Become the Master of Your Time


(Image: epsos)

Do you often find that you don’t have enough time to do things? Say you scheduled 3 tasks for today. You start the day full of zest and confidence to tackle those 3 tasks. At the end of the day, you realized that you barely even completed the first task because there were other things that demanded your attention.

The first and most important thing you need to recognize in time management is you essentially have the same amount of time as everyone in the world. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and every single person in this world has 24 hours every day, 365 days a year, just like you do. Time is not a limited commodity because it is always right there, unfolding every second before you. There is no time to manage. Time is just what it is. You cannot arrange your “time,” make an hour shorter or longer than it already is, or make it faster or slower.

Time is an artificial human construct

The concept of time is just an artifical human construct. It is a system of measurement invented by Man to give an order and semblance of meaning to what is before us. Centuries, decades, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds, milliseconds — these are just terms that we created so that we can better assert control over the fluidity of time. And it does its job well too — the construct of time has helped us establish order and a system of understanding among all humans as we lead our lives in a convenient and organized fashion. When you say “Let’s meet at 9am on Friday,” your friends can understand you because we have a common understanding of how time works, as demarcated by days/hours/minutes/seconds.

But in reality, time is just what it is. You do not need more time nor do you not have enough time. Time is always just there. You have all the time right there before you.

Reframing the problem in ‘Time Management’

What you do have, however, are activities and tasks that you need to complete within each day. What you do need are better skills and techniques to manage those activities and ensure that they get completed within the designated time. What you need to learn is activity/self/life management, not time management.

Here I bring you a quote from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done:

“You can’t manage time, it just is. So ‘time management’ is a mislabeled problem, which has little chance of being an effective approach. What you really manage is your activity during time, and defining outcomes and physical actions required is the core process required to manage what you do.”

The topic of time management / task management is so huge that it is not possible to cover it in just one article. I will start by introducing the basic concept, followed by separate articles that build on this concept. I will also be sharing specific time management frameworks, techniques, and tips which you can apply in your life. 🙂 Because “time management” is such an ubiquitous term, I will use it interchangeably with “task management” from hereon. You should know better when you see the term “time management” next time. 😉

Two Pillars of Time Management: Effectiveness and Efficiency

The core of time management can broken into two parts: effectiveness and efficiency.

  • Effectiveness means doing the important. It means being able to prioritize, to see the forest for the trees, to focus on what is needed to deliver the results, and to say no to things that are not in line with the bigger picture of your life.
  • Efficiency means to produce optimal output with a smaller investment of time and resources.

The pinnacle of time management would be 1) First, to work on all the activities in your life in order of importance, then 2) Second, to maximize your output from those tasks, as I have illustrated in the graph below:

Graph of Output vs. Time

*Note: A, B, C tasks refer to their priority of importance, with A tasks being the most important (Image: Personal Excellence)

First Pillar: Effectiveness

Many people attribute their time management failures to being inefficient, when the real opportunity lies in being more effective. Effectiveness can be applied in two steps: Firstly, doing the important tasks over the less important tasks. Secondly, doing the important steps within the important tasks. Let us explore each in turn.

1st Step: Do the important tasks first

Effectiveness happens when you work on your tasks in order of their priority. If you find that you often have insufficient time for something (exercise, relationships), that’s because you have not prioritized it enough. You chose to do other things over it, and that’s why you “don’t have enough time” for it. It may be a result of not recognizing the relative importance of that particular activity over the other things you are busy with. Or it could be that you are trapped in the routine of doing unimportant things.

For example, perhaps you may have been meaning to go to the gym after work, but demands at work kept you staying back till late. Here, you have prioritized your work over exercise. Perhaps you did a quick assessment of the pros/cons of continuing work versus exercising and decided that the former is a better choice over the latter. The urgent nature of the work demanded your attention, whereas exercise can always be done at a later time.

Whatever it is, it is your personal choice to have spent your time doing the things you did. Ownership of your actions and choices is needed to for you to start making progress in time management. Some people spend their days in random activities such as mindless web surfing, chatting, watching TV, and lazing. At the end of the day, they look back and wonder where their day has gone. Was there an issue with their effectiveness? Absolutely. They chose to prioritize doing those random tasks over what is really important to them.

2nd Step: Do the important steps within the task

Let’s look at the second step — doing the important steps within the task. Say you need to do a presentation and you have prioritized it over other activities on your list. While working on the presentation however, you spend the majority of your time working on less important sub-tasks. Instead of strengthening the quality of your content, you spend your time changing minute details like having matching font colors and correcting text alignments in each slide.

Now I’m not saying that it is not important to have a professional and consistent look in your materials. I have done my fair share of presentations in my university studies and at work, easily at least a hundred.

However, unless the materials you have look absolutely horrendous or the person you are presenting to is very particular about design elements, these little things are not going to matter much in the long run. I find that the more presentations I do, the more time I spend time focusing on the content, the organization of ideas, my delivery, and possible questions rather than the smaller details such as formatting, look, and feel.

I remember when I first started doing presentations in university, I wasted so much time in the design and formatting which did not make a difference in the bigger picture. I would put off my delivery, meaning how I would present, to be the last thing on my to-do list. It was a huge mistake, because I ended up having no time to work on my speech and delivery most of the time, and these were so critical.

Nowadays, some of my presentations can be just simple black text against a white background depending on the people I am presenting to. Of course, if I’m presenting to a crowd that perceives design as part of the content, I’ll put effort into the design. In the end, it boils down to prioritizing the steps that matter.

Second Pillar: Efficiency

Efficiency, which is about doing things quicker and more accurately, has a smaller impact than improving effectiveness. That is because there is a limit to how fast and how much we can do within our human capacity.

For example, you have a report to type out. It is a 6,000-word report which you have already written on paper and you need to finish it. With a typing speed of 60 WPM (Words per Minute), you get the job done in 100 minutes. If you try to type faster at 65 WPM, you will finish the job in 92 minutes, which shaves 8 minutes off your original timing, which is good but not a lot in the bigger scheme of things, compared to what you can achieve by improving your effectiveness (to work on the right tasks first). That is assuming you do not make more errors from the increased speed! To reach the pinnacle of efficiency is to become a robot.

Improving efficiency is definitely important, but before trying to be efficient, we should ensure that we are being effective. Most people today make the mistake of working on efficiency, thinking that that’s all to time management. Effectiveness should come before efficiency to maximize our output.

Returning to example above, you can type the report directly in your computer to begin with instead of writing it on paper and transferring it to the computer, which creates an additional step. You can use a pen scanner to scan the text, though it is subject to errors so it may not be as good as the former. You can even delegate or outsource the typing to someone, which gets the task done at no expense of your time.

In the end, when you work on Effectiveness and Efficiency, you make the best out of your days.

This is part of the Maximizing Productivity series. Check out the full series: