“Use a To-do App”. This and other time management advice that didn’t work, and what eventually did

Photo by rawpixel.com
“Hey you have to check out [insert newest to-do app here]. It changed my life!”

You’ll hear this a lot. It also misses the point. What’s the point? “Time management is really about priorities”. Tools don’t matter as much.

I’ve listed below the 5 things that work for me, and the 4 principles I follow when making decisions about time. No specific tools required.

I’m spilling the beans. I’m telling you my secret 🔑.

It might not apply to your life. Contextual solutions rarely do. But I hope you get something useful out of it.

So… you want to get more done 💪

You finally decide you want to get more done. You hit Google. You find advice. A lot, of, advice. Bad advice too!

Here’s a sample of what you might find:

  • Use [to-do list app], it’s great (tools over systems)
  • You’re not doing [method] right, you must follow it to the dot (process over outcome)
  • Time management is easy, just say no to everything else (no room to adapt)

I won’t be able to give you an absolute solution for how to manage your time. Partially because there is no such thing. But I can tell you how I do it.

So let’s get started.

What success looks like

In product management, it’s a good idea to write down a list of what we call “Acceptance Criteria”, which essentially means a list of characteristics that we expect the final result should have.

Here’s my acceptance criteria for good time management:

(good time management should allow me to …)

  • Spend more time working on important things
  • Have minimal to no waste. And no, Netflix binging is not waste (actually, it’s fun)
  • Be able to respond, timely, adequately to others or the situation at hand
  • Have a feeling of control, as opposite to stress or anxiety

While:

  • Keeping a minimum of overhead (i.e. don’t spend more time managing the system than actually doing things)
  • Making it easy to recover when I don’t follow through

That’s it. No big deal. That’s how I measure if what I’m doing still works for me or not. Starting with the end in mind is critical. It helps me calibrate.

So now that we know what good looks like, let’s dive right in. Let’s get into the meat of it. Let’s talk “how”.

My 5x4 — the 5 practices and 4 principles that work for me

Here’s the list of 5 practices that work for me:

  1. Configure a _baseline_ calendar. Having a baseline calendar might seem worthless, but it’s a great use of the power of defaults. If you schedule the routines you go through every day then you won’t be so tempted to schedule something else over them. Use whatever tool you want. I use Google. I have it configured as an extra calendar I called “Baseline” with the #FDFDFD colour, and added “Morning Routine”, “Wind Down Routine” and “Lunch” as recurring weekday events. No alerts. A 5m investment that has paid back many fold.
  2. Dump your state. Write a work list. The key here is to only log outcomes. Think projects, not tasks. As a rule of thumb, if you have more than 5 items on this list, or any of them takes less than 1 week to do, you’re doing it wrong. Having a place where you can log all the work streams you’re currently doing is a powerful way to prevent your mind from defaulting to top priority when new work shows up. Pen and paper work great. I use Apple Notes and create a note called “Work streams”. I log items here as they show up during the day.
  3. Weekly Outcomes, Daily Results. Here’s the secret-sauce (if there is one). I start each week by taking 30 minutes (Monday morning, first thing) to think through and write down 3 outcomes I’d like for the week. These are 3 things that, when the week ends, I’d love to have under my belt. They’re outcomes, not tasks. They inspire action rather than describe it. Some of these outcomes come from my work list, others are completely new, but they are always a conscious choice, made by me, to do what’s important. Then each day I spend 10 minutes (first thing) writing down what are the 3 things I’d like to complete today. These read more like tasks. Sometimes they come from meetings scheduled in my calendar, other times I look up to my Weekly Outcomes and ask myself “what will I do today to advance that outcome”. I use Apple Notes with one note for each calendar week (CW34 — Weekly Outcomes, Daily Results) and a bold headline for each day of the week (weekly outcomes go at the top of the note).
  4. Make it easy to “get back on the horse”. Great structure makes it easy to get back on the horse once you fall. Since I keep to weekly outcomes, then every new week is an opportunity to start again. Sometimes you won’t meet the weekly outcomes, and sometimes you won’t work on exactly what was setup for the day. That’s OK, it’s by design. Life happens. It’s not about diligence to a method, it’s about better results. Over time. If I fall off the horse during one week, I just restart next Monday. That simple.
  5. Map your Hotspots. I keep another note, with a table, in Apple Notes. But again, paper works fine. Two columns. The first one is a life / work hotspot (mine reads Body, Career, Craft, Family, Financial, Friends, Fun, Love, Mind, Music, Travel, Work). The second column reads “Boundaries”. Most of the right hand side columns don’t have any values filled in. Boundaries work like the side lanes on a bowling alley, they are there to make the game more enjoyable for you and others. You see, some things you will spend a litte too much time on, and some things too little. So for the ones I want to improve on, I set a boundary of time (e.g. “1 day a week”) and schedule it on the calendar. This acts as a guarding rail for balancing across the different hotspots of life. e.g. maybe I haven’t been paying attention to financial wellbeing lately, and it’s worth adding a boundary there to give it a boost. I don’t keep this table up to date, neither I review it within any specific timeframe. It happens naturally that I review it every once in a while.

