A day always has 24 hours. Time is the only resource that is exactly the same for everyone on this planet. That’s why effective time management is such a precious skill. Knowing how to organize your productivity and work gives you an edge over everyone else. You become a wizard of time.
But it’s also a rare skill. Effective time management is hard. Some people have some sort of system in place to manage their work. And yet others don’t even know where to start.
In this post, I’m going to cover how you can build your own productivity system so you can manage time efficiently.
All we need is 5 steps:
- Eliminate Before Optimizing
- Build Your Productivity System
- Incorporate Productivity Hacks
- Find Your True Tasks
- Delegate Efficiently
Let’s go over each one in detail…
#1 Eliminate Before Optimizing
I had more than 300GB of photos and videos.
Our smartphones have enabled us to take pictures every single day with a click of a button. Over the years I accumulated thousands of videos and photos. A while back, I copied the folders into Dropbox and an external hard drive so I would have a backup in multiple places in case something went wrong.
Over the years, I would pour myself into deleting out of focus or similar pictures, renaming folders, cataloging by year. I normally did it in the Dropbox folder, which meant that the other two sources — my computer and the external hard drive — would be an “old version”. When I had new photos, I would put them on the computer hard drive.
I visited Japan and the US this summer and wanted to copy my camera photos into my photo library. Question was, which one? Dropbox was probably the most recent version, but it didn’t have all my phone photos, which were on my hard drive. The external hard drive had an older version of both, but I was not sure how old. I decided it was time to — once and for all — organize and optimize my photo collection.
The first thing I did? I eliminated before optimizing. I didn’t have 300GB of photos and videos, I had 100GB of unique photos and it would probably go down to 40–60GB once I deleted unnecessary pictures.
So I combined all the folders into one folder and started deleting the duplicates (I used a software to automate this process). I used one of the most effective time management rules — the 80/20 rule -, to save a lot of space quickly: did 20% of the pictures occupied 80% of the space? Sure enough, a couple of repeated videos were taking up most of the space and so in less than 5 minutes I was down to 200GB.
Once I delete all duplicates, I could start manually choosing which photos to keep (yes, keep, instead of delete; a great quote from Kondo’s book changed my perspective on this: “It’s not about what to discard, it’s what to keep.”). When you keep only the things you love, you suddenly love every single picture.
Now I take a few minutes at the end of each day to go through a folder and decide what to keep. It takes about 10 minutes per day and I should be done in a few weeks. This is step number 2 — using a productivity system.
What’s the moral here? Taking everything that you have and start optimizing right away is a classic rookie mistake.
If you are trying to optimize your day-to-day work, write down on a piece of paper all your tasks and take a few minutes to reflect on them. Then, for each task, ask the following question: “Is this task contributing to my goal?”
Purge everything that is not helping you make progress on your goals. Eliminate before optimizing.
#2 Build Your Productivity System
Great, you’ve eliminated everything that is non-core and you are now left with tasks that contribute to your goals. Now, it’s time to set up a productivity system that works for you in order to prioritize tasks and get work done.
But first, it’s important to understand that no productivity system is perfect. You should develop one according to your need and the way you work. What you want to do is take ideas from other systems and then build your own customized system specifically designed for you. Once you have set up the main framework — the “brain” of your system, if you will — you can then take it to a micro-level and start optimizing parts of that system using productivity hacks.
To get started, here are some well-known productivity systems:
- To-Do List: the simplest productivity system and the basis of many other frameworks; has a lot of variations, like the “Must Do” system or the Ivy Lee Method
- 7 Habits: based on “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” by Steven Covey, it discusses how to change the way we think about work and life; here’s a great post that can serve as an introduction
- Getting Things Done (GTD): based on David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”; here’s a simple explanation of how it works
- Zen to Done (ZTD): based on Leo Babauta book “Zen To Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System”, builds upon GTD but focuses on habits instead of on the system
- Kanban: a visual productivity system popularized by the Agile project development framework and great for teamwork; here’s a quick introduction on how it works
- Don’t Break the Chain: popularized by Jerry Seinfeld and one of the simplest systems out there; I wrote about it when discussing how to calculate productivity
- The Pomodoro Technique: based on Francesco Cirillo’s book “The Pomodoro Technique: The Acclaimed Time Management System That Has Transformed How We Work”, it’s a simple system to chunk time and complete blocks of Deep Work; here’s a simple introduction to Pomodoro productivity
Take a few minutes to learn about each system and how they operate. What we want to do is take the best parts and make our own system. Only you can define what are the “best parts”.
