Effectiveness and Time Management Tips

3D Atomic Bonsai (bonzai) Kit Tree from paper

Credit: flickr / Smoggy Mountain

So my winter break reading consisted of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Getting Things Done, and The Power of Less (all Amazon). There’s a large amount of overlap between the first two and The Power of Less, but it’s a nice summary with some good thoughts on achieving your goals. 7 Habits is big-picture focus and GTD is more low level nitty gritty, so I think they complement each other well – I’d really recommend you read them both, if you’re looking to be more productive and effective, but in case you don’t even have the energy to read even The Power of Less I’m going to summarize some tips I’ve picked up from them.

Who are you and what are you trying to do?

One of the first things Covey asks you to do in 7 Habits is write down your different roles. We all have different roles we play – for myself, I’m not just a student, I’m also a TA, and President of WISE, and a girlfriend, and a friend, a daughter, a blogger and something else that I’ve not quite defined yet. Think about all your different roles – because you need to find time for each of them.

Write it down. And I do mean everything. Then review it, regularly.

The most helpful thing I got from GTD is the concept of making an inbox and putting every task, however small or vague or unlikely to be completed, on to it. Because it gets it out my head and allows me to focus on whatever I’m working on. If it’s something that small, like less than two minutes and you don’t think it’s worth writing down, why not just do it, instead? For paper, I have an A4 pad that I carry around with me, because I don’t have an office per se, and I don’t have much paper at all. This is where I collect things, and it gets processed on Fridays along with my email inbox and my task list inbox.

I’ve set aside time to process that inbox, as well as my email inbox, once a week. I was doing that yesterday, and it was actually kind of relaxing. Friday afternoon is good for me because it’s part of tying up the loose ends from this week, and planning the next, which is what my weekly review is about as well.

Give yourself a break.

We can’t be 100% on the ball, all the time. We can’t work every hour we’re awake week in, week out. Accept that you probably won’t achieve everything you want to do.

Go on, take a moment, it’s liberating.

Now, pick out the things that are most important. But keep the others on a “someday / maybe” list. You can always come back to them.

Find a way to pick out the things that are suitable for your energy level at that time. Label things with how long they’ll take so you can choose short tasks for when you have a limited amount of time. Doing a bunch of small tasks can be a good way to amp up your energy level (just don’t get lured in to thinking you can spend all your days like this and achieve awesome things).

Organizing in increments is OK.

Can’t get through inbox right now? Put it all in a folder “to organize” and go through it half an hour at a time, until it’s done. Take one piece of furniture at a time in your apartment to organize and then pick another one next week, or next month. You don’t need to achieve perfection before you can start being more organized! Organize what you need to to get started, live organized, and make time to clear the bits of your life that aren’t as organized up one by one.

Make time for Quadrant 2.

There’s a ton of stuff in our lives that’s important. And there’s always stuff that’s urgent. But just because something is urgent doesn’t mean that it’s important, and vice versa. Making time for the important-but-not-urgent (Covey calls this Quadrant 2) pays dividends. This can be stuff like exercising, or reading around your field if you’re a graduate student, or expanding your programming abilities and knowledge if you’re a programmer (check out this post – learn to program in 10 years). I think making time to process your tasks and review your week falls under this too. This is building your network before you need a job. Look at your life, at the things you should be doing but aren’t urgent right now. Start making time for them, and see what good comes from it.

As a graduate student, if you take a course you have to balance it with working on your thesis. It’s easy for the course to be more urgent, because everything is to a deadline. I deliberately start my assignments a while after they are issued. Yes, this sometimes causes me last minute stress if I’ve misjudged how long it will take or things come up, but if I spend that time before I start on Quadrant 2, I get huge benefits and make progress on my thesis – which is what will ultimately determine the date of my graduation. And I know I’m better at postponing the start date for something that will become urgent, than I am stopping when something is good-enough-but-not-perfect.

Also – check out this post from Study Hacks. What I took from it is that devoting time to Quadrant 2 is the difference between talented and extraordinary.

Learn how to delegate.

I’ve written before about how hard it is to delegate within group projects and student organizations. But at our last meeting for WISE I managed to delegate everything possible. Seriously. I was so happy! How did I do it? I said, these are the other things I have to on my plate and I have to do less. I also explained that I’m going to graduate, and the need to prepare for that so that WISE will keep going when I’m gone. And other people stepped up to the mark and so far, they’re doing great.

But just in case, I have a “waiting for” list on Remember the Milk. So I don’t remember what everyone else is supposed to be doing, because it’s all written down – now I can just check it periodically and chase up as neccessary. Added bonus – if people don’t step up and complete things, I can make it public...

Eliminate ruthlessly.

Is everything you do important? Really?

Yes? I don’t believe you.

There’s always stuff you can get rid of. Try it. It’s liberating. A good place to start if you read a lot – if you start reading something that isn’t useful or interesting, stop.

Interesting post on the importance of saying no.

It’s not enough to “be organized” – you need to have your stuff organized too.

What’s the point in knowing exactly what tasks you need to complete if you can’t find the stuff you need in order to complete them? Throw out as much as you can and organize the rest of it. A filing system if you have a lot of stuff, or just a couple of boxes or binders if you don’t. Digitizing stuff and organizing it into folders works well too.

Eliminate distractions.

Email checking is a huge distraction. One of my friends thinks my aversion to email is ridiculous and tells me he just processes his as it comes in and that it takes hardly any time at all. But it’s been shown that it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to task after a distraction. He might be special, but I’m not. I check my email only between tasks, and have disabled the alerts. If I’m really absorbed in something, I can go several hours without checking it. Same for Twitter, Facebook etc. Although I have notifications on my iPhone, I don’t tend to notice them so they don’t distract me.

Wisdom 2.0 (Amazon) is full of tips on how to manage digital distractions.

Set aside time for things that you want to do.

If there’s something you’re passionate about, find time to work at it. The grind of doing stuff constantly that doesn’t inspire will kill your motivation.

Just start. The rest will follow.

This encompasses so many things.

  • So much time management advice says start the day with your hardest task. There’s a saying, something like, “Start the day by eating a live frog. Then the day can only get better.” It’s true.
  • Set a manageable amount of stuff to achieve in a day.
  • With big tasks it can be hard to know where to start, so break them down into manageable steps. Then your thinking has already done, so you can just get on with doing the task.
  • If you want to go to the gym, just make yourself get dressed and go rather than mandate what you do when you get there.

Check out the 18 minute plan for managing your time (via @feather).

Work towards clearly defined goals.

Covey takes this to the fullest extent, by suggesting you visualize what you’d like people to say at your funeral. You might find that helpful. But even if that seems like a bit much, determining what our high levels goals are can be helpful. Once they’re defined, we need to check-in periodically to ensure we’re making progress on these goals. I did this on my Planning 2010 post. It’s helpful to have them written down as a reference, so that if I’m feeling low on motivation because of the low-level nature of tasks that fill my days, I can go and remind myself of what my important goals are, and see if what I’m doing will help me meet them. If not, why am I doing it? It should be eliminated ruthlessly, as discussed above.

Summary

As I try and incorporate these things into my life, and live by them, I’m seeing the difference. But it’s tough. I struggle particularly with eliminating, and starting the day by eating a live frog. But I see them making a difference, so I hope you find this helpful. If there’s anything else you’ve got from these kind of books, resources for time management, or tips, please leave them in the comments!



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