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Time Management

It is perhaps inevitable that this site, with its focus on time, should have an article on time management. However there is a problem, as Ian Hobson explains:

Cartoon picture depicting Time Management

Time flows past us (that may not be the correct description) at 60 seconds a minute. 60 minutes every hour, whether we are rich or poor, smart or dull, old or young, infirm or in the peak of health. We can't store time, borrow it, slow it or speed it up.

The issue is what we can do with the time available. Time management is really self-management.

There are 4 things we can do: work, rest and play, and... plan. The trick, I think is to understand two things about these 4 activities.

  • You have to do all 4, regularly without neglecting any.
  • You can't do two of them at once.

I don't think many would argue with the first point. We can't work endlessly. We can't play endlessly, it would be boring and futile. And living without any planning would be like driving with your eyes closed ‒ a recipe for disaster. A balance of work, rest, play and planning is necessary for us to achieve the things we want in life and avoid the things we don't want.

Also, few would argue with the second point, for most pairs. One can't work and rest, one can't rest and play, nor work and play. Even people who love their job or "life's work" to the point where they would do it without payment, need to stop and recharge. As the saying goes "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy".

Other combinations don't work either. You can't do anything else while planing. Planning takes thought, and involves decision making. Indeed, what is planning besides deciding what you will do? Research has shown that decision making is draining, and stressful, and we have a limited capacity for it. Don't believe me? Just look back at the photos of any political leader who has served two terms and compare how they looked at the start of their premiership to how they look at the end 10 years later.So we can't plan and rest. For similar reasons, don't try to plan and play. You can't give planning the attention it requires if you are doing anything else.

Can we plan as we work? David Allen, author of "Getting things done" has a "2 minute" rule. This says that any task that will take a trivial amount of time to do, and can be done now (while planning) should be done immediately, and not entered into your "trusted system outside your brain". This is not really working while planning, it is stopping planning to do 2 minutes work. I would actually caution against doing this too much.

The reason is that switching what you are doing is a remarkable drain and takes a remarkable amount of time. Gerald Weinberg, writing about software development, claimed that the overhead of having three projects on the go, is approximately 40%. So instead of 5 days progress on one project, a week's work only results in only 3 day's progress (1 day on each of 3 projects), plus time recording our status, discovering where we were, re-doing work we forgot and correcting mistakes.

This is part of the reason why multi-tasking is so terrible. Not only do we not give adequate attention to any of the things we are doing, we make mistakes, we waste most of our time switching between tasks instead of achieving results. Don't multi-task. Ever.

Before we can plan properly, we need to know what we are trying to achieve. Goals need to be chosen with care. They are your private goals and not for publication. I recommend keeping things legal to avoid complications, but embarrassing goals you would rather not share are OK.
Don't have too many. Two and you might manage both. Five and you will struggle to complete any. Choose 10 and you will not achieve much.
Be very careful of accepting too many goals from other people. Your manager may have an input, but those are not your goals.
A good goal is one that you are so enthusiastic about that you jam it in, replacing something else. A bad goal is something you feel you should or ought to do.
You must convert each goal from an outcome to a process. You can't "lose 20kg" but you can "follow this diet and exercise program". Ask, "is it an action under my control?".

Warning - nobody likes a flake. Friends who don't keep their word are soon ex-fiends. But if we flake out on ourselves, what then? If you follow the diet and exercise program you will have succeeded in keeping your commitment to yourself even if you don't lose weight. Yes, the plan needs adjustment, but the self esteem is OK.
After deciding on a small set of goals, lets turn those into a plan for our lives, remembering that our minds are forgetful, and context switching is slow and error-prone. First we must choose a "trusted system outside your head" as David Allen has it. We must also use it. The best memory is no match for a bad pen nib/(or palest ink).



Part 2 now available!


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