We all know that once a certain level of basic income is reached, time starts to become the major constraint as everyone has the same 24 hours a day.
While our waking hours are more or less fixed, we can definitely optimize things to make the most of them. Do you think you don’t have time for some things you want to do? Think about the following:
Children aged 2-11 watch over 24 hours of TV per week, while adults aged 35-49 watch more than 33 hours, according to data from Nielsen that suggests TV time increases the older we get. The average American watches more than five hours of live television every day.
When I first read that I was shocked. While this study was done in the USA, I’m sure people in other nations are not doing a much better job at using their time wisely.
Booking your time in advance
I recently interviewed Curtis McHale on the Mastermind.fm podcast, and one of the key takeaways for me was the importance that Curtis gives to his time. In fact, he books time slots for the whole week in advance. I’m not just talking about his work day, but also time spent with his family, personal time etc. Absolutely everything must be planned for in advance.
This might sound like a rigid approach, but I like it a lot and am trying to implement it myself. Of course unexpected things will always crop up but then you can shift things around that. Most of our days are pretty regular and for most of us the unexpected big things will be few and far between.
Curtis’ method is especially useful for self-employed people and entrepreneurs who usually have almost total liberty on how to spend their days. Many times I struggle with seemingly stupid decisions that waste my time and use up energy that can be better employed elsewhere. For example, when I wake up in the morning, many times I have to decide whether to train in the morning or the afternoon, and what kind of exercise to do. This might sound silly to you but I’m sure you can find other areas in your life where you have a similar problem with deciding on how to best use your time.
Another example is choosing when to record the weekly podcast with my co-host. We used to choose random times and move the day/time around pretty liberally, but now we’ve both committed to Tuesday evening and have reserved a 2 hour slot for that every week. If I get invited to play football with friends on Tuesday evening, I automatically know that I have to decline the invitation because that time slot is already committed. Even if the other evenings are free, I will stick to that commitment. The result is less stress and less time wasted in coordinating times between myself and my co-host.
For my previous example with training times and types of exercise, I have booked early mornings for exercise and stick to that religiously. For deciding which sport to do, I have devised a simple flowchart to automate things for me. So for example, if it’s sunny with no to mild winds, then I go cycling. If it’s raining I do TRX inside, etc.
Now on to another aspect of time management: time tracking. As an entrepreneur on a daily basis I have many small jobs and interruptions and it is pretty much impossible to plan what I’ll be doing on specific days in advance. So what I do is this. First of all I block 4 hours for pure work every day. I then assign 1-2 important goals per day that I must absolutely achieve. For example, Wednesday might be the launch date for a new site, so that is the highest priority for that day. It is Wednesday’s EPIC task. Once the EPIC is done, I can take care of other less critical stuff.
But let’s get back to time tracking. I’ve found that it is essential for me to track how I’m spending my time. I use Toggl for this. In Toggl you can set a number of Projects and then with each entry you can note down the task and the project. I am very meticulous about this process and have everything well organised into understandable tasks and projects. As an example, a task might be named Taking site backups and verifying them and the project name would be JeanGalea.com which is this blog you’re reading. At the end of the day/week/month I then have a very clear picture of where my work time is going.
For an entrepreneur or self-employed person, I think it’s very important to go through this time tracking exercise religiously. If not, it is very easy to either massively over work or on the other hand waste a bunch of time on tasks that do not give any returns. When you work online it is very easy to get lost reading article after article and browsing sites while unconsciously rationalizing the time spent for these tasks. You end up losing lots of hours per week in this way.
When you are taking the time to note down each task you are forced to take a clear decision that you can look back to. You start thinking differently and act more responsibly with your time. Those few seconds when you stop and make a decision on what to work next while having full awareness result in making much more productive use of your time. One thing I also do is try to estimate and budget time for tasks. So for the backup task I mentioned earlier, I might assign 30 minutes and write that down on a piece of paper near my laptop e.g. 10:00-10:30. This technique helps your mind to work harder to finish within that slot. You end up working much more efficiently than if you left it open, and it’s much more difficult to get distracted because your mind is in no-bullshit mode trying to get that task done in 30 minutes. Seriously, try it and you’ll see for yourself.
If you don’t want to use paper for noting these time slot budgets, you can use the Pomodoro technique. Just download a Pomodoro timer app for your desktop or your phone and use that, I sometimes use it too when I don’t have paper near me or just feel like it.
Here’s a brilliant quote by Joseph Tussman (a philosophy professor):
What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.
Experience has taught me that this is very true, but I frequently have to remind myself of this reality. Working hard to be successful might have worked well at some past point in time, but it’s not enough nowadays.
What we need to do is work smarter not harder. By cultivating awareness of how things work and how people behave, we are able to identify points of leverage that enable us to exert effort in the right places and thus achieve exponential results.
The macro level
I’ll probably write up another post on defining your personal vision and goals for life, but it’s worth spending some time to talk about the bigger picture here and how I manage things on that level. I keep a Trello board with columns for each month of the year, and in each column I put a few big goals that I want to reach in that month, using colored labels to denote whether they’re a todo (red), in-progress (orange), or ready (green).
In fact, I have two such boards, one is exclusively for work goals while the other is for personal. In the personal space you might find things like Do a 3-day meditation retreat or Learn Catalan basics, and of course some big goals can be spread over several months. From these big goals on Trello I can then plan my week outline on Google Calendar and one level deeper plan specific tasks that I will work on, and note them in Toggl as I go through them and complete them.
What is work and what is play?
One final thing to consider. If you’re your own boss, you might see the lines between work and play getting blurrier and blurrier as you become more successful. Hopefully you’ll be doing work you love and always exploring new opportunities, so it becomes hard to decide what gets classified as work and thus measured with the aforementioned techniques.
Here’s how I do it. I use a simple rule. If I’m doing something for immediate or future monetary returns, then it gets classified as work. I would say that 90% or more of the work I do is fun for me. The other 10%? That would be accounting, server fire fighting, and the more tedious tasks of keeping things running in a business. My work is also incredibly varied and sometimes I just wonder whether I’m working or just wasting time.
To illustrate my point, here’s an example. I might get really into a specific topic and spend two weeks pretty much reading about it all day. During that phase I might feel that I just stopped working for two weeks. After gaining a lot of knowledge however, I suddenly identify a need that’s being served in that niche, and create a product that eventually becomes successful. That’s mostly the process I follow for every business I create. You can see that that initial stage of leisurely reading (super fun!) was essential for the future creation of the product. If I hadn’t spent that time I wouldn’t have identified the need for the product nor developed the product itself. Therefore it is important that I start classifying such times as work and give them my full effort.
The same goes for most conferences and seminars I attend. I absolutely love attending conferences and many times they’re more enjoyable for me than typical relaxing vacations. Still, they are work. A recent example was attending Pressnomics in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a fantastic trip for myself and my wife, I totally enjoyed networking with other like minded people and exploring that part of the USA that I hadn’t previously been to. In my mind this was one of the best vacations ever, but in reality it was very productive work. In the following work, the relationships I built at that conference led to landing several sponsorship deals for my podcast worth thousands. Clearly, that had been a productive work trip.
Therefore, as an entrepreneur it’s worth thinking hard about everything you do and why you do it. Only by clearly defining what is work and what is play, by carving out time for the important things in your life, and by meticulously tracking and reviewing time spent will you achieve a high level of productivity.
Hope that helps inspire changes on your end, if you have any questions about my process for mastering time do let me know!