The key to managing your time

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You have a lot of tasks on your list. You know what to do, how, and why, but do you know “when”?

“When” you will do a task is the key to effectively managing your time. 

If you know when, and schedule the day (and time), you’re more likely to do it. If you don’t know when, you may not do it at all. 

Our days are full. Once we complete our scheduled tasks (appointments, meetings, calls), we might not have enough time or energy to do other things. 

Which means we often won’t do them. 

I’m not advocating time-blocking our entire day or giving everything a due date. But maybe we should give everything a “do” date. 

When you schedule when to do something, you’ve decided it’s important. If you don’t know, everything becomes “someday/maybe” and that often means “never”. 

Decide “when” you will do the task and schedule it. Mark the day and time on your calendar or tag it on your list. If you’re not sure of the time, at least schedule the day. If you’re not sure of the day, at least schedule the week. 

You can always change the day or week. But to do that, you’ll need to reconsider the importance of the task, and then renew your commitment to doing it or remove it from your list. 

Look at it this way: if a task isn’t important enough to schedule, maybe it’s not important at all. 

What if you’re not sure when you will do it? Schedule a date and time to review the task and then decide. 

Because “when” is the key to managing your time. 

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A few thoughts about GTD contexts

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Getting Things Done (GTD) teaches us to identify our tasks by context—location, people, tools, and so on—so we can do things when and where we’re best equipped to do them. 

I stopped using most contexts a long time ago, since I can do just about anything from just about anywhere.

Calls, emails, reading, writing—I can do from the office in my pocket. 

I still use the @waiting and @errand contexts, but not much else. 

I’m going to take another look at my use of contexts, however, based on a short video I saw which makes the case for contexts based on “time plus energy”.

GTD has long recommended contexts for time and energy, but I like the way the presenter combines them:

  • Short Dashes: Tasks that require more than 2 minutes but less than 15 minutes. Most calls and emails fit here, don’t they? 
  • Full Focus: Tasks requiring maximum energy, no distractions, and longer periods of time; deep work.
  • Brain Dead: When you can’t do anything that requires a lot of thought.
  • Routines: Your weekly review, exercise, writing a blog post. 
  • Hanging Around: Tasks that don’t require a lot of time or energy and don’t have a deadline, e.g., light research, organizing notes, buying something online.

What do you think? Do any of these appeal to you? Do you already use something similar?

I like “Brain Dead” or “Hanging Around,” especially for things I can do after I’ve shut down work for the night. I’ll give this some thought later today. 

But first, I have some “Short Dashes” to take care of. 

I’m travelling today; this is a (slightly edited) re-post from 2021.

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Not motivated? Try this…

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You don’t want to do it. You might not want to do anything. You’re in a funk. 

Action is the cure for what ails you. 

The good news is it doesn’t need to have anything to do with the task you’re avoiding. Any meaningful action you take can reset your brain and get you back on track. 

Grab a sheet of paper and write down one thing you would feel good about getting done today. It doesn’t matter what it is, or how big it is, only that it’s something you would like to get done. 

It could be sending an email to someone who’s asked you a question, jotting down bullet points for an article or letter or brief you need to write, or reviewing a file and thinking about what’s next. 

Once you choose something, do it. A small win is a win. Enjoy it. It might be all you need to snap out of it and get back to work. 

If you’re still resisting, set a timer for 25 minutes (Pomodoro), or if you’re not up to that, set a timer for 5 minutes, and work on the task. When you’re done, you should feel a bit better. Energized, maybe. Feeling a hit of dopamine from completing a task on your list.  

You can also reward yourself by doing something fun. Watch a short video or play your favorite game for a few minutes. More dopamine.

By now, you may feel ready to tackle the thing you’ve been avoiding. If not, do something else meaningful, continue doing that, building momentum, until you are ready. 

If that doesn’t happen, if you’re still not up to it, take the rest of the day off and start over tomorrow. New day, new you. 

