"You can do anything, but you can't do everything."
If there’s a topic that can improve your daily life quickly it really is that one! How we employ our time is eventually what conditions how much we achieve in life. There are sabotaging attitudes such as procrastination that deplete us from our willpower, but there is also the important aspect of execution: how efficient are you at using your time and actually doing things?
We all have the same amount of time available everyday. So how come some people will achieve their goals and show an apparent ‘success’ in the eyes of society while others are constantly behind and begging for more time?
Oh, those famous 24 hours a day… What makes the difference between each of us is how long we manage to work on the things that truly matter each day. First you need to remove what you spend sleeping, let say 8 hours, then you are left with 16 hours (that’s already one-third less). Then there are various routines that also take time away: let’s say eating 1 hour, commuting to work 2 hours and bathroom time 1 hour which reduces further your ‘time budget’ by 4 hours.
Now the real question is what do you do with these 12 hours left? Here’s some advice: the smartest decision is not to work non-stop during 12 hours.
Good personal time management requires to develop a sort of—healthy—multiple personality disorder: in one role you are the architect, in another you are the project manager, and finally you are the builder.
The reason why I believe this sort of separation is needed is because you can only do one thing at a time and yet you need to have these 3 different outlooks on your tasks to progress effectively:
The sort of ratio I would spend in each role is: architect 10%; project manager 20%; builder 70%.
Note how in the professional world each of these three roles is assigned to a dedicated person.
It is extremely useful to segregate the step of choosing what to do and the step of actually doing it. Because when you work you should be fully committed and not wondering if what you do is helpful or not: that must be decided beforehand, upstream in the process. In doing so, you avoid a potential source of distraction.
As noted above, there are different archetypal roles you need to ‘play’ in order to monitor your own work. The problem is that you cannot be in the three roles at once: you have to dissociate. Most people are only playing the builder role and therefore they lack the strategic view of the architect to say ‘wait a minute there’s not point doing that anymore’ or the advice of the project manager who says ‘you’re behind on that particular task, set some time aside today and tomorrow otherwise you’ll miss the deadline next week’. The solution is to regularly switch roles and put your attention into another role than the builder (which is really where you should spend most of your time).
Now for the obvious: if you want to reach your goals you need to spend time actually doing the related tasks. If you get stuck in the planning process, this is also considered procrastination. That’s what the saying ‘start now and get perfect later’ means. The best strategy in the world is pointless if you never start.
The architect and project manager roles described above have something in common: they need to make decisions. They’re all about planning and strategy, whereas the builder needs to execute what is passed on to him. Decision making is a skill of its own and I invite you to read this other article if you want to find out more.
Attention is key for being successful at executing your tasks. To do one thing well, you need to put your full focus on it. That means doing one thing at a time. And no distraction (easier said than done).
I cannot stress enough the importance of undivided attention. In the digital age we tend to be overwhelmed with distractions coming from all directions: emails, push notifications on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp etc., phone calls, next shopping ideas at Amazon buzzing in your head or simply having an internet page opened nearby. That is taking away our precious attention.
How to deal with that? I see only one answer: self-discipline! There’s a simple method I embraced that also helps a lot. It’s called the pomodoro technique. I had a huge impact on how I manage my time and boosted my productivity.
THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE—
In a nutshell, this technique states that the optimal time interval for executing a task is 25 minutes. It promotes the organisation of work based on this base interval. Within each interval, you will dedicate your full attention to what you are doing, without any distraction, working on a single task at a time without switching to another one. At the end of the interval, a break of 2 to 3 minutes is earned. Every 3 or 4 intervals, a longer break is taken (e.g. 15 minutes). And you keep repeating in chunks of 25 minutes.
Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the pomodoro technique. It is extremely powerful if you stick to the rules. I love it because it contains all the good ingredients for high productivity. More information about the technique here.
I’ve already touched on procrastination here. Beware, the ego relishes a good procrastination and self-sabotage. If applied with rigour, a proper task management workflow will surprise you with its benefits against procrastination.
Productivity consultant David Allen published in 2001 a book called ‘Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity’. You can get an overview on the Wikipedia page. He basically devised a technique he calls Getting Things Done (GTD) that allows to increase productivity and deciding how to deal with tasks.
GTD can get a bit complex and you’ll even find a tree diagram on the Wikipedia page that summarises it. It has helped me on my journey. For example something I find very valid is that there’s no point procrastinating on small items; for Allen, if a task takes less than 2 minutes then you’d rather do it immediately to get it out of the way. Something else I find powerful is the ‘inbox’ concept where you just drop all the smart ideas you may have and then free your mind, ready to focus on the next important thing. For someone who’s very creative and has ideas regularly popping out of nowhere, it’s a way to make sure you don’t get in your own way.
GTD inspired countless people—including me—and there are even apps available on mobile devices that implement the method. I would recommend looking at GTD as a reference point, but what pays off is building your own workflow; one that reflects your way of working and finds the right balance and flexibility, because too many rules could impede your progress.
