Monday, 26 April 2010

Time management is no joke

I'm pretty sure the notion of time management is somehow vaguely defined for a lot of people, at least it used to be so for me. When I was first year in university not only the concept of systematic, results-driven time management was alien to me but not a single trace of time management was to be found in my activities.

It's not just that I wasn't a natural talent in time management - I was, in fact, a disaster. Now that I think of it, I wasn't doing anything sensible all day and I had this mindset that I don't have enough time to get things done while actually I had all the time in the world; I was just wasting it.

Somehow my life evolved dramatically over the next several years and now I'm entangled in a sophisticated web of projects and various activities, and somehow I handle it reasonably well. But now is not the time to brag about achievements as the post is not about me but the nature and benefits of time management. I'm just starting with a case study I know quite well ;-)

Bear with me just a bit, I need to rant about what exactly time management is for some more and then I'll give you some practical advices. First and foremost, there is this misconception that systematic time management is for the kind of achievement freaks that try to either win billions, become heads of states or lead revolutions, people that harness enormous amounts of passion and energy to pursue overly ambitious goals. This is simply not the case. If you are the type of person that would rather prefer to work two hours a day and get stoned the rest of the time - good time management is the only thing that can allow you to lead this lifestyle sustainably. You know, kind of like the do-work-first-get-stoned-next thing but taken to the next level.

Actually most time management gurus don't advocate zealous commitment to achievements but would rather advise to work reasonable hours and spend enough time with family, friends and the pointless activities you like doing. One of the giants on who's shoulders we stand is Randy Pausch, who has two remarkable lectures on YouTube:

The first one is a talk he did when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he's got no more than 6 months to live and is called, as you might expect, The Last Lecture (74 minutes):
The idea may seem depressing but this is one of the most positive and motivating things you can find on the internet.

The other one is about time management. Although it doesn't cover the subject extensively it's very well presented and practically-oriented (76 minutes):

I don't expect anyone seeing the two right now :-D but bookmark them for sure! If you don't use bookmarks - now's the time to start (or just write it on a sheet of paper, spray-paint it on the wall or whatever you do to store URLs)

A classic example of the difference time management makes is in the "case study" supporting the Parkinson's Law (which states that Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion). Parkinson presents the following interesting case:
Consider the routine of an old lady that wants to send a postcard to her daughter.
She makes herself some tea, carefully unfolds the newspaper on a table, checks the forecasts and ponders on the decision whether to take an umbrella or not for some time. Half an hour is gone already. Then she spends some more time getting ready to go out, does her hair and in just ten more minutes she knows which coat she'll be wearing.
She then goes to the post office and discusses several options that she considers suitable for the occasion with the sales assistant, forcing the girl to carefully hide her boredom behind the iron mask of politeness. On the way back the old lady buys some crackers because she'll need them for her next task - writing the wishes! It will take here at least an hour and she could never endure it without some more tea and crackers.

So... you get the idea, it takes her a whole day to send the damn postcard. Now imagine the city banker doing the same thing in a 15-minute lunch break. The savings from efficiency are just fascinating, and the power of procrastination even more so but more on this later.

So how does time management help to get more things done? Basically, the battle with your time is led on two main fronts - organizational and motivational.

I'll start with the less interesting one - the organizational front. It's about the how you schedule and prioritize your tasks and how efficiently you do each of them. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet in this aspect of time management (there is one for the motivational aspect so bear with me some more). You just need to analyse your activities and spot opportunities for improvement. Once you develop this mindset and attention to the efficiency of what you're doing these start to emerge. Some common examples include:
- Using two monitors if you work extensively on a computer, quite often while you're doing something you need to take a look at something else and the time lost in all the alt-tabs is just the start
- Getting a handsfree - while not do some routine tasks while on the phone with mum

The list expands quite naturally if you foster a results-driven approach, which is not some fancy buzzword as it may sound but is actually a rather simple technique:
- define goals
- make plans how to attain them
- follow the plan firmly, update if necessary
- win or fail
- draw conclusions

The last step is the the most often overlooked but it's very important. No matter if you win or lose, always look back and consider what you did wrong and what you did right.

However, the first step is arguably even more important and getting it right ventures into the psychological aspect of time management. Altering your mindset is your strongest tool in achieving more and it's surprisingly easy to do it!

Everything you do is committed, directly or indirectly, to some goal. Everyone has desires that keep them moving and guide their activities. Indeed, sometime iyou may feel that you're living day by day, but even then you're pursuing some goal, be it getting high all day, chasing girls around, frenzied dedication to gaming or even all at once. There is something that makes you feel fulfilled and you want to do it more and more. But sometimes it's way out of reach. Quite often, you need to go through hell to get it - do a boring job for years until you master it, behaving like society requires you, gradually turning from a rebel to a conformist or something even more frightening.

So, if you need to crawl trough five football fields of shit (bonus points if you get film reference) there's only one way to do it and preserve your sanity in the same time - to have a clear vision of your elevating goal all the time and exactly how each activity contributes to it.
You need to know how every single piece of shit you crawl through helps you get the things you desire. This will not only empower you to break crawling-on-shit speed records but will make you feel much better and more motivated.

Keeping the relevancy of your current task to your overall goal has one nice side effect - if no matter how hard you try you still fail to see how this particular task contributes to achieving your dreams, maybe it's just not worth doing? Sometimes it's hard, like cleaning you room and all this stuff you know you'll never need but somehow you feel attached to and don't want to throw away. But some of it has to go - that's an important part of time management, not only doing things right but doing the right things as well! I'm not talking about the things you really enjoy doing/having - just those that don't really matter but you normally won't bother to throw them out of your life.

The best part is that once you get this goal-oriented thinking it settles firmly in your mind and it's a self-reinforcing loop - the more steps you take towards your goal, the more conclusions you make from your experience, the more motivated you become to advance even further.

For a conclusion I think it's a good idea to mention the holy grail of time management - the todo list. It is somewhere between the psychological and organizational aspects because it not only helps make planning and execution more efficient but also reinforces the results-driven mindset.

There are lots of approaches to keeping a todo list and which one is most suitable is highly individual but there is one golden rule about your todo list - you must have it, and you must keep it easily accessible all the time. Apart from the obvious benefit that it keeps you from forgetting things it makes it easier to arrange and prioritize tasks and most importantly - it enables you to keep track of progress. If you fail to accomplish your plan for the day - it makes it it easier to analyse why. If you did everything reasonably well, then you know about how much you can handle and will be able to do more realistic plans in the future.

There is no best way to do a todo list - there are dedicated software applications, with reminders, tasks dependencies, etc. but something as simple as a text file or excel table can do the job equally well. Hell, even a sheet of paper can be used as a todo list; or if you fancy outdated data storage media so much you can even try carving your tasks in stone ;-)

OK, enough for today... after all this post is not directly related to my primary goals. As a matter of fact, I'm using it as a tool. I like writing and I'm quite enthusiastic about establishing this blog but I have other, much more pressing things on my hands. But both this time and the last, I had a number of things to finish before I post. Having this immediate reward for being productive really makes a difference :-D if there wasn't this incentive I guess I would still be lingering halfway here in terms of progress.

And for the most patient readers that are still with me - here's the other golden rule of time management - do the most unpleasant first! Once you eat the shit everything is sooo much easier.
And for the ones that read just the beginning and the end - I know you're cheating ;-) but don't worry, everyone does it. But seriously though, bookmark me and check it out some time ;-)

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