“It is not enough to be busy... The question is: What are we busy about?” - Henry David Thoreau
Time management is process of aligning your time with your priorities. The strategies discussed in this guide are to address the following questions: How do you spend your time? Does the time you spend every align with your goals? The people who benefit the most from this section are people who have diverse set of goals and workloads and consistently need to allocate their time. Conversely, people whose goals are singular (e.g. I'm going to focus on taking care of my child) and have a strong conception of direction will benefit the least from this section.
Planning Your Time¶
Daily Planning Every day you should set aside 15 minutes at the start of your day to plan your day. Take out a post-it. First, figure out what obligations you have for the day. Do you have classes to attend? Friends to meet? Appointments to go to? It's worth writing the ones that aren't part of your regular schedule down. Then, figure out what you're going to do for the day and assign an upper bound estimate on the amount of time you think it'll take. You can comb through through your gathering points in the “Priority Management” section to figure out what you need to and want to do. Examples could be “Read chapter 5 of Intro to Probability (1.5 hrs)” or “Respond to recruiter emails (30 mins)”. Add up all the hours of your tasks and double check to make sure it doesn't fill up more than 70% of your daytime outside of strict obligations. Now stick this post-it somewhere visible like your laptop, your planner, or your desk.
At the beginning of every week you should give yourself an overview of what larger tasks or goals you have. If you have a diverse workload or a diverse set of goals you generally should write these goals in a spreadsheet. If you have math homework due every week, you should make a note on how many hours you expect it to take. I also take tasks off my project management software and throw them onto this spreadsheet. I found it useful to write down what I expect to complete by the end of the week and make sure I'm not overloading myself.
Once you take note of your weekly goals, you need to start blocking out time on your calendar to work on these tasks. I generally have a recurring weekly schedule, and just modify events as necessary at the end of the week. Here's the calendar I have:
It's quite a lot to take in, and I'm not asking you to plan every hour of your life. I'm going to break down different milestones you'll reach as you begin to start blocking out times for goals and obligations. Take your time to reach each milestone. It took me two whole years to go from the easy milestone to overkill mode.
Easy: Put only obligations on your calendar. These are appointments you have, friends you promised not to flake out on, classes you need to attend. This prevents double booking your time with your obligations.
Medium: Put on time blocks to work on goals with hard deadlines. These are homeworks you need to turn in, work projects you need to complete, tasks you just have to do.
Hard: Put on time block to work on goals in general.
Overkill: Not for the faint of heart — put on everything else: sleep, shower, mealtimes, transportation. This will give you insight into how you want to spend your time across all verticals of life.
Let's talk through the calendar methodology. Putting time on your calendar is a great way to visualize how you're going to spend your time. It's also a great litmus test to check whether or not you're being overly demanding on yourself or trying to do too much in a week. Because you're laying it all out on a calendar, you're not double counting any time period and overcommitting your time.
Here's what the different colors mean:
- Sleep (Blue)
- FoShoTrans (Red/Pink): FoodShowerTransportation. This is the time you spend to get ready in morning, to get from place to place, to shower, and to eat. This can also be named “Essentials”.
- Break (Yellow): The time you spend resting or taking a break
- Exercise (Turquoise): Time spent exercising or healthy living
- Social (Orange): Time spent with friends or engaging in a social activity
- Work (Purple): Time spent working
- OutsideEd (Brown): Education I pursue outside of my usual obligations
- Blogging/Journaling (Grey): When I journal, blog, or self reflect.
- Read (Blue)
- Miscellaneous (Green): Miscellaneous tasks and obligations.
Even something like rest or break time should be planned in. Break should let you rest and give you energy. If an activity like playing videos games doesn't make you feel better after having done it, it doesn't count as a restorative break (more on this later).
Every morning you're going to go through all the tasks on your to-do list and make sure they have corresponding events on your calendar. If a task takes <5 mins long, it's better to do it right now and not have to bounce mental reminders in your head.
