How to manage one’s time ?

16 minutes read —

Under the umbrella term “time management” are a collection of skills one can develop and use in order to tackle any kind of project ; especially the larger and more challenging ones. Although most of us are battling with procrastination and various setbacks ; I’m not going to talk about that today. I will assume we are in a perfectly capable mindset with a bunch of time on our hands and a goal to pursue. I want to focus instead on what to do once we are sit in front of our projects and ready to work. When working independently, planning can certainly be daunting. In the absence of any sort of manager above our heads to direct our focus ; prioritizing and organizing the work is left for us to do. Below is one way to break a project down and plan its execution in a manner that tries and maximize the odds that all tasks will move-on to completion without major hurdles. This is how I’m currently doing it and accounts for the main errors likely to arise as we move forward on our adventure. Let’s take it step by step.

Open a text editor

The first thing I ideally want to do before tackling a fat project is to sit down in front of a good text editor and start planning out the ins and out of the work-life I’m going to try and adopt in the following weeks to month. My software of choice for such a task has been Typora for a while now. It’s all about simplicity of use. It features the markdown syntax which probably figures among the most efficient ways to add essential formatting to a document. From easy to read plain text format, markdown will convert your writing to structurally valid HMTL. It makes web formatting accessible for people who don’t know a thing about HTML while still allowing the use of html tags within the document if additional formatting such as progress bars is needed. This means we can skip on word processors all together. It features checkboxes to create simple todo lists, tables to cover all our OCD needs, it imports images and links without any trouble. There’s a file management column on the left for easy access to all the ongoing work. Typora really distinguishes itself among other markdown editor by supporting other markup convention such as LaTex for writing math formulas,or Mermaid that can effortlessly produce diagrams and pie charts. All the basics are covered in the simplest way they could be covered. No tweaking needed, just sit and write. One more good thing about this piece of software is that it is currently free.

Set a goal

Now that this is out of the way ; let’s get to it.

Time management always starts with setting a goal. Writing it down will certainly help in the prioritizing department and set-up the mind for the challenge to come. Once you have an aim ; you start to perceive differently. The world becomes a matrix of tools and obstacles. The solutions can only be found once we start looking for them. Hence we must define what it is we’re chasing. It also provides some accountability. Refusing to set-up conditions for failure, although understandable ; ensures life-procrastination. We do not want that.

Goal setting isn’t done randomly though. We want to maximize the probabilities that our ambitions will manifest in actuality. If you’re somewhat distractible ; you might want to avoid setting goals that span too far into the future. We aren’t fixed creatures. We morph and evolve. Our wants and desire are subject to change. What we are aiming at right now might not be what we’ll end up chasing a while from now.

Moreover the goal has to be somewhat realistic otherwise it won’t get done, independent of how good at time management you are. Once again, bigger goals that do not present a finish line before the dawn of times ; even when achievable ; tend not to be actionable. They are floffy ; they lack detail on how to actually implement them.

The solution is to focus on a smaller time scale. Humans have grown accustomed to the natural cycles emanating from the sky and the sun. I’m talking about the seasonal changes that occur every 3 months or so. I’d suggest therefore in an effort to conform to our inherited biology to settle for 3-months time periods when organizing our work. That’s 13 weeks. 90 days or so. There is plenty of room to move the ball forward and make stuff happen in such a timeframe.

Oh and I forgot to mention ; there is one more thing you might want to do aside from goal setting. And that is “fear setting”. Although stress gets a bad rep ; this mechanism remains one of the strongest motivator we know of. It is sometimes far more potent than desire. You are much more likely to postpone a desire than you are a to do the same with a fear. What would happen should you fail to meet the goal ?

Gauge your time pool

You are now in possession of two things : a motivated goal, and a due date. I’d say it’s a rather good place to be at but we shouldn’t stay still. Let’s keep moving. The next step is to go micro and break all of that down.

What is this due date ? How many weeks does that represent ? How many work days ? How many hours ? There are a number of things to consider when making such calculations. Extracting the number of days available should be easy enough ; but then we go down one level and already mistakes arise. When we talk about work hours ; we should always understand fully focused work hours. Not half-assed lazy barely conscious and distracted hours. Twitter hours do not count. YouTube hours do not count. And we are largely guilty of overestimating how much hours are truly up for exploitation in any given day. Using a time tracker such as RescueTime for a while should really open your eyes to the unfortunate reality of your average work day. In order to understand how off we can be ; I need to tell you ; a typical 8 hours day for most knowledge worker barely accounts for 3 to 4 hours of truly productive time. No more than that. The rest is constituted of social media, video consumption, communication… Half the workdays goes out to distractions essentially. What we are often tempted to do is to plan according to how many hours we wish to work rather than how many hours we realistically can and will work each day. That’s called wishful thinking. Should there be a mismatch ; you will almost certainly get late on every single task or, if out of some sort of miracle you still manage to achieve what you set out to achieve despite the uncontrolled optimism, you would have condemned yourself to cut on sleep and ultimately on life-expectancy. No-one wants that. That’s not a sustainable strategy.