That’s it. 5 practices. Hardly a system. No big deal. It’s simple AND because of that it works. That’s the five in 5x4. Practices.

But to make good decisions, you should also rely on a good set of principles. So let’s talk about those.

The 4 principles I use to make decisions about time

Here’s the 4 principles I use, when making decisions about time:

  1. There’s no such thing as work life balance. 🤔 In life go short, at work go long. Spend enough time around me, and you’ll hear me say “there’s no such thing as work/life balance”. Which might leave you puzzled because I’m not a workaholic, yet I’m super passionate about what I do. Most people refer to work life balance as a state, when in fact it’s mostly about the act of balancing, a verb. In life rarely anything has balance. So what’s one to do? Took me a while to get this one right, but here it is: in life, go short. At work, go long. What does that even mean? Here’s the thing: some things you want to dedicate your full attention to, react immediately, stop everything else to do them instead. This is the case with things like friends, your family, your health. Being home for dinner, kissing your wife goodnight, making time to meet with family are all examples of things you can’t afford to be dropping by the sides. They won’t bounce back easy if you do. On the other hand, there are places where, to really accomplish something important, you have to be willing to let things drop by the side of the road. And you can, because they’re more recoverable, they bounce back. And you must, because that’s the only way you’ll get to have the focus, the persistence and the determination to break through antibodies most workplaces have to new ideas. At work, one must persist, go long with one idea, to break through. And this means other things fall to the side. But that’s ok, because things are more recoverable at work. They bounce back. So take a longer view. You can’t drop your health, or your wife, or your kids. At work this is not the case. At work you must go long, if you are to really achieve anything meaningful.
  2. Big rocks . Block out time, in the morning, for things that are important (but not necessarily urgent) to you. You know that thing you’re dreading doing? Schedule it first thing in the morning. Putting your big rocks first is a sure-fire way to make your day go better and make you feel more accomplished when it ends. Willpower is NOT on will-call. Its just like your iPhone battery, full in the morning, drained by night. So swallow the frog, do what’s hard when your willpower is up, first thing in the morning. You’ll find that everything else comes easy in comparison.
  3. Bottom of the mountain 🏔 problem. One of the challenges with logging just outcomes, it’s that some of them seem daunting. “To have my taxes delivered and validated”. Ouch. You see, the maximisers and perfectionists in all of us, have a tendency to want to get the full picture before they get started. The challenge with that is that the “sheer anxiety of how big the problem is” prevents us from actually getting started in the first place. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. A bad one. I call this “bottom of the mountain problem”. The climb looks daunting, so we don’t get started. The key thing to remember is that all great things take 10 tries. Go through the first try as quickly as possible and move on. Pick a subset of the problem and solve it. Solve it well. This doesn’t mean you get to be sloppy. Going through Fail#1 quickly lets you get more done, because you keep “shipping”. In practice, pick a part of the problem and throw a couple of hours at it, shipping what’s at the end. That’s Fail#1. (e.g. Overthinking product copy? Ship F#1. Build a new product landing page? Ship F#1. New sales strategy? Ship F#1. New pricing page? Ship F#1).
  4. Compound. What’s the “One Thing” 1️⃣. Another big part of the “bottom of the mountain problem” is knowing where to start. Yes fail 9 times and all that, but where should I start? Are all parts of the problem created equal? Which weekly outcomes should I choose from the list? There is no easy answer to this problem, but whatever you choose keep two things in mind. Choose so you build momentum and remember the reason you’re choosing, so you can be appropriate (say no) when other things come asking for priority. There are some things that if you choose to do them, everything else will fall in line (or become unnecessary). So ask yourself: “What’s the one thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary”. Find the lead domino. Find the one thing that when complete will create a real sense of momentum, dragging everything else with it. And then focus on that one thing to the exclusion of others. A very interesting side effect of focusing exclusively on the lead domino is that the 80/20 path becomes clearer. You’ll know when you’re in diminishing returns. At that point, move on. Find your next One Thing.

And that’s it. That’s how I do time management. No big hacks or secrets.

Most of what’s here has been in books that are 100s of years old. That should tell us the real challenge isn’t in knowing. It’s in doing. So give it a try. Worked for me.


Got a second?

If you found the above interesting, and would like to know more about this article, just drop me a message @rcclerigo. I’m here to help. You can also hit the like button and follow me here, on Medium.