If your task takes from 5 - 15 minutes, then group them together under an event called “Personal Errands”. These tend to more shallow and mindless, and I would put the event at some time which you are not at your peak energy level, like in the evenings.
Everything else goes on your calendar as individual blocks/events. If they aren't on your calendar, you're not being intentional about how you're going to spend your time. If you don't have space on your calendar, then you're asking too much of yourself, and should review the “Priority Management” section of the guide.
Why it Works A calendaring system reduces the cognitive load with planning. If I didn't have my calendaring and task tracking software, I would have to keep all the information in my head. “What should I be doing right now?” “Should I study or work on interviewing?” “Do I have the time to go to Jay's party or would that ruin my morning run the next day.” Those are the dialogues that happen in my head ALL THE TIME if I don't set aside 30 minutes each week to just lay out all my time visually. Those thoughts are extremely draining, and when you have to overcome the issue of “what should I do?” before starting to work, you're going be more likely to make poor decisions (I'm looking at you, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit).
Putting everything on a calendar (as opposed to say, a planner) also forces you to specifically allocate time towards your goals, values, and obligations so you don't double count your hours spent. Time is your most finite resource, so it makes sense to set aside time to figure out how you're going to spend it wisely, rather than haphazardly deciding on the whim.
When you follow the system, you end up consolidating a lot of gathering points and merge it into one place. Instead of checking 20 places to figure out what you need to do, you just check 1. A calendaring system can be used to consolidate gathering points, like gleaning emails to throw to-do's on your calendar or to copy homework due dates from your classroom website.
“What if you go off track?” Going off track of your schedule is not a crime. It's more important to notice that you've gone off track than to judge that you've gone off track. Judging your behavior at this point only brings about negative emotions, but the noticing helps collect useful information to help us understand how we can do better next time.
I think of my calendar less as a behavior enforcer, and more as a ledger of intentions. Without it, I simply wouldn't know what to do with my life, and I'll probably meander aimlessly with a constant fear of forgetting something important.
I actually change my schedule frequently, maybe 3 - 5 times a day, to account for any possible changes. Sometimes it's a disruption, or a task that took too long. Other times it's a riveting conversation with a friend that went over an allotted time. I don't see deviations of my schedule as transgressions. As I like to say, it's easier to change plans than to make them, so plan first and change if needed. Planning my day forces me to be more mindful about how I spend my time, which doesn't leave a lot of room for mindless activities.
Potpourri of tips I've had working with a schedule for 7 years:
- Avoid doing any mentally straining work for more than 1 - 2 hour chunks at a time and more than 5 - 6 hours a day. Despite my best efforts, I can probably focus for at most 3 hours before needing some kind of break.
- Do the hardest things first: Willpower tends to decline as your day progresses. Some tasks become extremely difficult as you reach the akrasia zone of 2 - 4 hours before their bedtime. Because of that, I try to schedule the most cognitively or energy demanding things in the morning and menial tasks before bed.
- Try to fit your habits in the morning: Especially post-graduation, most of your social time will occur in the evening. It's hard to uphold a workout routine if you're friends with people who make plans on the day of. One way to avoid this pitfall of making hard choices between your habits and your friends is to move your habitual stuff to the morning, where people have less of a chance to interfere or interrupt your schedule.
- Find ways to double up your time: You can save some time by doing two things at once. For example, reading a book during your commute saves you from spending all your time commuting. Eating a meal with friends can fulfill your social and dietary needs. Just be careful not to mix two cognitively demanding tasks, and not to give up break time in order to squeeze in more activities.
- Set plans are about 1.25-2x the cost of normal times: Any set plans that cannot be moved (like any appointments, obligations, or engagements) should be treated as costing about 1.5 to 2 times the amount of the time they take. For example, if I wake up earlier than expected for a 9am coffee with a friend, I'm wouldn't be able to adjust my schedule nor squeeze in something other activity before my engagement. Concrete plans cannot be moved and I find that the flexibility of the schedule I lose is approximately 50 - 100% of the time of the obligation. This means that I generally treat concrete plans as costing more and try to do more things that are flexible, like running by myself over joining an intramural sports league.
