Time management tips that’ll work for your life

Most of the time management advice that’s out there sucks. It’s all written by men who write about time management while their wives are at home taking care of their kids, or by men who don’t have anything to do except write about time management. We need time management advice for people who have a real life.

See that photo? It’s me, in New York City, supposedly working during my workday. And my son supposedly eating during lunchtime. And you know what? I got everything done I wanted to get done that day. Here are rules I follow to accomplish that.

1. Experiment in ways that won’t risk the sanity of the people around you.
Steve Pavlina was one of the first bloggers I ever read. And every time I clicked over to his blog I was more appalled by what I saw. Here’s a great example: His sleep experiment where he naps every four hours instead of going to bed like everyone else. He decides this might make him more productive. What blows me away about this experiment is that he has kids. So this means his kids’ needs would have to conform to and bend around his crazy sleep schedule. His sleep plan requires a wife who doesn’t need that high level of productivity that crazy sleep schedules provide. The wife can have the hum-drum sleep schedule that matches the kids, so she’s available to them.

Tim Ferriss, (who I have complained about in the past) also, provides the fastest, easiest way to lose weight. He’s a time management guru and he’s extended that to weight loss. You don’t have to spend time at the gym. Instead, you can do stuff like eat in extremely restricted ways and binge one day a week. But how do you do this with a family? What do you tell your kids when you’re eating like a crazy person?

For someone who cares about family, the experiments we run on our own lives need to be limited. There are people depending on us, not just to be there physically, but to be a role model. The kids want to do the crazy stuff and have the parents be there with the limits. But the time management crowd does not acknowledge this.

Here’s a way to experiment in your life without ruining other peoples’ lives: fifteen-minute increments. You can do that while you’re waiting for dinner. You can do it while you take a shower. You can do it in between meetings. You’d be blown away by what you can get done in this world in fifteen minutes a day. If fifteen minutes of yoga works then it’s easier to make time for a class each week. It’s much more difficult to carve out time for that class before your body is used to feeling good after yoga and wanting it more.

Fifteen minutes a day of writing a novel can get you halfway done. And after that it’s a lot easier to set aside an hour to write.

2. A single to-do list is living in denial.
David Allen has a time management empire based on getting everything you want to do on a single list.

Has he never seen a family calendar that has four different colors to keep track of four different people? Has he never seen a parent on a smartphone at a soccer game? Tell me, when the kid is playing a regional soccer game at the same time your company’s new product is launching, which is the A on the list?

The correct answer is that there is no A. There is a parent trying to figure out how to make both sides of his life feel that he is present at the same time. Time management becomes less about lists and schedules and more about emotionsand perceptions. In this case, the best time management advice would be that the kid just wants you to be watching during the times when he’s on the field, so stand right behind him on the bench so you can see when he stands up to play. And the launch team just wants to know that you’re available 24/7 in case anything goes wrong, so answer all emails and phone calls immediately except when the kid is on the field.

I have found that multiple to-do lists help me understand how I will keep multiple parts of my life on an even keel. It’s more complicated to look at, for sure, but it’s hard to have a secure feeling that I’m taking care of multiple facets of life if I do not see multiple plans written out. And that, really, is what a to do list is—a plan to get what I want from that part of my life.

3. An empty inbox is for full-timers.
I had an empty inbox for a while.This is what I found: that it’s great for making me disciplined when I can check email throughout the day. If you have a work routine then you can have an inbox routine, and you know that every few hours, you will empty your inbox.

But what if you don’t have a work routine? What if your day is determined by what kids do? What if you work part-time but you do that by making it feel to people that you’re working full time?

The best way to manage your inbox in those situations is to let it be a mess. Sometimes it is a mess, when work is not a big priority. And sometimes it is cleared out, usually when you get anxious that you’re not spending enough energy on work. Because an empty inbox gives you the sense of control, but if you don’t work in front of your computer all day, you probably don’t need that control over your work. You’ve got other stuff going on.

I have found that sometimes I feel good having an empty inbox. But other times I feel good having it full and messy because it means I paid attention to other stuff that day.

4. Manage your time by week and month rather than by day and hour.
The crux of time management is being able to prioritize work and family in a way that does not reek of work-life-balance-bullshit. The bullshit of work-life-balance is that you can have balance. You can’t. But you can look at a given week and decide who needs what when. You can do a whole day of work and sleep on your office floor and then turn off your iPhone to go on your kid’s field trip the next day.That’s not balanced. But it’s imbalanced in a useful way because you looked at time in terms of weeks. That week, you did some days for work and some for family.

