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Key messages:
– Having strong time management principles allows you to protect your time and energy from other people’s priorities.

– Whatever your principles, stick to them!

Time management seems to offer a path to ever-increasing productivity and yet is highly limited in what it can deliver. Indeed, for many, it often increases stress rather than bringing a sense of calm and control. The fact is that there are still only a given number of hours in a day. Deduct sleep and the time you need for daily life and responsibilities and most people only have a comparatively small number of hours in the day in which to work towards their dreams.

Time Management Principles

To put yourself in a position in which you can make the most of your time and energy consider writing down your Time Management Principles. Here are my 9 principles:

#1: Focus on Accomplishments Not Tasks
#2: Make Fewer Decisions
#3: See Fewer Problems
#4: Seek Support
#5: Learn to Say No
#6: Take Regular Breaks
#7: Reduce Distractions and Interruptions
#8: Avoid Multitasking
#9: Build Self-Care into Your Day!

#1: Focus on Accomplishments Not Tasks

Why are you trying to fill every moment of your day? Experiment with doing less by focusing on the accomplishments that will make the most difference to you in all aspects of your life. The Eisenhower Matrix can be really helpful in that regard. Alternatively, have a look at my post on to-do lists if you are looking for some inspiration.

#2: Make Fewer Decisions

This may seem strange but the way you structure your life and work can have a dramatic impact on the number decisions you have to make. Fewer decisions mean less time and less opportunity to add items to to-do lists. It also helps you avoid decision fatigue.

Simply start by removing options. Plan your meals for the week. Lay out your clothes the night before or even wear the same “uniform” every day. Set your phone on flight mode for hours at a time. Indeed, anything that can eliminate or reduce decision-making saves you precious mental energy.

#3: See Fewer Problems

From experience it has become apparent that we often see problems as objective hard things. They are not. They are constructs. What may be a problem for one person may be a windfall for another. I therefore find that rather than start from the position of seeing the world through problems, it helps to reverse the burden of proof:

  1. There is no problem.
  2. There may be a problem, but I can’t do anything about it.
  3. There is a problem, and I may be able to do something about it.

This eliminates most “problems” and allows me to focus on the ones that both affect me and are somehow within my control.

  1. Can this situation be ignored?
  2. If not, how exactly does it affect me (us)?
  3. What might a solution look like?
  4. What options do I (we) have?
  5. Who or what might be able to help?
  6. What is the next step?

#4: Seek Support

You are never too busy to stop and look for help. Don’t put it off until you are less busy. If you don’t reduce your load that day may never come. It is also important to remove emotion from the equation and see acknowledging your limits as strength not weakness. Help can be found in the most unexpected places.

Indeed, I have seen situations where people turn to their clients for help and ask them to prioritise the workload – deadlines are often not as written in stone as people say. I have worked with leading Nasdaq and Fortune 100 companies and saw hundreds of people repeatedly give up their evenings and weekends to meet deadlines only for the CEOs to change them on a whim.

#5: Learn to Say No

This is possibly the most important of all the principles in that if you don’t apply it the others will struggle to pick up the slack. You can only save the world if you are in a good place so learn to put yourself first. Each and every time you are asked to do something take a deep breath and reflect if a Yes or a No serves you in that moment.

Indeed, ask yourself, “In 6 months will I be thankful I said Yes?”. This is echoed by CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Warren Buffett who said that:

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

That is because saying Yes too often can result in you being exhausted and stressed and with no time to work on your top priorities.

Practice saying NO out loud! If you get some alone time scream it at the top of your voice. Visualise the people and events you struggle saying NO to. Practice does make perfect.

#6: Take Regular Breaks

We all intuitively know the benefits of breaks but we often feel we don’t have the time. Take them regardless. They can have a phenomenal impact on the quality of what you produce on those top-priority outcomes that will more than make up for the various less important tasks that get crossed off. Even short breaks between meetings have been shown to reduce stress and help you focus better on what comes next.

