There are some days I wish I could travel back in time and “fix” the time I wasted through an hour, a day, or a week working on something that really wasn’t worth my time, or just wandering through links on the Internet, looking at things I don’t really (ultimately) care about. My time management skills are, honestly, often lacking. There doesn’t seem to be a way, does there, though?
Or maybe there is. Let’s twist our brains a little and think about it this way. Tomorrow is going to be the day we wish we could travel into from the day after tomorrow to fix, right? So what if we did reverse time travel and fix tomorrow today? Sure, sounds nice, but how? The answer might seem a little trivial, but it’s only apparently trivial, rather than trivial in real life.
Once answer is the humble todo list. I know, you’ve made one of these before—in fact, you probably already have one, don’t you? And it’s never really helped, right? Well, let’s see if we can figure out how to supercharge to make it a bit more effective. To begin, we have to try to understand how a todo list can help you be more efficient. What, specifically, does a todo list do?
Simply put, the todo list is just another form of constraining your future choices today. In other words, it’s like squirreling money away in a place that makes it hard to get to, or setting up a menu for the coming week and shopping for the items needed to bring the menu to the table. It might seem counterintuitive in our modern age of “freedom for all to do all at all times” to discuss ways of imposing decisions on your future self today.
But this is just because we misunderstand the real nature of freedom. There are stories—apocryphal, I’m certain—of people who’ve somehow moved from a life situation where they have few or not choices in what they will use to, say, wash their hair, to having thousands of choices. The result isn’t a great burst of joy and sense of freedom. Rather, it’s great confusion, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and, often, a frozen stare, or listless wandering.
This, in fact, is why one of the most depressing parts of my life is looking at my todo list. There is so much to do I can simply get lost in deciding what to do next. Remember the old error message, “processor thrashing on process scheduler?” That mode is far too easy to fall in to. So what you need to do is to limit your range of future options in a way that both doesn’t feel like it’s limiting, and yet meaningfully reduces the amount of time you spend making decisions.
Bringing this into a larger context, I always eat pretty much the same three or four things no matter where I go. In fact, at certain restaurants, I always eat pretty much the same thing. Isn’t that boring? Well, maybe—but I spend a lot less time and angst looking at the menu, and more time chatting with the people around me. In fact, in most of my “regular spots,” I don’t even need to order—I know the people, and they know what I’m going to order.
Which matters more: trying something new for dinner, or having that much less angst, and that little bit more time to chat with friends? Variety might be the spice of life, but time is the stuff life is made up of. Too much spice, and there’s nothing left to spice.
So let’s return to the humble todo list. I used to have several todo lists, primarily to combat the huge todo list syndrome. Seriously, I would keep one todo list for each “area” of my life, and then I had a master todo list that told me which todo list to choose from next. It might work for you, but it didn’t work for me.
Instead, I’ve gone to a single todo list. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here—I still have lists of ideas, research progress in different areas, and the like. If you were to look at my folders in OneNote, you’d find I just about live my life in there. There’s no end of notes, ideas, lists, etc. But there is only one todo list.
What I traditionally do is to organize my list like a queue. I put the most important things on the top, but I “shake in” a few things that “aren’t important” here and there. Otherwise, I’ve discovered, the stuff that’s “not important” falls permanently to the bottom. Then, each time I find I’m in need of something new to do, I start at the top of the list. But this returns me to my todo list, and the angst attendant on looking at it, just about every day. My todo list is so huge that I actually get depressed looking at it. The one sure way to send me off looking through moderately useless link-fishing on the Internet is to get me to look at my todo list. Seriously, it’s huge. Beyond this, I still have weekly and other “regular” tasks I need to take care of. Somehow I have to make certain those are on my list, as well, or they just won’t get done.
So how do I solve all of this? I was reading someplace that “truly effective people” schedule everything—they don’t have todo lists at all. Rather than having a list, when they accept a new thing to do, they just schedule it on their calendar. Now when they get up in the morning, they not only have a list, they have a schedule to follow.
I tried this. There is one way to describe the result: time management disaster.
Some things took more time than I thought. Others took less. Sometimes I had to lay a project aside and take on some component of the project in order to do the larger project. So now I’ve blended the list and the calendar.
Once a week I look at my todo list. I choose a set of things off that list, and schedule them (using Outlook, but any calendar with the ability to set tasks with completion dates will do) to be done by the end of the week. I keep notes about these tasks back in OneNote—one of the nice things about the OneNote/Outlook combination is I can actually cross reference the two things with a link between items. This creates a weekly task list that I can actually look at without feeling overwhelmed, and it helps me set actual dates by which I need to get things done. To this task list in Outlook, I also add my recurring tasks, so I now have everything I need to do this week in one place. Some things bleed over into next week/month/etc., but my focus is always on this week. When I get to the end of the week, I look at the leftovers. I can either carry them over into next week by adjusting the due date, or simply decide they really weren’t that important, and just delete them.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it seems to be working better than earlier methods I’ve tried. There are some things I’m trying to figure out—how to defer a task for several days, for instance— but this system seems to be serving me better than previous ones.