If you manage yourself hour by hour then an interruption when grilled cheese sets off the fire alarm is actually calamitous because you messed up your hourly plan getting a ladder to yank the batteries out of the fire alarm. You can’t schedule hour by hour when interruptions are so frequent. But you can’t manage two very different types of lives if you can’t cope with interruptions.

When the Farmer first met me, he told me I remind him of a Kurt Vonnegut novel where one character can never have a solid thought because he’s always getting interrupted. And he slowly goes nuts.

I am almost like that, it’s true. But I schedule time for no interruptions. The thing is, that time is sacred. And in the list of things I could do during that no-interruption time, work is not high on the list. Breathing. Sleeping. Reading. Those are things I crave that I can’t do when there are interruptions.

But if I think in terms of weeks, then I know I’ll have alone time and I know I’ll have work time and I know the work time will be interrupted. But there’s balance.

79 replies
  1. D
    D says:

    Two thoughts:

    The issue of multiple people’s calendars is covered by contexts and agendas. Google GTD for families.-

    Hang out at Crossfit gym. You’ll find lots of people who have families who nevertheless manage to follow the paleo diet (similar to Ferriss’).

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Makes me wanna shoot myself!

      Maybe when I make just so much money that I can outsource all the menial tasks that eat up my time again and again.

  2. csts
    csts says:

    Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Thanks, Penelope. What a wonderful gift to yourself and to everyone else. :)

  3. Mark
    Mark says:

    This is so true it’s funny. I have my personal/family calendar in Google. I have my work calendar in Outlook. And when I look at them synced on my iPad I have a heart attack. But I never look at a calendar in any view less than a week. Magically, it all gets done.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    And then there’s the stuff that gets put on your to-do list that is replaced with something else, is done only partially, or never gets done at all …. because as it turns out, it never belonged there in the first place! Who knew?

  5. MEWriter
    MEWriter says:

    Really agree with this post – “decide who needs what when”. I started a new work to-do list with the intention to update daily and found the pattern naturally settled into a weekly creating and changing the list. It’s really about allowing people to be all the parts of themselves that they are.

  6. BV
    BV says:

    Although I’m no fan of Tim Ferris, I do like David Allen and Steve Pavlina’s work. I also like your work but you seemed to have missed the obvious here:

    Pavlina’s thing was a 30 day trial, and it was years ago! (i seem to think 2008) It was a trial, not real advice for others, and he doesn’t follow that now. The way you wrote that paragraph implied that he does.

    Secondly, whilst GTD isn’t perfect, as no system can be, it is rather useful and I plan to use it when I have kids. I am confident that part of it will work (you can tweak the system!) – and the only thing I know so far is that my parents didn’t use a “system” or not anything that resembles what parents might use now, and they did fine with their kids, responsibilities and the inevitable dropping of kids to various different activities. Moreover, GTD includes having sections for each person, so you can collate all their activities etc, and it can be used meaningfully for a whole range of things more than just an office work day.

    Seemes likes you ruled both out without fully understanding them. The only point I found helpful was point 4 – that is how I manage my time and it works well.

  7. BV
    BV says:

    BTW, Pavlina has a stand-alone article on timemanagement, which perhaps would be more useful to read – some of it is worthy of criticism, but that is probably a better place to disagree with him than just using an example of one trial he did.

    I mean, if you disagree with that, the REAL point is that your time management advice ONLY applies to those who really have no one to help them e.g. with kids – so no relatives, no friends or the ability to hire a nanny..

    Here’s the link & btw I don’t agree with all of it: http://www.stevepavlina.com/articles/time-management.htm

    • Jim
      Jim says:

      Since that experiment, Pavlina has divorced his wife. I think she and the kids were cramping his experimenting style, Apparently, now he has more free time to travel.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Oh. Thanks for the update. And, he’s so lame. This doesn’t surprise me at all. I only wish I’d known when I was writing the post so I could berate him more in the post.


  8. BV
    BV says:

    Sorry, third point.

    “A single to-do list is living in denial.” = This is factually incorrect!
    You may have one ‘next actions’ list, but you have several ‘context’ lists too. The point isnt to have just one huge list…

    Okay, Penelope, so you know, i think you & your articles are wonderful, but this one is a stinker, with massive inaccuracies and implications that are unfair to their authors.

