F or many of us, work can feel like a never-ending cycle of long meetings, overflowing inboxes, and urgent demands. No matter how fast we go or how hard we work, there’s far more to do every day than time to do it.
That’s a recipe for burnout, and it’s one that many time management strategies aren’t always cut out for avoiding. Sometimes that’s because “managing” time starts from the premise that your workload is going to be what it’s going to be, and the best you can do is keep it “manageable.” But what if you could design your workday instead? Sure, it’s partly just a shift in mind-set — from small-scale tactics to big-picture strategy — but it can be transformative.
Here’s an approach I’ve developed at Google for “designing” my time instead of just managing it.
1. Break everything into quadrants
You probably write strategic plans for just about every big project and business decision you confront. So why not take the same approach for your time? Planning helps you think critically about which projects will have the greatest positive impact, instead of just coping with everything that comes your way. The workweek can wind up feeling more organized (and yes, “manageable”) as a result.
I start by dividing my work responsibilities into four quadrants:
- People development (managing my teams, coaching)
- Business operations (data analysis, running a sales meeting)
- Transactional tasks (one-off tasks like responding to an email, reviewing a budget)
- Representative tasks (serving as a “face” for the business, like having drinks with customers or speaking at conferences).
You can label your quadrants however you like, but remember: you only get four of them. To figure out what they are, start by making a list of your normal tasks and responsibilities. Take a look at your calendar and review the meetings you attended in the last couple of weeks. Review your recent to-do lists and big projects from the past three months.
Then group all those recent and semi-recent tasks, big and small, into the four most obvious categories. Yours will be unique to your job, but a “transactional” quadrant, for instance, is useful for one-off tasks. When you do this, you’ll have a high-level view of all the things you could possibly spend your time on, which makes it easier to plan and balance all your day-to-day and week-to-week responsibilities.
You’ll notice right away that not all tasks are created equal. One quadrant will probably have lower-value tasks relative to those in another — and that’s the point. You probably won’t spend an equal amount of time working on tasks in each quadrant. It isn’t about segmenting your day into neat 25% chunks — most jobs are too unpredictable for that. Instead, the key to using them effectively is to be mindful that if you focus on business impact and personal enjoyment, you can achieve great things while maintaining balance: You can design what you do, rather than just do what you need to.
The system acts as a safety net to keep you on track and productive.
How? For one thing, you can get more honest about what you actually like about your job and become more intentional about doing those things. While you’re planning your week, you can build in tasks from the quadrant you find the most energizing, thereby helping you get more done.
And even in periods when you’re immersed in doing one thing from just one quadrant — whether it’s planning next year’s budget, completing performance reviews, or preparing for an annual event — you’ll know to intentionally set aside a small amount of time for higher-impact or more enjoyable work. The system acts as a safety net to keep you on track and productive.
2. Get used to saying “no”
Designing your time each week only works if you have the right mind-set; it’s not only okay, but necessary to say no. The days simply aren’t long enough to do every task asked of you.
But now that you know how they stack up, you can be more thoughtful about which ones you tackle: Will my participation in a meeting really have the greatest impact on my company? Is there something else I can work on that will lead to greater results? Are they tasks I can delegate to others or just put off until later?
Your four-quadrant system will only work if you can get okay with saying “no” because it defines a hierarchy of value. You won’t just be refusing to participate or procrastinating because you dislike a certain task — you’ll do that only because you know your time is better spent elsewhere. So respect the time you schedule for yourself: If you’re working on a report, give yourself permission to not respond immediately to every email. No, you won’t be “managing” your inbox — but by design.
3. Do the stuff you actually love
It’s easy to get bogged down by the sheer volume of things to do and imagine that you just don’t have enough time to spend doing the parts of your job you genuinely like. But that can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re just focused on time management.
If you’re mentally exhausted, you’ll work less efficiently, so make sure you take time every day to recharge and enjoy your work. Pull from that quadrant that energizes you. Give yourself permission to prioritize the things you actually love. I enjoy tasks in my two “people” quadrants (1 and 4) — meeting with my team, mentoring younger employees, grabbing a beer with a customer.
Days when I have these tasks on my calendar mean I have more energy to get through other important tasks, too. And if a week goes by where those sorts of tasks don’t show up on my calendar, I know it’s time to build them back in.
There are only so many hours in a workday, so you may as well think more strategically about how you spend them. When I’m present at work and focused on the most critical tasks, I’m spending less time overall slogging through one thing followed by another. I’m organized, I’m energized, and I’m ultimately more efficient. That way, I can spend more time with my family — the “fifth quadrant” that I try to keep the other four in balance for.