Effective time management strategies are more than just tactics. They’re ways of thinking about time and your relationship to it.
Discover seven sure-fire strategies in this article.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.
Are you time delusional?
In Small Move, Big Change, the author Caroline L. Arnold admits to suffering from time delusion—the unrealistically optimistic view some people have that there’s always more time to get things done.
Figuring she “only” needed fifteen minutes to get ready, she would try to squeeze in all manner of other tasks—checking emails, doing housework, or having impromptu discussions. This inevitably led to hurrying and being late to everything.
What did Arnold do to combat this negative spiral? She made a microresolution to get ready first before doing any other activities:
Preparing first exposes how much time it really takes to get ready. On some occasions when I thought I had so much time that I’d be ready and twiddling my thumbs, it turned out that there wasn’t a moment to spare. Clearly, I suffer from a certain amount of self-delusion with respect to how much time it actually takes to get entirely ready.
Arnold’s self-awareness is refreshing. Her observation touches on a divide that people with a precise sense of time (like me) and people with a very fuzzy one (my fiancee!) know well:
You really aren’t “ready” until everything that is leaving with you is packed up and can just be scooped up on the way out. You can be completely dressed, but if you have to look up the appointment address or map it before leaving, you’re not yet ready; if you just have to strap on your watch, you’re not yet ready; if you have to retrieve your charged form under the bed, you’re not yet ready. It’s our incomplete definition of “ready” that so often is responsible for our being late.
Time management is as much about your sense of time as it is about your use of it. Your chronically late colleagues probably feel like they’re maximizing their productivity—but as Arnold’s example of “readiness” demonstrates, they might be completely deluding themselves.
Most time management articles are about cramming as much activity as humanly possible into a short amount of time. Time management in these articles becomes a game of tactics: to-do lists, appointment reminders, calendar notifications, selectively ignoring emails, etc.
Tactics are well and good, but effective time management strategies require that we look at the big picture.
What are you trying to accomplish? Why are you managing time in the first place? How do we experience time and how does that affect productivity?
With those questions in mind, here are 7 long-term ways to better manage your time and become more productive:
#1: Thinking About Death
Let’s start with a big one.
Steve Jobs in his Stanford commencement speech said he regularly used the thought of dying to put things into perspective.
Seem morbid? Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review suggests that people who have death on their minds have a more positive attitude towards others, take better care of themselves, and are more helpful to strangers.
When you think about it, it makes sense that people with death on their minds are less likely to be petty. This also makes death a powerful motivator to get important things done.
The trivial and insignificant activities you overcomplicate your life with recede in importance in the face of death. Accomplishing meaningful Lifetime Achievements becomes foregrounded in your mind. And that’s a good thing if you care about better time management.
#2: Recalibrating When You Work
If you haven’t already, you should figure out when your peak productivity times are and shift your most important work to those times.
But don’t stop there.
As you get older, your physiology changes too. You’ll start wanting to go to bed earlier. Late night benders will be harder to recover from the following day. Insert joke about early bird specials and seniors here.
As your internal clock begins to move, your period of peak productivity will move with it. Having an attitude of constant experimentation helps you shift with the changing ways that you work and manage time to optimize your effectiveness.
#3: Maximizing Moments of Awe
Want more reasons to take your vacation days? Researchers at Stanford and University of Minnesota studied the effect of awe on people’s perception of time:
Across three different experiments, they found that jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.
Your subjective sense of time slows down when your attention is fully engaged by a gorgeous view or a great wonder of the world.
I’ve noticed that people in cities with more natural features like mountains, lakes, and forests tend to be happier and less stressed than people in cities where the only canyons are concrete.
The more awe-inspiring moments you can work into your life, the less stressful time management becomes because your sense of how much available time you have will increase.
#4: Seeking Flow
In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi investigates a state of consciousness he calls flow.
Flow is a positive state of deep enjoyment, creativity, and total involvement in the task at hand.
Flow occurs when an activity is challenging enough to engage your attention completely, but not so difficult that you quit out of frustration.
One interesting side effect of the flow state is the sense of timelessness that many people describe while they’re in flow. Many of us have had this experience of working on a problem so intently that we lose track of time. Either the time flies by without us noticing, or a few minutes feels like hours.
One of the most effective time management strategies is to get into the flow more frequently. When you seek out challenges that stimulate your brain, your productivity increases and your time is better spent.
Busywork and meaningless projects don’t help you achieve flow.
#5: Working on Side Projects
There’s a reason disruptive innovation rarely happens from within a field.
Experts within a profession are prone to using set scripts to evaluate problems and only work on problems they deem to be “important.”
Yossi Kreinin at Proper Fixation reminds us that many game-changing innovations started life as a solution to an unimportant problem:
Working on unimportant problems can create important side-effects. A whole lot of mission-critical, world-changing and even life-saving tech is a by-product of “unimportant” things—time-wasting infotainment products, or personal pet projects started without a grand noble cause.
As paradoxical as it may seem, effective time management means working on multiple projects instead of just one.
You can’t know ahead of time how that side project will affect your main project, and vice versa.
The key to cracking that insurmountable problem might come from an insight you draw from a side project, saving you a whole lot of time, energy, and attention.
That doesn’t mean working on multiple things at the same time. That’s multitasking … and multitasking doesn’t work. Having side projects to switch to as a break from your main task is an essential part of a healthy to-do list.
#6: Relying on the Crowd
Outsourcing. Automation. Delegation. Crowdsourcing. Plain old teamwork.
Whatever your preferred method is, you shouldn’t go it alone.
Even if you’re a solo entrepreneur or self-employed, there are always ways to bring others into your process. Relying on others to shoulder some of the burden is a powerful way to manage your time, because you can spend more times in your strengths and less time in your weaknesses.
Your weaknesses are someone else’s strengths and vice versa.
Giving others an opportunity to contribute maximizes everybody’s use of time. The internet age has given rise to all kinds of collaboration networks, like Fiverr, oDesk, eLance, and Craigslist.
If you can’t program, design, or do math, it’s now easier than ever to hire a developer, a graphic artist, and an accountant to help your project grow.
#7: Practicing Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your own consciousness, while noticing without judging the thoughts that bubble up from your inner mind
Researchers at the University of Washington found that meditating helped employees focus better, recall more information, and reduced stress.
Practicing mindfulness can greatly improve your productivity, and make for more effective time management.
Now, let’s turn it over to you:
What effective time management strategies do you use that I missed? Do you suffer from time delusion?
The rise of software applications (“Apps”) is changing how we tackle productivity. The smorgasbord of productivity apps out there can be as overwhelming as the tasks we are trying to manage! I’ve developed an App Guide to show you all 7 tools I use to get more stuff done right now.
Check it out below …
A version of this article first appeared on July 25, 2012.
Image by comedy_nose.