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.

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