  9. Rhett Laubach
    Rhett Laubach says:

    Hey, gal. Love your work. Thank you for consistently putting out insightful work. I have one question – how does the use of curse words add value to your writing? I share links with thousands of audience members every year (I am a professional leadership speaker/trainer), but I only share posts that I wouldn’t mind the youngest or oldest of them reading. Because of that, I can’t do my part in helping you grow your readership because I can’t share many of your posts. This one is an example. I look forward to your response.

    • Carolyn
      Carolyn says:

      Hi, Rhett. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but addressing a woman with “Hey gal,” despite any subsequent praises/endorsements, comes across at best as “off” and at worst as demeaning/sexist. Thought you’d like to know so you don’t inadvertently offend anyone else – unless, of course, that was your intention or you’re OK doing so (in which case: ignore my comment).

      • Rhett Laubach
        Rhett Laubach says:

        Carolyn, thanks for your comment. The intention of the “Hey, gal” was to set a casual/friendly tone to the post. Important since the purpose of the post was to inquire about language usage – a touchy subject sometimes. I love her work and look forward to her response to the question. Thanks.

        • Helen
          Helen says:

          (Carolyn): …I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but addressing a woman with “Hey gal,” despite any subsequent praises/endorsements, comes across at best as “off” and at worst as demeaning/sexist.
          (Rhett): …The intention of the “Hey, gal” was to set a casual/friendly tone to the post. Important since the purpose of the post was to inquire about language usage…

          No, no unintentional irony here… *whistles*

    • Rachel
      Rachel says:

      Where is the curse word? Where? I do not see any curse words. Is it just me? What is the problem?

      On another note, calling someone “gal” IS offensive. It is not cute or casual, it is patronizing.

      Penelope’s readers don’t seem to have any problem with her language. Why would she want to change the way she writes in order to get an endorsement from someone who is so clearly out of touch?

      • Rhett Laubach
        Rhett Laubach says:

        I appreciate your comments, Rachel. My intention was not to patronize, but I do see how it could be perceived that way. It is also important to remember that class and decorum is never out of touch.

    • Sabrina
      Sabrina says:

      Oh gal, (I mean Rhett! Sorry, just wearing my casual writer’s hat here) you must be new around here.

      If you’ve actually been a consistent reader then you’d probably know how Penelope’s writing strikes a chord. It’s honest and to cut through the bullshit sometimes you have to actually WRITE the word “bullshit”. And as an actual consistent reader, I don’t mind that at all. I recommend her blog to the old and young and if the talk of sex, abuse and strategically timed maternity leaves scars them, I’m just going to let God or therapy work that out.

      Which is probably why she doesn’t need your hope “growing” her readership since I’m probably not the only actual consistent reader. Beautiful, honest, real writing is hard to come by these days.

      • katrin
        katrin says:

        To all the people responding to Rhett: I agree with what you’re saying– but why oh why does everyone who comments on blogposts have to have such a nasty, I-know-better-than-you tone? Rhett does a better job with tone, except for the “gal” mis-step.

  10. gin
    gin says:

    I am so happy to see you asking what impact disordered eating and sleeping will have on impressionable kids. I totally agree you can’t do that sh*t once you become a role model.

    I do agree with the 15 mins each day method – it got me through Uni Japanese & Chinese classes, as a mature age student. I did way better than my younger peers (despite what is said about older people struggling to learn languages).

    Also, I know what the management books’ / newspapers’ / society’s answer to the attend kid’s game v. company launch dilema is – the launch, duh! That’s why dilemas like that aren’t examined fully. But I agree you’re right, there is no A on the list. And I think your advice on what to do is right.

  11. chris
    chris says:

    I used to work in critical care. We had a mantra about re-prioritizing according to rapidly changing conditions . . .
    It involved teamwork and delegating some tasks. You didn’t have
    to use the mantra every day. Some days were steady-as-you-go. Some days were quickly-shift-your-focus and ASK FOR HELP.

    Your principles, Penelope, are built around working at home, to
    a great extent, where your kids’ needs are in your face at all times.

    I don’t disagree with your advice, but there are many types of jobs, and many family configurations. When kids are very young and often sick, for example, and you might have to honestly be a part-time worker. (Or, for many nurses, it was working off-shifts and weekends.)

    For people who work a “regular” day shift job, they are giving their best energy and their prime time to their job. Their kids are getting what is left over–whatever time and energy is left at the end of the day. Those parents are delegating to day care and to schools and after-school programs.

