Around these parts we’ve spent each month of 2018 exploring a different topic for self-improvement.
As we approach the end of 2018, we’re spending the last several weeks of the year reviewing what we’ve learned.
Start Where You Are
As we learned in life planning month, any type of improvement requires knowing where you are and where you want to go before making a plan to get from one to the other. Time management is no different.
This means that we need to start by understanding how we spend our time right now.
Studies have found that we are really bad at knowing how we spend our time. We overestimate how long we spend on some things and underestimate others. We also have a complete blind spot for some uses of time. In short, the research is clear that you can’t trust your assumptions.
This is where a time log comes in.
I recommend using this sheet from Laura Vanderkam. Print out a copy (the physical piece of paper is a good reminder) and just write down what you do during the day. Put it on your desk at work, fold it up and put it in your pocket when you go out, and pull it back out when you’re home.
It seems overwhelming to track your time for a whole week, but it actually isn’t too bad. You’ll miss some things, and that’s fine. Just do your best. You don’t need to get every minute exactly right to have a good picture of how you spend your time.
You can also be as detailed or as broad as you want. If it helps you feel less overwhelmed, then feel free to start broad. I used “Int.” for unproductive Internet time rather than differentiating between Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, news, games, etc. Find a system that works for you and give it a go.
How Do You Want to Spend Your Time?
The next step is analyzing your time log.
We get used to saying we’re too busy to do things. Everyone around us says it too. But it’s not really true.
You’re never “too busy.” When we say we’re “too busy” for something, what we mean is that it isn’t a priority for us. Sometimes this is a conscious decision. More often, we are just passively chugging along with the things that currently fill our day and choose not to mess with the status quo.
But it doesn’t need to be like that!
Take a look at your time log and think about how you use your time. Does your time usage reflect your priorities? Do you spend the most time on the things that are most important in your life?
What would your ideal week look like? How does that compare to the time log in front of you?
Once you know how you’re currently spending your time and how you would like to be spending your time, you can start transforming your week from one to the other.
Make the easy switches first. If you want to watch less television and spend more time with your family, then be conscious about it and make the change.
Work on getting rid of time-waster habits. My biggest were stalling before I started new tasks and checking social media as a reflex. These weren’t adding anything to my life but were taking up significant time. Once I recognized that I was able to start kicking those habits.
Do less. Say “no” more. Recognize when something is not important to you. Your time is precious, so make sure you are not letting other people set your priorities for you.
Where possible, eliminate, delegate, or automate.
Understanding how you spend your time and resetting your priorities is the single biggest piece of time management. Every other productivity hack or time management tip can only nibble around the edges. Consciously changing your priorities can change your life.
That said, I had a whole month to fill. So let’s nibble around the edges.
Schedule Unscheduled Time
The next topic we covered was scheduling unscheduled time. The basic idea is to set aside blocks of time in your calendar where you don’t need to feel guilty about ignoring your to do list.
Give yourself permission not to feel productive during these blocks. The constant need for productivity means that we are always moving and never recharging. We are never truly in the moment. Even when we try to take breaks, our minds travel back to the list of things we aren’t doing and we stress ourselves out.
Ultimately the lack of rest and the extra stress makes us less productive. Trying to get things done all the time means that you will get less done.
These blocks of time can be whatever you need most.
Maybe after work on Tuesdays the whole family ditches their other responsibilities and has dinner and plays a game.
Maybe you get out for a hike for an hour every weekend.
Maybe you schedule at least a few hours every week for time to hang out with friends.
The uses of time that are most important will vary from person to person, but we all have something that feels unproductive that we need to make space for in our lives.
Speaking of things that don’t feel productive, our next topic was sleep.
Sleep is the easiest thing to cut out when we want more time. We stay up working a little later. We get up a little earlier to get in that workout. A little less sleep won’t hurt us, right?
Plus, sleep takes up a third of our day every day. That’s a lot of time. It’s more than a full time job. That makes it quite tempting to cut back on.
Getting enough sleep is an absurdly huge boost to your productivity. As someone that has gone from not enough sleep to enough sleep (and then back since the baby was born) I can assure you that the change is dramatic.
You don’t notice the drop off in productivity as you start to fall behind on sleep because it happens gradually. An hour here, an hour there. You slowly change without realizing that it is happening.
If you consciously make the change, though, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten super powers. Studies have shown (and my experience confirms) that people who get enough sleep are healthier, happier, more productive, sharper, and have a better memory. That’s a lot of benefits that you can get just by laying in bed. And they all boost productivity.
