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time management, busy people

Francis Wade is guest posting today. I was a fan of his time-management novel and he became a fan of A Year of Living Productively. If you’re a busy person, I think you’ll be rewarded by reading.

Top college students and CEO’s share a few things in common. They both lead time-starved lives which are filled with short-term deliverables. Furthermore, in both professions, the penalties for failure are high. A meeting with a shareholder that is forgotten can cost a CEO his/her job, while a college student can flunk out of school by handing in a term paper only five minutes late.

They are not alone, of course, in being time-starved. While he was President, George W. Bush managed his time in sharp 15 minute increments.  Like many people who are time-starved, his most frequently asked question each day was “What’s Next?”

Some other symptoms these very hard-working people share are:

– a tendency to give up personal time to do work

– a need to be available 24×7 to respond to emergencies

– the real likelihood of skipping meals, sometimes without realizing it

– having the experience of moving from one thing to another without having time to breathe

– finding they have not time to “do nothing”

– a restless feeling when, after graduation or retirement, the number of time demands is radically reduced

– a willingness to work at extreme hours, either late at night or early in the morning

– a difficulty in maintaining a balanced life

Obviously, this kind of life isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Nor should it be. Those who choose to live this way are part of an exclusive club whose members place results at the forefront, while everything else follows behind. The demands they place on themselves are tremendous.

What are the techniques they use to cope with the pressures they face each day? My research shows that their primary tool is their personal calendar as shown by the following video which shows a student building her weekly schedule in real time. 

Notice how packed her schedule is with activity, and the care she takes to include items like eating and bathing that she’s likely to forget. She obviously takes her college success seriously and isn’t willing to leave her schedule to chance.

Here on the Psychowith6 blog, Melanie did a monumental job in 2013 of trying out new time management techniques and sharing the results. In week 11 she wrote a post about her experience using a daily calendar entitled “Could Scheduling Tasks Help You Get More Done?

Her positive findings echo those discovered in academic research performed by separate researchers such as Dezhi Wu, Christine Bartholomew and E.J. Masicampo/Roy Baumeister. Their separate studies have shown that maintaining a schedule of activity results in greater productivity; notably, the first two researchers did their work with college students.

Furthermore, there is anecdotal evidence gathered by Mark Horstman at manager-tools.com that the vast majority of executives he’s worked with use detailed calendars such as the one developed in the video. He has completed a number of podcasts on time management which can be found here, repeating this finding in a number of episodes. 

All the evidence, however, doesn’t mean that you should use this technique. There are other alternatives.

Another very popular approach is to place most tasks on a list, while only using the calendar for appointments. (The only other alternative – to use memory – is widely held to be ineffective.) Incidentally, Melanie has also experimented with using a To-Do list and found that it was difficult to be effective without one.

The key here is to understand that there are benefits to each approach and that there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. You are the only one who can decide how best to proceed. Here are some guidelines.

1) Never rely on memory

Both list and schedule-based approaches are built on the philosophy that trying to use your memory to manage the demands on your time is a poor practice. While it may work for a teenager, it fails miserably when the teen becomes an adult with a wide range of responsibilities. When the adult enters middle-age and his/her ability to recall short-term memories diminishes, the problem only gets worse, making the use of memory the least effective technique (although perhaps the most common.)

2) Start by making lists

If you are making the transition from using memory, it’s best to start by learning to use a single list. It’s a relatively easy new habit to learn, although it might become hard to manage as you get busier. This happens because lists require constant checking throughout the day, and when they grow past a certain length, this routine becomes tedious.

The remedy is to find a way to avoid having to look at the entire list, and instead focus on a subset. There are a number of techniques that one can use, but the first approach that people try is to tag or categorize each task in some way, and then use the tag as a way to filter the list.

There are any number of tags that can be used, but some popular categories include physical location (e.g. home vs. office,) person (e.g. spouse, boss, coach) and equipment required (e.g. desktop computer, printer, scanner.) The choice of tags is up to each person – there is no perfect system. In general, however, people choose tags that represent their scarcest resources.

3) Upgrade to a single calendar

If, like a CEO or college student, you are time-starved, then you might consider a major upgrade: using your calendar instead of lists.

A calendar of tasks differs from a list of tasks in two important ways. When we use a calendar we are adding three pieces of information, in a single step. By placing a task on a calendar we are giving it a start time/date and an expected duration. We also show, in graphic form, the relationship of that task to all the others around it. A calendar is a rich source of information.

For CEO’s, college students and other time-starved professionals, this information is critical to have in front of them as they attempt to make the most of their scarcest resource – time. Their calendars are usually electronic and mobile, synchronized between several platforms including the cloud.

For them, their calendar is their central point of control and they only use lists in conjunction with their calendar in the cases where it’s a practical add-on: such as a grocery list, or agenda.

To repeat the point – this particular approach isn’t for everyone. It’s not easy to learn and it requires constant practice and a high degree of discipline. New, fancy technology can make the learning curve a bit easier, but the underlying practices to be mastered remain the same.

This challenge reinforces the point – one size simply doesn’t fit all. Each of us must choose the approach that fits our particular needs and consists of habits that we can learn successfully. The decision to use one approach or another is up to you, and hopefully you can use these insights to make a choice that allows you to live a life that’s as productive as it can be.

Like this post? Be sure to read Francis’s follow-up guest post.

Francis Wade is the author of Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure, (http://perfect.mytimedesign.com) and a consultant who started Framework Consulting Inc., after leaving AT&T Bell Labs in 1993. Today, he lives in Jamaica, inspired by the differences he’s discovered between productivity in the Caribbean and North America. It’s led him to continue the learning he started as a student at Cornell University, where he completed Bachelors and Masters degrees in the discipline of Operations Research and Industrial Engineering. He’s been a proponent of Time Management 2.0, a robust set of ideas that are challenging the conventional wisdom in the area of time-based productivity. When he is not working, Francis is an enthusiastic triathlete.