So—remember this—the key to more efficient work in the future is often restricting your future choices today. The todo list is one of those practical ways you can time travel into tomorrow and help your future self make better use of your time—so in the future, your future self doesn’t regret what your past self, your current future self, spent time on.
Mind blowing, I know. But that’s my random thought for the week.
Everyone wants your attention. No, seriously, they do. We’ve gone from a world where there were lots of readers and not much content, to a world where there is lots of content, and not many readers. There’s the latest game over here, the latest way to “get 20,000 readers,” over there, the way to “retire by the time you’re 32” over yonder, and “how to cure every known disease with this simple group of weird fruit from someplace you’ve never heard of (but you’ll certainly go find, and revel in the pictures of perfectly healthy inhabitants now),” naggling someplace at the back of your mind.
The insidious, distracting suck of the Internet has become seemingly inescapable. Calling us from our pockets, lurking behind work documents, it’s merely a click away. Studies have shown that each day we spend, on average, five and a half hours on digital media, and glance at our phones 221 times. -via connecting
Living this way isn’t healthy. It reduces your attention span, which in turn destroys your ability to get anything done, as well as destroying your mind. So we need to stop. “Squirrel” is funny, but you crash planes. “Shiny thing” is funny, but you end up mired in jellyfish (and, contrary to the cartoons, you don’t survive that one, either).
So how do we stop? Three hints.
Slack off. Tom, over at Networking Nerd, points out the importance of asynchronous communication (once again) in an excellent post about Slack. Sometimes you need to just sit and talk to someone. But sometimes you can’t. As Tom says:
Think back to the last time you responded to an email. How often did you start your response with “Sorry for the delay” or some version of that phrase? In today’s society, we’ve become accustomed to instant responses to things.
This means shutting down the IM, shutting down Slack for a bit, shutting down email, turning off your ringer, and just actually getting things done. This is also part of my theory of macro tasking. Controlling information inflow is as much about moving to asynchronous communications as it is anything else. And asynchronous means “I don’t have to answer right now,” as well as “I don’t expect them to answer right now, because I have other stuff I can work on while I wait.”
Yes, this is hard, which leads to the second suggestion.
Precommit. Set aside some amount of time that you’ll do nothing but work on a single project, or do a specific thing. You can’t set aside time for everything, and sometimes specific goals are more important than specific timeframes. For instance, I have two personal goals every day in the way of managing information. I write at least 2,000 words a day, and I read at least 75 pages a day. These aren’t static goals, of course; I’ve ramped them up over time, and I don’t meet them every day. I have larger goals, as well—for instance, I try to read 100 books a year (this is a new goal; last year it was 70 or so, but this year I’m trying to ramp up).
Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast of their ship until they were out of the sirens’ range. This is an example of “precommitment,” a self-control strategy that involves imposing a condition on some aspect of your behavior in advance. For example, an MIT study showed that paid proofreaders made fewer errors and turned in their work earlier when they chose to space out their deadlines (e.g., complete one assignment per week for a month), compared to when they had the same amount of time to work, but had only one deadline at the end of a month. -via connecting
Self discipline, as Connecting points out, isn’t so much about resisting temptation as it is avoiding it.
Vary your sources. This one might not seem so obvious, but you really do need to do more than rely on Google for your entire view of the world.
Think of the WorldWideWeb increasingly as the public and open façade of the Web, and Google’s Inner-net as Google’s private, and more closed regime of mostly-dominant, Google-controlled operating systems, platforms, apps, protocols, and APIs that collectively govern how most of the Web operates, largely out of public view. -via Somewhat Reasonable
You build a box for your brain by only consuming movies, or fiction books, or technical books, or Google searches, or a particular game. As I’ve said elsewhere:
Do these actually work? Yes. Do they work all the time, and immediately? No. They take time. Which is why you also must learn to be patient, to give yourself some slack, and to build up your virtue.
But if you don’t start someplace, it’s certainly never going to work. Ultimately, you are responsible for what enters your brain; controlling information inflow is just part of your job as a human being. Or, as I always tell my daughters: garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t learn to control the garbage in part, no-one else is going to be able to help you control the garbage out part.
For many years, when I worked out in the center of the triangle of runways and taxiways, I would get up at around 4, swim a mile in the indoor poor (36 laps), shower, grab breakfast, run by base weather just to check the bigger pieces of equipment out (mostly the RADAR system), and then I’d head out to the shop. We could mostly only get downtime on the airfield equipment (particularly the VOR, TACAN, and glideslopes) in the early morning hours — unless, of course, there was a war on. Then we couldn’t get downtime at all. By 2:30 I was done with my work day, and I headed home to get whatever else done.
When I left the USAF, after being trapped in some 9–5 jobs, I joined the cisco TAC. Our shift started at 8 or 8:30, when we took over the 1–800 number from Brussels, and our shift lasted until around 2 in the afternoon (it varied over time, as the caseloads and TACs were moved around). Freed from 9–5, I started getting to work at around 5:30 again. I could spend the first two or three hours following up on cases (did you know that no-one in the US answers their phone before 8AM ET?), take cases during shift, and then work in the lab or do “other stuff” before going home around 3 in the afternoon. Another time management trick I used while working in TAC was converting every case to email; the phone, while often pleasant, is an inefficient form of communication when you’re dealing with a high caseload.
