Effective time management is an important and an interesting issue. It is important because, theoretically, it should provide a way to be more efficient and thus spend less time doing work and more time having fun. It is interesting because of the wide range of methodologies, techniques and advices lying around: there is clearly no universal method that fits everyone. Some people say that the key trick to efficiency is being goal-oriented and managing priorities, others believe it is all about proper todo-lists, calendars and reminders. Some say you must constantly motivate yourself to work hard, others believe you better learn to go with the flow and follow your internal desires. There are also those who say that being organized is an inherent character trait and not a skill that one can acquire.
I strongly disagree with the latter statement. Being in general a lazy, careless, unmotivated and not at all a responsible person, I still manage to be somewhat productive from time to time, and I think a significant role in that is due to simple tricks. I realized it most clearly amidst master's studies, when my lecture schedule was suddenly over and I had to figure out myself what to do with my time.
Now, the whole "time management theory" is actually quite trivial, just a bunch of obvious pieces of advice. One can read through a book or two of those in a pair of days. It takes much longer, however, to figure out which of those pieces of advice would work for you personally. Take for example the popular suggestion to keep a notebook with a todo-list and spend 5 minutes every day to plan the day. I tried that several times, and although it does seem to help temporarily, I just can't make myself follow the routine. First of all, the requirement to write trivialities into the notebook is demanding. The mind resists it and tries to optimize the notebook away as quickly as possible. Secondly, the need to follow some routine "5 minutes every day" is a disciplinary burden too heavy for my lazy personality.
Here's another popular suggestion that I found to be somewhat useless: plan your projects, set yourself deadlines and keep up to them. This doesn't work for me for two reasons. Firstly, there is not much added value in explicit planning for most day-to-day tasks, intuition does a pretty good job here anyway. And then, no matter how detailed a plan you would have for each project, you'll still have the problem of scheduling your time among these, as well as handling all those tiny routine events and unexpected tasks. Finally, the requirement of keeping up to deadlines sounds more like a problem than a solution to me.
Fortunately, there are tricks that work much better, and it is them that I was planning to write about. The best time management ideas that I know of, have been nicely summarized by D. Allen in his GTD ideology. His advice is based on three obvious (as usually), but nonetheless insightful observations:
- A time management system won't work unless you put everything in it. This includes every smallest idea that you ever had to think about, including "I want to go see that stupid movie some day" and all the less important things. Although it might seem like an overkill, it's not. These small ideas, unless materialized somehow, can use up quite a lot of your brainpower by just "being on your mind". As soon as you write them out in a safe place, your mind gets much clearer. Also, you can only manage your schedule if you really know that everything is there.
- If there's an idea, it is not immediately clear what action it implies. For example, "I want to see a movie" is an idea. The first action that needs to be done to make it happen is actually "Call a friend". It's not a big deal to figure it out, but nonetheless there's some amount of thought involved. Surprisingly often, this small amount of thought is a terrible hurdle while undone. Indeed, isn't it much more pleasant to know that you need to "call a friend" than to have a vague "go see a movie" entry on the todo-list? What GTD essentially suggests is to make this "first action" decision as early as possible and keep the todo-lists in terms of actions, not ideas.
- A proper file management/archiving system is crucial. There has to be a place where you can store all these ideas, "first actions", reference materials, schedule, reminders, etc. Ideally, this storage has to be organized in an associative manner, i.e. you should be able to retrieve things in context easily. "I'm in a mood to write an email now, do I have a task that fits this context?", "I'm working on this project now, what are the related materials?". Once again, if you can trust your system to store things for you, your mind is relieved.
The GTD ideology describes a simple workflow process based on these observations. The whole process uses heavily the notion of "inboxes" and goes as follows:
- All the ideas or tasks you might have arrive at your "IN" inbox.
- You review this inbox regularly, and decide for each item it's first action. Upon decision, you must move items out of the "IN" inbox, and you have the following limited set of options:
- There is nothing to do about it. Delete and forget.
- This is some useful information. Archive for future reference.
- This requires you to do something small (it'll take 2 minutes or so). Do it now. Delete message.
- This requires you to do something that will take longer than 2 minutes. Then:
- You can schedule doing it to a fixed date and time (add an entry to the calendar). Delete message or archive for reference.
- You can move the message into the "ASAP" inbox. You'll review that inbox next time you have some free time. Note that the choice between (1) and (2) allows to balance conveniently between "100% planning" and "no scheduling at all" while still keeping track of all your stuff.
- You can move it into the "Someday" inbox. You'll review that inbox someday later.
- This is something you have to delegate. Then you move the item to the "Pending" inbox, so that you won't forget about it.
- Besides the inboxes "IN", "ASAP", "Later" and "Pending" you also need to keep a list of ongoing projects as folders with relevant information. You can review this list from time to time to make sure you haven't forgotten anything.
The best part in this whole process (and this is what actually makes it suitable for me personally), is the fact that it can be implemented using e-mail. This way it does not force much additional discipline: I'm reading email several times a day anyway as part of my compulsory procrastination activities. Most of my tasks, even the smallest ones, are in one way or another reflected in the e-mail. It is then only a matter of keeping the proper folder structure and moving emails out of INBOX according to the above protocol, remembering to think about the "next action" in the process. That is quite easy, it forces to manage and schedule more or less all of my activities, and it keeps the mind reasonably free, too.