How to manage your time

Do you often find that you do not have enough time to do things? Say you scheduled 3 tasks to do for today. You start off the day full of zest and confidence to tackle those 3 tasks. At the end of the day, you found that you barely even completed the first task because there were other things that were demanding for your attention instead.

The first and most important thing you need to recognize in time management is you essentially have the same amount of time as everyone else in the world. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and every single person in this world have 24 hours everyday, 365 days a year, just like you do. Time cannot be a limited commodity because it is always right there, unfolding every second in front of you. There is no time to manage. Time is just what it is. You cannot arrange your ‘time’, make an hour shorter or longer than it already is, or make it faster or slower.

Time is an artificial human construct

The concept of time is just an artifical human construct. It is a system of measurement invented by man to give certain order and semblance of meaning to what is before us. Centuries, decades, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds, milliseconds – these are just terms which we created so that we are able to better assert control over the fluidity of time. And it does its job well too – this construct has helped us establish a system of order and common understanding among all humans so we can lead our lives in a more convenient and organized fashion.

But in reality, time is just what it is. You do not need more time nor do you not have enough time. Time is always just there.

Reframing the problem in ‘Time Management’

What you do have, however, are more activities which you need to complete within the same time you have. What you do need are better skills and techniques to manage those activities and make sure they get completed within the designated times. What you do need to learn is activity/self/life management, not time management.

I hereby bring you a quote from David Allen, author of the famous Getting Things Done (GTD) series: “You can’t manage time, it just is. So “time management” is a mislabeled problem, which has little chance of being an effective approach. What you really manage is your activity during time, and defining outcomes and physical actions required is the core process required to manage what you do.”

The topic of time management / activity management is so huge that it is not possible to cover it in just one article. I will start off by first introducing the basic concept, followed by separate articles which build on this concept. I will also be sharing specific time management frameworks, techniques and tips which you can apply to your life.  Because of the ubiquity of the term ‘time management’, I will continue to use it interchangeably with activity mangement from here on. You should know better when you see the term ‘time management’ next time.

Two Pillars of Time Management – Effectiveness and Efficiency

With that said, the core behind time management can essentially broken into two parts –effectiveness and efficiencyEffectiveness refers to doing the important tasks – it is synonymous with the ability to prioritize, to see the forest beyond the trees, to focus on what is needed to deliver the results, to say no to things that are not in line with the bigger picture of your life. Efficiency is the ability to produce optimal output within a smaller investment of time and resources. The pinnacle of time management would be to 1) First, line up all the activities in your life in order of importance, then 2) Maximize your output from those tasks, as I have illustrated in the graph below:

The Pinnacle of Time Management / Activity Management

How to manage your time

*Note: A, B, C tasks refer to their priority of importance, with A tasks being the most important.


First Pillar – Effectiveness

Many people attribute their failures to being inefficient, when the real opportunity lies in effectiveness. Effectiveness can be applied in two different steps. The first is doing the important activities over the unimportant activities. The second is doing the important things within the activities. Let us explore each in turn.

First Step: Do the important activities first

In the first scenario, you are effective when you work on activities in order of their priority. If you find that you have insufficient time for something, it is because you have not prioritized it enough. You choose to do other things over it instead. It may be a result of not recognizing the relative importance of the particular activity over the other things you are busying yourself with. Or it may be a result of letting yourself be trapped in the routine of unimportant things.

For example, you may have been meaning to go to the gym after work, but the demands at work kept you staying back till the late hours. In this instance, you prioritized your work over exercise. You may have done a quick assessment of the benefits of continuing work versus exercising and decided the former is a better option over the latter. The urgent nature of the work demanded your attention, whereas exercise can always be done at a separate time. Whatever it is, it is your personal choice to have spent your time doing the things you did. Ownership of your actions and choices is needed for you to start being able to progress in your time management. Some people spend time caught up in random activities such as mindless surfing, chatting, watching TV and lazing. At the end of the day, they look back and wonder where the day has gone. Was there an issue with effectiveness? Absolutely. They chose to prioritize doing those random tasks over what is really important to them.

Second Step: Do the important things within the activity

Let’s look at the second step – doing the important things within the activity. Say you need to do a presentation and you have prioritized it over other activities on your list. While working on the presentation however, you spend the majority of your time working on less important sub-tasks. Instead of strengthening the quality of content, you are busy changing minute details like matching all font colors, font sizes and making sure all the text in each slide have exactly the same alignment.

Now, I’m not saying it is not important to have a professional and consistent look in your materials – I have done my fair share of presentations in the course of my university and at work, easily at least a hundred. However, unless the materials you have look absolutely horrendous or the person you are presenting to is anally retentive against minute details, these little things are not going to matter much in the long term. I find the more presentations I do, the more time I spend time focusing on the structure, organization, content, spiel and anticipating Q&As rather than the smaller details such as formatting, look, tone, feel. I remember when I first started doing presentations in university, I was wasting so much time in the design and formatting which did not make a difference in the bigger picture. I had the tendency to leave the delivery as the last thing on my to-do list. It was a huge mistake, because I ended up having no time to work on my speech and delivery in most of the times, which was so critical. Nowadays, some of my presentations can be just simple black text against a white background depending on the audience I am presenting to. In the end, it really boils down to prioritizing the activities what really matters.

Second Pillar – Efficiency

Efficiency, on the other hand, has less latitude you can play with. That is simply because there is a limit to how fast and how much we can do within our physical human capacity. For example, you may have a report to type out. It is a 6,000 word report which you have already written on paper and you need to finish it. With a typing speed of 60 WPM (Words/Minute), you get the job done in 100 minutes. If you try to type faster at 65 WPM, you will finish the job in 92 minutes, which shaves 8 minutes off your original timing, which is not a lot. That is assuming you do not make more errors from the increased speed! To reach the pinnacle of efficiency is to become a robot.

There is definitely merit in becoming more efficient, but before trying to be efficient, we should ensure we are effective. Effectiveness should come before efficiency to maximize our output. If we refer to example from above, you can type the report directly in your computer to begin with, instead of writing it on paper and transferring it to the computer, which is an additional step. You can even delegate or outsource the work to someone else, which gets the task done at no expense of your time!

~ by Celes,  Personal Excellence