Okay — so why am I telling you this? It’s not like you care what hours I’ve worked in my life, right?
Because controlling your working hours is one of the most effective devices I’ve found to both force myself to macrotask, and to stem the tide of multitasking for at least a few hours out of each day. Getting up early in the morning is only one way I work to control the amount of time I’m multitasking. Another for instance — I normally work from home. It’s easy right now because I’m a remote worker (okay, honesty time, I’ve been a near remote worker for the last ten to fifteen years, starting from the time I joined engineering at Cisco for the most part). When I go to the office — say I fly to SJ for the day — I don’t take my laptop into the building. My laptop stays in the hotel room. I’ve recently (within the last two years) extended this to conferences like the IETF — when I’m out talking to people, I focus on the people. Focus works both ways — it’s either the computer, or it’s people, it’s never both at the same time.
I’ve taken this idea of controlling my schedule for optimal time use farther than most people would, of course — my wife and I homeschool our children, in part, because we like to just go and do without asking for permission from the local school. There’s no absenteeism when you’re kids are with you.
But the point shouldn’t be missed. When I start working in the morning, I often don’t even check email, or the news, or anything else. I start in on whatever project I’m working on, pushing two or three hours of solid work in before anyone can even call or email me. Most of my books, blog posts, and other things have all been written between 6 and 9 in the morning.
Now, mornings might not work for you (though I can tell you everyone has a lot more energy in the morning than they do after dinner — late night just isn’t as effective as the early morning for anyone I know). But whatever the time of day, the general idea is this: divide your days into times for specific things. Set aside time for projects, and time for talking. Don’t let the two overlap. It’ll greatly improve your efficiency.
One of the legends surrounding people who get a lot done is they simply don’t sleep. It’s long been said that I have some number of clones who do part of my work, or perhaps that if you ask different clones the same question, you’ll get different answers. This has, of course, been verified scientifically… But the truth is busy people do sleep, and they don’t have clones.
What they don’t do is waste the one resource everyone has a limited supply of — time. In the British Navy of yore, there was a phrase for this focus on using time effectively:
Waste not a moment.
Now I’m not here to give you time management tips and tricks. I’m happy enough to tell you what I do that seems to work. For instance —
- Set aside specific times to check email; don’t check it constantly.
- Schedule time to read and learn every day; still, however, slip in reading while you’re waiting in line, waiting on dinner by yourself, etc.
- Don’t spend a lot of time on social media. Don’t read the comments to a story, just the story.
- Don’t feel guilty about deleting things, or not reading them.
- Corollary one: Sort your email into mailboxes based on things that are to you, and things that are to a list you’re on. At the end of the day, delete all the list email. There will be plenty more tomorrow, and it’s not to you personally, so no-one is going to be offended.
- Corollary two: Read news and blogs through an RSS reader, skipping based on headlines, and marking all read at the end of the day.
Okay, I could do this all day — but then I wouldn’t be following my own rule, would I? I’d be wasting my time in the telling, and your time in the reading, for not every idea to cut down on wasted time works for everyone. What I will tell you is some basic rules you really need to pay attention to if you want to waste not a moment.
The first is to be conscious of the time you spend on things. Think about how you’re spending time, rather than just spending it. Don’t just ask, “is this really worth it,” but also, “how could I do this in less time?” If taking less times means to learn a skill better, or to buy a new tool that will make things go faster, then do it.
A corollary to this rule is that small bits of time matter more than you think. “I only have fifteen minutes before we go to dinner, what can I really get done.” Say that four times a day, you’ve just wasted an hour. Not good. In fact, using the little moments to do little things allows you to gather up longer periods of time to do bigger things.
The second is to schedule better. Don’t let yourself drift through your day with no structure. It might seem stupid to wear a “uniform” to work, or to always eat the same thing for breakfast, or to always set aside the same time every day to do a particular thing (I always read for one hour before going to bed, every night — which proves I must sleep, or I wouldn’t read). Setting a schedule, even if you don’t follow it perfectly, is actually very helpful in setting an order to life.
The third is to mind the Sabbaths. This might seem like a contradiction in a post about wasting time, but you really need to stop and smell the roses (or the sea air, or the hamburger, or the…) every now and again. In fact, all the time. Time management is a delicate balance between enjoying the moment you’re in and delaying pleasure to make a better tomorrow. Perhaps the best balance is to learn to enjoy the building of a better tomorrow without getting trapped in the false “perfect future” fantasy.
A Sabbath doesn’t have to be about sitting around doing nothing — it can be a change of venue, or a change of focus, or a change from mental work to physical. It is anything which can break up the routine — just as moving from squats to the bench will build a complete body and keep from wearing one part of the body out, we need to move between things that build different parts of the mind.
Time is the only asset you cannot truly replace or save.