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As with most self improvement literature, I have discovered that a good portion of what is out there to read and learn from is largely a trap that keeps you from taking real action. You feel good about what you read, that good feeling keeps you from acting on it, not acting on it brings on guilt and remorse, and you go back and read some more. It is an interesting cycle, much like addiction treatment that starts you off with statistical evidence that most people entering treatment eventually return to drug or alcohol use.
In this post, I share some of my thoughts on time management and the how and why of it. These are opinions that I have formed through reading and living, and though they may go beyond the common and obvious, it doesn’t bother me, since they work.
Plan for the morning the night before
Here is how to save time in the morning. If you have a morning ritual that can be prepared for, do it before you go to bed. We prepare for our morning cup of tea by filling the kettle, keeping the cups and the tea tray ready, so that all one has to do in the morning is turn the stove on. We pick out the clothes we are going to wear the next day and keep it on top of the dresser. We plan our menus in advance, review it the night before, keep ingredients ready, veggies to be chopped, take stuff that has to be defrosted out of the freezer into a lower shelf. We review our schedules and write out our to-do list for the next day. This helps us mentally be prepared for the day, not forget our priorities and hit the ground running. What is more important is, of course, how we feel between hitting the bed and hitting the ground running.
Do things once
When you are faced with a task that can be completed quickly, don’t respond to it in a way that you have to deal with it over and over. For example, toys in the living room. Instead of picking them off the floor and keeping them on the couch, move them immediately to where they belong. Supplies from the grocer can go into jars directly rather than spend a waiting period in the pantry till the day you need to use them. Sorting and folding laundry is a task that most people separate from picking the laundry up. Do it at one go, saving time, focus and energy. The most obvious example is paper documents. If it is something that is not important, trash it right away. If it is important, act on it right away. If it needs to wait for action at a later date, enter it into your scheduler or to do list with all the details and put away the document where it needs to go.
Take it off your mind
I do use electronic schedulers and apps, but all my note-taking is done with pen and paper first and then transferred online if needed. I have found this habit to be most helpful. There is something about putting your thoughts down in writing by hand that adds determination to your intent, clarity to your thinking, and makes it easier to spot errors in your reasoning.
The foremost reason people find it difficult to make time is because of fuzzy recall of priorities and goals when you need to do something. Our minds are filled with things we want to, need to and have to do. We struggle to remember and do what is urgent and important, and at the end of the day, we realize that there are ten things that we wanted to do but forgot. You might have some important calls to make, or bills to pay, but before you know it, the day is over, and you have forgotten. This is because we keep all our plans, priorities, goals and task lists in our mind. So the first step is to get things out of our mind and on to a physical, visible, and verifiable system.
The most efficient system of tracking priorities, goals and tasks starts with a brain dump or a mind sweep. Plan ahead and get up early on a weekend, and sit down with pen and a notebook. A supply of tea and coffee will be useful. Write down all the things that you are carrying in your mind. Don’t worry about classifying it at this point; just get it out of your mind and on to paper. The first time we did this, it took us five hours, and now when I do it periodically, it still takes me close to two hours. The return on these two hours is peace of mind, certainty and control.
Start by listing out your priorities and goals on one page and your tasks on another page. Priorities and goals are not tasks. Tasks are actionable items, things you do in order to achieve your priorities and goals. Once you have got it all out in front of you, you can start categorizing them into projects, and on the basis of urgency and importance. Use your task list to build your daily to-do lists, and soon you will find yourself moving closer and closer to your goals. This tip is based on David Allen’s GTD which you can Google and read up on. It is the best personal productivity systems out there.
An extra tip here. Get yourself a good large notebook with a good number of pages. Section dividers are useful, but you can make your own with binder clips too. Write your address and phone in the inside cover so that it can be returned to you if misplaced. Use it as a single point of collecting all information and all your thoughts. Review it periodically in order to pick up on ideas that may have fallen through the cracks. I cannot stress enough on the value of this system.
Keep things like reading, calls, and SMS’s for down times such as commutes, waiting for the doctor’s appointment, or standing in a queue. Use the speakerphone to catch up on friends and relatives while you are working in the kitchen. Every hour of television programming comes with 20 minutes of commercial breaks. Have a list of short duration tasks that can be tackled while you sit to watch your favorite shows.
The concept of multitasking is really about rapidly switching between single tasks. Productivity experts point out that the time taken to switch to a new task can actually make you lose time rather than gain. However, if you have a plan and are prepared for the mental shift that is demanded by the different tasks, it becomes easy and efficient.
Pay attention to that which deserves your attention
From status updates on social networks to pretty fashion catalogs, from attractive ads to the salesman at the door with an offer you really cannot refuse, our attention is snatched away by the world around us at every turn and almost without our permission. Decide today what is important to you and what is worth your precious attention. Eliminate all other distractions. Put the television on mute when commercials come on, and if you do not have anything to do, talk to each other!
Use the stopwatch on your phone to determine how long the TV commercial break is, and from the next one onwards, hit the mute button or the power button and set the timer for that length of time.