- Identify high variability factors that can throw off your schedule: My biggest hidden variable is sleep. My sleep duration varies quite highly, and I have to adjust my schedule accordingly. I try to avoid concrete plans in the morning to avoid my sleep from clashing with my other plans.
Tracking Your Time¶
What's equally important to planning your time is understanding how you spend your time. Looking at how you spend your time helps you understand whether or not your values line up with the time you spend.
Unfortunately, keeping track of time requires some habitual behavior of tracking time, so I'll just start with easy things you can do now and outline what you can do to improve your time tracking.
RescueTime The easiest thing you can do is to install RescueTime. RescueTime automatically tracks how you spend your time on your computer. I find when starting to use RescueTime that the numbers can look real ugly. It can feel like a surge of guilt when faced with the discrepancy between how you think you spend your time and how you actually spend it. I urge you to try to overcome these feelings, as not to create a association between using a time tracking software and the feeling of guilt. I'm not asking you to change your behavior, I'm simply asking you to observe whether the time you spend aligns with the things you want to do. Do you want to play video games? Great, maybe the time you spend aligns with that. Maybe playing video games is a way for you to relax or maybe it really is a distracting activity. Insight is the first step towards action.
Backfilling Your Calendar If you feel particularly adventurous, and are up for instilling a new habit (which is hard!), I would highly recommend backfilling your calendar. I would prescribe this as an essential to good productivity if not for the high upfront cost that's required to participate in it.
At the beginning of your day, when you're planning out what you want to do for the day, you can begin your session by backfilling your calendar to reflect what you actually did the previous day. If you have a hard time remembering, you can jog your memory by cross referencing other materials, like your internet history, your chat/message logs, RescueTime's history, etc.
What you end up aggregating is a collection of your previous behavior, and you can begin to understand how you spend your time and how long each thing takes.
Once again to reiterate, it's important to withhold judgment when backfilling, as I find the exercise valuable but at risk of adding unnecessary stress and guilt to people.
If you made it this far you can build on your productivity habits to where I currently am. Every week I spend 30 minutes reviewing my previous week. I count up the number of hours related to each of my verticals and put it on a spreadsheet. If you'd like to follow along, I have a public template of the spreadsheet here.
On the leftmost column, you can see I set some expectations of how much time I want to spend each week on a particular category, and on the columns to the right, you can see how I actually spend my time. I added some basic conditional formatting to highlight whether time spent each week align how I want to spend my time.
On the furthest right columns, I have totals, averages, and standard deviations.
There are actually more rows near the bottom that I've added since v1 of my productivity hacking guide.
Unaccounted: Though not really useful, I keep track of how much blank space I have on my calendar each week.
Time Left: I take the total number of hours in a week (168 hours) and subtract the sum of my calendars from it. This is supposed to be a sanity check of whether not I counted all my hours correctly. If this number is too large or too small, it probably indicates I miscounted something
Top 3 Distractions: I go to my weekly dashboard on RescueTime and figure out which 3 activities are my top distractions of week. If something is particularly jarring, it brings to my attention to find ways to cut that value down (explained in “Behavior Management”)
Top 3 Friends: I find that I can spend roughly 12 - 20 hours a week interacting with other people. On the lower end towards 12, I tend to feel lonely, and on the upper end, I tend to feel overwhelmed or exhausted. I began keeping track of how much time I spend with which friends. This acts as a sanity check in the social realm in which surprising realizations can surface like “Wow, I spent only 2 hours with person A this week? I already feel really close to this person.” or “Wow, I spent 8 hours with person B this past week? Person B's kind of a jerk and I'm giving him 8 hours of my week.” I find having good friends very important to my well being, so having this kind of signal helps me figure out whether I'm spending time with people whom I enjoy being around.
