3 great time management strategies I’m failing at


I decided to spend the lull at the end of December working on my time management skills. What has happened, though, is I have merely gained a deeper understanding of why my time management has fallen apart.

Here are three strategies that everyone should be doing that I am not:

1. Do the most important thing first.
I have interviewed at least ten productivity experts who have said that this is one of their essential pieces of advice. So I decided to start doing this. But for the past week I have followed through on this commitment less than half the time.

Here is the cause for my failure: Fear. The most important thing of the day always matters the most, or is the hardest for me to do. Otherwise, I would have done it earlier. I am thinking that if I tell you this, then I will see how obvious it is that I have to plow through the fear or I’ll get nothing done.

But here’s a secondary reason I am not doing my most important thing first: I am addicted to the immediate gratification of blog metrics. I love that I can watch my achievements hour by hour. Minute by minute if I am particularly dreading my to do list and the traffic is particularly interesting.

I have a feeling I need to change the way I’m thinking about this problem. Dan Markus, one of the guys who told me how important it is to do the hardest thing first, gave me a suggestion: Treat yourself like you’d treat a kid. No dessert until you eat your dinner. No television until you clean your room. No blog metrics until you write your column.

2. Keep your email organized.
I know you’re supposed to use folders, and Merlin Mann can talk forever about how it’s important to keep your in box empty. So I have a filing system that empties my in box, but it involves arcane routines of renaming files that I transfer to folders I forget about.

So when I was buying the Lifehacker book I noticed that the book people most often bought with it was Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook. So in a vote of confidence for the Lifehacker community, I bought the Outlook book, too.

Some people learn visually. I do not. And to me, the hundreds of screen shots in this book look like one of those puzzles where you try to find what has changed from one picture to the next. Besides that, just renaming one Task category took five pages. (Not that I got to the end, but I did skip ahead to take see where the end would be.)

I decided that my problem is not my task list so I stopped trying to adjust it. And according to the book, having a few more folders for moving mail quickly out of my in box will help. What a relief. Because I really like writing my to do list by hand.

3. Stick to a schedule.
If you don’t have a plan for how you’re going to meet your goals, then you probably won’t meet them. This advice is about to do lists, but also about schedules. You need to control your time so that you are spending it in a way that reflects your values.

I used to be really good at this. One of my strengths, for example, is that I block out 1pm to 8pm for my kids, and I can count on one hand the times I have made an exception to this rule in order to get more work done. But my schedule took a turn for the worst when I started blogging.

I told myself I need to remake my schedule where I block out time to blog each day. (Full disclosure: My posts take me more than three hours each. When I was first investigating blogging I interviewed Dervala Hanley, who is known for lovely writing. She told me she spent two hours on each post and I thought she was crazy to spend that much time on a blog. But now, look who’s crazy.)

Mysteriously, I figured out Outlook’s calendar without reading a book. So I started a calendar in Outlook. I scheduled every minute so I wouldn’t have time to sneak in visits to other bloggers’ metrics. I built in time for all the stuff I am not making time for lately — like getting my columns in before the deadline and spending enough time at the gym to feel like I’m actually doing something there.

My days were looking really good until I saw that I need three days every day to get my stuff done. Then it became clear why I am not sticking to a schedule: I’m not willing to give stuff up. (My husband says, “Give up the blog. That thing is like an online lottery ticket.” This comment, of course, is true. I will ignore it, but its a word of caution for anyone who is thinking of blogging.)

Parkinson’s Law says that our tasks expand to fit the amount of time we allot. (Thanks, Andy) This rings true to me because if I didn’t have kids I would swear that I had to work in the afternoons in order to survive. So I decided that I am not going to cut things out, I’m going to do things faster.

But to be honest, this has not been a rip-roaring success so far. For example, I told myself that I could only spend an hour on my post today. I went to Jason Warner’s blog, Meritocracy, and started thinking about his great statement of purpose that he posted this week. It is full of ideas about where we are with recruiting and what the workplace should provide people, and how we should treat each other. It’s an important post that would take me at least three hours to blog about. So I skipped it.

But believe me, this post that I wrote was no quickie, either.

17 replies
  1. Diana
    Diana says:

    Re: Item #1 Doing the Most Important Thing First… I actually enjoy hunkering down with a big project first thing in the morning, and saving my little piddly projects for the afternoon when I’m feeling lethargic.

    Re: Item #2 Keeping Your E-mail Organized… I am a voracious pack-rat in the computer-world as well as the physical world. I keep eeeeeverryyythiiiing. ;) Because I recognize this flaw in myself, I know that in order for me to stay organized, I need a good system for processing all the incoming “stuff” AS IT COMES IN, not later when I have time to do something with it (i.e., NEVER). In Outlook, I discovered this wonderful little feature called “Rules”. Set up your categories or folders, and then create a rule so that as each e-mail comes in, it is automatically assigned a folder, category, etc. Applying this strategy to my whole workday saves me so much time.