Kanban has become my standard method for task management. Originating from Japanese manufacturing best practices, it is intensively used in project management by a myriad of cloud platforms.
A kanban board is a visual representation of your tasks so you can see your workflow and backlog in front of you. There are columns representing the different steps of your workflow. There are boxes that contains the tasks. The basic idea is that all tasks will start in the column at the far left and end up in the column at the far right (although that can get customised), going through different phases (which form your workflow). Kanban can be physical (the famous post-it notes stuck on the wall of the project team) or entirely managed digitally (with concurrent access to the tasks for multiple users and permissions etc.). Importantly, there’s a limit to the number of work-in-progress (WIP) items you can have in a single column in order to avoid bottlenecks.
I use several kanban boards on my day-to-day tasks management and I have my own set of rules that implement a customised workflow.
Tasks are underpinned by goals. When we are at work we are often asked to do things and we focus on execution. But when we deal with our personal life, we have the power of deciding what to do. Every good book on motivation will have this step where you must define your goals in order to set a direction for yourself, step out of procrastination, make yourself accountable to yourself, and measure progress.
‘So what do you want to achieve in life?’ In this question dreaded by many lies the key to success. It pays off to spend time reflecting upon it. It is said that successful people draw goals for their entire life. Yes, it means they can define goals today that they know may only be achievable in 10 or 20 years but at least they clarify their intention and it gives them something to look forward to. Ambitious goals require many intermediate steps till completion (often years). Working with the end goal in mind is extremely motivating.
So if you’ve never thought seriously about your personal goals, do it asap. Put on the hat of the architect and ask yourself: ‘what do I want to attract into my life that will make me happy?’.
You can keep your goals to yourself but it’s also empowering to share it with other people and speak them out. Also, it’s perfectly normal that you drop and add goals over time but that does not mean you should reshuffle your life-long goal every week!
Defining goals properly is a skill and there are many different methods that can help you. I like the S.M.A.R.T method which states that each goal must be:
Now we’re getting into an important part, often overlooked. You see, it’s easy to accumulate a huge list of to-dos and feel overwhelmed and unsure where to start. So how do you decide? A tool for deciding what deserves your attention first is based on certain attributes each task should have, and their value is very subjective.
You can end up with a long list of attributes, with each having multiple values. But here I’ll stick to 3 binary attributes i.e. they can only be true or false. They are:
That classification takes practice but it’s really worth it. A typical mistake is to confuse what is important and what is urgent. A task that is important is one that contributes to your goals. A task that is urgent is one that has a time constraint and the deadline approaches. For example:
Urgency and Complexity will help you in determining what to do next. You can follow the following guidelines inspired from the GTD method.
|Important||Urgent & Important
1 - Do now
|Not Urgent &
2 - Do later
in your planning)
|NOT Important||Urgent &
3 - Automate or Delegate
& Not Important
4 - Eliminate (life is too short)
I suggest you spend time reflecting upon that table because most of the wisdom of task management is contained thereinto. A common mistake is to keep busy with all sorts of urgent but not important tasks (cell #3), which the method suggests we should delegate or automate whenever possible. Really, we should spend most of our time in cell #1 i.e. doing what is urgent AND important and #2. The reason is that only what’s important will contribute to enhancing our life. And cell #2 is one that is often overlooked: because it’s not specifically urgent, we tend to procrastinate on those tasks yet they matter in the long run. Think of: learning a new skill that will allow me to land the type of job I really want. Setting deadlines can really help to keep us motivated and progressing towards our end goals.
Finally, Complexity helps you in assessing how long it will take to complete the task. Evidently, a complex task takes longer than a not complex task. Complexity is an important tool for planning. A refinement of the above method is to use T-shirt sizing to determine the effort required: XS,S,M,L,XL,XXL for example. Some unfamiliar tasks can be difficult to estimate in terms of complexity. But as you reflect upon past tasks and how long it really took you to complete them, you’ll get a better sense of estimating the complexity of each. When a task is really complex, it’s often a good idea to break it down into sub-tasks to keep each part manageable and stick to the S.M.A.R.T best practices (see section above).
Note—classifying your tasks and tagging attributes are a decision making activity and use a lot of willpower. If you have issues with doing it efficiently, you may want to check that other article.
If you implement the above strategies, you’ll need to set time aside for planning i.e. take on the hat of project manager. I have 2 types of sessions for that:
It takes patience, self-forgiveness and self-love to perfect the system. There will be days when you drift onto topics you didn’t plan for, whether it’s because something urgent you forgot jumps the queue, or you got plain distracted by something else. But we’re not machines, life should also be spontaneous. Don’t beat yourself up for not achieving at the pace you intended. We often do much less in a day or week than we had anticipated!
The 80/20 rule is very powerful if properly understood. Also dubbed the Pareto Principle, it states that 80% of our results are obtained with 20% of the efforts we provide. It means in plain English that ‘most of your results come from a limited amount of work’. Therefore the secret in life for achieving your goals is down to this: identifying the 20%, delivering then reclaiming the rest of the time for whatever you want.