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Who, not how

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When you have a task to do, before you start, ask yourself ‘Who can do this for me?” Delegating or outsourcing work saves you time, leverages other peoples’ skills, and lets you focus on what you do best. 

This philosophy and practice has been game changing for me.

In fact, in my practice, my motto was to “Only do what ONLY I can do (and delegate everything else).” 

You might want to follow suit. 

It’s not always easy to do. We resist delegating things because we believe we do them better, but that’s not always true. I’ve had employees who did things I could never do as quickly, efficiently, or as well. 

We also resist because it’s risky to entrust certain tasks to other people. If they make a mistake, we pay the price or we have to spend more of our time fixing their mistake. But while that is generally true, crunch the numbers and you’ll see, in the long run, you come out ahead. 

“It’s quicker and easier for me to do it myself.”

Also not true. Yes, we have to invest time training and supervising others; the question is, is that investment worth it? For me, it is almost always more than worth it. 

So, that leaves our egos. We don’t like the idea of turning over our work, our important clients, to other people. But you get used to that. Especially when you see how much more profitable and satisfying your work is. And, did I mention how much more profitable it is?

Will it be as profitable for you?

Make a list of the things you do that ONLY you can do and imagine what it would be like if you could spend almost all your time doing just those things. 

Yeah. . . it’s worth it. 

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Your hobby can make you rich

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We hear stories about the entrepreneur who turned their love for classic cars or cooking or tinkering with computers—their hobby—into a successful business. But that’s not the only way a hobby can make you rich. 

The other way, the way most of us will do it, is to use our hobby or outside interest as something we do solely because we enjoy it. It’s fun. Interesting. A way to relax and get away from the pressures and demands of our work and responsibilities. 

You work harder or smarter when you give your body and brain that break.

You like watching videos about your favorite sport or app or indulging in another so-called guilty pressure. When you’re stuck in traffic or a boring meeting, you want to take a mental vacation for a few minutes and think about something you’re looking forward to doing later.

Do it. Without guilt. For no other reason than you enjoy it. 

If you don’t, if you continually deny yourself because you have more work to do, more responsibilities to take care of, you might eventually come to resent your work. A brief respite can help you recharge and take the next lap. 

But don’t go in the other direction. You still have work to do.

Give yourself a few minutes at lunch or after work to read a chapter in your current novel or the sports page. Play a word game or shoot some bad guys after you’ve finished your research or made one more call.

Your hobbies may not literally make you rich, but if they make you happy, your life will be infinitely richer.

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Do I really need to do this? 

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Lawyers use a lot of checklists, don’t we? We figure out the steps, the best order to do them, and get to work. When we tick all the boxes or complete all the steps, we know we have left nothing out. The next time we do that task or work on that type of project or case, we don’t have to think about the steps again, we just do them. 

It’s efficient. Unless we wind up doing things we don’t need to do. 

That’s why, instead of automatically following our list, we should routinely ask ourself, “Do I really need to do this?”

Ask yourself if you could eliminate that task or skip that step. Because if you can, you can use that time for something else.

More time to do other work you need to do. More time for marketing. More time to rest or have a little fun.

Over the course of a day or week, you might reclaim hours of time unnecessarily spent doing things you don’t need to do. 

So, every day, ask yourself, “Do I really need to do this?”

Do you really need to attend that meeting every week? Would once a month be sufficient? Do you really need to go at all?

When you review a case or prepare a client for depo or arbitration, is every step necessary? Could you do any of them more quickly? Do you have to do everything yourself, or could you delegate any steps?

Any task you eliminate frees up valuable time. Any task you can do in 5 minutes instead of the usual 20 minutes does likewise. It might only be a few minutes here and there, but those minutes add up.

How often do you check your email? Could you safely do that twice a day instead of the 4 or 5 times you’re used to? 

Look at your calendar. Is there an upcoming task or event you could eliminate? Is there anything scheduled for 45 minutes you could do reasonably well in 25? 