Having a better memory and being better focused directly help you get more done. Being healthier means you lose less productivity time to illness. And studies show that happier people are more productive. (Plus being happier and healthier are pretty great in their own right).
So stop cutting out sleep because you want to get more done. You’re hurting far more than you’re helping.
The Myth of Multitasking
In the same way that we cut back on sleep when we want to be more productive, we also resort to multitasking. Also in the same way, we’re sabotaging our own productivity.
The problem is that multitasking is not actually a real thing. Scientists have found that when we think we are multitasking, we’re actually switching our attention back and forth between things quickly. We don’t notice because it only takes a few tenths of a second to switch from one thing to the other.
This little bridge of time between one task and another is called the cognitive switching penalty. With a penalty so short that we don’t even notice it, this seems like a pretty harmless price to pay. The problem is that when our mind is flicking back and forth every few seconds, this adds up quickly.
Studies have found that even simple multitasking makes each task take at least 25% longer. We think we’re doing two things at once. We’re actually just making both take longer.
Think you’re immune and that you are actually good at multitasking? Studies have found that people that say they are good multitaskers are even worse.
Stop slowing yourself down and start doing one thing at a time.
Working in Blocks
Once you’ve mastered single tasking, it’s time to start working in blocks.
One form this can take is batching. When batching, you plan your day or week so that you are doing similar tasks together. If you’re a blogger this could include taking one block of time to do the research for a whole bunch of articles, another to outline them, and a third to actually write.
This is more productive than doing all of the work for each article before moving on to the next because doing similar tasks together limits how often our brain needs to switch modes. Like with multitasking, this switching slows us down.
It also limits procrastination. It’s much easier to start a task when you’re already in that brain space.
You can also set blocks of time to do the little things that seep into the rest of your day. Checking your email, responding to someone on Twitter, or filling out some paperwork doesn’t take long. If you switch back and forth between those little things and other tasks, though, this can waste a lot of time.
Another block that I’ve found to be quite helpful is the Internet-free block. This can be mixed with whatever other type of work you need to get done, but whatever you do, you can’t pull up a browser or check the apps on your phone.
This is a surprisingly difficult mental exercise the first few times, but is great for building your focus and improving your productivity both during those blocks and in the long term.
The next topic we covered was identifying your time vices. These are the uses of your time that don’t bring value to your life. Take a look at your time log and think about what isn’t helping.
For me, that was passively watching television. Watching reruns of shows or just binging whatever happened to be on was not something that I actually enjoyed when I stopped to think about it. However, watching new episodes of shows with interesting plots was something that I did enjoy so I didn’t cut out television entirely. I just made more conscious television decisions.
It is also important to consider how much value you get from something. I didn’t want to cut out Facebook because it is a great way to stay in touch with friends that I don’t see that often. At the same time, Facebook can be a huge time waster. I realized that I was getting most of my value from Facebook in my first 5-10 minutes of use per day and the rest was mostly mindless scrolling. So I cut way back on my Facebook usage, but didn’t delete my account.
For websites that are tough to cut out, I use a free Chrome extension called StayFocusd. I put the biggest time wasters on my list of sites and they get blocked for the rest of the day once I hit 20 minutes. You can decide what sites you want included and how long you want to allot yourself to visit them.
Keeping a time log also makes you more cognizant of wasted time. I found that I caught myself wasting time on Twitter more often when I had to write down what I was doing with my time. This made it easier to cut back. For that reason I like to do a time log every few months.
Finding Good Enough
We rounded out the month by learning how to be more productive by ditching perfectionism and recognizing when good enough is good enough.
Productivity gurus like to talk about the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule states that roughly 80% of [output] comes from 20% of [input].
80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients.
80% of your results come from 20% of your work.
80% of your happiness comes from 20% of your time usage.
This isn’t meant to be an exact measurement, of course. Instead, it is a reminder. Everything in life is unevenly distributed. If we want to be as successful as possible we need to keep that in mind and use it to our advantage.
So next time you’re working on something, ask yourself: What 20% is most important?
This is hard, because it means ditching our perfectionism. Perfect means doing 100% of the work with 100% effort and 100% attention 100% of the time. Sometimes this is necessary. Some things are that important. Most aren’t. Find good enough and move on.
Join the Conversation!
And that’s what we’ve got for productivity and time management! Any good tips that I missed? Any techniques that you use? Let us know in the comments!