Still thinking about managing time…

Now that I‘ve actually read what I‘ve written a few weeks ago 😉 … I‘ve obviously had some time to reflect. About more models of managing your time, about integrating such models in your daily life, their limits, and, of course, about the underlying force, the “why” behind all that.

While trying to adjust myself to the spacious world of home office, I especially came to notice, that time management itself probably wasn‘t the actual issue I was trying to improve. Sure enough, there are several antipatterns of time mismanagement that can easily lead to excessive spending, something you can improve with simple Home Office installations, e.g. having a clock clearly visible from your point of view – and, sensibly, one clearly visible from your cofee machine… These are about making time perceptible, especially when you‘re not the type of person with absolutely fixed times for lunch, or such mundane concepts.

But then, there‘s a certain limit to the amount of improvement you can easily gain from managing time alone. Sure, you could try to apply every single life hack you find online, but then again, the internet isn‘t very good in accounting for differences in personal psychology. The thing you can do, is trying to establish a few recommendations at a certain time and shaking established habits, but you need to evaluate their effect. Not everything is pure gold. For example, my last blog post pointed to the Pomodoro technique, where one will find that there are classes of work that can easily be scheduled into 25-30 minute blocks. But there are others where this restriction leads to more complications than it solves. Another “life hack” the internet throws at you at every opportunity is having a certain super-best time to set your alarm clock to, and I would advise to try to shuffle this once in a while to find out whether there‘s some setting that is best for you. But never think that you need e.g. the same rising pattern as Elon Musk in order to finish your blog post in time… Just keep track of yourself. How would other people know your default mode?

Now overall, each day feels different a bit, and it‘s a function of your emotional state as well as some generic randomness that has no less important effects on your productivity than a set of rules you can just adhere to. So, instead on focussing on managing your time on a given day, we could think of actually trying to manage your productivity. But then again, “productivity management” sounds so abstract that the handles we would think of are about stuff like

  • what you eat
  • how you sleep
  • how much sports you‘re willing to do
  • how much coffee you consume

and other very profound parameters of your existence. That‘s also something you can just play around a bit until you find an obvious optimum. (Did you know that the optimum amount of breakfast beer for you is likely to be zero?… … :P)

However, if you keep on fine tuning every single aspect for the rest of your life like a maniac, you risk to loose yourself in marginal details, without gaining anything.

So if you‘re still reading – we now return in trying to solve what it actually is that we want to manage. And for me, the best model is thinking about managing motivation. Not the general “I guess I am better off with a job than without one”-motivation, but the very real daily motivation that makes you jump from one task into the next one. The one that drives maximum output from your given time without actually having to manage your time itself. There are always days of unsteady condition, but by trying to avoid systematic interferences with your motivation, you can achieve to maximize their output, as well.

At a very general level (and as outlined above), one crucial ingredient in motivational management, for me, is the circumstance of following a self-made schedule. By which of course, I mean, you arrange your day to cooperate with your colleagues and customers, but it has to feel like as much a voluntary choice as possible within your given circumstances.

Then, there‘s planning ahead. Sounds trivial. But you can be the type of person that plans several weeks in advance, or the one that is actually unsure about what happens next monday – the common denominator is avoiding to worry about a kind of default course of events for a few days in a row. We all know that tasks like to fill out more time than they actually require, so you get some backlog one way or another; but if you manage to feel like your time is full of doing something worthwile, it‘s way easier to start your day at a given moment than when you try to arrange tasks of varying importance on-the-fly.

One major point – which I was absolutely amazed by, when I chose to believe it – is, that you can stop a task at many times, without losing your train of thought, not just when it‘s finished. So often, one fears the expected loss of concentration when he realizes that a single task will not fit in a limited time box. But unless you are involuntarily interrupted, and unless you somehow give in to the illusion that the brain is somehow capable of multi-tasking*, you can e.g. shift whole subsections of a given task to the next morning in a conscious manner, and then quickly return to your old concentration.

On the other hand, there‘s the concept of Maker vs. Manager Cycles. Briefly,

  • Someone in a “Manager” mode has a lot of (mostly) smaller issues, spread over many different topics, often only loosely connected, often urgent, and sometimes without intense technical depth. The Manager will gain his (“/her” implied henceforth) motivation surely by getting a lot of different topics done in a short time, thus benefit from a tight, low-overhead schedule. He can apply artificial limits to his time boxes and apply the Pareto rule thoroughly: (“About 80% of any result usually stems from about 20% of the tasks”).
  • However, someone in “Maker” mode probably has a more constrained set of tasks – like a programmer trying to construct a new feature with clearly defined requirements, or a number of multiple high-attention issues – which he wisely bundled into blocks of similar type – will benefit from being left alone for some hours.

For a more thorough discussion, I‘ll gladly point to the discussion of Paul Graham, as Claudia thankfully left in our comment section last time 😉

Which brings me to my final point. I found one of the strongest key to daily motivation lies in the fundamental acceptance of these realities. As outlined above, there just are some different subconscious modes, and different external circumstances, that drive your productivity to a larger scale than you can manipulate. If you already adopted a set of measures and found they did a good job for you, you better not worry if there‘s some kind of a blue day where everything seems to lead to nowhere. You can lose more time by over-optimization than you could gain from super-finely-tuned efficiency. You probably already know this, but do you also embrace it?

