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Key messages:
– Principles are the big rules you live by and hacks are those little ways we have of easing the daily grind. Systems are in between.

– A good system should primarily allow you to distinguish between urgent and important and work towards those key accomplishments that will make a difference to you!

Put simply, time systems allow us to structure our day such that we get to accomplish what we want and don’t get lost in long to do lists and other people’s priorities. This post covers a number of systems I have created and more well-established ones.

#1: The Daily Journal System

Summary:

  • I created this system to give clients a visually easy way of planning and reflecting on their days.
  • The No. 1 issue I have found is that we spend too little time on those activities that create the most value for us.
  • For that reason at its core it has the Rule of 3, i.e., set your Top 3 Priorities for the Day and focus on those. Then review what, if anything, got in the way and learn from it.

When and how to use:

This system is ideal if you are feeling a little overwhelmed and want to get to grips with how you are allocating your days. It does require a little commitment in terms of planning and reflection but that is well worth it if you can bring more calm to your days and reduce the volume of less critical tasks you do.

Download my template here for full explanations on how to use it.

#2: Balanced Life System

Summary:

  • I developed this system for myself. It is the first thing I open in the morning and last thing I shut down at night. It is based on much reflection and work with clients.
  • It is designed to reflect the reality that our lives are split into a whole series of identities and roles (in my case dad, husband, friend, business owner, coach, educator, time thinker, climate activist, volunteer….). It can be very hard to answer big questions like “What do you want to accomplish over the next 5 years?” Who should answer such a question?
  • It therefore felt natural to spread my activities across a whole series of buckets and write a mission statement for each one.
  • Missions can then be guided by nearer term priorities, which ultimately get broken down into more granular outcomes (i.e., activities and tasks).

Pro tip: This system allows you to establish what it is you want to accomplish in each area of your life and then track what you are doing on a daily basis. It quickly shows if you are spending too much in one area and not enough on others so you have the option to rebalance.

When and how to use:

This system is a step-up from the previous one and requires some level of reflection as to the roles you are playing in life and what your mission is in each one.

For example, one of my buckets is entitled “Coaching and Educating!”. The mission statement is as follows:

Coaching and educating individuals and organisations around expanding horizons one moment at a time!

I then ask myself questions each and every workday such as:

  • What conversation might I start today?

  • What opportunities might I create to advance this mission?

    By doing the same thing across the other buckets, I can keep track of my big pictures and live what for me is a more balanced life, which is my ultimate aspiration. You may have a different aspiration!

    Download my template here for full explanations on how you might use it.

    #3: Eisenhower Matrix

    “Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term! Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 address to the Century Association

    Summary:

    Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States and architect of D-Day, certainly knew something about getting things done. His answer to the potential overwhelm of his various offices was an acute sense of what was urgent and what was important.

    This tool, repackaged by Stephen Covery in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is intended to help people to pretty quickly allocate their activities to 1 of 4 quadrants:

    Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent – DO IT

    Activities that simply must be done by you, with pressing deadlines and consequences if left done.

    Quadrant 2: Important and Not Urgent – SCHEDULE IT

    Activities that will help you accomplish what you want but that can be done from a place of calm.

    Quadrant 3: Not Important and Urgent – DELEGATE IT

    Activities that need to be done but not necessarily by you. Best to outsource to someone with a more appropriate skillset.

    Quadrant 4 Not Important and Not Urgent – DELETE IT

    These are activities that somehow crept onto your to do list but aren’t yours to do. Also includes activities that simply serve to distract you from more important work.


    When and How to Use:

    This has the twin benefit of allowing you to prioritise your work today but also look back over time to see in which quadrant the bulk of your activities lie. The idea is that the more you can be in Quadrant 2 (Important and Not Urgent) the more quality work you’ll get done at less cost to you.

    The only issue is that it can be hard to track over time. I always suggest that you make a copy for each day or week (whatever works for you) and simply add your tasks into each quadrant.

    One thing I have found is that at times it may be beneficial to explore what you understand by “Urgent” and “Important”. Urgent for whom? Important for whom? Important in what way? The clearer the bigger picture and how a particular task or activity fits into that picture possibly the more you might get out of the tool.

    Download a copy of the template here!

    #4 Time Blocking

    Summary:

    Time Blocking (also called time chunking) essentially involves scheduling periods of time for yourself (say 15 to 90 minutes) to work on your top priorities. In this way, instead of diving straight in to your inbox and being led by other people’s priorities, you set aside time in the same way you would for meetings.

    Rather than a 2D to-do list with a series of tasks but no obvious sense of when and where they will get done, Time Blocking requires you to answer the time question: When will this get done? The planning required (typically the day before) offers a reflective space that allows devotees to prioritise and strategise – what do I want to get done, how long will it take and when is the best time to do it? This creates a certain realism about what is achievable in any one day.

    Combined with putting your phone on plane mode and placing a Do Not Disturb sign on the office door, you can create space to work on high-priority, high-value tasks. This offers a sense of control as you get to work on what you feel will make the greatest difference without being concerned about interruptions.

    As Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, noted:

    “A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”

    The Pomodoro Technique works in a similar way but has traditionally used 25-minute intervals followed by a 5-minute break. It is also different in that it doesn’t place as much emphasis on planning ahead. 25 minutes is too short for much of what I work on. These days I also like to plan ahead so I can be realistic about what I will accomplish on a given day but it may be helpful for some. Learn more on Wikipedia.

    When and How to Use:

    I don’t apply this method all the time but there are days each week when I need to get into a place of deep reflection and time blocking is very helpful. On those days, I typically schedule 90-minute chunks as this allows me to achieve a state of flow where quality and creative work awaits. It also avoids the mental switching costs associated with interruptions and multitasking. I find being pulled out of a creative task almost painful so really value this approach.

    Ultimately, however, like Benjamin Franklin, you could apply it to your whole working week and indeed beyond. One of the earliest recorded users, Mr. Franklin even used it to block out time for chores and sleep. Similarly, if you struggle to fit in ‘me time’ in the form of exercise, lunch or just plain lounging around, blocking the time in your diary can give you the necessary permission – “It is in the diary so I had better do it”.

    When using this approach it is important that you:

    • Have a really strong grasp on what you want to accomplish;
    • Know what your priorities are;
    • Know the right amount of time for each activity; and
    • Plan ahead (at least the day before).

    You also, equally, need to be able to keep the world at bay to some extent although you can get around this by scheduling interruption time. During this time colleagues can pop in to your office to ask questions, you can return calls and catch up on email. A nice trick for this, if you have a standing desk, is to work standing during this time.