“It is not enough to be busy. The question is, ‘What are we busy about?’”
– Henry David Thoreau
A topic that is discussed from time immemorial is managing time. The greatest challenge that the world has faced is not the Corona pandemic or the lithium shortage that will come in the way of electrifying transportation. It is the conundrum around a limited resource called time, and how do we manage the time to carry out all the activities we have set out to do.
As the saying goes, don’t try to manage time but manage yourself. We all have 24 hours, and the time ticks away in seconds and within a few blinks of an eye, minutes and hours would have passed on. So, the million dollar question does not point towards managing time but managing our activities during the time that is available to us.
We are in effect seen through the outcomes that we produce. The outcomes that we deliver is a product of the productivity, the quality and most importantly, the value the outcome delivers. In other words, we become successful either at work or at home based on what we deliver. I know what you are thinking. It is possible that my outcomes matter at work but at home, its all about relationships you say. Well, think about it. if your daughter is upset on the back of a bad school exam, and if you are spending your evening watching the Squid Game rather than consoling your daughter, are you not going to be judged by your outcomes? Believe me when I say this, your spouse and your daughter will remember for years to come of your actions during that particular period.
There are several ways that you can manage work. There is no single all powerful technique that will help us manage the workload. I am going to talk about 5 types of managing work, which work every single time. I know it works because I use it at work, when I write books and while I run other chores.
Let me cut to the chase. We are talking about managing time and I don’t want to take more time building a narrative to what I have to share.
Technique #1: Pomodoro
Pomodoro is tomato in Italian language. The Pomodoro technique of time management was inspired by a tomato shaped analog timer. Here’s the back story: Francesco Cirillo is the designer of this technique and in the 1980s, he had problems focusing on his university assignments. He wanted to commit at least ten minutes doing what he was doing, so he got a kitchen timer which looked like a tomato. That’s the legend of the pomodoro technique.
It’s very simple really. Here are the six steps that the pomodoro technique uses. It sounds process oriented, but its not.
- Identify the task that you want to accomplish. It can be anything really, working on your laptop or it could be physical work.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes. No, you don’t need a tomato shaped kitchen timer.
- For the next 25 minutes, tune out from everything other than the task on hand.
- When the timer goes off, stop doing what you are doing. As a means of tracking work, make a note in your notepad of what you did. It can be as simple as a checkmark.
- Take a break for 5 minutes. Do something that does not involve work. Grab a cup of coffee or do a few chin-ups. Anything that brings you comfort.
- Repeat steps 2 to 5 until you complete the work that you identified. After going through four cycles, take a longer break, say around 30 minutes.
This technique is apt for an individual contributor, a creative person perhaps. When I am actively writing my book, I find it fatiguing to do hours on end and a technique like the pomodoro helped me keep my creatives juices intact during the entire period. The technique prescribes 25 minutes as a time box to focus, but I found it helpful to keep it flexible. Say anywhere between 20-30 minutes. Because at times, you are in a flow and you don’t want the timer to interrupt your flow.
There are a number of mobile phone apps and desktop programs out there to help you focus through the pomodoro technique. Marinara Timer and Pomodor are web based apps, and are free. Forest is a mobile phone application, available both on iOS and Android. It’s free on Android, but its not ad-free and on iOS, you need to pay $1.99.
I will tell you later on in this video where and how I use the pomodoro technique.
Technique #2: Getting Things Done (GTD) Method
Getting Things Done is a technique that was introduced by David Allen through his publication which bears the same name. This book was published in 2001, and I read it sometime during 2005-2006 timeframe. I have followed some of the techniques that are suggested in the book, and I do it to the day. These techniques are simply timeless. For example, I organize my physical files in a file-drawer that’s alpha based. I can still go back ten years, and I will know exactly where my files are. Even though most of the documents today are digital, you cannot avoid paper trail, and you need a system to organize it and retrieve it.
The GTD technique itself can be defined in 5 steps, which can be applied to anything that you want carried out. Here are the five steps:
- Capture: Any activity that you want to perform, you need to write it down. Be it on paper or digitally. I recommend keeping a single repository for all your actions.
- Clarify: Since you noted this action down in your to-do list, it doesn’t mean that you have to carry out. Think through whether this activity can be delegated, or whether the action does not need to be done at all or whether it is imperative for you to carry out the activity at some point.
