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Reflections on effective time management

I must begin this post with an admission: I did not manage my time well. I posted this question in December, and it is now March. All I can say, not in my defence, but to establish the credibility of this blog, is that the advice comes from multiple sources, specifically Jo, Astrid, Simone, and Sana, as well as some background research.

In December, I asked everyone on LinkedIn, "What tools, techniques, and ways of thinking do you find useful for managing your time?". From the responses and my follow-up research, three key themes stood out.

Manage your attention and energy. Jo, Sana, Astrid, and Simone agreed that understanding what gives us energy and why we sometimes choose 'low-priority' activities over 'high-priority' or urgent activities is critical to effective time management. As Sana said, "Once we understand ourselves better, it will be much easier to manage our time". What does this mean in practice?

First, consider what drives us to less important tasks and why task switching is persuasive and unavoidable. Astrid pointed out, "It's almost impossible to break unproductive behaviours (to spend more time on what matters) without understanding why we do things the way we do them now." In essence, it is critical to determine what distracts us from our current activity and why we allow ourselves to postpone. As Oliver Burkeman says, "Distractions are just ways of avoiding discomfort, not hearing what might hurt us, or avoiding recognizing that what we might do is limiting and might not be very good". Begin by determining what drives you to the easy over the difficult but important.

Second, consider how you manage your attention. One of my favourite articles is "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time." The crucial lesson is that we should do our most important tasks when we have the most energy. Opt to undertake the most challenging activities when you have the most energy and administrative, meaningless duties when you are tired. Sana and I are morning persons who prefer to conduct our more important and creative work first thing in the morning. "We need to understand ourselves better," Sana stated, "I am a morning person when I feel more concentrated or creative." Others may feel otherwise and believe that working in the evening is better for them and requires more focus. Consider when your energy is highest, how it varies over time, and how to manage your time.

Prioritize your work and attention. Both Jo and Astrid emphasized the fact that there are several time management solutions available. The first step in using these tools is figuring out what works best for you - when are you most focused and energized? Are you certain about your priorities? The Warren Buffet narrative in Oliver Burkeman's book Four Thousand Weeks is one of my favourites. The story's gist is that someone asks Warren Buffet how he decides what to focus on. He responds by listing 25 critical priorities and then selecting the top five. He then intentionally avoids the other 20, believing they are the most likely to be distractions from the top priority duties.

In other words, prioritization only works if you know what you will and will not do. Tools for planning are simply that: tools. They provide a foundation for deciding what you must and will not do. These tools work best for me when I first identify my priority projects (the top-line activities I have to work on) and then break these down into tasks that I can prioritize every week. Here are some of the tools that different people suggested:

You set a schedule. Finally, Simone emphasized the necessity of abandoning a to-do list once you've determined what is and isn't worth your time. In its most basic form, a timetable "is your day and week chunked into blocks of time for specified activities." Simone has created a wonderfully useful step-by-step strategy for creating a schedule, which helps her focus on things that may take longer to accomplish versus "easy to tick off" chores. The key to sticking to a schedule is to be firm and include all your personal and work activities and tasks. The more you use it, the more you'll notice which tasks take longer and which take less time.

Hopefully, you found this synthesis of collective wisdom useful. Time management is about deciding what you won't do - something I'm still working on - and recognizing that there will be things you want to do but won't be able to do. The better we make this decision, the easier it is to manage our time.

Returning to Oliver Burkeman and his book 4,000 Weeks, he observes that "the more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty and frustrating life gets." To put it another way, to manage your time and accept your constraints properly, "we need to let go of much of what we're doing to really focus our attention, the only commodity we really have, on the things that matter."


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