Focus Your To-Dos by Tracking Your Time

When you’re faced with a long to-do list, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Narrow down your list by understanding that there are four choices for any task: do it now, delay it, delegate it, or drop it. If it will take less than a couple of minutes, like answering a simple question by e-mail, do it now. If it will take more time, like writing a proposal, you can delay it, but schedule time to do it so it will still get done.

Photo illustration © zenaidan • Fotolia

Photo illustration © zenaidan • Fotolia

Few of us have employees to delegate to, but you can still outsource some things. For example, I do most of my own bookkeeping but hire an accountant to do my taxes. If it’s not something that must be done by you, let someone else do it. Anyone can do the laundry. Only you can do your creative work. Creative work by its very nature cannot be delegated.

Don’t tell James Patterson I said that.

Some things need to be done now, and some things can be omitted. Figure out what you can drop. Often we do this by default, procrastinating until it’s too late to do the thing. If you make the decision early that you’re simply never going to do that thing, you can get it off your list and off your mind.

Think, Want, Do

Business coach Ramit Sethi crystallized a simple way to align your time.

Think: Compare where you think your time is going now, and where it really is.

Want: Establish what you want to do. Set goals.

Do: Figure out when you could do it. Plan and schedule.

You can get more detail at his blog: I Will Teach You To Be Rich…never mind its clickbaity name. Sethi discusses this in the context of financial budgeting, but the principles apply to time budgeting as well.

The first step, thinking about how you’re spending your time now, involves what efficiency experts call a time and motion study. You can get real compulsive about this, like my former employers used to make us do sometimes, and write down exactly what you’re doing every minute. Or just do a self-check once every fifteen minutes to an hour — what did I accomplish in this last hour? Do that for at least a week. Two weeks is better. This way you will really know where your time is going.

Here’s a spreadsheet for this kind of study: Time and Motion Log Recently, I’ve started using the iOS app Now Then instead. It produces great bar and pie charts, and provides a ridiculous level of granularity if you need that feature. I found I was breaking my timekeeping into such small parts the pie charts were overwhelming, so I cut back.

When you’re tracking time, include interruptions and breaks. Anything unplanned that breaks up your day is worth noting, especially if you find patterns. Note anything that was particularly good or bad. For example, what time of day you’re most in the zone, and the times you’re least sharp, and what time your kids are most likely to interrupt.

Doing this will help you discover what your optimum time of day is to do creative work. Once you know that, you can schedule around it—corral that time so nothing else impinges on it. Creative coach Mark McGuiness calls this ring-fencing your creative time.

At the end of your study period—week, month, whichever—review your regular activities and note which are essential, which are important, and which are optional. Your day job, if you have one, is essential. Your church work is important, but lets face it, if you’re a volunteer you’re not going to get fired if you skip the hospitality committee meeting this month. Television, hobbies, and social events are optional. On the urgent/important grid, optional events fall in the not urgent/not important quadrant.

Examine your optional events and consider which of them you’re willing to trade for writing time. Because let’s be honest. You’re using all your time right now. The only way to get more writing time is to stop spending time on other things. Only you can decide what other things can be dropped so you can spend that time on writing instead.

That’s why time management is a matter of priorities. Make your writing a priority—it is important.

Organization: Focus on Focus

I’m taking a break from my Time Management series because Randy Ingermanson just released this great article on the topic, and it meshes perfectly with what I said the other day about grouping like tasks together and scheduling them into your ideal day or week. If you’re writing fiction and don’t already subscribe to Randy’s Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, follow the link at the bottom of the post and sign up. It is fantastic.

Guest Blogger: Randy Ingermanson

Focus is good. This month I decided to try something new to improve my focus.

The plan was simple. Every day of the week, I work on only one thing. A little context here might be helpful:

My life is pretty scattered. I work half time as Director of Software Engineering at a biotech company in San Diego. I also have my website at and another small business with my writing buddy John Olson. And I write fiction.

I like writing fiction and I like writing software and I like writing this e-zine. (There’s a pattern there somewhere.)

What I don’t like are the gritty little administrative tasks that come along for the ride. I hate those. I outsource what I can, but there are some things that can’t be outsourced.

Since I’m constantly juggling several flaming torches, some things never get done because they’re “not important”. Which secretly means I don’t like doing them.

I was talking to John about this last month and complaining that I had a pile of things that never seemed important enough to do because every day I had a long list of tasks, so I always did the things I liked doing first.

get organized

Photo by Rene Wechsler • Fotolia

John suggested that I try doing only one kind of work every day. That seemed too simple, but he convinced me to give it a try.

So my schedule right now is ridiculously simple:

Monday: Write all day.
Tuesday: Work on biotech all day.
Wednesday: Admin tasks all day. Oh, the horror!
Thursday: Work on biotech all day.
Friday: Write all day.

I’ve been trying it for a few weeks now, and here are my thoughts.

I really love Mondays and Fridays. And I’m getting a lot of words written because on those days I don’t have a long To Do List hanging over my head. I can have fun all day long with no guilt. Yay!

I’m working extremely hard on Tuesdays and Thursdays because two days out of five doesn’t make half-time. So in theory, this can’t work, but in practice it does, because when you have to put in the time, you find a way. It may mean working extra in the evenings or on the weekend, but it works out.

I hate Wednesdays. Really hate them. Wednesdays are hell on a razor blade. But that list of horrible admin tasks that I’ve been putting off since forever—that list is shrinking. When you’ve got all day to work on grunge work, there is only so much time you can spend checking e-mail and reading blogs. At some point, you have to face the list and knock some tasks off it.

This plan is still early, but I rather like it. Four days out of the work week are really fun. One day is wretched. The evil To Do List is shrinking. I have this fantasy that it’ll shrink to zero, and I can do fun stuff on Wednesdays again. Then again, I also have fantasies that I can fly.

What about you? Do you see any ideas here you can use in your own life? Can you bundle things so that each day has only One Main Thing?

Maybe your life isn’t shaped that way. Maybe there’s an irreducible part of your life that has to happen every day.

But maybe there’s a way to focus the fun parts of your life, so they’re vastly more fun, and to focus the unfun parts so they actually get done.

Think about it. It just might work. If it does, that’s a win. If it doesn’t, then you can always revert back to normal with no loss.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 12,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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Photo by Craig Hauger •

Photo by Craig Hauger •

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“It’s a primer,” I said. “If you’re writing novels, you’re beyond Strunk and White.”

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