I’m sure you’ve already experienced the Pareto Principle: typically when a quick mock-up ends up being very good while it takes hours of painful work to adjust all the tiny details to complete a job. The question is: do you really need all the bells and whistles to feel content?
This principle is very helpful in overcoming a self-sabotaging perfectionism which tends to prevent some people from completing their projects—or even starting them at all! You just need to remember this: not everything deserves to be done. Another inspiring quote I love is the one I’ve featured in the introduction. I know it to be true: being selective is a key to happiness. I’ve talked about the power of choice in that other article.
We have natural cycles that guide the peaks and troughs of productivity throughout the day:
It’s a myth that we can perform at our peak productivity for 8 hours a day. Nobody can. We need to accept that we have in fact just a few hours a day of high productivity, maybe 3 or 4 hours—and even so, only for people who manage to overcome all the distractions of modern life and stay focused.
In some companies I worked with, I witnessed the stay-late-in-the-office syndrome and I know too well it’s a fallacy. I make a point of leaving the office at 5PM and I do not confuse productivity with time spent in the office. Less is more. If you are efficient, your work speaks for itself. I had a business mentor back in the days who loved saying: ‘If you need to constantly work late in the evenings, you are either overworked or incompetent—or both!’.
It is also very important to recharge our batteries by doing activities that are not mental so we give a break to our overactive mind: spending time in nature, going for a walk, playing with a pet, meditating etc. Every now and then, having a full day without any work related activity is also very beneficial. The wise one knows when to take a pause.
This one is more subtle. It’s tempting to do back and forth between tasks. And actually our brain craves the change as it stimulates us—which is why we have this compulsive drive to check our social medias and messaging apps so often. But that behaviour is really an addiction and undermines our willpower.
Every time we change the object of focus and switch tasks, we are losing a bit of our precious willpower without even realising it. Although some people say they can multi-task, there’s no such thing as real multi-tasking: the brain fragments its attention between 2 tasks and do a lot of back and forth, which makes us tired much more quickly.
So there’s no real way around that: the best use of the resources of time and attention/willpower is to focus on a single task till completion and resisting the urge or temptation to switch to something else half-way through. The pomodoro technique explained above enforces that wisdom. It also helps to see tasks through till completion and avoids accumulating several tasks which are near-completion but none is really finished—a well-known syndrome for certain people.
There’s never been so many tools (mostly from IT) that help us with automating things. What could take minutes before now takes seconds. Think about emails and online payments, that saves us hours each month! There are more and more technologies, softwares and apps that can help us to streamline our lives and get some time back. Some of them are taken for granted now but are really useful, like the embedded spellcheckers in most modern word processor programs that avoid reaching out for a paperback dictionary.
Investing in learning how to use a software can pay off tenfold. If you have any appetite for that (and being a bit of a geek certainly helps), look at the most repetitive tasks you do each week and research if any tool could help you doing them quicker. A natural place to start would be an app to manage your tasks…
Certain sounds promote a state of attention and can help you boost further your productivity. A particular technology called Binaural Beats even entrains your brain into specific wave patterns that have beneficial effects. The 5 types of brainwaves are:
When you want to be productive at your desk, musics that blend these frequencies (except delta) can help. You’ll find a lot of them online and often for free; typically a blend of gamma and beta to stay in the higher frequencies and boost your focus. These musics should be listened to using headphones because the way they are designed they induce some waves in your brain based on a slight difference in frequency between the sound played in each ear.
In an age when most people complain about not having enough time in their day, time management seems like the obvious skill to master. And it often reveals that there is plenty of time in a day, it’s just that many people ignore how to use it efficiently—which is not very pleasant for the ego to hear but is the bitter truth. Otherwise how would you explain that some people achieve consistently their goals while others never finish anything? We are all endowed with 24 hours per day.
This article gives you the key to efficient time & task management but that does not mean a single read will do. It takes years of practice to hone these skills. If there’s one thing to remember it is this: being productive does not mean spending lots of time working. The secret of productivity is this: be clear and selective about the goals and tasks to execute, and work on them only with high concentration. It is the power of the mind that makes someone highly productive: self-discipline and attention.
It is often said that young generations are much less attentive than the older ones. Whether it’s true or not, what has changed is the abundance of distractions available to the average person especially in the cyberspace. Look at the people walking down the streets with a smartphone in their hands who don’t even watch in front of their feet. And how people constantly reach out to the phone in their pocket when they have a spare moment… One can indeed wonder what is the actual attention span of the average person today? We need to overcome our urges for stimulation and instant gratification and bring some awareness about our addiction to technology. That is the only way to keep our sanity and preserve our power of attention.
One thing that has been true for millennia is that the power of attention is required to execute tasks properly and efficiently—and that is not going away. Other best practices include: killing the distractions; knowing the difference between planning and executing; doing and focusing on one thing at a time; setting goals; leveraging your peak of productivity in the morning; and having a solid workflow for task management along with techniques like the pomodoro.
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