Most Mental Cycles: I briefly reflect on what thoughts have occupied my mind for most of the week. Having this exercise helps recount what I spend most of my time thinking about. It's usually some sort of worry or stress, in which noting that down helps me jumpstart the process for dealing with that issue.
Comments: Generic comments about my week. Things that went well or not so well.
Master Calendar After I fill out my weekly review, I go to my master spreadsheet and fill on results achieved in the past week, as well as any notable events that have occurred.
Tracking your time completes your feedback loop for aligning your time with your values. By understanding how you spend your time, you can adjust how you allocate time the next week to better align your time with your priorities.
Protecting Your Time¶
Part of time management is having tools to protect your time. Once you know what your priorities are, you will think about ways to minimize time-consuming things that are not part of your priorities. These things could be things like repetitive toil, obligations, or bullshit. We will briefly cover tactics that will help you minimize the amount of low-priority stuff you have to do.
Saying No “No” is probably the most important word to familiarize yourself with in the world of productivity. By saying “yes” to something, you implicitly say “no” to thousands of other things. If you politely agreed to join your friend's chess club despite having no interest in the game, then you effectively said “no” to all the other things that you might otherwise want to do. Knowing how to gracefully saying “no” is an important skill. If you're confident and an assertive communicator, here's a great article I googled that can help you learn to say no. If you're not so confident, or if your audience doesn't respond well to assertive communicators, I don't mind googling “how to flake” and picking articles out of there.
“It's almost the definition of bullshit that it's the stuff that life is too short for.” — Paul Graham, Life is Short
Paul Graham wrote a good post about the bullshit that exists in day-to-day living. If you recognize bullshit in your life, it is almost unanimously a strict positive to remove that in your life. I find that we tend to overestimate the amount of bullshit that is fundamental to living life. When you deliberately think through and catalogue all the bullshit in your life, you'll understand that you really don't need to deal with as much BS as you think.
Automation Many people not familiar with technology or productivity infrastructure may be surprised to find out that many of their recurring tasks could be automated. Spending some effort upfront to automate those tasks is useful for freeing up time in your schedule. Some areas of work worth pointing out that a simple google search can provide instructions:
- Personal finances: Learn to turn on autopay for your paying your bills. This could be utilities, internet, rent, and credit card statements. Learn how to “pay yourself first” by automatically allocating a portion of your paycheck to a brokerage account and investing in the market
- Emails & Communication: Learn how to set up email filters to auto process certain emails for you, like receipts. Learn about email templates if you find yourself sending a lot of emails.
- If you spend a lot of time working with a specific tool, consider searching the internet for possible tools that could make your life easier, either through automation or education.
Delegation/Outsourcing If there's something you need to do that can be done by someone else, considering either delegating it or outsourcing it. Having another human being work on your problem doubles the amount of time, energy, and resources to do things, so sometimes it makes sense to delegate or outsource tasks or obligations.
ClearerThinking.org has an interesting short survey you can take to figure out the value of your time. The conclusion of the test is a description of how consistently you value your time and some suggestions to save time. I personally set my time value at $5 - 10 /hr, mostly because my productivity is bottlenecked by energy, not time. Yet just thinking about my time with respect to some monetary value has some positive side effects, mostly noticing when I bias towards trying to save too much money at the cost of my time.
Avoidance “What are some bad things that would happen if I didn't do X?” That's the question you should ask yourself. Sometimes, the answer will surprise you. “I'm afraid if I don't attend David's theatre performance, David won't like me.” That train of thought could make me realize I don't care really care what David thinks of me, so maybe it's not so bad to not do X. Knowing what to avoid and how to avoid stuff is a great skill. Tim Ferriss' Book “The 4 Hour Workweek” has some ideas on how to avoid work responsibility that can generalize into how to avoid things in general, but I would often opt for saying no if you have the option.
By the end of this section you should have a good idea for how to manage, track, and protect your time. If you start managing your time, you'll start spending more time doing the things you find meaningful and less time doing things that don't make you happy.