Time Management Concepts: Making Time Work for You

In parts 1 and 2 of this trio on time management, I wrote about values as the measures of importance and priority and about time being a measure of the duration of activities and experiences.

If you think of values and time as measures, it becomes a great deal easier to see how essential it is to use those measures to make your life easier.

James Dean is quoted as saying “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” I’ve seen the word “Plan” substituted for “Dream” in a take-off on that quote. I like it both ways. Yes, you have to make plans and schedules and set goals in order to manage time. And you have to work toward long term goals on a daily basis. (In fact, to make everything work on a daily basis, you start with long-term planning and then “plan backwards” until you get to your daily to-dos. I’ll explain how that works when you get to the section on “Organization.”)

Keep remembering, though: the action of time management takes place within each day. Not a week or month from now. It takes place in the day you have right now. For all practical purposes, all you know about the time you have is today. And you might not even have all of today. Moreover, you certainly can’t control all of today. Because “stuff happens.” Things change every day. Thus the old proverb: “man plans, God laughs.”

The way your consciousness works, you only experience what is happening now. You can project fairly clearly about one day past and one day forward. But after that, your ability to imagine becomes more and more distorted. You must live in the day, each day, to have control over your life and time.

Keeping that in mind, can you see why time management gurus keep saying to write everything down? To keep at least a “to-do” list. To have a calendar and appointment book as absolute basics.

If you start with the idea that you only have one day at a time to manage, you realized you have to focus on what can be practically done by one person in a mere 24 hours. That you must choose only the most important items. And that you actually don’t have any time to waste.

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty of time management. The good news and the bad news about the basics of time management is that there are only three things to do about it. You must complete the everyday tasks required by physical reality. You must build regular habits around accomplishing your tasks and goals. You must have an organized approach.

1. Everyday items — you have things you must do (or make sure get done) every single day. Everything else must be worked in around them. Eat. Sleep. Work. Exercise. Travel to work. Personal and household cleanliness. Most of those things require not only a set amount time to accomplish, but also a kind of schedule and/or order. For example, you can’t wait until 5 pm to get your kids off to school.

This is the first area where you must look for greater efficiency. Unfortunately, too many folks just find ways to avoid the necessities. Do you skip lunch to finish a project? Do you stay up all night to cram for an exam? Do you just give your kids money for lunch and trust they’ll make good, healthy choices? Sure they will.

This is also an area where values come into play. Your everyday necessities are your top priorities. If you know your values, you’ll know what are your necessities. You’ll determine if you have to take care of them yourself or if there is some other way to get them done. At the micro-level, you’ll plan, schedule, multi-task and multi-purpose in order to see that they are accomplished. You’ll see where and how the next most important items get done in relation to the first set of priorities.

Then, if you’ve established good habits, you’ll be able to get the priorities done.

2. Habits — Whether you are organized or disorganized, you already work around well-established habits. If you get up at the same hour each morning or, instead, randomly vary your times of arising, you have an established habit. Irregularity is just as much a habit as regularity.

Your habits form your system for accomplishment.

One of the reasons managing time is difficult is because it often requires changes in habits. You may think that you have a good rationale for your habits, but most of the time, they’ve been established by default. It’s a matter of “this is the way I’ve always done it. It works for me.”

But, if your time management isn’t working well, chances are you have some work to do on your habits. Good time management is based on having a certain amount of regularity in habits. Find a “habit inventory” tool (chart, spreadsheet, checklist) online and adapt it to your personal habits. Most of the free tools I’ve found are for changing study habits or health habits, but the process is the same. As you work on managing your time, you’ll very easily discover the habits that are helping and the habits that are hurting. Once you’ve established a list, you can work on one item at a time to make your habits work for you.

I’ll write more on habits in some future article or post.

3. Organization — Now you know you have daily must-do commitments. You have learned your habits need to be regulated to meet those commitments and get all the rest of the business of living done. Thus, you need organization.

This is where the writing stuff down and making plans, schedules, to-dos, and so forth come into play. Want the good news? It doesn’t have to be complicated. Want the bad news? You really must establish a habit of (1) writing things down and (2) keeping the writings handy to check that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing — when you are supposed to be doing it.

Remember, though, you only have to focus on one day at a time.

So, on a daily basis, you don’t need to lug around a huge book or clipboard. You can manage with two or three sheets of folded paper that you keep in your pocket or purse.

You also don’t need to spend much time planning on a daily basis. Your basic schedule and tasks are already set for you. Remember I said earlier that you have everyday necessities with set completion times. That you must work everything else around those tasks. Just have a daily schedule/to-do list that you pre-print with the everyday must-dos, leaving blanks to fill in for the rest of your tasks.

But wait! What about long-term goals, and dreams, and large projects and work assignments and all the other items that take longer than a day? Where do they come in?

Earlier I also said that I’d talk about “planning backwards.”

What makes time management work well is being able to focus on one day at a time. But it’s easiest to focus on one day at a time if you’ve already laid out the “big picture.” That’s what the weekly, monthly and annual planners are for.

You start your entire time management process with clarifying your values, translating those values into practical terms and then planning out the details of how to bring them into your life.

In practice it would look like this: imagine that one of your highest values is family. To bring that value into your life, you might choose to have a child. Since in most cases the time management planning happens after the fun part, let’s start with what planning and time management look like after you know you will become a parent.

You have a naturally set time line. You probably know about your impending parenthood soon enough to have about eight months to plan for whatever you need to do. So, you’ll use a calendar (or two) to map out things like scheduled doctor’s appointments and times for purchasing and renewing health aids like pre-natal vitamins.

Whether you are the female or male parent, you’ll consider how much maternity/paternity leave you may need from your job and approximately when. You’ll have a plan for what hospital you’ll go to for delivery. You’ll have a plan for when to go to the hospital, by what route and with what items.

Your plans for all the miscellany you’ll have to do for the “baby project” will be broken down by month and week. If you’re like most folks who do good time management, you’ll some sort of monthly planner divided into weeks and days. And on some days, one of the items will make its way to your to-do list for the day. There will be some flexibility as to which days.

So, you see, from the big event eight months in the future, you’ll “plan backwards” to what has to be done incrementally over time.

That’s how all your values, goals, dreams, projects, etc. get from the long-term to the daily list. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a baby or giving birth to the Great American Novel. It also doesn’t matter if you use a Day Runner or a Day Timer, a desk calendar or three huge wall calendars.

You just start with what you want in your life, what it “looks like” in practical terms, plan it using the planning tools that work best for you, and add the tasks to your daily to-do list on the best days. Your essential time management will be taken care of by a daily practice of good choices and good habits.

One final idea: remember to schedule breaks and fun and “really-want-to-dos.” Get a good mix of what you have to do and what you like. If you are too intently focused on “getting stuff done,” on being on time and on schedule, you will hate time management. The function of time management is to make your life easier and give you a chance to fulfill your wishes, dreams and purposes in addition to doing necessary tasks. That’s why you start by examining your values.