Eliminate whatever you can. Cut wherever you can. Would something bad happen if I didn’t do this? Could I skip that step or do it in two minutes instead of ten?

Remember, every minute you save is a minute you can use doing something else.

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Flexible task planning

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We all have good days and bad days. Busy days and days we don’t get a lot done. Days when we’re full of energy and days when we need a nap.

So, why do we plan our days assuming we’ll always be at our best?  

We’re not always at our best. Sometimes, we’re tired or ill or overwhelmed. We don’t feel up to everything. Other days, we feel great and are ready to take on the world. 

Instead of rigidly planning our days, assuming we’ll be able to work at full speed, what if we create two versions of our day’s schedule?

  1. Bare minimum (to use when we’re tired, feeling sick, overwhelmed, feeling down, etc.) 
  2. Crushing it (when we have lots of energy and feel like doing everything) 

When you’re tired or feeling bad, you do the bare minimum. You take care of deadlines, important obligations, things that can’t wait. You get through the day and live to see another.

And, when you’re full of energy, excited about the day ahead, you put on your Superman cape, look at your other list, and crush it. 

In other words, you pay attention to how you feel instead of following a rigid schedule. 

You don’t literally need to make two lists. Just put a star next to everything on the list that qualifies as “bare minimum”.

Most days, you probably feel somewhere in the middle. You do more than the minimum, but probably less than you might do when you’re fully charged. With two versions of your day’s list, you can ramp up or scale down, depending on how you feel.

Of course, there will be days when you feel good in the morning but poop out in the afternoon. Or high energy early in the week and low energy as you approach the week end. That’s another way to use your lists.  

I know, we’re told consistency is our friend and we should make a schedule and stick to it no matter what.

But hey, Superman never gets sick or tired, but the rest of us need some options.

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The last piece of work I do every day

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Years ago, I used to plan my day in the morning. Check the calendar, to-do list, and the pile of documents, letters and files I need to work on.  

Today, I do that the night before. 

“Plan tomorrow before tomorrow begins,” became my motto after I heard the wisdom of doing that from an expert in productivity and tried it. It’s made a big difference.  

I start my day knowing what to do, when and for how long  

I’m not trying to plan my day in the morning when my energy is high and is best used doing the actual work.  

If something unexpected comes up during the day, I don’t stress about it. I either fit it in, or more likely, (calmly) schedule it for another day.

I’m more realistic about my tasks and time

When I wrote my task list in the morning, I usually put down too many things I “planned” to do. I focused on being busy, not productive, and usually finished the day with a lot of tasks undone. 

Now, I take a moment to reflect on my day and imagine myself doing those tasks. I’m more mindful and selective about what I do and have more time to do my most important tasks. 

I’m also more likely to start my workday doing something important instead of whatever is at the top of the list. 

Planning and executing are different. I execute better (more quickly, more thoughtfully, with fewer mistakes, and less likely to get distracted) when I’m not also doing the planning. 

I’m less likely to procrastinate

Not only do I have a schedule for the day, planning it the night before allows me to break down the various steps and schedule those as well. 

I know what I will do first, and what I will do after that, and because each step is smaller, I’m more likely to do them. 

I don’t feel guilty about relaxing in the evening, or compelled to get to work first thing the next day

Once I’ve planned my day, I go “off the clock”. I take it easy, watch videos or shows with my wife, read, play a few word games, and do other things humans do. 

Similarly, in the morning, I don’t feel in a rush to get to work.  

Sometimes, I get to it. Sometimes, I don’t. 

I might do some light admin work in the morning before I do my “deep work”. Or I might watch some frivolous videos and do nothing meaningful at all until I’m ready for “work mode”. Either way, because I have a plan, I don’t stress about starting my day. 

I sleep better

According to one study I heard, spending five minutes in the evening writing a task list for the next day often makes it easier to fall asleep. 

I don’t toss and turn as I remember things I need to do the following day. I’ve already decided what I will do and recorded it.

