Ask any successful person how they get so much done and they’ll tell you the key is managing time effectively. As Neil Patel says, the problem for most people (especially entrepreneurs) is spreading themselves too thin by dabbling in too many things at once. Improvement happens when people focus on fewer, more critical things.
Maybe you’ve already tried to plan your time before and failed to stick to it. Or you always find yourself saying “I just don’t have enough time.”
Successful people don’t seem to have this problem.
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The difference between highly successful people and the rest of us
Take Warren Buffett, for example. He’s got a calendar that is, for the most part, clear. Tony Robbins speaks with thousands of people each year and still manages to launch new companies on a regular basis. Elon Musk and Bill Gates, on the other hand, are known to be productive people who plan out just about every minute of their day.
The difference between these individuals and the rest of us is that they’ve discovered an effective time management strategy, and they execute it consistently. You see, without a strategy, time will get the best of you.
In this post, we’ll look at how to plan your week and stress less, based on proven time management strategies that successful people use.
Overview of coming up with a personal time management plan
- Understand important invisible factors working against time management efforts and avoid them
- Understand how to design and plan your week well
- Try mindfulness to better manage the stress of time management
- Utilize proven time management techniques and learn new ones
- Come up with your own blueprints based on what works for you
Invisible factors working against you
Invisible factors work against your productivity and ability to maximize your time. Identifying what is holding you back can only help with your preparation and planning.
While several factors could be at play, here are some common ones.
Studies show that decision-making requires energy and can leave a person fatigued.
Often people make decisions for the better part of the day and end up being mentally fatigued. In other words, they lack the mental energy to invest in well thought out processes and decisions. This explains why seemingly rational people can get angry at colleagues or family or invest in junk food rather than making healthier food choices.
If you have managed projects, you might recognize a tendency to underestimate the time needed to complete a project. Instead of accepting that you are at fault, you blame delayed starts due to hold-ups from other parties, sick days and so on.
Elon Musk is known to set unrealistic timelines, which often get pushed back.
British author and historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson noticed that, during his time with the British Colonial Office, the number of employees increased by 5% every year despite there being less paperwork to deal with. His findings became the basis of his well-known book Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, and were then consolidated into what is now known as Parkinson’s Law. According to Parkinson’s Law, a task expands to fill the time available for its completion.
Parkinson also discovered that a simple task would increase in complexity to fill the time allotted to it. This reinforces the wrongful belief that you need to work harder, not smarter or more efficiently.
You have probably experienced this at some point: A proposal or an assignment was due on a certain day, but you only got around to it just a few hours before the deadline.
How can you overcome these odds and be more productive?
Effective time management means planning your work week. Doing this will reduce your decision fatigue, eliminate planning fallacy and contain the time and resources given to each project.
Let’s examine how to do that.Plan out your work week to reduce decision fatigue, eliminate planning fallacy and prioritize the time and resources given to each project. Click To Tweet
Design your week
How to make a plan
The largest empires in the sixteenth century were Spain and Portugal. Their navigators realized that to travel safely from one port to another, they needed a way to communicate knowledge about routes, geography and potential dangers. The answer was to create a map that their fleets could refer to. In 1527, a Portuguese cartographer, Diogo Ribeiro, produced Padròn Real, one of the first scientific world maps.
In the same way, we need a map to get to our desired destinations — a map that deals effectively with tasks, expanding to-do lists, last-minute invitations, future commitments, work, family, health, etc. The map should enable you to navigate your way through time.
So how do build your own map?
Here are the steps to take for an effective time management plan:
1. Write down:
- What is most important to you; in other words, your values and beliefs?
- What inspires, motivates and gives you hope every day?
- What you want to be doing in the next 5-10 years?
The answers will serve as your compass as you draw up your map.
- Next, pull out a calendar and mark out significant milestones that you need to accomplish over the next year.
- Now, break down the activities required to achieve your milestones at the weekly, and then daily, level.
2. Schedule time every Friday or during the weekend to plan for the upcoming week. This should also be a time of reflection on what is most important to you.
3. When planning, keep a notepad or app handy so you can write down tasks, assignments, to do items, ideas, etc.
4. Group similar items together. For example, grocery shopping and items for a birthday party could be grouped together so when the time became available you could tackle both items at the same time.
