My wife and I recently spent four hours having photos of our newborn son taken. And in those four hours, between helping change the bub’s outfits and making sure he was comfortable, I remembered something about time management.
Mostly, it’s not about the amount of time we have.
It’s about managing our attention and steering by our core values and priorities.
Of course, time management includes making decisions about how much time we’ll spend on specific activities and tasks. Ideally, it should also include a systematic review of how we’ve used our time—such as how well we’ve aligned our schedules with our priorities.
I’ve written before about how the Eisenhower matrix can help us stay focused on what we should be doing, instead of getting caught up in busywork (see image of the Eisenhower Matrix).
I’m convinced this is still a useful tool for helping us make the best use of our time.
Seventy-five years after he led what History.com calls “the largest combined sea, air, and land military operation in history,” the military commander and eventual US president Dwight Eisenhower’s matrix remains an effective way to set priorities.
Combined with other tools, it can help us take better control of our limited attention, energy, and time and do valuable, meaningful work. It can also help us feel less time-poor.
“Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output,” wrote Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Without those stretches of uninterrupted concentration, Newport said, people will find it difficult to develop two abilities necessary for thriving in the present economy: the ability “to quickly master hard things” and the ability “to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.”
Here are three time management ideas I’ve found useful.
1. Limit multitasking
After we’ve figured out what’s really important to us, it becomes easier to grasp that no two tasks or activities are equally deserving of our attention. We have to choose what to pay attention to first.
Like all other productivity tools, time management hacks work best when we tweak them to fit our individual needs and conditions, such as what time of day we’re usually most alert or feel most creative.
One technique that helps encourage focused work is called the Pomodoro Technique, devised by software designer and productivity expert Francesco Cirillo when he was at university in the late 1980s. He named it after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that he used to keep track of his workday.
Here’s how it works: focus on doing one task for a 25-minute stretch or one pomodoro. If the task requires less than 25 minutes, group it with a set of related tasks.
If you start thinking of another task that’s not related to the one you’re working on, jot it down (to get it out of your headspace and keep it from distracting you) and return to the task at hand. After each 25-minute block, take a break for 5 minutes. After every 4 pomodoros, take a longer break, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Fans of the Pomodoro Technique love how well it encourages focus and teaches them to estimate more accurately how much time they spend on certain tasks (which is great for planning for recurring tasks).
2. Match your attention to your priorities
Organisational psychologist and author Adam Grant isn’t a big fan of time management.
“Being prolific is not about time management,” he wrote a few months ago in his column.
“There are a limited number of hours in the day, and focusing on time management just makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste. A better option is attention management: Prioritise the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes.”
One technique you can try is time blocking, which is basically a more structured to-do list that also discourages multitasking.
Start by writing a list of each day’s tasks and ranking them in order of importance. Assign each task a time block, beginning with the most important and most urgent item. Be sure to set aside time blocks for research, big-picture thinking, self-care, exercise and your weekly review.
A variation of this technique is assigning themes for each day of the workweek.
You can devote Mondays, for example, to administrative priorities and meetings. I used to practice Ten-Touch Tuesdays, which meant that I would commit to calling at least 10 new leads on those days.
As with every tool, theme days will work better for some people than for others. But being able to devote a full workday to an important part of your business (whether it’s marketing or product development or customer relationships) feels great and usually leads to better, more focused work.
3. Balancing present and future time perspectives
When we think about time management, we mostly think about budgeting time and measuring it. Lots of helpful little tricks help us with the budgeting part, like when we tweak our Instagram settings to notify us once we’ve spent, say, 15 minutes on the app.
When we think about time itself, we quickly realise that the amount of time we spend on something doesn’t necessarily match our experience of it.
I’ve heard parents say they’re amazed by how quickly time has flown and that it seems like it was only yesterday when their teenage kids were just teething.
People talk a lot about being fully present in the moment but that’s just one of three time perspectives.
In a May 2019 journal editorial, Professors Moren Levesque and Ute Stephan defined time perspective as “cognitive processes partitioning human experiences into past, present and future temporal frames.” Sometimes we think about the past to learn from what we’ve experienced and sometimes we focus on the future, which happens every time we make plans.
In an entrepreneurial team, they advised, try to balance your time perspectives.
“Other team members who display a present time perspective can cover for deadlines and crisis management, while those with a future time perspective can focus on non-crisis tasks” that are important, like strategic planning.
I find this idea really helpful because I’ve often heard business owners say they didn’t have enough time to do everything they needed to do, much less time to think about how they think about time.
When we’re feeling extra time-poor, it may be that we’re doing too many things that we could otherwise delegate or choose not to do.
Or maybe we’re feeding our distractions.
“Time poverty cannot simply be understood in terms of the amount of (clock) time available,” wrote sociologist Judy Wajcman, author of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism.
“How people experience and practice time is the result of the meanings and values that they ascribe to various kinds of activities. The demand for quality time with children is a popular expression of this. Not all activities are performed at the same pace, nor would we want them to be.”
Let’s all remember to give ourselves time to think about our priorities for the next week, next month, or next year. And plan how we’ll spend our time so that our businesses and other pursuits all support the lives we want to lead with our families now and in the future.
Whichever time management tool or technique we choose, what’s important is that we use it with our values and priorities as a compass, and we remind ourselves of the need to choose what we pay attention to carefully.
As for those four hours spent having pictures of my son taken, I’m happy to report that the photos look magical—though nowhere near as magical as when I hold him and am stunned by how more precious (though definitely more challenging to manage) time now feels.
Aidan Parsons runs www.keystoneexecutivecoaching.com, a pay-on-results consultancy based in Brisbane and would love feedback on this article as well as sincere advice for first-time parents.