Managing time in a turbulent, fast-paced world brings its own unique set of challenges.
Here are 5 battle-tested techniques to help you break through the clutter of everyday demands.
Managing time gets a bad rap.
Between calendars, to-do lists, and more time tracking apps than you can imagine, managing time itself can become as burdensome as managing the projects themselves.
Managing time is another area where strategies are more important than tactics. Instead of getting lost in a sea of tips and tricks articles, here are five big-impact techniques you can start implementing right away.
5 Techniques for Managing Time
1. Maximize the Work You Don’t Do
Stop focusing on small wins that give you the easy gratification. It’s most likely not going to get you any closer to your real goal.
— Andy Maguire, founder of Internmatch.com
The strategy of conventional time management is to cram as many tasks into the same amount of time as possible.
Simplifying greatly, this is the Getting Things Done school of productivity as described by David Allen, Merlin Mann, and others. In this view, there’s little question of what is being managed, it’s mostly about how.
Instead of trying to fill your days with little check boxes to mark off, or organizing forty-three folders to put all the little tasks into, the number one productivity tip I can give you is this: Maximize the work you don’t do.
That means clearing your inbox of emails that you might get to once in a blue moon (or never). That means clearing your desk of worthless pieces of paper that are cluttering your focus. That means telling people “no” when they try to job off their projects onto you. Or instead of trying to chase down every follow-up, letting some things slide.
Sound a bit selfish? Maybe, but I don’t choose to look at it like that.
If you can free up more of your time to deal with big projects, you will be far more effective in your organization and in your life.
This is the 80/20 principle at work.
The fact is we all have a finite amount of willpower to work with each and every working day. Spending an hour in the morning trying to get out of email jail can often sap our productivity for the entire day.
There is a better way. It involves setting aside the insignificant to work on the significant.
It involves working on the challenging and game-changing work instead of the tedious routine processes that someone else can handle. Or better yet, can be done away with completely.
No matter how organized your 43 folders are.
2. Focus on Outcomes, not Tasks
Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.
— Thomas Edison, American inventor
You wake up in the morning and shortly after getting ready, what do you do? Check a never-ending to-do list of tasks?
Whether you use a productivity app like Remember the Milk or Asana, your email inbox, or plain old pen and paper, the never-ending task list weighs on you like a cinder block.
Email Kelly. Drop off the dry cleaning. Research your new project.
Agile lifestyle design requires something more sophisticated than this.
After all, how do you define a successful email to Kelly? Does she respond in a positive way or point you to the right resource? What about researching your new project? How many hours do you pour in before that task is “complete”?
The best advice on outcomes I’ve ever read comes from Getting Results the Agile Way by J.D. Meier. In it J.D. says:
Outcomes provide a lens for focus. Outcomes are the results you want to accomplish. Just doing more activities, checking off items from a task list, and throwing more time and energy at problems will not necessarily produce the results you want. By starting with outcomes, you define what good will look like and you give yourself a compelling path to work towards.
The difference between outcomes and tasks are sometimes subtle. But the main idea is to focus not on the action you take (Email Kelly) but the result that defines success (Get updated workflow from Kelly).
It’s a small tweak, but I bet if you take a look at your to-do list right now, you’ll find a mix of tasks and outcomes.
The outcomes, because they have a defined success point, are far more likely to:
- get done
- and bring you fulfillment.
So fire your current to-do list. Get rid of anything on there that smacks of a task and not an outcome. Or throw it away completely.
Instead, choose three outcomes each day. Ask yourself, If I achieve these three outcomes, will I have a good day today? If the answer is yes, then you’ve got it right.
3. Focus on Your Strengths, not Fixing Your Weaknesses
The key to human development is building on who you already are.
— Tom Rath, author of StrengthsFinder 2.0
Our culture favors balance. We reward people who seek to improve their weaknesses with praise and admiration. In fact, one of the core questions you receive in any job interview is “What are your weaknesses?”
The weaknesses question is commonly understood as baiting you to talk about how you’re taking steps to correct those weaknesses.
In contrast, we do not pay enough attention to our strengths. Not all human beings can be great or even competent at all things. Yet rather than spending more time in activities that play well to our strengths, we throw time and energy into improving our weaknesses.
I have plenty of weaknesses. I am not great on the phone. I hate small talk. I have no patience for office politics. I don’t have any energy at eight o’clock in the morning.
For many years, I spent eighty percent of my time and energy trying to either improve in these areas or compensate for them in front of people.
If you can imagine it, in order to try and cover up my hatred for small talk, I initiated more small talk!
Yep, that’s insane. But I bet you’ve done something similar.
While self-improvement is an important component of agile living, you will be more fulfilled and produce greater results by improving upon your strengths. In fact, the amount of time you spend trying to compensate for a perceived weakness can drain your ability to exercise what you are competent at.
Do not mistake focusing on your strengths for ignoring change. It is not okay to stand still and stop educating yourself because your strength is in an obsolete field. The goal is to use your strengths today to create new strengths for the future.
You can always collaborate with others to reduce the impact of your weaknesses. But you must bring a strength to the table in exchange.
That’s how you stay relevant and in-demand no matter what’s happening in the economy around you.
4. Make Time for Reflection
Art calls for complete mastery of techniques, developed by reflection within the soul.
— Bruce Lee, martial arts master
Reflection is one of life’s most important activities, yet how many of us consciously make time for it?
It’s very easy to bounce from project to project, processing the same algorithm over and over to check off wins and move on to the next thing. Checking off boxes is grinding, not living.
Reflection forces you to look at your results. Reflection forces you to ask yourself for feedback. Reflection forces you to think, How can I improve in the next iteration?
The opposite of reflection is planning. Constantly planning for a future or contingencies that may never come.
Consistent and frequent reflection allows you take time a way from giant commitments in time and planning. Make course corrections as you go. Most of the horrible nightmare scenarios that we dream up in long planning sessions never come to fruition anyway.
And the real problems that do crop up from time to time are completely unanticipated.
Knowing that you will have time down the road to reflect on your results lets you approach life without a rigid long-term plan. Rigidity and inflexibility is the antithesis of living agile.
5. Let the Strategy Emerge
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.
— Steve Jobs, in his Stanford commencement speech
Call it arrogance, hubris, or folly, but we humans have the tendency to profoundly overestimate how accurately we can predict the future.
Turns out we’re not very good at it.
Managing time for today is paddling a boat out into an unknown sea. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know whether what we’re working on today is going to matter a week or a month or a year down the road. But we have to try anyway.
Lacking knowledge of what the future may bring, it’s desperately important that we take frequent stock of our results and adapt to changing circumstance. Sticking your head in the sand is the absolute worst thing you can do in a rapidly changing world.
As Christian Jarrett of 99u writes:
Social psychologist Thomas Webb and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield point out that, unfortunately, it is often those of us who most need to keep checks on our progress who are the least likely to do so. For example, the writer who senses that she is slipping behind with her schedule, but avoids checking to see if this is really the case; the gym-goer who feels they aren’t really losing weight, but chooses to not find out for sure.
Who wants the frustration of discovering that they’ve actually been driving in the wrong direction?
That’s because the avoidance of progress feedback is often motivated by fear – fear that we will be confirming what we suspect: things aren’t going well.
Emergent strategy is the acknowledgment that the “right” strategy for your business, your health, your career, etc. comes from a constant checking and re-checking of your assumptions and beliefs against reality.
That’s not an easy thing.
Managing your time well in a hectic world is going to require more mea culpas before breakfast than many have in their lifetimes.
But I’m not worried. You can do it.
Stay strong, stay agile.