Time Management Strategies
Close friends often refer to me as “the one who does a lot of stuff”. This ‘stuff’ relates to having a regular 9 to 5 job, having a “second” job mentoring Master students of my alma mater, regularly updating this site, sending two regular newsletters (The Spark and a personal one to friends/family) and still finding the time to reply to friend’s texts/calls and attending social events.
I am the kind of person who tries to say yes to many things, regardless of whether it is a project I have never done before, whether the task is “below me”, outside my formal role, or it requires learning completely new skills. I take every chance as a learning opportunity. Some of these ‘things’ stick, and others don’t. Either way, I need to have good time management strategies to make time for everything.
As you may have correctly assumed, I am not a practitioner of Derek Sivers’ mantra “HELL YEAH! or “no”. Sivers defines the rule he uses on whether to accept or decline invites and commitments. If what he is thinking about committing on is not a "Hell Yeah", he will reject the offer.
This line of thinking works great for an established professional, but if you are just getting started, you have to say yes to many commitments. In part, you have to try new things to establish what you are good at and what is better left to someone else, and in part, you have to put yourself out there to get recognised. Sivers himself said he did the same when he was starting. In one of his blog posts, he states:
2. Say yes to everything.
Pursue every opportunity.
Nothing is too small. Do it all.
Like lottery tickets, you never know which one will win. So the more, the better.
Follow-up and keep in touch with everyone.
Saying yes to many things requires three essential skills:
- Careful Planning
- Time Management
Planning to Make Time
To do everything you wish to accomplish, you have to make time and plan for these things. You have to be in an active frame of mind and avoid reacting to things happening as much as possible. Therefore, you have to take a few minutes each week to see where and when to fit things in.
Planning has no impact on performance. If I have something scheduled, it does not guarantee me I will do it. After all, life at times can get in between us. It is also true that if you already did the “hard” work of making time for it, there will be a higher chance you will do it. Granted, you have been realistic with your schedule.
I plan with my calendar in front of me, a pen and paper in front of me. First, I look at the past two weeks if anything I planned previously didn’t get done. Then, I look at the following three weeks to forward plan for any events coming up (e.g., birthdays, important meetings or travel). While I dive into my calendar, I note down anything I should get back to or wish to make time for in the following week.
I make heavy use of my calendar. I put everything in it, which means my 9 to 5 work appointments, calls to friends in different countries, social events, gym even my meal plan (more about this below) goes in there.
Likewise, I make the most of "dead times", like travelling, waiting (whether in line at the cashier or waiting for that friend of mine who is constantly late) or walking somewhere.
I learnt this as a kid when my mum would quiz me on what I had studied in the early years of school while bringing me to sports practice or doing groceries.
There is no "right time", perfect moment or designated part of the day to do something. If you manage to make the most of the scraps of time in any given day, you will have done a good chunk of the work by the time you get back to your ideal setting, where you can now finish off and refine whatever you were working towards.
If I have a particularly intense day or week, I will also use an app called Structured. This is a day planner app that allows you to manage your time at a more granular level. This micro-scheduling is reserved only for very intense days when I have a lot that has to be accomplished in a single day.
Make it easy for yourself.
There is a tendency to establish complex systems to get things done, but it doesn't have to be this way.
There is no need for you to track every single moment in your day, you don't have to record all the microscopic actions you do.
You don't even have to use technology if you don't want to. If you do wish to use technology, remember this is a tool that should enable you to do more, it should not be so complicated that it gets in the way of your work.
In my day job, for example, I don't even use a to-do list. I have set up my inbox to resemble one, so I know which emails need action and which I am waiting on, but there is nothing fancy or complex about that system.
Now, I do have a to-do list app that I use, but it is mainly for anything that has a harsh deadline and that I need to be extra sure I do not forget (e.g., paying rent, filing for taxes or checking in a flight).
Whenever possible, I try to adopt some kind of repeatable process. For example, to make sure I wake up on time and I don’t waste time snoozing my alarm clock, I use Alarmy (Android, iOS), an alarm clock app that forces you to do an activity to make it stop (do a maths problem, scan a barcode or take a picture). This is a repeatable process that doesn’t require me to overthink, and I mostly have to take action.
Planning my meals for the entire week also allows me to turn cooking into a process. Now, I don’t have to come up with something new daily; I know what I will be eating that day and already have all the necessary ingredients.
This website's newsletter and the personal newsletter I send to my friends and family have a standard format.
(If you are not yet subscribed to The Spark, you might enjoy my emails, I share my latest posts and discoveries.)
Moreover, I will often repurpose content. This very post, for example, is the result of repurposing a workshop I previously held.
While my work is tailor-made for whomever I am talking to, there will be fixed notions which I will revisit, edit and repurpose.
Having processes in place means I have templates for repeated tasks or ones that are often very similar. For example, I do have email templates for specific replies or LinkedIn messages. Moreover, I use no-coding tools like Zapier to automate tasks that a machine can quickly and effortlessly do without me overseeing them. A few examples of this might be avoiding me to double-book myself or automatically saving email attachments that contain documents I need to keep. These are simple processes that I can go into more depth in a future post.
Lastly, I am not afraid to quit. If something I have said yes to is not a good fit for me, I will either ask for help or suggest it gets past on to someone who could do it better than me. I don't see it as a failure. It is just as if you were going to try a gourmet menu at a restaurant. There will be dishes you love and some you won't like.