(…) consider Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand’s idea that significant, impactful ideas will require at least five years of focused action to complete. Subtract your current age from eighty-five and divide by five — that’s how many significant projects you have left to do.
— Charlie Gilkey, Start Finishing (p. 60)
Achievers have an eye for the essential. They have acquired the habit of aligning their long-term goals with their day-to-day actions. They are aware that while they can decide to do whatever they want, they cannot do everything. They live their days by Pareto’s Principle: a minority of causes, inputs, or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards._1. Achievers focus their attention on what’s important, and say _no to other things so they can produce extraordinary results.
The key to modern productivity lies not in more exhaustive to-do lists, but in identifying what really impacts your work and focusing on those tasks. Efficiency is doing a thing right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing. Some things matter more than others. Focus on being productive, not busy.
- cfr Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More with Less. ↩
Everybody manages her or his time somehow. Even people that may never formally have thought about time management have some implicit system. And yet, many people are not happy with how they deal with the things they have to do everyday.
Often frequent interruptions, overlapping activities, and impending deadlines prevent us from the best intentions. In fact, stressful factors like these are harmful to us; they trigger more stress, compulsive behavior, and discontinuity, and they reduce our consciousness, concentration, and clear-minded thinking. The mind ends up wandering forward and backward in time, looking for someone or something to blame for our imagined inability.1
We can become better at managing ourselves. We need to get better at it. Good intentions are not enough to achieve our goals and fulfill responsibilities. If we don’t get control of our time2, we will be at mercy of circumstances, and live in a constant turnmoil that will end up affecting both our personal and professional lifes. Sometimes, out of frustration, we can end up blaming others for our lack of self-discipline.
Being efficient is a sign that we value other people’s time. When we send the agenda of a meeting in advance, not only are we taking the steps for an effective meeting, but also showing respect for the other attendees. When we meet a deadline, we are doing our job, but also helping others do theirs. Arriving on time, punctuality, is respect for our colleagues’ time.
Shane Parrish says something similar about not having time to do something:
“I don’t have time” is really just another, perhaps politer, way of saying “it’s not that important to me.”3
No wonder Peter Drucker says that _until we can manage ourselves, we can manage nothing else_4:
Executives who do not manage themselves for effectiveness cannot possibly expect to manage their associates and subordinates. Management is largely by example.
In forty-five years of work as a consultant with a large number of executives in a wide variety of organizations—large and small; businesses, government agencies, labor unions, hospitals, universities, community services; American, European, Latin American, Japanees– I have not come across a single “natural”: an executive who was born effective. And all of them had to learn to be effective. And all of them had to practice effectiveness until it became habit. (…) Effectiveness can be learned –and it also has to be learned.
(…) Without effectiveness, there is no “performance”, no matter how much intelligence and knowledge goes into the work, no matter how many hours it takes
Systematic vs ad-hoc Time Management
In his Jedi Productivity series, IESE’s Conor Neill explains two approaches to time management. The systematic aproach, and the ad-hoc approach. When you are systematic, you approach the things you have to do in a way that is repeatable. In the ad-hoc approach, you manage the things as you go, no doubt with the best of intentions and all your energy, but without consistency.
Our approach to time management must be systematic.
When you are systematic, you can trust yourself to get things done. When others are systematic, you can trust them to get things done. When someone is working in ad-hoc mode, sometimes she delivers and sometimes doesn’t.5
I am already at my peak productivity
Improving your effectiveness is no obscure science. For example, there are a lot of books that explain how to organize yourself better. (Perhaps one of the most well-known is Getting Things Done, or GTD, by David Allen.) Webpages about the topic abound. Why do so many people struggle with it?
The first obstacle, in my opinion, is becoming aware that you are not as efficient as you think, that you can improve your skills in this area. A common excuse is reasoning along the lines “I always deliver my best”, or “I have advanced my carreer this far without any special attention to personal productivity. I am productive”. You probably are productive –if you weren’t, you would not fall into this trap–, but the difference between someone who is just efficient and someone who is committed to get better at it is the difference between an amateur and the pro.
I just need to work harder
Another obstacle is thinking that time management can be solved by sheer effort. If you need to read a book just to know what a time management methodology proposes, but you live with the continuous sensation that you have no time… you probably won’t read the book and use that time for doing more work.
You don’t become competent or skilled at doing something just by putting more effort. You need good techniques. You need to improve how to manage yourself and your time.
The third obstacle is that even if we know that time management is a long term commitment, we seek quick fixes.
Managing time requires practice and habits. That is, the exercise of concrete actions during a period of time, until the habits become transparent to us, until they become second-nature to our workflow. Before that moment, there may be some improvement, but the –erroneous– perception will be that the methodology is getting in our way.
Also, don’t forget that methods won’t suit everybody “as-is”. In time, you will need to adapt whatever method you choose to your concrete situation.
The Total Control Deception
Another problem is the ilusion that it is possible to have total control of our time. Sorry to disapoint you, but it is not.
