Time Management Resilience
Eventually you will die. So will everyone else. While we often pretend like we have forever to get things done, that isn’t the case. We cannot create more time in our lives, nor can we get back the time that is spent poorly. The only control we have is over how we spend the time we have left (and probably, not all of that). While this sounds grim, it’s also incredibly freeing. You don’t HAVE TO say yes to everything, because you CAN’T. Therefore, you should choose what is important to you and act upon that choice.
While we aren’t going to talk in this episode about the kind of big life goals we wish everyone had (because they make life better), what we are going to discuss is how manage your time so that the chaos that is constantly swirling around all of us doesn’t take your most valuable asset away from you. Or, put more accurately, doesn’t spend it in a way that you wouldn’t care for. Many people struggle with time management, as it gets more difficult the more successful you are. In fact, your ability to manage your time can realistically be viewed as an upper boundary on how far you will get in life. It’s that critical to meeting your goals and dreams, as well as being absolutely necessary to living a fulfilling life surrounded by people you care about.
And let’s make one more thing clear. There is a “hustle” culture out there. While that culture says things that sound right, a lot of the premises that you’ll hear people spout amount to nothing more than asserting that you should work longer hours and work harder. While there is some merit in this, simply “working harder or working more” is not going to get you where you want to be. Unless your main goal in life is to simply be the donkey that quits last, this idealogy isn’t good enough (real donkeys quit eventually, btw). It’s only help for those whose work ethic falters, not for those who need more control of their time (often as a result of their work ethic…)
Time is your most valuable asset. You can’t make more of it. And you probably don’t want to spend every waking hour on this earth working. Instead, you want to use whatever time is given to you for the right things. Those include having the kind of family bonding and interpersonal relationships that are impossible if all you do is “hustle”. Further, if your time is poorly managed in one area, that will tend to bleed out into other areas. As a result, you need to take action to make sure that your management of your own time and attention is resilient to the chaos in the world and responsive to your goals. Leave the insane “hustling” other people – you want to use your time well, rather than always trying to do “more”.
Have slack in your schedule
Like following another car too closely on the highway, piling time commitments close together can often mean that if anything goes wrong with one, then it will impact (heh) the others. Having gaps in your schedule, even small ones, can give you room to adjust between commitments. You’ll also find that having some downtime doesn’t hurt your productivity as much as you might expect. Work and other commitments tend to expand to the fill whatever time you allow them to fill, within reason. Consider the slack in your schedule to be just as important as everything else.
Slack in your schedule should consist of more time than you might spend in transit between two points, preparing for the next thing, or taking a bathroom break. Those things are required too, and will be negatively impacted if your time management strategy for the day goes sideways. If you are already overloaded to the point where you don’t think you can add slack, then you need to drop some commitments. They are going away anyway (when you fail) and it’s better to choose which things to drop, rather than to have random events choose for you.
Use time-blocking to control pathological tasks
If you have a lot of priorities, you’ll notice a phenomenon where certain priorities seem to constantly have issues that take time away from other priorities. A good example of this is a bad job situation that takes time away from your family. Assuming relatively equal priorities among goals, you need to aggressively timebox goals that show a tendency to overflow their boundaries. This doesn’t mean that all work towards a goal has to be timeboxed, but rather than goals that repeatedly cause problems for everything else.
One weird thing to note. When you timebox troublesome goals, the time restriction often forces clarification on them. This occurs even if you don’t have other people involved in them. If the task does involve other people who have poor boundaries (aka, they don’t respect your time), putting hard limits on it will also make it more likely that they respect your time, or that they eat the consequences if they don’t. Either is acceptable.
Discover and protect your best work time
You probably have some idea of whether you are a morning person or a night owl. You might be wrong though – it’s shocking how many “night owls” are night owls only because they oversleep and how many “early birds” are early birds only with the help of large quantities of coffee. Regardless, test this out. Then, once you know your best working time, you need to start protecting it. Whether that means blocking off some time for actual productive work, fixing your sleep/work/life schedules to accommodate your findings, or simply doing a better job of planning your tasks, you need to make sure your most effective time is not squandered on inconsequential tasks.
This doesn’t mean that you ignore inconsequential tasks (although that’s great if you can do so). Rather, you make sure that they happen effectively during time where they can fit, rather than wasting your “good” time. You should probably also make sure that not all of your best work time is taken by your day job. Keep some for yourself and pursue goals outside of work. You’re welcome.