Trash the fashion and marketing supplements of the daily newspaper as soon as you pick it up from your doorstep. All they are selling you is poor self esteem. Read only what is essential, and that applies to social networks and blogs too.
Learn to say no.
Not just to temptations and distractions, but to people and things that take away your time with no value being created. You are not anybody’s trash can, so if they have trash that needs to be got rid of, let them know that you are “otherwise occupied.” There will also be inputs that sap your time and energy and leave you depressed and ruminating and even doubting yourself. Weight loss ads, lifestyles of the rich and famous, and fairness lotions are good examples. Learn to say no to all such people and things. Make a start, however small it may be, and you will find it becomes easier as you go forward.
Manage your time online
One of the changes that society has seen with the advent of cellphones and email is the obsession with being accessible at all times and with responding to things immediately. I used to tend to keep my email inbox open at all times, with an unread mail indicator add-on in the tab itself. This caused me to switch to that tab every time I saw a new mail, pulling my attention away from whatever else I was doing. Sounds like you? Instead, you may want to set yourself a schedule for checking email. A practical system is to do it once before business opens, once before lunch, and once halfway into your second half. For people who are dealing with urgent projects across time zones, once in the evening and once before bedtime in addition is advised. If you can stick to this schedule, you will be saving a good deal of time, not only by not distracting yourself every few minutes, but also by grouping all your email work into batches.
Most people end up deleting a whole lot of emails without reading them because of a variety of reasons. If they are subscriptions, unsubscribe. If they are unimportant, set up a filter to take them out of the inbox and archive them. Check your RSS feeds and readers. Most readers give you the option of sorting your feeds by most infrequently updated. If there are feeds that are dead, or infrequent, or which you have lost interest in. Unsubscribe. This also applies to print magazine subscriptions that no one in the household reads any longer. This tip is borrowed from my study of the inbox zero school of thought, another great idea that you may want to search for and look up.
For many of us, society no longer means meeting up with friends and relatives in real time with real chips and real fruit juice. The advantages of online social networks are often eclipsed by the amount of time that we invest in them. Audit the time that you spend on social networks and ask yourself if there are important and urgent tasks, priorities and goals that are being neglected because of it. If your answer is yes, wake up and smell the coffee, the real coffee, and start attending to things that are waiting for your attention.
Rest and recreate
A tired body and mind is not likely to yield great results when trying to do things efficiently. I know high-powered executives who get up long before the sun is up, catch up on their emails and calls across the globe, go out for a power walk or a game of golf, meet up with colleagues and partners for a power breakfast and are in their offices well before anyone else. They work till late, and let their hair down over a dinner meeting, and go home and finish their day with another round of emails and calls. They take pride in flaunting their barely-there sleeping hours. While they might be making excellent providers, one wonders what their bodies and their spirits (and their loved ones) must be going through.
Make sure you are getting sufficient amounts of good quality rest on a regular basis. Our bodies can handle huge amounts of sleep debt before they break down, and sleep-in weekend are usually not enough to remedy this debt. Try and eat a light and early dinner. Develop a bedtime ritual that helps you unwind and relax your mind for sleep. Sleep in a darkened room. A warm bath 45 minutes before bedtime can help you sleep better. Rise with daylight if possible.
Include a 45-minute regimen of moderate level of non-competitive physical exercise in your daily structure. This can be a walk, a jog, a swim or a session of yoga. Take care of your physical health, since a fit body can actually help you complete tasks faster and better. Being in good health will also help you attend to all your tasks with greater energy and passion, leading to better result, higher motivation, and a healthier metabolism too.
Treat rest and recreation with the same seriousness as the rest of your time. If you can pack your 6 or 8 hours of sleep with optimum high quality sleep, you will feel fitter, more energized and will be able to deal with tasks and projects with much greater confidence. You will look and feel good too. You may want to look up Steve Pavlina's comprehensive work on sleep.
Modern society places a very high premium on productivity and material success. As a result, much of time management and productivity philosophies are focused on how you can do more, so that you can have time to do even more. I disagree. In my opinion, in our rush to do more, and to be valued and measured by what we do, we have forgotten to be. Yet, in the competitive world, we have to do a whole lot of things efficiently in order to survive. The goal of time management should be to free up time to "be" more. By applying these simple tips, you will find that you are saving a good bit of time. Saving time and not using it is a bit of a fallacy, since once your time on this planet runs out, there is not much that you can do with the time you have saved. Spend the time you save with care. Spend it on things that are important in the longer run.
Spend the time you save with care
Spend time with your loved ones. Spend time doing the things you love. Spend time helping others achieve their potential. Spend time empowering the disadvantaged. Spend time in the company of greatness, in music, art, literature and cinema. Spend time reflecting on the majesty of creation and the mysticism of the forces behind it. Spend time creating value for yourself and those around you.
The moment that passed you by is never going to come back, and no one can ever give it back to you. I trust you will capitalize on the time that you have invested in reading this post and apply some of these principles in your life. The way to make the most of time is to fill each moment with what it demands. Apportion a little of the extra time you find as a result of applying these tweaks to leave a comment or share your personal tips for saving time.