    Yes, I KNOW it takes a village to raise a child . . . but if everybody is responsible then no one is responsible–it can get too diluted. The parent must make him-/herself the primary person in raising the child(ren).

    Feel free to call me a dinosaur.

  12. Conqueror
    Conqueror says:

    Hello Penelope,
    You always have good ideas. You are certainly right when you point out that parents must have a flexible plan and allow for multiple interruptions. Each family is a little civilization [Pat Conroy] so no one strategy can work for all.

    If you are going to criticize others’ ideas—and they probably deserve criticism—can you offer some evidence? For example, you question the practicality of following Tim Ferriss’s Slow Carb diet when you have children. Is this based on experience, or are you just rejecting the idea, out of hand?

    You ask, “What do you tell your kids when you’re eating like a crazy person?” If this question is sincere, I can offer you a sincere answer. My 8-year-old boy is not especially interested in what I eat, only in what he eats. There’s no big question to answer. I have followed the diet for more than a year, and it hasn’t caused a melt-down in my family.

    Like you, I have a job but I seldom leave the house, so in that sense I am also a full time parent. My time and stress management have been helped by getting up between 3 and 4 AM and going to bed when my son does, between 7 and 8. I have my time in the morning, and my wife has her time in the evening. I’ve also noticed great improvement in my ability to cope after I started meditating each day and stopped drinking caffeine.

    Again, these are just ideas that work for us, at this stage in life. I realize they may not work for others, but at least I’ve tested them at home.

    All the best to you.

  13. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    I think your point is that you can’t really implement one person’s way managing time. And that’s why I read your blog. You point out the lame stuff people try to market to others to make money. The truth is, time management and losing weight and whatever else is never as simple as some people want to make it out to be. I guess I digress…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Suzanne, you make a great point about how similar time management advice is to weight loss advice. It’s so personal. The self-discipline to get what we want is the most difficult part. The self-discipline to not overeat. The self-discipline to do what is most important at any given moment. Those are really tough things to do and it’s so personal – what finally gets us to do it the way we want to do it.


  14. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    My new favourite post on time management. Really, this is a keeper. I work part-time from home with two young kids, and in between trying to manage work, writing (blog–not paid work), and the life of our household, I often collapse in frustration over how to manage my time. I feel as though I’m interrupted so many times an hour that I can’t seem to complete one thing. I really like your 15 minutes suggestion, and your encouragement to embrace the messy inbox. Amen. And managing your time by week or month rather than hour or day is terrific advice for me. I think it will allow me to see beyond the limits of a given day.

    Great post.

  15. Andi
    Andi says:

    1. Rhett, you sound like an ass. I doubt Penelope needs your help in spreading her blog around town. She’s doing just fine, cursing & all. We each cater to our own crowd, & obviously her work is not for yours.

    2. Suzanne, you sound like you’re the ONLY person who actually gets what Penelope was trying to say — that no one system is perfect for everyone, & that most of them are impractical for full time moms working from home.

    3. Penelope, I love this post because it applies so accurately to my current lifestyle. I was planning by the hour, & felt like crap by the end of every night because I hadn’t gotten anything done. I changed my method to a generic “hit or miss” list, & at that I made different “hit or miss” lists for various areas, & I have found that if I can mark off even one item from each list, I’ve had a most excellent day! Bet my perception would be even better if I changed it from a daily to a weekly format! Thanks for the tip — I just might try that next week! :)

    • Rhett Laubach
      Rhett Laubach says:

      Andi, thank you for your comment. I apologize if my post came across as anything other than a quick blogging strategy question. This is another case of something I teach all the time to audience members – the inability to read intent, voice and character in text messages, status updates and other text only content. I try my best to follow Rule #1 – protect the family name. It seems as if in your eyes, I didn’t this time.

      Regarding your comment about Penelope not needing my help spreading the word, I agree. I do not believe she needs my help. However, it is doubtful Penelope (or any blogger with 100,000+ subscribers) is disinterested in growing readership. That is one of the two primary functions of having a blog. 1. Create valuable content for readers. 2. Create valuable content for many readers. All great blog writers do an effective job of serving a very specific audience. I am just interested in learning how the use of those words from time to time add value to her posts and is that value more important than growing readership.

      Thanks for the discussion. Good stuff.

  16. pfj
    pfj says:

    Years ago there was a writer, Alan Lakein, who had a successful book about time management.

    He had one important question imbedded in it . . . when you can’t figure out what to do next, ask his question. “What is the best use of my time right now?”