5. Allocate time for fulfilling routines. This could be time with family members, indulging in a hobby, sport, etc. Invest in them, as they help refresh and rejuvenate your mind and body.
6. Develop a handy checklist for common items you need to deal with in the morning. This could be deciding on what to make for breakfast, what work clothes to wear, etc. Use a checklist to avoid having to think through these routines.
7. Reflect on your day. At the end of each day spend a little time reflecting on what you enjoyed doing. This will help you feel happier, more grateful and more fulfilled.
What to plan
Elon Musk and Bill Gates have an interesting method of planning their time in 5-minute slots. You could use their approach, or any other, to plan out time for various projects.
What is important is to be proactive. A reactive approach just looks ahead to the next activity; a proactive approach looks at the whole picture and strives for balance and progress in important areas.
To be proactive, plan your ideal week. Michael Hyatt talks about this. It involves creating a simple spreadsheet that lists themes in the top row and focus areas in the left-most column.
Your ideal week plan could be something like the one below.
The software above is Hubstaff Tasks, it’s ideal for personal project management and planning your time. The Kanban board lets you create whatever columns you want and you can attach cards with titles, colors and labels.
It’s free for teams of up to five people, so there’s no cost to use it for personal time management.
When to plan
When is a good time to plan?
Don’t wait for the start of a new year. There is no better time to take a proactive approach than today, so start now.
Don’t use different calendars for different things. Use just one, as all activities and appointments are part of your life and tracking your productivity will be easier.
Set aside time each week to plan the week ahead. During these sessions, reflect on the past week and then plan out the next week based on:
- Your ideal week plan
- The objectives you want to accomplish—remember the rocks, pebbles and sand analogy
- Your commitments or scheduled appointments, like travel plans, etc.
- Activities that will rejuvenate you
One challenge you will have is estimating how much time you spend on different activities.
If you want to learn how to do a time audit, read all about it here.
Mapping out your week gives you an overall view of your next seven days. It allows you to prioritize and reorient your tasks without falling victim to other factors. If you are uncomfortable with the limitations of a calendar perhaps a tool like Week Plan can help.
The map also gives you a more accurate picture of the time you spent on different activities — but only if you track with the help of a time tracking app like Hubstaff.
Adjust your map
After following the mapping and tracking process, you will be able to decide what is most important to you.
Based on the time taken and what you have managed to accomplish, you can tweak your time management plan for the upcoming week.
Other factors worth investing in and making time for
Now that you have a road map for your week, other activities can take you further in your journey of effective time management and productivity. Consider making time for the following.
In addition, meditation:
Here is a simple way to get started:
1. Download the Headspace app.
2. Use it to meditate first thing in the morning.
Do this every day to build the habit of meditating and make notes on your time management progress and overall productivity over the next couple of months.
Practicing gratitude or thankfulness can boost productivity by helping you focus on the positives, which makes you feel happier.
Psychologist Robert Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, has conducted studies to prove this connection.
Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces negative feelings and helps you achieve goals and make insightful decisions.
So how do you incorporate thankfulness into your day?
The easiest way is to keep a list of things you are grateful for. Another is to show gratitude to those around you via thank you notes, emails or written messages.
Feeling stressed during the day? Take a moment to ask yourself what you are thankful for. List five things, people or situations.Feeling stressed during the day? Take a moment to list five things, people or situations you are thankful for. Practicing gratitude boosts productivity and happiness. Click To Tweet
As you build the habit, you’ll also build your productivity.
Brain dump all your to-do items
As you progress through the week, new to-do items will appear. However, the problem with these loose items lingering in our brains is that they increase decision fatigue. They are like unused computer programs that use up your computer’s RAM, slowing down the overall speed and functions.
Free up some mental RAM by dumping to-do items onto an app or paper. Tools like Evernote, Todoist, and Nozbe can help accomplish this.
Tony Robbins takes this further using a process he calls chunking. He lists all his to-do items and then groups similar items. He then tackles each chunk.
Why is this more productive?
Because it requires less mental energy and time than hopping from one item to another and then back again.
Clean up your clutter
Pending tasks are like clutter lying around on your desk or home. Clutter has a negative impact on our ability to focus and process information. Having it around is as bad as trying to multitask.
