I have to admit something: I’m terrible at estimating how long it takes to do my work.
From my high school years through my early professional career, I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve been in the zone writing an article, only to fall for those emails asking for a quick favor that will take “just a minute.”
That won’t take long at all, I tell myself. Let me just knock it out so I don’t have to worry about it later.
But after “just a minute,” I usually realize that I’m biting off way more than I can chew. Now, instead of getting ahead of schedule, I’m behind schedule. And worst of all, those micro-distractions poke giant holes in my workflow, making it incredibly difficult to get back into the rhythm I was in before I let the “quick task” myth get the best of me.
We all have our issues with time management. Some of us struggle with scheduling, while others are easily tempted by distractions. Whatever your case is, this article is for you. I’m going to break down why time management can be such a struggle. Then, I’ll dive into the time management advice I’ve learned from three of the smartest people I know.
A Google search for “time management” will yield nearly five billion results. That’s a lot of tips, tricks, hacks, and apps. But before you go down the “best practices” rabbit hole, you’ll first want to consider why we humans are often so inefficient when it comes to managing our time. After all, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t understand its source.
1. We waste too much time thinking about time management
We’ve all been there before: your email inbox is flooding, assignments are piling up, everybody is asking you for favors. It seems like every time you check something off of your to-do list, three more things get added to it.
It’s times like these when we shame ourselves for being “bad” at managing time. We feel out of control, so we go into panic mode to get back on track. We reorganize our calendar, stare at our task list, and stew over how many obligations we have.
But all of this time spent worrying about whether we’re managing our time “correctly” distracts us from what’s most important: getting started.
In an article titled “Why You Really Don’t Have a Time Management Problem,” author, entrepreneur, and military veteran Charlie Gilkey gets to the root of what we consider time management problems:
“People who think they have time management problems really have priority management problems, which means, at root, they have self-management problems….[T]here are only so many priorities that a given group of people can address in a given slice of time. One of the chief jobs of the leaders is to ensure that people are addressing the most important priorities in any given slice of time.”
In other words, we can’t let time management become a priority in its own right. Focusing too much on how much (or how little) time we have can get in the way of actually making decisions and taking action.
2. We’re really bad at estimating task completion times
In a 1994 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked 37 psychology students to estimate how long it would take to finish their senior theses.
The average student estimated that it would take about 34 days. The students were also asked to guess how long it would take “if everything went as poorly as it possibly could.” The average estimate for this scenario was about 49 days.
Unfortunately, the students were way off. The average actual completion time for the thesis was 55.5 days. Only 30% of the students completed their thesis in the amount of time they predicted.
There’s a reason why this study is as relevant today as it was before I was born. Humans often fall victim to the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy refers to our tendency to overestimate how efficient we are and our tendency to underestimate how much time is required to complete a task.
As you can imagine, the planning fallacy can wreak havoc on our ability to manage time effectively. Without an accurate sense of how long it takes to write an essay or finish a workout, your schedule is already out of whack before you wake up in the morning.
The solution? Add a time buffer to all of your tasks. For example, if you think it will take three hours to write your essay, schedule four hours instead. This way, you play it safe. And if you do finish ahead of schedule, you can convert that buffer zone to free time.
Okay, those last two sections were pretty cynical. But I promise I’m done pointing out problems. Now, let’s jump into some time management advice from some seriously smart people.
Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work, is one of the premier productivity thought leaders. Newport is a staunch advocate of planning every minute of your work day, but he’s not just talking about using Google calendar or listing tasks on a planner.
Newport dedicates ten to twenty minutes every evening to building his schedule for the next day using his time blocking method. In a time-blocked schedule, every minute is dedicated to a specific task, even if it’s time dedicated to a break.
Time blocking is a zero-sum approach, meaning there are no missing variables or guesswork: what you plan is what you’re going to do. No questions asked.
Here’s how time-blocking works:
- Scan your to-do list: assignments, cooking, extracurricular activities, etc.
- Look at your next day’s schedule to determine how much time you have to allocate outside of non-negotiable commitments: classes, meetings, etc.
- Assign each item on your to-do list to a specific time slot. Remember to add buffer time so you don’t run into the planning fallacy.
Here’s an example of a time blocked schedule from my notebook last week. I always leave space in the right-hand column—this allows me to add notes or make adjustments if my schedule is disrupted.
There is a difference between “work” and “real work,” says time management maven Laura Vanderkam. Tasks like checking email or organizing files on your computer can give the illusion of productivity.
But in reality, they distract us from the “real work” that Vanderkam is talking about: those big projects that require lots of focus and energy. That’s why she suggests scheduling a “power hour” in which you work uninterrupted on a top-priority project.
Of course, this isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially if you wake up to 37 unread emails and people are hounding you left and right.
But dedicating an hour each morning to work that matters when you have ample energy can make all the difference in the world. Otherwise, those menial tasks can intrude on your deep work.
“Recognize that certain aspects of work will expand to fill all available space,” Vanderkam told Business Insider, referring to email in particular. “We have to consciously choose to spend less time on email and carve out time for the important work that matters to us.”
We often associate the concept of time management with doing things: checking off items on our to-do list, writing, reading, exercising, meeting with people, the list goes on. But one of the most valuable pieces of time management advice I use takes the opposite approach.
When I was a sophomore in college, I stumbled upon an old (2007) blog post from Tim Ferriss titled “The Not-To-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now.”
Tim is a modern renaissance man. He hosts one of the most popular podcasts in the world, he’s an angel investor, and he’s penned multiple bestsellers like The 4-Hour Workweek.
Bottom line: this guy knows a thing or two about getting stuff done. The premise of his not-to-do list simple: “what you don’t do determines what you can do.”
There are only so many hours each day. If we don’t eliminate the clutter that clogs up our schedule, finding time for important work and leisure time will be as hard as finding water in the Sahara desert.
Tim’s not-to-do list includes some business-centric lessons like not answering calls from unrecognized numbers and not committing to meetings without a clear agenda or end time. Your list might be totally different depending on what sucks up most of your time.
Before making your list, I recommend analyzing everything you do throughout the course of any given week and determine what’s holding you back.
Maybe it’s excessive social media usage or unnecessary online shopping. Whatever the case, I promise, once you cut that fat off your schedule, you’ll be amazed how much new time you’ll find.
As Tim says:
“It’s hip to focus on getting things done, but it’s only possible once we remove the constant static and distraction. If you have trouble deciding what to do, just focus on not doing. Different means, same end.”
Time management is an art just as much as it is a science. Systems and schedules are essential, but so is the ability to adapt and adjust to your current situation. What works for someone else might not work for you, and that’s okay. The best time management strategy isn’t the one that’s the most popular—it’s the one that works for you.
Taking control of your schedule (or any part of your life for that matter) is an evolving process with no definite endpoint. We’re all fine-tuning—nobody has it 100% figured out. So, calm down, plan your day, and most importantly, just get started.
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