In fact, even after you get a clear picture of how much time you can realistically count-on ; you still need to push aside some of that time. We are optimistic to a fault when it comes to loading our future selves with tasks. We’re counting on our best selves to be present and do the work each day. The reality is that sometimes we will fail to sleep properly, get tired and work rather slowly, garbage output will need to be redone from scratch, unexpected problems will happen and need fixing, life-events will take priority here and there and I’m missing out on some. We need to account for all of that and more. The way it is traditionally done is to add a half of your total time estimate as a reserve bank of time. Some people even go as far as blocking out only half the total time and keep as much reserve as they have work estimates. Whatever the margin you chose ; have a margin. All the time available shouldn’t be blocked otherwise the plan will suffer from a total lack of resiliency should anything go wrong. And things will go wrong.

Adjust your workload

Once we know how big your time pool is ; we can switch our focus to the other part of the equation. What are the constituents of the goal ? What tasks need to get down for that goal to manifest ? Let’s just write everything we can think of. Then make an estimate of how much time each task will likely require to get performed. How much juice will you have to put in to cross those marks in terms of work hours ? Estimates are error-prone ; there’s no way around it but make your best guesses. Experience tend to help in that regard. If you’ve done a task a thousand times, you probably have some idea of how fast you can expect to pull it off. I will advise to go especially conservative regarding tasks that are very novel. All sort of unseen trouble probably lies there.

At this point we have two numbers. A time pool ; and a time estimate for our workload. And now you might look at those two numbers and realize there’s a mismatch. Good. That’s what we are here for. This is where it gets real. Most likely you have piled up way too much work for the time pool you dispose of. In that case what you have to do is to tame your ambitions a little bit and cut on that crap. What are the least essential tasks you have put in that list ? What needs to be done no matter what ? Is there a way to reduce the scope of the project to make it doable. When I was studying animation in Paris ; one way to ensure we got to finish our short films in sound time, despite them being solo projects, was to limit our stories to a single place and time as well as keeping the number of characters down to a bare minimum. We also had a time limit for how long the short film should be. This meant less environment modeling, less character modeling, less character animation. Truth is, we would have need a very good reason to push against those limitations : our plates were seriously full already ! And those rules didn’t prevent us from telling compelling stories. They only prevented us from failing the task. So get creative and revise your plan until the two columns match. Your time estimate should match the depth of your time pool. No more. No less.

I need to mention that it’s also possible to delegate tasks rather than simply crossing them off. These days we can find virtual assistants and all sorts of professionals for hire online. This comes at a cost and might require upfront time investment in order to find and then train the person to the task. But it might fit some situations.

Finally, in the rare cases where you have less tasks than what your time would allow ; well you can add some or aim at a better quality level by dedicating more time to each task. You have room to push further ; use it.

Establish your typical day

The next thing I want to do once I’m set on all my checkboxes is to separate all tasks into a bunch of categories. For instance, I’m currently working on the next iteration of my website. I plan to add a bunch of music, some illustrations, blog posts, and try my hands at audio-fiction as a cross-domains production. On top of that I will have to go and edit the website itself to present all of that content in a somewhat convincing way. That means I have five different buckets. And by adding the time estimates of all the tasks that constitute each of those categories ; I have an idea of how much each block eats from the global time pool. So, it’s time to make a pie chart. I can still do that without leaving Typora, my text editor. I want to set my typical day in a way that mimics the overall project. If my illustration category represents 34% of the total time pool ; I will allocate 34% of any given day to that category.

This is done to ensure diversity at the local scale. I find switching tasks often to be beneficial both for productivity and for learning. Some degree of novelty keeps me alert and focused. It can also prevent unhealthy absorption into a single task that could easily border on obsession and lead to over-working parts of the project at the detriment of others.

It also promotes some degree of flexibility. In any given day I have the options to reorder the tasks to my liking. It can make it easier to get started provided there will most likely be at least a task I’m prone to doing at the moment. Once the ball is moving it gets easier to keep going with the least desirable tasks. There’s also the possibility to spend more time on a domain than initially planned ; as long as it is compensated for the next day. Having an idea of what the day should look like is in fact what matters most. “Plans are useless but planning is indispensable” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. That’s because every single conceivable parameter is bound to fluctuate, making the perfect plan inapplicable in real life. Still, planning is the part of the process where valuable information is gathered and thought-up that will inform us in all our on-the-spot decision making. Or to quote Jack Sparrow “the code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules”.

Draw a Gantt chart

Now we’re going to get into the knitty-gritty of what gets done when. Since we know how much time we’re going to work on each bucket each day and we know how long each task in the bucket should take to completion ; we can draw a Gantt chart. Timelines and tasks get converted to horizontal bars showing start and end dates. This is a really useful tool for anyone who plan to run tasks in parallels.

There’s a bit of ordering that goes into it initially. Of course ; we should take dependencies into account and not plan child tasks before their respective parent task are completed, it goes without saying.

Once all is said and done we end-up with an eye-pleasing diagram that tells you everything you need to know. All the deadlines are there. The completion dates for such and such task are clearly indicated.

If the planning was accurate ; it only requires constant execution the “typical” day to meet all the dead lines without additional trouble. Of course things rarely go that smoothly.