    Remember to apply your own values to the question, not anyone else’s.

    What is the best use of your time right now?

  17. Carolyn Hughes
    Carolyn Hughes says:

    Reading this had me jumping for joy! I can now show my husband that I have written proof that it’s okay to have several lists going on at one time! ” A single to-do list is living in denial.”
    I have read a lot of posts about time management but none that I can completely relate to like this one. Yay!

  18. Kate
    Kate says:

    Thanks for an awesome post, Penelope. This post gave me that wonderful ‘aha’ moment and will change my working life forever.

  19. chris
    chris says:

    Isn’t time management a sub-topic of organization?
    And isn’t organization an executive function?

    If the answer is “yes” to both of these questions, then each of us is better or worse with respect to executive functions. For example, people with ADD/ADHD are thought to be deficient with respect to executive function skills. Ditto about people with Aspergers/autism spectrum disorders.

    Penelope is smarter than many about executive function because she has had to work so hard at executive function tasks.

    It is not so simple as saying “Figure out what is the most important thing” (triage) or “What is the best use of my time”. People with executive function issues feel confusion when many things, ideas, values, people, compete in their minds for attention.

  20. Sue
    Sue says:

    I have an additional dilemma as I am an ENFP. I think Penelope you have mentioned being a J rather than P. I need structure and make various lists and then never look at them again.

    I am not sure if there is a system for me….but I keep working at it!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Sue, because I have such poor executive function, (common for people with Asperger’s), I am like you in that I need to have things set and then not change them.

      To be clear, I’m terrible at doing that, but because I’m so terrible I know where to get help. I got coaching from Christine Carer, the author of the book Raising Happiness. Her speciality is helping families create schedules that optimize everyone’s happiness levels. One of the biggest factors in family happiness is a baseline of predictability.

      She helped me see my life so differently – she had amazing insight because she does this all the time. So I recommend hiring her. I should have put that in my post, but I was too busy thinking of writers who I don’t like :)


  21. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    So true about trying to balance demands for productivity — which in my world requires uninterrupted quiet time– while meeting children’s, partner’s employee, client needs and constant interruptions. Thanks for post. Which Vonnegut novel? I am that character too.

  22. Ann Stanley
    Ann Stanley says:

    I’m an INFP. God knows what I’d do without lists. Just wander off somewhere, I suppose. I love ’em. Lists and a kind of domestic comparative advantage – if my husband can do something better, like watching kids’ sport, he does it. If I can do something better, like working full time, I do it. I don’t seem to need multiple lists because I’m not a one person show.

  23. Anne
    Anne says:

    Oh my goodness, yes. I’m a woman with a husband and a job and 4 kids (and I homeschool, too, Penelope!) This is a great description of what I (ideally) do to balance my real, fluid life.

    This also seems like a good place to rave about the Planner Pad organizers. I got my first one this year and I LOVE how it’s organized to show me the week at a glance, not just one day, and how I can see 7 to-do lists for different facets of my life all in one place. (I’m not associated with the company, but I love these planners!)

  24. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    Going with the flow is a huge part of balancing daily stuff. When I stop resisting things that are out of my control and just go with it, then mentally it’s easier to find ways to block out time for what matters most to me.

  25. Dannielle Blumenthal
    Dannielle Blumenthal says:

    This is a follow up to my previous comment & a question – I’ve been trying these tips.

    1 – The 15-minute increment idea

    I like this because one of my problems is getting started. The problem is that once I get started on something, I just keep going. Not sure how you “power down.”

    2 – The multiple to-do list idea

    I like this for the reasons P. outlined. I don’t like it because it makes me feel scattered. Is there a product like a dashboard? Maybe Excel spreadsheet with multiple tabs? I don’t like those silly “Do It All Mom” calendars they sell at Barnes & Noble.

    3 – Empty inbox

    I am still very into this and can’t let it go.

    4 – Weeks and Months vs. Days

    I am having trouble with this one.

    5 – Not on the list, but mentioned separately – having an assistant – very important.

  26. chris
    chris says:

    Here is a test of time management: can we teach the above-mentioned skills (in rudimentary form) to our children?

    For example, experimentation, #1:
    Ask your child (and yourself) how much time s/he thinks it takes to do a certain task. Write it down. Do the task. Compare estimate to reality. Experiment with a shortcut. Did your shortcut really save you some time? Experiment with other shortcuts . . . When should you NOT take a shortcut?

