This is an excerpt from Be the Master: 2019 Edition. You can participate in the development of this new edition by purchasing the e-book at Leanpub.
I both love and hate to-do lists. I love them, because for me they’re a decent way to prioritize what I need to do from moment to moment, and a way to make sure I’m not forgetting things. I use my to-do list in conjunction with my email inbox and my calendar. Any item in my inbox is a to-do, which is why I value “Inbox Zero” so much. And I schedule time to work on to-do items. That way, I know when I’m supposed to be doing things, and I can assign meaningful “due dates” (and times) to each to-do item. It’s a little OCD. I get that.
But that’s not why I hate to-do lists. I hate them because I see so many people with those Dayrunner books, making themselves lists, and then never working the list. Stuff never gets “done.” Frankly, it’d drive me absolutely batshit with anxiety. Which is an important point: I’m so OCD about my to-do list representing actual things I need to do that I’m very careful not to make the list overly granular, and very careful not to make the list overloaded. I plan a couple of weeks in advance at most, usually. Otherwise, the list itself just starts to look huge, and unapproachable, and monstrous, and I stress over it.
I also manage my time very aggressively. If someone’s 5 minutes late for a scheduled meeting, and hasn’t let me know that the meeting will be delayed, I’m out of there. That’s my maximum tolerance for wasted time. I also track wasted time. Not the meeting-started-late wasted time, but the time I waste myself.
Oh, yeah. I waste time. Everyone does. You have to. Human brains demand distraction from time to time, just like our bodies do better if we occasionally stand. I swear, I don’t know why Apple Watch reminds me to breath (have a hypothalamus, I’m good on respiration), and why it can remind me to stand, but it can’t remind me to go fool around on Facebook for a few minutes. Actually, I’ll tell you why: most people start in on Facebook and never stop. Or maybe not Facebook, but something like it. You know what I mean. Maybe your poison is YouTube or Twitter or Chive or whatever, but you’ve got your pet distraction, and you know you spend too much time on it.
Track that time. I use a “cumulative timer” (like https://www.amazon.com/Mark-My-Time-7000149-Digital-Bookmark-Green/dp/1782700234/). When I’m about to start wasting time, I start it. I let myself go for five or ten minutes, and then stop it. At the end of the week (or day, whatever), I make a note in my workbook about how much time I wasted that week. This isn’t, “oh, that meeting was a waste of time,” this is time I have chosen to waste. Over a few weeks, I start to find my baseline for wasted time, and so long as I’m tracking around that, I know I’m doing okay. Too little wasted time and I analyze my week to see if I’m feeling stressed, or if I felt less productive, or whatever. Too much, and I focus more on not wasting as much time next week. Wasted time has a budget for me, and I try to spend about the same amount each week. When I’ve done this with some colleagues, informally, I’ve found that they waste about three times more time than they’d estimated for themselves. That’s a lot of “lost” time, in which you could be doing other things to help achieve your success.
That perception is a big part of why I track my time, too. I don’t want to run around thinking I’m wasting 30 minutes a day when in fact I’m burning three hours! Tracking my wasted time takes me out of the realm of belief, and into the safer (for me) realm of fact. If I don’t like the facts I find, I can make adjustments.
I also have a close-the-loop session toward the end of every day. If I scheduled an hour to work on a white paper, for example, then I just check myself at the end of the day. Did I get through it in an hour? Or did it take two hours? Was I interrupted in the middle, and forced to re-set my mind, or did it just legitimately take two hours? The point of this isn’t to punish myself, or even to try and make myself faster. Some things just take what they take. The point is to educate myself, to better understand how I work, and how long things take. If I know that I can produce 2,000 written words in an hour, then I can start to make better estimates of how much work I can handle. If a new writing project comes in, I can see where on my schedule it will fit, and have a more realistic estimate of when I can have that work done. This helps me set better expectations, and do a better job of not promising something I can’t deliver on. In the beginning, I kept a note on how long various common workloads would take me. For example, I know it takes me about 6 hours total to produce a slide deck for a 1-2 hour conference presentation. I know it takes about an hour to produce 2,000 written words, although I can only do that for about four hours before I need a solid break. These days, I’ve gotten so used to some of these that I don’t need to refer to that note anymore, but it’s still sitting on my computer someplace.
Time sometimes doesn’t always go the way you want. For example, I’ve gotten out of bed some mornings, planning to write 10,000 words or so during the day, and found myself utterly not in the mood. There’s no point forcing it; I’d just write crap and have to start over later anyway. So I rearrange my schedule. I move some stuff into the current day that I’m more in the mood for, and find a place for that writing to happen. But the point is that I actually rearrange things. I don’t just blow off the writing and hope I can squeeze it in someplace. I manage the problem, rather than ignoring it.
For me managing time isn’t the same as micro-managing time. I’m not trying to tell myself what to do, or force myself to be faster. I’m mainly observing the facts on the ground, and then building my planning process around that.