(* in my experience, and while I sometimes find myself still trying to do this, multi-tasking is not an existing thing. If you firmly believe otherwise, be sure to drop me a note in the comments..)

Thoughts about Time Management

Now that we live in a time where many project-driven jobs have been forced out of their natural habitat (i.e. home office), one might more than ever ask oneself, „how do I get the most out of my day?“ This is especially interesting when coordination within a team can not happen ad hoc – as it would be possible in an open office environment – but has to fit into every involved one‘s schedule.

So, maybe, within these constraints, it is helpful to remind oneself of some key principles of how humans and their tasks interact with each other. The following compilation of ideas is largely based on fragments acquired by the author and is in no way fresh, groundbreaking research in any field 😉

1. Parkinson‘s Law and Time Boxes.

Sounding like absolutely commonplace knowledge, it is often circulated that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” (originally published in 1955). This can be understood by acknowledging that the human mind usually is quite capable of abstraction and, therefore, of solving hypothetical problem statements… given one task, one can find an arbitrary level of depth of sub-tasks and scent out complications between them; all of which stands in the very way of what one might call one‘s claim for „perfection“, whatever that means.

In theory, however, this tendency can be confined somewhat by thinking of any task to only live in a static, smallest-possible „Time Box“. This aims at removing the buffer resources (or „cushions“) around any single task. By defining such a Time Box by first using words that are easy to grasp,and secondly allocating the minimum amount of time one can barely imagine, one can prevent his or her mind from wandering off into these depths of abstraction (e.g. to „make my home great again“ could involve several complicated and hitherto unknown steps, but to „empty the trash bins in 10 minutes“ feels quite palpable, even if it‘s only a minor aspect of the overall picture).

For singular tasks that need to be split up over several Time Boxes, one might use the idea of the „pomodoro technique“ as a guidance, which estimates that productive, uninterrupted work can usually happen in time intervals of about 25 minutes. In any way, the typical length of a work day should be booked out by timeslots completely, as any addition of a „buffer zone“ will probably directly calm the mind in any preceding Time Box („relax, I don‘t have to respect the end of my Time Box that much, that‘s what the cushions are for“). It might even be preferable to book out the whole work week in advance.

The point in all these is not that one can always manage to fulfil one‘s Time Box, but to give a quick and emotional feedback to the mind: „Stay focused or postpone the current Time Box, but don‘t enter a state of limbo in which you feel like working on the issue at hand, but actually create new tasks, and with impunity.“ On the other hand, if one manages to calibrate the Time Box duration to its projected task, one can very well thrive on the motivation resulting from finishing this task, amplifying focus in a most natural way. Leading over…

2. „Eat the Frog“.

The completion of a task usually leads to one of several effects: As mentioned above, one can feel a motivational push and immediate drive to tackle the next problem; or, however, it can lead to a temporary deflation due to the nearing-the-end-of-time-box-stress relief. Also, some tasks might feel so in routine, that they don‘t lead to excitement or fatigue at all. Either way, it‘s nearly impossible for anyone to predict at 9 am in which state of mind he/she is at 3 am. The key in upholding a certain level of progress, then, is to schedule the most off-putting item at the very beginning of every undertaking. It holds both in a general sense of „Risk First“, i.e. „tackle the problem that is potentially hardest to contain first“, and on a daily basis, i.e. „start your day with the most annoying problem (the most sluggish blocker)“. This is described by metaphorically eating a frog (indeed, it‘s a metaphor – it won‘t really help you if you actually devour one).

Solving the „Maximum Risk Time Box“ first has the advantage, that if the the project already unexpectedly starts to go awry in this stage, there still is plenty of time to communicate with one‘s customer, to outsource some duties to other contributors or to generally refine the original vision of the schedule. Of course, the whole point of Time Boxes is not just to put on artificial pressure for its own sake; but to lay out a road map to any given goal – just as when hiking, the need for some re-orientation is usually not to be seen problematic, if it is identified early enough.

Additionally, going to tackle the „Most annoying Thing of the Day“ first, can add some pleasure of feeling some progress early on any given day. Now that the disgusting frog has been eaten out of the way, you can view any other given task of the day as a comparatively low-threshold obstacle, being easier to put on your plate, easier to digest (it‘s still a metaphor). Furthermore, you can actually measure the progress in the superordinate picture by logging the progress of successfully eaten daily frogs.

To be continued…

Of course, such conceptions aren‘t very good advice if they don‘t align well with a specific project or the general psychology of their bearer. You might still need to flexibly adjust time for interruptions (e.g. video calls), and there are still many complications in which future tasks depend on the result of present tasks, so don‘t waste too much time trying to devise the perfect vision of Time Boxes and Frogs-To-Be-Eaten. With enough practice, however, this mindest can very well be useful in giving some feedback of accomplishment back to the architect.

I‘ll keep you updated when some undeniable drawbacks catch my eye.