    Re: Item #3 Stick to a Schedule… I stink at schedules, too. And I find that when I do try to micromanage my day like you described, I waste so much more time playing with the calendar than if I just make a list of things I need to do (in order of importance) and just tackle them one at a time. I also like to add fun things in between my big to-do’s, and have little rewards for finishing big projects (a piece of chocolate or a yoga-break in the bathroom). It definitely keeps me less stressed and breaks up the day. “Spontaneity is the spice of life.” ;)

  2. Bill C.
    Bill C. says:

    I think doing the most important thing first would be good for me because I only have a limited ability to care about things that I HAVE TO do. I’m much better doing things that I WANT TO do! :D If I stack things up before important things, I run out of focus and have to do other stuff before coming back and trying again. Then again, this is the first time I’m thinking about this idea, so it’s 100% of the time that I do things randomly, and stuff gets done when I feel like doing it.

    Blog metrics are rather addictive, aren’t they? :D It’s a strange phenomenon. I’ve only become aware of the addictive qualities recently. There are your ‘good days’ and your ‘bad days’. Your popular posts and the ones that just sit there (relatively), and you can’t wait to post the next thing to try again! :D

  3. Jason Warner
    Jason Warner says:

    Coming from a corporate environment, I’m not sure I agree with the 3 tips you offer, Penelope. Pardon me as I interject my linear, analytical brain into your discussion.

    The thing I see most people do is fail to take enough time to be planful about getting the right things done. And then it becomes a series of uncontrolled responses to work events, as opposed to following some semblance of a route with at least minimal guideposts.

    I would suggest the following:

    1.) Do only the important things. It’s not about doing them first, it’s about making sure you know what the important things are and then making sure you do them. If you take time to plan, you’ll prioritize, and then you’ll get the important things done. It’s critical that one understands how your work impacts the overall mission (a hedgehog concept, if you’ve read the Collins book, if not, google ‘hedgehog concept’) and that one stays true to that. If you can trace your efforts back to how it contributes to the economic engine of the company (or the overall goals or objectives if a non-for-profit) then you’ve determined the priorities. If you can’t, then your simply working on yet another competing ‘activity’.

    One note: this takes courage. Most people don’t have enough courage.

    2.) Email is generally not that important. 80% of the email I get really doesn’t relate to a priority list. If people want you to know something, or need something from you, they’ll call you. As a test, stop answering your email for 72 hours and see what happens. No really, I think everyone should try this.

    Since the number one failing I see in a corporate environment is lack of clear priorities for each worker that means that most of the stuff that others are emailing you about aren’t their priorities either. Hence, a lot of email volume about stuff that doesn’t really matter.

    3.) Scheduling is important, but it’s less important that point #1. If you have more than 2-3 priorities, then you might not be clear on the overall objective. If scheduling relates to #1, then I think it’s highly important. I know people who are highly scheduled and completely ineffective because all they do is end up having a highly scheduled agenda against activities that really don’t matter much to the overall success of the organization.

    For whatever that is worth.

  4. Dave
    Dave says:

    I would twist number 1 around a bit, Penelope, into “First make sure the important things get done.” For me, often times the important things end up being the LAST things I do in the day or week. What happens is that I end up at 3:30pm, I know that THE important thing is not yet done and will take 90 minutes. At that point I say, “Hold it! This HAS to get done” and I put everything else aside.

    Rather than doing the important things, just don’t forget what is important/

  5. stever
    stever says:

    I tried for a short while to plot out my day in 30 minute pieces much like Hugh Grant did in ‘About a Boy’. I figured if it’s good for Hugh it’s good for me.

    The main area i concentrated on was communication. Since I’m in a second-level support role I would email within one half-hour but call in the next. I found that people liked the call and the overall hatred of my industry fell 2-points. :)

  6. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    My biggest time-waster is the “partially-composed post”…or the unsent email. But sometimes you need that stuff to better frame your thinking and everyone is better off that you just hit the delete key.

    The most obvious thing to help keep on track is a long term goal. I found that once I signed up for a race (running) it was much easier to do the daily run. And committing to a marathon changes everything. I tried to organized and prioritize my blog, but time is such a premium that without a clear goal out there (like finding a new job was) it is very hard to stick to all the random things you are trying to do.

    Finally, I don’t think there is any grand new system for us people over 30 that will radically alter our productivity. I will never find value in organizing my inbox and I will never get any use out of a palm pilot. For me, the impetus is finding new things to be excited about. Scheduling time for things just doesn’t make them important enough to override more immediate concerns. Oh, yeah, I have two babies and a new job also, so my hands are kind of full.

  7. Emily
    Emily says:

    I agree with everything you said here, Penelope, and it’s great to have the reinforcement. The bit about checking blog metrics as dessert is great – I find that I spend quite a bit of time at the beginning of the day with dessert-type activities on the Internet. Maybe I need to schedule those in, too – but later in the day, and only as a reward.