Yes, sometimes I remember things I neglected to schedule, but my phone is always nearby and I can record a quick reminder. But because I know I have a well-planned day, I can forget about it until the morning. 

I’m more productive

By making a schedule the night before instead of “the day of,” I may or may not get more work done, but I almost always get my most important work done. 

Planning your day in the morning is okay. It’s better than starting the day without a plan. But planning my day before it begins has been (to use an overused term) life-changing for me.

And I recommend you try it. 

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My new list

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I’ve tried adding tags to my tasks, estimating the amount of time each task will take so I could be more effective in planning my day. It sounded like a good idea, and I know many folks do this successfully, but I couldn’t make it work for me.

But I’m going to give it another try. 

Sort of. 

I’ve started a new list of “10-Minute tasks” that I can pull up when I have a few minutes between appointments, calls, or other scheduled tasks, and don’t want to waste that time scrolling through my phone or playing a game, or I need a “palette cleanser” before I start on the next task on my list. 

On my list are things I can complete in 10 minutes or less, or work on for 10 minutes and come back to later. Things like processing email or my task list inbox, filing notes, reviewing one of my projects, reading an article or two in my “read later” app or a few pages in my Kindle, or checking in with (someone). 

Productive things. Yay me.

Another example: I organized the documents folder on my hard drive recently and wound up with a big file of “old stuff” (digital detritus) to go through and purge or put to use somewhere. It’s a big, boring project, perfect to hack away at 10 minutes at a time, so yes, it’s on the list.

A list like this is also valuable when you’re mobile, so make sure you can access your list on your phone. When you arrive early for your dental appointment, you’re in line to pick up your kids after school, or you’re on a bus or train on your way to work, grab something on your 10-minute task list and use that time to tick something off your list.

Or scroll through your dang phone. The kids will be there soon, and having a few minutes for “me time” is good for your sanity.

 

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Cleaning up your notes

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Just when you think you’re done for the year and can take it easy for the next few days, I’m giving you another project to consider—to organize or re-organize your notes and notebooks.

That means deleting notes and notebooks you no longer need (or moving them to an archive), moving out-of-place notes to folders for appropriate projects or areas of focus, consolidating tags, and otherwise making your notes easier to find and use.

One thing I’ve done with my setup is adding a “Dashboard” folder at the top level. I use the PARA method (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives) and my dashboard folder, which I’ve named “Home,” sits at the top.  

My “Home” stack currently contains the following sub-folders: 

  • INBOX. I used to keep this “top level” but moved it into Home because I think it looks better. I don’t want to see these notes until I’m ready to process them.
  • QUICK REFERENCE. For notes such as shopping lists, checklists, contact info for key people, and a list of vitamins I use when I refill the container on Sunday.
  • TODO. Tasks I need to take action on but haven’t yet added to my task management app, or notes relating to tasks I have added to my task app and need to reference.   
  • READ NEXT. I use a “read later” app but also use this folder for articles I want to read soon. 
  • READ/WATCH. Articles, etc., I plan to add to their respective Projects or Areas, or to the READ NEXT folder when that is empty.  
  • WIP. Notes, ideas, links, and other resources pertaining to projects I’m currently working on. I’ve decided to delete this folder, however, and move the notes in it to their appropriate Project folders. No need for both. 
  • JOURNAL A place to record thoughts, ideas, plans, quotes, etc. I don’t use this regularly, however, and may move these notes to their appropriate Area folders. 

Other than the contents of the Quick Access sub-folder, everything in the Home folder is temporary. For now, anyway. I tend to move things around quite a bit. 

I’m planning to add a sub-folder to my Home folder for Indies or MOC (Maps of Content) with internal inks to notes relating to key areas of interest. 

If you use a notes app that doesn’t have folders or notebooks, or doesn’t allow you to use nested folders or notebooks (or enough levels) but uses tags and nested tags, e.g., Bear, you can effectively accomplish the same structure I use. 

Do you use a dashboard note or folder? What do you keep in it? 

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