You can plan your perfect work-day at the office, but as Moltke said, _No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy_6. Some people get frustrated when their plan falls apart.
Plan your week and day in detail if necessary, but don’t forget that it is just a plan, a guideline that will change as the day goes by. What is important is not that your plan works out flawlessly, but that what needs to get done gets done.
- Excerpt From: Staffan Nöteberg. Pomodoro Technique Illustrated. ↩
- Although effectiveness and time management are not exactly the same concept, I will use the terms interchangably throughout this article. Time management is the act or process of planning and exercising conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency or productivity. (cfr. Wikipedia, Time Management). Effectiveness is the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result; success: the effectiveness of the treatment. (cfr. American English Dictionary). ↩
- cfr @farnamstreet on Twitter. ↩
- Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive. ↩
- Conor Neill, Jedi Productivity, 1 of 11. ↩
- According to Wikipedia, this quote is attributed to Helmuth Graf von Moltke, one of Clausewitz’s generals. Other Google searches results attribute similar phrases to Sun Tzu’s the Art of War. ↩
Time management cannot be despised. Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed, says Peter Drucker1. Everybody finds themselves with the limits of time.
While this is common sense, using time effectively and achieving high personal productivity is not easy. In a recent study of 1,500 executives around the globe by McKinsey, 48% of the respondents said the way they spend their time didn’t match their organizations’ strategic priorities.2
There is a lot of bibliography about time management, productivity and execution3. But in this post I wanted to explain a concept that I have found extremely useful for productively managing my time, and helping others manage theirs.
Manager’s Schedule and Maker’s Schedule
People in management positions usually have two types of schedules intermixed, which Paul Graham calls the Maker’s schedule and the Manager’s schedule.
The manager’s schedule follows the appointment book, where the day is cut into one hour or half hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if needed, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. This is the time for meetings, making phone calls, reviewing reports, doing follow-up tasks, answering mails and the like. Interruptions during this time may be annoying or not, but don’t have a great toll on your productivity.
There are other tasks, however, that require a longer time span and great attention. An hour for this kind of task is barely enough time to get started. This is the maker’s schedule. Knowledge workers in particular need this kind of time. It is in this kind of uninterrupted work where you find relationships between ideas, get to the root cause of a problem, or where you are able to synthesize complex reasoning in simple and clear statements. You enter a state of flow, where you produce great stuff through absolute concentration4.
Getting in this kind of flow is not easy. According to some authors, it takes between 15 minutes to half an hour to achieve this state where you are at maximum productivity. More important, any interruption will throw you out of the flow. A phone call, interruptions by coworkers, an incoming mail… And to reenter the high productivity state again you may need another half an hour.
Consequences of the Maker’s Schedule
Embracing the maker’s schedule has consequences. A consequence is that you need to explicitly allocate time for tasks that require a maker’s schedule, and try to make it interruption-free.
Interruptions can come from other people, the environment, or yourself. Start by avoiding self-distractors, things which are under your control. While working on maker’s schedule, close your Mail application, turn off your corporate or non-corporate chat program, and silence your phone. This may not be easy.
Another consequence is that if you have people on your team that require a maker’s schedule, you should try to protect their time. This means avoiding unnecessarily interrupting them. (Don’t call if a mail will suffice, don’t expect immediate answers if immediate answers are not needed, etc.) This also means they should have a place were they can work without interruptions, ideally an office with a door that can be closed. (Dilbert-style cubicles farms are probably not the most productivity environment.)
Give the Maker’s Schedule a try
If high productivity is important for you, I strongly suggest you give the maker’s schedule a try. Try to allocate at least two hours straight of uninterrupted time to a specific task, and take note of how much of uninterrupted time you effectively work.
Be warned, because entering a high productivity state does not come automagically just from fencing oneself from distractions. It requires the habit of focusing and concentrating on the task at hand. And habits take some time to sink in. The good news is that habits can be acquire by anyone, as Aristotle taught centuries ago.
- Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, first edition. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967. ↩
- McKinsey Quarterly, January 2013, Making time management the organization’s priority ↩
- The classic book on ‘life management’ is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. This method is known as GTD among its followers. Leave no open loops. Collect all inputs and process them. With each input, take one of the following actions: if it can be completed in two minutes or less, do it now. If it takes more time, defer it or delegate it. If something requires more than two actions to accomplish, call it a project. If it doesn’t require an action, throw it into the trash, add it in your someday/maybe list, or store it in your reference filling system. ↩
- cfr Joel Spolsky, The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code. Do programmers have quiet working conditions? ↩
Pomodoro Technique Illustrated by Staffan Nottenberg.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management system method developed by Francesco Cirillo. It aims to provide maximum focus during establishing blocks of uninterrupted work (traditionally 25 minutes), and prevent burnout by taking short breaks between chunks and learning to prioritize your work and deal with distractions and interruptions.
Find Pomodoro Technique Illustrated in Amazon.