    The sticking point with me is figuring out what’s important. That in itself takes me a lot of time, as well as courage. Getting Things Done, by David Allen, was helpful to me overall but wasn’t particularly clear on how to prioritize, and thus it’s hard (for me anyway) how to figure out what to work on first. It’s particularly hard when some of the need-to-get-done things have a short deadline and others have a longer deadline. I’ve found that even if I create short-term deadlines for myself, if they’re arbitrary, I can’t fool myself.

     * * * * * * *

    Hi, Emily. You are the tenth (or so) person to recommend reading David Allen’s book. So, finally, I started reading it, and I love it. Thanks, Penelope 

  8. Tom Nantais
    Tom Nantais says:

    I’m with you on #1. It’s very easy to get stressed about the most important jobs on the to-do list. I’m very good at avoiding that stress by finding lower priority things to promote. Actually #2 and #3 are both in that category. (Cleaning too. I had a boss once who started asking questions about what was bothering me every time she noticed my office getting cleaner.)

    The best way I’ve found to deal with important-job stress is to write down all of the things that are stressing me about the job. If I take a few minutes to break it down I usually realize that the cause of the stress is me trying to hold too many things in my head at the same time. David Allen has a lot to say about overloading your brain. (That’s a good book. I was so busy when I read it that I probably wouldn’t have gotten to it at all if it hadn’t been for some down time after having my wisdom teeth out. I’m really glad I did.)

  9. PunditMom
    PunditMom says:

    I have so many problems with these issues. Thanks for not only writing about them, but for commiserating about your won foibles. I am never good at doing the most important thin first and I am also doomed by my own blogging, which is also part of my writing strategy. I am an instant gratification girl, unfortunately, and this year I am hoping to do better with that.

  10. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    THis comment is related to the procrastination post as well. I think sometimes we delay working on the biggest task because sub consciously we know we’re not ready to deal with it appropriately and therefore should wait because it would be a waste of time to do otherwise.

    For example, today I knew that revising a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming webcast was the most important thing on my list. But I’ve struggled so much with it and didn’t have any new inspiration to bring to it. I decided instead to catch up on industry news and broader economic news from the past two weeks (including reading a few favourite blogs). Suddenly I found reference to Cliff Atkinson’s work on why PowerPoints fail. From visiting his website and reading a few of his short one-page articles, I suddenly knew how to make this presentation work and have sketched a whole new outline that I’ll start typing in now…

  11. Pamela Slim
    Pamela Slim says:

    Are we separated at birth Penelope?

    Wow, are you speaking my language in this post.

    I, too am addicted to blog metrics, hopeless at doing important things first and a blogger in need of a 12 step program. I found this post while trying to respond to a question from a client and searching on Andy Wibbels site, finding his post about your post on getting offline press as a blogger, bouncing to Alexandra Levit’s site since she commented on your post and I hadn’t read her blog in awhile, then back to you. (after viewing her recent tv clips)

    Meanwhile, my 5-minute email response has turned into an hour.

    But you know what? I am having a ball. So the hell with planning.


    * * * * * *

    Guess what? I, too, saw Alexandra’s comment, and then accidentally went to her personal site instead of her blog, and then stayed to view the video, and then went to her blog, and then left a comment, and then wondered what happened to my to do list.

    And I, too, was happy doing it all :)



  12. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I can totally relate to tip #3. I just left a full-time corporate job to focus on my life coaching practice full-time (a home-based business). Let’s just say my productivity has become dismal (errands, TV, extracirricular activities and SLEEP have taken over!). Last night I finally sat down to plan out my work week… Perhaps I’ll get tired of the structure, but for now I seem to need the discipline of a schedule.

    Thanks for a great post!!

    * * * * * * * *

    Sarah, Thank you for sharing with everyone how difficult it is to transition to a home-based business. Self-discipline is so so so important for a home-based business. Even after years of doing this I still find there are more ways I can add more structure. And in almost every instance, more structure has been better for me.


  13. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one! :) I definitely underestimated my ability to self-discipline once I transitioned into full-time self-employement. I’d love hints and tips from anyone who’s found a good system for being productive at home! :)


  14. Louise in CA
    Louise in CA says:

    Hi Penelope, I am a new reader to your blog and LOVE it. Just wanted to point out, I think you misspelled the last name of the guy who gave you the productivity tip in point number one about treading yourself like a kid.

    Didn’t you mean Dan Markovitz (vs. Dan Marcus, which is what you wrote?) Also, you may want to check the link for him, I think it goes to the wrong page on his website.

    Keep up the good work. Now I’m going to go “treat myself like a child.”

  15. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I am just as addicted to blog metrics as you are. Not that I have a lot of visitors in my blog but I love it every time people pay me a visit. It’s a sense of fulfillment for every blogger to see their posts being relevant to other people. It is something I am struggling to flush from my system because sometimes it becomes so unhealthy.

    When you put too much emotions on your blog, you often get to spend the whole day I guess. Well maybe less, but you get the point. I like how you admit your faults and get to learn from them. You are inspiring me a lot in myriad of ways.


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