had asked for them? Whom did they benefit? We had no idea. Would anything horrible happen if we simply quit doing them? Not as far as we could tell.

Knowing which activities matter a lot, which matter a little, and which don’t matter at all is crucial to spending your time meaningfully. Here’s the simple list of questions we used to free up that 17% of our departmental time:

  • What is it?
  • Who does it?
  • How often is it done?
  • Who wants it to be done?
  • Is it legally required? (OK, we were a law department, but, still, this is a pretty good question. You may not think filing your tax return and paying your taxes are particularly value-added tasks, but there is good reason for continuing to allocate time to getting them accomplished.)
  • If it’s not legally required, is it otherwise necessary or desirable (measured by organizational goals and priorities)?
  • What is the benefit of doing it?
  • What is the risk of not doing it?
  • How else could it be done? (Say, by someone else or by a machine or as part of a different task, whatever – you get the idea.)

If you answer these questions honestly about all the things you spend time on, you’ll recognize which things are important, which are less important but still necessary, and which are unnecessary and, thus, ill-advised uses of your limited time. Eliminate the last category altogether and you’ll gain time. Read my Suit Yourself Essay entitled It’s About Priorities, Not Time for more on how to streamline the time you spend on what’s left.

Recognize productivity peaks and valleys and use them intelligently.

Your task analysis may also show you that you’re more alert and productive in the morning than in the afternoon or vice versa. Everyone has peaks and valleys of alertness and productivity. Use peaks to handle work that requires more of you. Use valleys for easier work or work that’s more fun. That way, you’ll get the most out of peaks and valleys.