Here are the principles of a great productivity system:
- Easy to learn: if it takes you more than an hour to learn this system, you’re doing it wrong
- Fast to set up: it should take a few minutes to set up your system, not hours
- Low Maintenance: the system helps you work faster, requiring minimal time to use it; the more friction-free you can make it the better
- Model Your Work Style: a good productivity system supports the way you want to work and not the other way around; it should also be easily adaptable to multiple types of working styles
- Adaptable: it’s simple to tweak the system for different people, where anyone can add their preferred productivity hacks; especially relevant if used by a team
- Easy to Collaborate: it should be easy to scale your system being used by one person or ten thousand
#3 Incorporate Productivity Hacks
Once you set up your productivity system, you can look at the micro-level of things and start incorporating some productivity hacks and rules into it.
Think of your productivity system as the main operating system on your computer or phone. The productivity hacks you build into it are your apps. They should take full advantage of your OS and improve your work experience.
I’ll list a couple of my favorites for inspiration but feel free to research on your own and integrate the ones you prefer:
- The 2-Minute Rule: if something can be done in two minutes, just do it; if something takes more than two minutes, then start it
- Pomodoro Technique: can also be used as a hack if only used on a certain part of the day; I use it in the morning, doing two “pomodoros” of writing before moving to anything else; when used correctly, it’s a very effective time management hack
- Airplane Mode: keep your phone in airplane mode when performing Deep Work; you can also create rules, like keeping your phone on airplane mode between 9 PM and 11 AM, for example
- No Notifications: turn off all notifications on your phone, tablet, and computer
- 80/20 Rule: I used this rule in the photo organizing example; always focus on the 20% of things that bring you 80% of the results
- Temptation Bundling: complete dreary tasks by pairing them with something you really enjoy, like listening to your favorite playlist while replying to customer support emails
- Batching: batch similar tasks that call for similar mindsets you can efficiently work on multiple tasks without losing your workflow, such as processing all emails, Slack, phone calls, and other communications at once or updating several related worksheets at the same time (thanks, Elon!)
- Use Parkinson’s Law: reduce the available time to complete a task to finish is faster (I am using it right now for this article as originally it was taking too long to complete it)
- Plan During the Weekend: plan your upcoming work week on Sundays; capture your plan in an email and sends it to yourself so that you have access to it daily
#4 Find Your True Tasks
It’s time to move to the next step of effective time management: finding your true tasks.
Even after eliminating all the tasks that didn’t contribute to your goals, you still have a lot of items to complete. But not all of them are equal: we need to evaluate them in terms of importance and urgency. Only the urgent AND important tasks are what I like to call “true tasks”.
Let’s use a productivity hack called the Eisenhower Matrix to find your true tasks. Take your list of all your tasks and insert them into this matrix (by now you should have no tasks in “Delete” as we did that in the first step):
The great thing about this matrix is that it can be used for broad productivity plans (“How should I do this week?”) and for smaller, daily plans (“What should I do today?”).
Urgent and important tasks are things that you need to be in reactive mode AND contribute to your long-term goals:
- An important email from your boss about a project you’re leading
- Call a big client to close a sale
- Writing and publishing an article online
Meanwhile, urgent but not-important tasks are things that still contribute to your goal but are mainly part of the process.
Use the Eisenhower Matrix every morning (or better yet, do your to-dos the day before) as an effective time management tool to help you question what is and what isn’t moving the needle in your goals.
#5 Delegate Efficiently
It’s time to move on to the last and arguably most difficult step of building a productivity system: delegating efficiently.
When done wrong, delegating can be an extremely frustrating experience. You end up with sloppy work and delaying deadlines or launches. Here are some of the things I learned throughout the years about delegating efficiently:
- Delegate to the right person: make sure that person that you delegate the task to has all the necessary skills and is capable of doing the job
- Provide clear instructions: write down a step-by-step manual of the task at hand and be as specific as possible; for some tasks, like data-entry, I normally record a video of my screen doing a couple of entries as an example using Recordit
- Define outcomes: you should be specific about what is expected once the task is completed, what is the metric of success, and the deadline to complete it
- Ask for Clarifications: once your team member has read/seen your specifications, ask if there is anything unclear in your specs and explain those in more detail (rewrite the specifications if needed)
- Have the task explained to you: the last step is to have them explain back to you, in their own words, what the task is; if at any point something is wrong or not exactly what you want/need, offer clarification