Day-to-day you need to work out your optimal work cycles. Shorter periods work better for some (for example the Pomodoro Technique), with others preferring longer cycles. In any case, whenever you feel the energy dropping at the very least go for a walk around the office, play a game of chess or put on some music. If possible, do some exercise, take a walk in the park or the wilds if you are lucky enough to be close by.

More longer-term, think about what gives you purpose and joy. Arrange an evening with friends, go visit that aunt you haven’t seen in years, do something special with the kids, get some playfulness into your life or volunteer at some local charity.

All such activities give you a break from daily routines and start building up our deeper spiritual reserves. Such “unproductive time” in fact allows us space to do really important inner work that reinvigorates us. This can then feed back into a greater sense of motivation and purpose and hence greater productivity.

#7: Reduce Distractions and Interruptions

This is in truth partly another way of reducing decisions but is worth splitting out. Distractions and interruptions come at a high cost both individually and collectively and have been estimated to cost the global economy 1 trillion dollars a year. On a personal level, research by the UK Institute of Psychiatry showed that people distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana. Some studies have even put the number higher equating to at least 10% of their IQ for most people. Just think about that for a second!

Sidestep this by removing as many distractions from your physical environments as you can during certain times of the day so you can work on higher value tasks that require concentration, reflection and even meditation. Put this time in your diary. In fact, scheduling interruption time can also be helpful – this may be time in which everyone in the office knows they can pop in for a chat or to ask a question.

Also, don’t forget that a lot of interruptions are self-instigated – nobody forces us to check our emails 15+ times a day or to allow push notifications so that we have those constant pings or flashing lights. We tend to volunteer for this because the tools give us a sense of immediate gratification or we’re afraid we’ll miss something.

#8: Avoid Multitasking (where it doesn’t benefit you!)

Multitasking is in practice a way of interrupting yourself. It is also in the words of Jeremy Clarkson “the ability to screw everything up simultaneously“. It has been lauded for decades as a means of stuffing more into our days and almost seems to make intuitive sense but is it true?

The science would seem to say a resounding No. Multiple studies have shown more stress, anxiety and fatigue for multitaskers. Even worse than this, a study by the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom found levels of brain impairment amongst a group of multitaskers in the brain region responsible primarily for empathy. In line with the studies on distraction showing reduced IQ levels, a 2009 Stanford University study found that multitaskers performed worse in a range of tasks, undermining the very productivity claims behind the technique.

In fact, research has found that multitasking is in truth a myth. There is a task-shifting penalty (a mental tax if you like…) that reduces our ability to produce high-level work. As Deepak Chopra noted:

“Multitasking divides your attention and leads to confusion and weakened focus.”

On average it can take over 20 mins to recover the deep focus you had before the interruption. It may not matter for some tasks but it does for others so something to be mindful of.

#9: Build Self-Care into Your Day!

You are your most precious resource. Not only do your mind and body deserve to be treated properly but studies have shown that if you don’t you will underperform. More worryingly you may store up problems for the future. There are 4 major components (SEER):

  • Sleep: If you’re looking for a primer on sleep, this episode of the Huberman Podcast, where Dr. Huberman is in conversation with Dr. Matt Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and the Founder & Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, is a great start. If you’re looking for something chunkier, Dr. Walker is also author of Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams.
  • Eat: To function optimally our minds and bodies need quality nutrition. Don’t skimp! If you’re looking for tips it is hard to find a better resource than Nutrition Facts, run by Dr. Michael Greger.
  • Exercise: Physical fitness is important not only for our physical wellbeing but also our emotional wellbeing. Depending on where you are on your fitness journey you will know what is realistic for you. If you don’t have the facts, it should be possible to get a personal trainer to put together a plan tailored to you and your aspirations.
  • Reinvigorate: To my mind, this is being largely overlooked in our cultures. We all know we need to recover from physical exercise but what about from all the other things life throws at us? It is therefore important that your leisure activities are truly refreshing your mind and nourishing your soul. We also tend to be active at work and passive in leisure (watching TV or YouTube, zoning out on social media, etc.) so there are opportunities to rebalance that.