Garbage collect

There’s one more safety measure I like to implement. One I call the garbage collector. The term is borrowed from computer science. It is the systematic recovery of all the crap that programs leave hanging in memory when it is no longer needed. In the context of project management ; what I’d call garbage collecting is similar in that it’s all about taking care of the stinky trash we tend to leave behind. What I mean is that, I at least, have a tendency to get tasks to an almost finished stage. You know those times when you’re like “well there’s only this little bit left to do, it should take a quarter of an hour at best”. Maybe you’ve written a bunch of blog articles but they’re not published yet and they could benefit from a last proofreading. Maybe you noticed a missing detail in a painting after the fact and you thought you would take care of it later. Maybe there’s a transition you were left unsure with on a score you sped-run yesterday and you are pretty sure you’d fix it in no time with fresh ears at some other time in the unspecified future. Well, those things, although individually quite harmless ; they tend to add-up quite fast ! Way faster than we imagine. There’s a saying that the last 10% of a project take up 90% of the time. This is the reason! Putting off all the areas we are unsure of until the end tends to backfire big times. This is the crap we need to get rid off. A good habit to develop is to note each of those little things on a task list rather than relying on your memory to store the information and then scheduling work blocks dedicated to clearing said list. If it is done regularly enough, a very short amount of time is probably plain and sufficient to keep things under control. It functions just like chores. The dishes are best done everyday soon after their respective meal. It gets a lot messier the longer you wait.

Beat the clock

Once the plan is ready ; there’s only one thing to do and that is to get to work. Try and be fully present at each moment. Uninterrupted focus counts as work. Distracted time does not. Some sort of timer is a great aid when working in conjunction with some variant of the Pomodoro technique. Keeping track of how much time went into each task is also great feedback to have. It will promote better planning over time since everything starts with awareness. Again, keep in mind that only truly focused time counts. When your attention drifts ; stop the clock, stand-up, go for a walk, drink some water, think about anything but the task. Come back, start the clock again, keep going. Counting distracted time leads to the formation of a habit of working more and more hours at a lower efficacy level. It’s akin to self-deception. It is entirely possible to work more-than-full days while still getting very little done. We must remain aware of this trap. With those basics clearly understood, you can then try to do beat your own expectations. Provided they were reasonable in the first place, it should be possible to do so. Try and achieve your tasks faster than anticipated. And then, if you still have some energy after your typical day and nothing better to do ; maybe you can try adding some. I must add sport, sleep, and quality time with close friends and relatives are absolutely better things to do. However if the situation permits it ; there are certainly worse ways to use one’s time than to try getting ahead. Take it as a challenge. Running to the front and with a margin is a great feeling to experience ; as opposed to feeling behind every step of the plan and having to push harder and harder either way just to keep-up.

Plan often

Now as I mentioned several times ; it is a normal part of any plan to eventually break. After-all ; there is one way for the plan to go well and near-infinite ways for the plan to go slightly to completely wrong. Hopefully the safeguards we put in place as we planned should prevent things from derailing to the point where project completion in due time is compromised ; but if this happens to your plan, do not panic.

Maybe you are willing to brute-force your way through what is left. You should have time left on your typical day that you can reallocate for such an effort before eating away at your sleep if you planned well in the first place. I would strongly advise against doing that for prolonged or even recurring periods of time though. Keep in mind that efficacy will suffer ; this is not a linear process. Putting in twice the time does not get twice the work done ; far from it. Moreover it does not protect against further bad surprises and there won’t be any margin left then. If your only way to tackle such problems is to work more ; you will encounter a hard limit soon enough. And you will end-up with an inflated need to recharge afterwards. Burnout can take one to three years of recovery.

What I suggest instead is that It is time to sit down and go through the steps again from beginning to end. Draw an other plan. A revised, better plan.

Maybe this will involve stepping down the expectations again and limiting the scope of the project further if there is not enough time left to get it all done. Maybe it will mean allocating less time to some tasks and figuring out solutions to make that possible ; for example by switching technique to a less time consuming one. I’m not going to lie ; it might require getting seriously creative ; but time spent here will do wonders for your long-term health.

Maybe your deadline isn’t such a hard one and the solution might simply be to move it around a bit

However you do it, taking some time each week or at key moments such as mid-project to review what went well and what didn’t is good practice. The sooner you make the needed adjustments, the less likely you are to get eaten alive by stress.

On a side note, if you are doing contractor work ; know that the sooner you discuss displacing a deadline or modifying a brief with your client, the more likely that this discussion will go well. Put yourself in their shoes ; the really painful parts are the uncertainty of not knowing when and if the work will get done and last minute reshuffles that might negatively impact several other participants that depend on the completion of your part of the job to do theirs. Both of those are major stressors. If you give your clients time to see it coming ; they will most likely be able to adapt with minimal sweat broken. The worst case scenario would be to say nothing and fail to meet the agreed upon deadline. So please, share the Intel with your team, stay transparent.

With all that said ; I wish you some fine strategizing and lots of -hopefully- unneeded luck in all your endeavors ! Just remember to be as honest as you can with your time accounting at all steps of the process and you should be fine.