March 15, 2019 — 1.0.0
In the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time refining my approach to time management. And in that time (pun intended), I’ve learned true productivity comes not from getting a lot of things done, but from getting the right things done. And to ensure you’re working on the right things, you need to be realistic with your time.
Starting from the right mental model
I’ve found it helpful to think about time management like financial budgeting. There are a lot of similarities between the two concepts that support this as a mental model.
Here are a few of those similarities I find most important:
- Both time and money are finite resources
- You shouldn’t spend time or money you don’t have
A method for estimating focus time
I have developed a simple method to estimate the amount of actual focus time I will have to work on deep tasks: that is, tasks that require a lot of cognitive load to get done. For example, development, design, product strategy, writing, brainstorming, etc.
- Define your perfect-day number
- Deduct time for meetings and appointments
- Pad time for meetings and appointments
- Remove 30-minutes-or-less blocks of time
( blocks over 30m ) - ( meetings + appointments + padding ) = actual time
1. Define how much focus time you’ll have in a perfect day.
Much like setting a financial budget for what you should spend in a given month, we need to determine how much real time there is to get work done. Start by reviewing your calendar and determining how much time (hours hopefully) you have, in a perfect day, to work.
As an example, my number is 7 hours. Here’s how I got to that number:
- I get to the computer by 7:30am at the latest and work until 8:00am when I walk my step-daughter to school. That’s 30 minutes.
- I get back by 8:30am, make coffee, and start work at 9:00am. This block is until 11:00am and then it’s time for lunch. That’s 2 hours.
- I plan on lunch/break going to 12:00pm, but usually it doesn’t take that long. However, I account for that whole hour being “off”. I return to work at 12:00pm and go for another hour until 1:00pm before breaking again for afternoon coffee. That’s 1 hour.
- Coffee-making lasts until 1:30pm, and then the final block is from 1:30pm to 5:00pm. That’s 3.5 hours.
0.5 + 2 + 1 + 3.5 = 7
2. Deduct time for meetings and appointments.
Meetings and appointments are like your fixed expenses: rent or mortgage payment, car payment, power, etc. They are fixed, immovable items we must account for when we’re budgeting. Time management is no different. We can treat meetings and appointments much the same: fixed, immovable blocks of time we must deduct from our perfect-day number.
Let’s say I have a meeting from 3:00-4:00pm. That’s -1 hour.
(0.5 + 2 + 1 + 3.5) - 1 = 6
We’re now at 6 hours of time for focused work.
3. Pad meetings and appointments.
With budgeting, it’s wise to budget more money for each area than you anticipate you will need. Again, time management is no different. It’s unrealistic to believe we’ll be able to focus right up until the second a meeting starts, or pick right back up the second it ends. So here’s my rule:
- Add 30 minutes to the beginning and end of meetings (1 hour total). So a one-hour meeting has now become a two-hour deduction to our focus time.
- The same is done for appointments to also account for the commute time.
Continuing on with our day…
- Let’s say I have an appointment from 10:00-11:00am.
- And I also have a meeting from 1:30-2:00pm.
(0.5 + 2 + 1 + 3.5) - ((1 + 1) + (0.5 + 1)) = 3.5
Our one-hour appointment + 30-minute rule makes it a two-hour deduction. And our 30-minute meeting is an hour-and-a-half deduction.
4. Remove any block that is 30 minutes or less.
I don’t believe 30 minutes is enough time to do real, focused work, so I also remove any blocks of time that are 30 minutes or less (and in isolation). It doesn’t mean I won’t be working, but it just means I won’t be accounting for that time when planning my day/time.
(0.5 + 2 + 1 + 3.5) - ((1 + 1) + (0.5 + 1)) - (0.5) = 3
Meetings and appointments aren’t always fixed
While it’s true that some — or even most — of your meetings and appointments might not be fixed, it’s best to assume they are there, and to deduct the time appropriately.
Don’t spend time you can’t afford
The biggest change this has introduced — and a huge benefit to the method — is it makes me really think about the importance and timing of a meeting or appointment. If I see how those things take away from my focused time, it makes me question its value and necessity. This ensures I’m only taking part in high-value activities — only the truly essential.
Think about time like you do money, and make sure you have the right amount of time to get done what you want to get done. Avoid a full to-do list at the end of the day by truly accounting for the time you have.
Don’t spend time you can’t afford.