- Organize: Once you have gained clarity over your actions, you need to organize it. You can organize it on paper or use an app. It’s left to you but the important thing is to organize, especially when you have limited time and more number of actions. You can organize it based on priority, or based on categories like personal and official.
- Reflect: Many of us tend to do all the hard work of filing the actions and forget to check in on the actions frequently. To me personally, it has happened several times in the last 15 years, but it is the practice to reflect back on your actions that will keep you glued to the actions on hand.
- Engage: The final step is to carry out the activity. The proof of the pudding is in this step. The earlier steps should lead you to perform the activity at an appropriate time.
I recommend that you read the book if you haven’t done so already. My favorite rule is the 2 minute rule which basically means that if there is a task that you identify to carry out, and if you think it takes less than 2 minutes. Then it is better to do it right away rather than going through the 5 step process. It takes more than 2 minutes to capture, clarify, organize and reflect. So execute the activity right away. The 2 minute rule is another technique that I swear by.
Technique #3: Time Blocking
For us folks in IT, an unwritten rule is that people see our calendars, and if they don’t see a meeting scheduled during some times, they assume that we are available and book meetings. Nothing wrong with this method, but the problem is that we cannot get anything done outside of our meetings.
The best way to find time to do actual work is to block time on the calendar and do it. It serves two purposes. No. 1: people do not try to book your time when you are busy. No. 2, you can create a time block that will allow you to work for a certain period of time uninterrupted. When you combine the time blocking method with the Pomodoro technique, the outcome is going to go great guns.
I generally block 1 hour to do my non-meeting work. You can ask me why not 30 minutes. My experience has taught me that I can hardly get anything done in 30 minutes, so I stick to 1 hour blocks. And then I apply the Pomodoro technique where I work for 25 minutes, and take 5 minutes break. And then repeat this exercise again. 1 hour of work at a stretch is good, and it doesn’t fizzle me out, and trust me, I will be looking forward to a meeting at the end of the hour. I intersperse the 1 hour time blocks through the day depending on the kind of work that I have to achieve and the priority of the meetings that are setup on my calendar.
Technique #4: Eat that Frog
Mark Twain has said, “eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will get to you the rest of the day.” Eating the frog is a metaphor for the hardest thing that you need to carry out on a particular day. If you do that first thing in the morning, not only will you feel having achieved that morning, but you can also unburden yourself, which will help you the rest of the day meandering through the rest of the relatively menial tasks.
I follow this to the tee. It works like a charm every single time. The power of completing tasks, especially the hardest one early in the day is such a booster for the rest of the day, and especially on such days, I am at my creative best.
In fact, I extend this method to eating as well. My meals are mostly one-plate meals which means I load things up on my plate once, and no second serving. The dishes that I dislike the most goes in first and this will allow me to relish the rest of the meal.
By the way, this technique was made popular by Brian Tracy in his book Eat that Frog: 21 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.
Technique #5: Speedy Nap Time
There was a wood chopping contest in the woods and two wood cutters went into the competition. The rules were simple. The person who chops most wood from sun-up to sun-down wins. Both the wood cutters start to chop the wood. At noon, one of the wood cutters takes a break for a couple of hours while the other keeps chopping without a break. During sun-down, when the wood chips were counted, the wood cutter who took a break had chopped more wood and won the contest. The hard working wood cutter asked, “how is it that you chopped more wood. You did not chop the entire time like I did.” The wood cutter who took a break said, “I wasn’t taking a break. I was sharpening my ax. I was regaining my strength.”
It is not uncommon for our work to range from sun-up to sun-down or even more. If we don’t spend sufficient time resting, not only our productivity dips, but the quality of our work will tend to depreciate. I take a few coffee breaks throughout the day, and the most useful break is when I can afford a power nap of ten minutes followed by a cup of coffee. My energy levels are replenished to the tune of morning energy. This is one of the perks of working from home, thanks to the pandemic.
This is a productivity secret that is often ignored, and in the name of hard working, smart work is given a backseat.
This short nap is called as Siesta and is a common tradition in Philippines. After lunch, people in the Philippines religiously put their heads down on their desks and nap for about thirty minutes. When I first experienced it, it became a topic of fun conversation with my friends back home. It took me several years to realize the science behind this practice. Adding the touch of caffeine after the sleep is my contribution to siesta.