Whether you aim to build an e-commerce giant such as Amazon.com or a beautiful piece of furniture, organize a trip to Greece or a local ball team, write a blog post or a TV series, achieving goals requires using time wisely. That’s difficult to do without a strategy for managing time. Over the past five years, I’ve experimented with different tools and techniques for time management. Here are a few things that I’ve found helpful.
Start with the Obvious: Schedule Your Work
I schedule time for the things I want to accomplish. I prefer to block my time by types of work and to follow Brian Tracy’s rule: “Eat that frog” at the start of each day. That is, do the thing that requires the greatest mental capacity while you’re most fresh—first thing in the morning.
You can rely on any sort of calendar, including a calendar app that notifies you when it’s time to dive into a particular project or task. Personally, I’ve found that this is a good way to get started. However, I’m most comfortable when I can turn my schedule into a habitual routine whereby I no longer need any sort of reminders. Instead of calendar notifications, which often break the flow of concentration, I prefer fifteen- to thirty-minute windows to wind into or out of a task. Although I’m still working from a schedule, I can transition naturally between different types of work instead of asking my mind to turn on a dime from one thing to the next. (For some great ideas on scheduling and time management, I recommend listening to episodes 8, 12, and 19 of Alex Epstein’s “Human Flourishing Project” podcast.)
Find Out Where Your Time Goes
Depending on the type of work you do, interruptions may be more or less avoidable. When I worked for Apple’s business team, I scheduled time for reviewing stats, checking email, returning calls, meeting with customers, creating presentations, delivering them, and more. However, the best laid plans were often wrecked by various emergencies. I wish I had figured out then how to effectively apply Peter Drucker’s adage: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
There are lots of ways to measure your time. However, not many of them have proven very practicable for me. For instance, when I logged time in a notebook, I invariably left it somewhere. When I used my phone, my time tracker itself sometimes became a time suck.
The tool that has worked best for me is the ATracker app for Apple Watch. I simply enter the names of the types of work that I want to track, and when I start one type of work, I tap the corresponding label on my watch face. On my phone, I can review how much time I spent on different types of work over any time span. I can even get a quick visual of where my time went using straightforward pie charts.
For instance, when I started working for The Objective Standard, I set up three broad categories that enveloped most of what I was doing: writing, editing, and marketing/admin. If my schedule was interrupted, I still knew with great accuracy where my time went and where I needed to spend more time.
Depending on your type of work, you may want to take this a step further. Suppose you’re surprised by the amount of time going into one category of work, but you’re not sure what tasks are consuming all of that time. Using the ATracker app, you can add subcategories to your main work categories. For instance, if one part of your job is sales, which in turn consists of writing marketing emails, making calls, and giving presentations, you can add these tasks as subcategories. Then, when you review your time log, you can drill down into these subcategories and see where your time is going. If you find a black hole that eats up time and doesn’t produce commensurate results, then you know where you can improve (or what you can consider eliminating or delegating).
Harness the Power of Time Scarcity
Marketers often use urgency and scarcity in their efforts to increase “conversions” or sales. We hear about limited-time offers and those available "only while supplies last." These tactics are widely and repeatedly used for a reason: they work. Scarcity and urgency get people to act.
Analogously, time scarcity can get people to focus. Game show contestants focus intently. Nothing I’ve tried focuses my mind as much as a clock ticking down to zero. If you want to maximize your focus, try using a timer. Regardless of the total time I schedule for a type of work, I always break it into half-hour or, at most, one-hour blocks. Brief breaks between these blocks let me relax and quickly reflect on my progress.
Any type of timer works for this, including a basic baking timer. For a while, I opted for the Be Focused app for Mac. It sits in your computer’s menu bar, which is great if everything you do requires you to sit in front of a computer. However, the most convenient solution I’ve found is a watch timer (I use the timer app on the Apple watch). Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, a quick glance at my wrist shows me the remaining time, which immediately brings my mind back to the goal at hand.
I also find it fruitful to make time toward the end of the day to reflect on how these work sessions go. It’s an opportunity to ask myself what knowledge would enable me to answer questions or solve problems more quickly. This helps me figure out what “homework” I need to do to gain such knowledge and what skills I need to gain or practice to boost my productivity.
Those are a few things that have helped me to schedule work, measure time, and leverage its scarcity. They’ve helped me to build some healthy habits, pinpoint weaknesses, and better use my time. I hope you find them helpful, too.
Do have any time-management techniques you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them! Post your thoughts in the comments section below.