Much has been said on the topic of time management, and with good reason. Our world seems to be obsessed with it, with the ability to be ever more efficient, and with the relentless pursuit of higher output and productivity. There is much research and many lifetimes of thought that have gone into the topic with many different techniques and practices that I won’t get into.
Instead of focusing on how to manage one’s time, I want to muse on the topic of what it means to manage your time well.
Why do you want to manage time well?
The first question we need to ask is a question of purpose, of motivation. Why do we want to manage our time well? What is the primary purpose? While there are no objectively wrong answers to this question, there are a few dangerous ones that will make success very difficult.
For example, some great motivators for time management are to have more time for one’s pursuits, to have more time at one’s disposal for things of value, and to free up time for others to claim. Some bad motivators are to be more efficient so that we can get more work done, or so that we can cross more toil-based tasks off our seemingly neverending todo list.
We’ll get to why those are bad motivators later, but for now let’s suffice it to say that our motivators not just whether we’re successful but also the nature and the route by which we’re successful in managing our time well.
How we work
Whether we’re discussing our professional work life or making progress in our personal life, the way we work tends to be similar across both. Some of us are list people, some are chaotic feeling-driven people, some are guilt-driven, and some are externally driven.
Regardless of your preferred style, there are a few things that are simply limitations of the human brain that affect us all.
First, the human brain is only able to concentrate on one thing at a time. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is not actually possible for the human mind. Our brains perform similarly to single CPU-based systems - we switch between each of our multiple tasks at a rate that is passable (ie not immediately obvious but easily noticeable to the keen observer).
For our brains as it is for CPUs, this is expensive. This is because context switching wastes cycles. In computing, this means that each time the CPU switches tasks, the context that it needs is recalled from memory. That recall process wastes time and cycles. This is also true of our brains - switching context back into focus wastes our brain energy and takes time.
Studies tell us that it takes on average 23 minutes for an average adult brain to get from one task into a flow state on a different task. This means that each time we context switch, it takes us 23 minutes to be back to working at full strength!
All this is to say that we cannot, and should not attempt to multitask.
As such, we must prioritize. We first build a list of all of our priorities. Then we need to remove our distracting priorities. This means that for anything that doesn’t fall into our top 5, we must actively avoid them because they were priorities that didn’t make the core 5 but are close enough that they can (and certainly will, if we allow them) distract us from accomplishing our top ones.
This is hard! These are things that we actively want to do and believe there is much value in doing, so letting go of them will be incredibly difficult!
Next, once you’ve finished the top 5, don’t just automatically get to the next one - re-evaluate your list at that time to determine if the next things still are the next right things to do. We often find that they aren’t!
Lastly, management experts suggest no more than three things going on at a time. Many successful executives who seem to do so many things at once in fact limit themselves to doing one thing at a time - they get that thing done well, and then move onto the next.
For example, Mozart is the only known composer who was able to work on multiple works at once, all of which were masterpieces. Bach, Haydn, Handel, Beethoven - they all worked on a single piece at a time, and didn’t move onto the next until the first was finished.
Chances are, you are not a Mozart.
Incredibly effective executives have focus, concentrate on one thing, and concentrate their organization on one thing. Know where you need to concentrate your time and your team’s time, and do so intentionally.
Know what we can realistically accomplish
As we progress in our lives they become increasingly busy. Professionally, we have more demands and requirements of our time, and our added value to our organizations mean that more weight is placed on the things assigned to us. Personally, our lives expand to include dating, spouses, children, social obligations, taking care of aging loved ones, and hopefully, going on vacation and seeing the world!
What do we do with all of these demands?
We attempt to do them all. We try to make time for everything that feels important, but the problem is that constantly adding more without taking away anything is a fools errand, but we’re often too foolishly optimistic (or too stubborn) to see that.
Part of the problem is that what is important, or what “matters” is subjective. What matters to each of us may be quite different and very nuanced. It therefore behooves us to be thoughtful about processing our inputs so that we determine for ourselves what matters, instead of simply adopting the beliefs and opinions of others.
Another problem is that the minute you start feeling “on top of things”, the goal posts will move and more things will get added to the list.
This is because with each time-saving invention, the bar simply moves to accommodate. For example, the advent of the washing machine made it such that now that you COULD keep all your clothes cleaned, you SHOULD have them always cleaned. As a result, our inventions do not free us but rather enslave us further.
This is made explicitly clearly when we consider those much less fortunate than us. It is a common adage that those living in countries with much less are much happier. This is because they are not burdened with the ever increasing set of things that are possible with some effort and as a result don’t spiral into cultural expectations of making all the possible things required with much effort.
The answer then, lies not in finding ways to do more and to accomplish everything that we think is remotely important. Instead, it lies in us being thoughtful about what truly is important.
So how do you know what is important?
A common strategy here is to do a small amount of work to generate some vague definition of importance in one’s life, and to allow that amorphous cloud unpredictably determine one’s actions. For example, we may decide that we value relationships and friendships. This is such a broad value that it is almost meaningless when it comes to being an input for how to manage one’s life. There are many types of relationships, and each individual relationship is unique in its nature, its time requirements, and therefore its value. As such if we simply act on the value system that we value relationships, a bad relationship may in fact cause us to make bad decisions.
Professional success is another such amorphous value. Not only is this vague description harmful, but it has the additional unfortunate reality that it expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. No matter how much time you give it, it will always use that time, and more. This is why being more efficient so that one can get more work done is a fools errand - there will always be more work.
As such it becomes critically important for us to ensure we have the right boundaries around work, and the amount of our lives that we’re willing to give it. These boundaries need not only be restricted to time boundaries! A common misconception when it comes to work is that boundaries here simply mean time restrictions. Work takes up more than just our time - it takes up our thought space, our emotional capacity, our relational capabilities. We need to ensure we’ve got healthy boundaries across all of those.
Adjustments, not solutions
As always, my aim here is not to provide solutions but rather to stir thought and conversation around the topic at hand. As such, I will also not offer solutions but rather a few suggestions for tweaks that we can make in our journey towards managing our time well.
- Realize you won’t get it all done. This realization leads to freedom. Ancient farmers knew this - they would get done whatever they could in a day and do the rest the next. They knew that they were not capable of rushing a harvest or of growing a herd, so they accepted that pace of life. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that and try to cram more in a day than is humanly physically possible.
- Time should not be your own. Because time is a networked resource, it has Much more value the more people around you have control over it. This means that having an abundance of jealously hoarded free time is not useful, but having time where friends can drop by, loved ones can reach out for help, and children can demand your time to play with them is what makes time infinitely more meaningful.
- Realize that there are important things and there are urgent ones. You must not starve the important for the urgent. And there are always enough urgent things to take up all of your time, if you let them. Therefore we must ruthlessly prioritize!
- Invest in systems that evolve over time. Set aside some time to build systems that will scale for you over time. Learn to make more categorical decisions - choices which once made allow you to eliminates dozens of other choices.
My sons, it is never too late or too early to start learning to manage one’s time well. As such my hope is that you will begin now, no matter when “now” happens to be. Managing our time well will allow us to get more out of the limited time on this earth that we have. And that is a truly beautiful thing.