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How to Hack Your Time Management
No matter what your professional role is, time management can be the difference between burnout and feeling personally and professionally satisfied. Contrary to popular belief, time management does not just involve the work day. In order to take full advantage of your time, you have to take inventory of all of the time in the day and optimize it for productivity. This article will explore several techniques for how to do just that, and in a manner that not only optimizes work output, but allows for relaxation and fun which are equally important.
The Return On Investment (ROI) Mindset
Essential to optimizing time management is thinking about time the same way we think about our investments. If it was possible to spend one hour now to save five minutes every day for the rest of your life, would you do it? You should, because in this example, there is a return on investment to that initial one hour outlay. While it may be difficult to set aside that first hour as a professional with a busy schedule, it will free up time for decades to come. With enough “time investments” like this, significantly more time can be spent doing meaningful, impactful tasks or enjoying your personal life.
Don’t Waste the Small Amounts of Time
Just about everyone can remember a time when they finished working on something a few minutes early before their next meeting and had nothing to do for 5-10 minutes. This time does not have to be wasted. I can guarantee there is something productive that can be done with that seemingly meaningless 5-10 minutes that will save you that time at the end of your work day when you want to go home. A great use of this time is for any kind of communication: checking emails, sending texts, etc. In fact, if you make a habit of using these small amounts of time to check communication channels, you will avoid distracting communications eating into valuable work time.
Eliminate Instant Gratification
Broadly put, most activities that entail instant gratification waste time. Hours upon hours of social media or addicting phone games take up your time without adding meaningful value to your life. Establishing limits for (or completely eliminating) some of these time wasting instant gratifiers can be incredibly impactful on your schedule, because many of these habits take up multiple hours of our days without us even realizing it. However, this is not to say, “never watch Netflix again.” The key to deciding which gratifiers to cut out is applying self awareness and asking yourself: “is this providing meaningful value to my life?” If not, get rid of it and use your time for something that does add value. The “Do Not Disturb” feature can be particularly helpful in silencing distracting notifications and channeling your focus. It takes the average adult a staggering 23 minutes to regain focus after a significant distraction!
Some of us are control freaks. We feel like we have to do tasks ourselves in order for it to be done right. Don’t let this be you! Training a team member on how to complete a task the right way so that you no longer have to do it for them has a high time ROI. Sometimes the team member does not even need the training; you just need to learn to let go of control. This is especially important as an entrepreneur trying to scale a venture. At a company’s beginning the CEO has all of the responsibility, but over time the CEO must give up many of their initial responsibilities for the venture to successfully scale. The CEO’s time is best utilized making decisions that move the business forward.
Be Proactive and Opportunistic
Getting into the mindset that tasks are better completed immediately than at an indeterminate point in the future can solve a plethora of time management issues. Firstly, proactively completing tasks ensures that you don’t have to complete tasks at the last second before they are due, which will in turn improve the quality of the work and alleviate your future self’s stress levels. Secondly, another reason being proactive often leads to higher quality work is that completing the base task ahead of time gives you more time to take your project to the next level. For example, say you are an entrepreneur who finished composing your pitch deck a week before the big demo day at the accelerator program you are in. Now you have time to add appendix slides so that when investors ask a question that is not covered in the base slide deck, you have a slide to refer to, making you look extra prepared and professional. You would not have had this luxury if you started the pitch deck the night before.
One way to promote proactivity is to wake up early. Using the same logic as above, by front-loading your day, you are likely to get more done. However, it is important not to burn the candle from both ends because a significant loss of sleep will harm your productivity the next day. Ultimately, the goal should be to identify when you work best, ensure that you are set up to work at that time of the day, and maintain a consistent work/sleep schedule.
Another way to promote proactivity is to be opportunistic. Maybe your accelerator’s demo day is in a month, but for some reason you can’t stop thinking about ideas for your pitch deck and you feel compelled to work on it. If you have the time, do it now! We are generally most productive when we are feeling passionate about a topic in the moment and when ideas are rapidly coming to mind.
Minimize Meetings Whenever Possible
Meetings are not always the most productive way to collaborate on a project. Meetings are often not only unnecessary, but they can waste extra time because people feel as though they must fill the meeting with an hour worth of discussion if the meeting was originally scheduled for an hour. If an email or text could communicate your message just as well, forgo scheduling a meeting and save that time for a task that adds more value to the project. Meetings are best used to discuss and solve problems that are getting in the way of progress.
It is important to note that any communication on sensitive topics that could be misconstrued should be done using a meeting. This will save you the time and stress of repairing a relationship damaged by an incorrect interpretation of your email or text.