According to a study by researchers from Princeton University, multiple stimuli in our field of view compete for attention in our brains and diminish our processing capacity.
Mental clutter is just as bad. June Saruwatari, author of Behind the Clutter, says that even putting away meeting notes that need to be reviewed doesn’t help if the task stays on your mind for the rest of the day or until you complete it.
So, dump your pending tasks onto a to-do list like the one we talked about above.
Manage your energy instead of time
Notice how often your brain wanders when you are doing multiple, unrelated things?
How can you bring focus and productivity to your days?
The secret lies in managing your energy and not so much your time. In other words, theme your work days based on categories of work that require you to move the objectives forward.
For example, on Monday you can deal with meetings and administrative tasks. Tuesdays would be dedicated to business development and marketing tasks. Wednesdays are for client work, Thursdays are for setting appointments and customer success.
The point of this exercise is to move the biggest tasks forward on a regular basis. Otherwise, you will be all over the place with no mental capacity to focus.
Jack Dorsey, CEO, and co-founder of Twitter swears by this process to keep him organized. Check out his interview with Techonomy below:
Use admin tasks to fill in empty time slots
We covered the danger of Parkinson’s Law earlier. But what do you do when you have available spots in your calendar?
The temptation would be to allocate the extra time to work-related activities. Instead, allocate the time to less demanding tasks like handling your accounts, updating images on your blog, admin, etc.
Use the principle of chunking to organize your tasks based on related groups and how long they take to finish. Mixing in work-related activities with admin tasks as your calendar allows will make you more productive, give your brain a rest, and prevent you from falling behind.
Momentum is key
Newton’s first law of motion states:
“A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force.”
This law can apply as you set yourself up for a productive day. If you are productive in the first few hours of your day, then you are likely to stay productive for the rest of it.
Professor Teresa Amabile, of Harvard University, studied diary entries from employees at seven companies and found that the Progress Principle has a major effect on a person’s productivity. She discovered that people experience a motivational boost if they make progress on meaningful work. The more they experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive for the long term. This is the basis for the term she coined the Progress Principle.
Remove distractions from your inbox
Email is an essential work tool but isn’t very meaningful in and of itself. Following Inbox Zero and other email management tactics may be temporarily satisfying, but what happens when the inbox starts to fill up again?
Research shows that people spend on average 30 hours per week checking for new email.People spend on average 30 hours per week checking for new email. Here's how to spend that time more productively. Click To Tweet
The best way to remove distractions in your inbox is to first give email a specific time on your calendar. Do not start the day with email because, by doing so, you are framing the day around other people’s needs.
Use the delete or archive buttons to remove all messages that have the potential to distract you. For the rest, act immediately if the issue can be sorted in the next 2 minutes; otherwise, flag and come back to it when you can.
Delegate and don’t be afraid to say no
We already know that it is important to minimize decision fatigue. But as a freelancer or business owner, you often find yourself making decisions about everyday tasks along with strategic decisions. So how can you focus on more strategic decisions and reduce the number of everyday decisions you need to make?
At some point, you will need to delegate to avoid getting overwhelmed by the insignificant decisions you need to make.
To delegate effectively, know what your priorities are for the year and how that translates into activities in the coming weeks. Once you are clear on your priorities, you can use the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule to delegate decisions that will diminish your strategic focus.
Effective delegation takes practice and knowing what tasks can be delegated is crucial. These might include:
- Repetitive tasks that fit into your workflow
- Tasks with clearly defined procedures and end results
- Admin tasks that require little specialized knowledge or expertise
The same principle also helps with saying no to things that have the potential to distract you from your priorities.
So how can you take breaks to maximize your focus and productivity?
- Use the Pomodoro time management technique to work in sprints: in other words, work hard with a deep focus for short periods of time.
- Take recovery breaks. Between each sprint, recover and refresh your energy and focus by taking a break.
Draw up your blueprints
Now that you have the time management strategies, the steps and the tools to map your week and stress less, you need to get proactive.
It might seem like a lot of work, but carve out some time for yourself and start the process. Draw up your ideal week and then create your week map. Track time on activities and then adjust plans based on the data you have.
The return that you experience on this time investment will move the needle on your objectives and overall happiness.
This post was published March 2018, and updated September 2019.