Firewall the unfocused
Inevitably, as you get better control over your time, other, less focused people will start trying to demand more of it. Don’t look down on these people – we all are there sometimes. But lack of focus is contagious in that it destroys the focus of others. You have to protect yourself from it. A lot of people who have poor control over their own schedule will insist that you hold your schedule open to accommodate them – don’t do this.
This also extends to open-ended, unstructured meetings. A useful meeting has an itinerary, a list of attendees that is as limited as possible, and a definite start and end built around how long people can realistically focus on the task at hand. A waste of time is a meeting that doesn’t meet one or more of those criteria. Your emotions can also play a role here. You want to be nice, but if you have big things to get done, you need to be much more stringent about what you get done. The answer to most things should distill down to either a “hell yes” or “no”, with “no” being the default.
Take regular, duty-free breaks
In addition to your slack time, you need to prioritize having a “deloading” phase (I got the wording from Tim Ferris, but it’s just a cooler way of saying actually take your breaks). It can be tempting to work through breaks to get more done, but this is less productive over the long term. By “duty-free”, we mean that breaks are actually breaks, not “eating lunch at your desk” or “taking your work laptop on vacation”. We mean full-on, not working.
Breaks should also be regular. That is, you should know they are coming and they should come at fairly predictable times. Breaks lose most of their value when they are a surprise. Regular, disconnected breaks will also show you where you are irreplaceable. Those are the places where you need to make yourself replaceable, not only for your own sanity, but simply because you can’t always be there. You want to be able to take a break without feeling like things will collapse while you are gone. Breaks like this also force people who depend on you too much to come up with better strategies for their own independence.
Queue and batch your work
Context switching kills productivity and schedule stability. You’ll lose an insane amount of time and focus to it. Therefore, you should try to do it as little as possible. However, that doesn’t mean that you can let critical tasks fall by the wayside – you need to have a way to keep track of them and prioritize them for the time when you sit down to work on them. Queuing your work up also has other benefits. At least some work will go away before you get around to it. Other work will change. Queuing keeps you from doing work that you’ll toss aside later and helps reduce the frequency of rework.
Batching work also helps with your efficiency. Nearly all important (but not time critical) work has at least some time dedicated to setup and teardown. If multiple similar tasks are worked on together, you can often optimize and reduce this time input. Queuing and batching also does something else for you. It changes most of your work to be responsive and planned, rather than unplanned and reactive. This tends to help with your focus, but it also keeps the chaos of the world (aka other people’s poor scheduling) out of your space.
Put maintenance on a schedule
You likely have a lot of tasks that need to recur on a regular basis. Whether is is as simple as changing the batteries in your smoke detectors or as complex as re-evaluating your homeowner’s insurance, there are a lot of things that you need to do every so often to avoid nasty surprises wrecking your schedule (obviously, a dead smoke alarm battery could be worse than that).
Having reminders of important recurring tasks in your calendar will make it easier to avoid forgetting them, without you having to try to keep them in mind. Besides reducing the risks and expense of sudden problems ruining your day, scheduling such tasks means that you can handle them at a more leisurely pace. These maintenance tasks shouldn’t only include equipment, but should include things like regular physical checkups, payment of taxes, and the like. Remember, the idea is to put this stuff on a calendar so that you don’t have to suddenly rework your schedule to accommodate something low priority that intrudes because of a deadline.
A lot of people think they can go through life without prioritizing and determining what their values are. This premise is false. If you don’t prioritize the things you care about and the values you hold, then someone else will do it for you. Prioritizing your goals (and the tasks required to achieve them) will also help you when a major disruption to your schedule occurs. When you are already stressed out and overloaded, you almost certainly do a terrible job of determining what things are important and which ones can slide – you’ll likely prioritize based on how much stress they add instead.
If you have your priorities figured out, it also makes it easier to avoid things that are incongruent with those priorities. It’s easy to overdo it on one of your priorities (or worse, someone else’s) because you don’t have an alternative task that is more important. Having clear priorities can also help you avoid becoming busy for the sake of being busy. One common antipattern of productive people is the feeling that they always need to be doing something – then they sign up for too much work and everything falls apart. Having clear priorities will help avoid this, because it helps you realize that saying “yes” to something that isn’t a priority is equivalent to saying “no” to something that is.
Tricks of the Trade
Sometimes things fall into place where we just have a lot going on at one time. Your attitude influences how effective you are during these times. If you allow yourself to get frustrated and overwhelmed then you will lose focus and have trouble applying the techniques we discussed in this episode. However, if you take on the attitude that there is enough time then you may have to sacrifice some down time temporarily but you will be surprised at your ability to accomplish things when you don’t allow yourself to feel overwhelmed or victimized by your schedule.