Fun, Health, and Relationships are Important
Burnout is not always caused by having too much work, but by spending too little time enjoying life, maintaining one’s health, and nourishing meaningful personal relationships (friends, family, spouse, etc.). The goal of your time management strategy should not be to maximize the amount of time spent working; it should be to maximize your efficiency when you are working. Ultimately, both quality and efficiency of work suffer when one malnourishes other areas of their lives by, for example, not getting enough sleep, skipping meals in favor of working, neglecting to exercise (diminishes energy levels), not taking time off, or spending too little time with loved ones (leads to demotivation at work and stress in the home life). However even if, for example, taking a vacation does not increase your productivity when you return to work, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the vacation time. Life isn’t about maximizing productivity, but to reiterate, maximizing productivity while at work does allow for more time to spend on other areas of one’s life. Taking care of your health and personal relationships ensures that you are going to work happy and healthy, as opposed to tired, malnourished, and demotivated.
At a high level, if you reach your maximum time that could be healthily and happily spent on work but are splitting it between multiple commitments or roles, the quality and efficiency of your work is likely to suffer. This is firstly because the time it takes to transition from working on one task to another can add friction that degrades your productivity. Secondly, quality and efficiency suffer because no single commitment is getting your full attention. That being said, taking on multiple commitments or roles at a time can have obvious benefits to your career, salary, and learning. The key is to achieve the right balance. You know you have the right balance when you have satisfied the following two conditions:
You can confidently look yourself in the mirror and say that you have done your best work with every commitment you have taken on.
You are perfectly aligning your time ROI with your real-life ROI. That is, given the constraints inherent to multitasking, the use of your time is as efficient as possible with the highest ROI for those tasks that you are spending your time on.
Pursue Your Passions
Given a surplus of opportunities, try to only engage in opportunities that you are passionate about. Every role is going to have busy work and tediousness to it, but when you are genuinely passionate about what you are doing, it is so much easier to get through heavy workloads while efficiently producing high quality work because you are fully invested in the outcome. Pursuing your passions can also generally be correlated to improving quality of life.
One “time investment” that has an extremely high ROI is the use of productivity apps to keep track of projects, tasks, and deadlines. The best productivity app I have used is called “Things” and can be used on a phone or computer. For the one-time price of a cheap restaurant meal, you are enabled to automate your task management. All you have to do is tap to create a task, set the date you want to start it on, and set the date it is due by. The task then automatically appears in your “Today” to-do list when you noted to start working on it. The app also syncs with your calendars to ensure full integration of tasks. Personally, this app has enabled me to save time on planning and tracking tasks and mitigate many of the inefficiencies that come with multitasking between commitments.
Work in Short Bursts and Take Regular Breaks
Scientific studies show that humans can only concentrate on a given task for a short period of time, with some studies finding that period to be as little as 10-20 minutes. Because of this, it makes sense to take regular breaks and work in short bursts. A common productivity principle is the Pomodoro Technique, in which one works for 25 minutes, followed by a five minute break. Utilizing this technique can help optimize use of time while also breaking up the workload nicely.
Take Control of Your Environment
Create a dedicated workspace that is for work and nothing else, especially if you work from home. By creating this dedicated space and taking control of it, you not only create a degree of separation between your work life and your home life, but you also make it easier to avoid distractions. If you are traveling and working on the go, I recommend finding a co-working space or a cafe nearby to work at, rather than holing up in your hotel room. Whatever you do, do not work in your bed. This has been proven to create a variety of issues, the most notable of which being trouble sleeping, as working in bed erodes your brain’s association of your bed with rest.
Know When to Say “No”
One of the best things you can do is learn when to say no. It is easy to fall into the trap of being a “people pleaser” and saying yes to every favor people ask of you. If you do that for too long, you will soon find you spend more time helping people with their tasks than doing your own. There is nothing wrong with helping others, but like anything, it should be in moderation. A good way to govern this is to set clear boundaries with yourself such as establishing a limit to how much time you spend each week doing favors. Reasonable team members should understand that you have responsibilities and a life you need to tend to as well. Additionally, helping too much can undermine team members’ abilities to problem-solve for themselves, which can lead to underdelegation of tasks.
Most of these methods may appear simple — and they are — but the key to implementing them is a purposeful, disciplined approach. Implementing these various techniques has a significant time ROI, but more importantly, by becoming a more efficient worker that produces higher quality results, you will be attain a freer, more balanced lifestyle.