    To-do list, #2:
    Before making the list, one must acknowledge the assumption that you/your child WANTS to be productive, wants to get (certain) things done. We are talking motivation. With kids, they often want to get things done so that they can move on to do the things that they LIKE to do, whereas the list may represent things they HAVE to do. Are we completely beyond this as adults? (Answers will vary.)

    Also, we must acknowledge that we may want to revisit any list we have after reading Penelope’s blog post and the Atlantic article referenced by Nicolle. We may want to put “Start the day with a wholesome breakfast for the whole family” at the top of the list! Or somesuch.

    Deadline items may have to go up higher on the list than we might want, because we have not worked steadily towards the completion of a deadlined goal/job. This really applies to kids in school who didn’t keep up with an assignment and have to “cram” at the end.

    Otherwise, the list will be highly variable, depending upon the job and the commute and the school schedule v summer schedule, and other things as well (i.e., you’ve GOT to buy groceries TODAY because you have nothing in the house to eat).

    The list cannot be open-ended with no stopping point. If necessary, define the end point and work backwards, blocking out blocks of time for each item on the list to see if “there are enough hours in the day”.

    Look in the mirror to see if you are starting to look rigid and inflexible. If so, ditch the list. Close your eyes, get centered, and make a new list that is more forgiving.

    #4, units of time and interruptions:
    As a bedside nurse, I carried a “brain” in my pocket–a piece of paper that divided the shift into 30-min intervals. I looked at my brain hundreds of times as the shift went on. If two items were close together in time, I anticipated one or the other of them. If a med was due at 0200, and a feeding was due at 0200, I began the feeding at 0140, in order to be done by 0200 or 0215. Still, interruptions were a factor.

    When you work from home, kids will always demand your immediate attention. And interruptions will frazzle you and make you snappish. I used to say to my kids (when they were old enough to understand), “Wait. Are you bleeding or dying? Is this an emergency? If not, then you have to wait your turn.” They thought this was funny–and funny cancelled out my being snappish and frazzled.

    It goes without saying that you will NOT answer your phone, nor your email when you want to really focus on a top-priority item from your list. You will not even make eye-contact with a child who continues to interrupt. You will hold up your hand, like a traffic cop does, and turn your back, literally or figuratively. (You will do your best to not permit interruptions.)

    Some interruptions (from a child) you will WANT to permit. These come under the rubric of teachable moments that you want to take advantage of with a child. This is a unique skill and opportunity when you are with children for large blocs of time–you recognize and take advantage of TEACHABLE MOMENTS.

  27. Alex C
    Alex C says:

    What a great blog.

    Time really is precious. I found, when I was searching for work at universities, finding niche job sites was the best thing for me. I can’t remember the name of the site I used, I think maybe http://www.unijobs.com but it found me a job and cut out months of looking :S It’s a tough would out there and thank you for this blog with your wonderful insights.

  28. SoVeryVienna
    SoVeryVienna says:

    Thank you for saying that my inbox can be a mess.

    And thank you for the reminder to schedule by weeks and months rather by the hour. You’re on the mark on that one. For a family person, though, it’s certainly a change to live that way.

    Finally, thanks for calling out the male-centered nature of not only time management, but work. It’s folks like us who are paving the way for a new kind of work-life “juggle” (I dare not say “balance”) that will benefit both women and men.

  29. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    What your post basically says is that time management advice should be customized, just like career advice. Most time mgmt blogs/workshops/books are just generalized cliched stuff and they make it seems as if time mgmt. perfection is a possible feat. Surely someone who writes about managing time is never lagging behind, right?- that is such a illusion

    Time mgmt. is about expectations management – your own & others. Other times its about incorrect time estimation, and maybe even skills estimation.
    If you’ve been going to your kid’s soccer matches you know what factors are likely to affect your schedule, but if you’ve been asked to meet the teacher after the cello classes then you arent completely sure if it would take 10 minutes or 2 hours. The same goes for any project you are working on.

    I wish you had talked about damage control when struggling with time management. There is so little discussion about it. Interestingly, for someone who coaches people, you haven’t recommended on getting a life-coach to handle one’s time-managing struggles.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Sadya – I love that you wrote “time management is about expectation management”. Wow. That is so true. I get into the most trouble when I refuse to have reasonable expectations for myself.


  30. Melani Ward
    Melani Ward says:

    I think the best part about the article was when you said, “And that, really, is what a to do list is—a plan to get what I want from that part of my life.”

    I don’t think the problem has anything to do with work-life balance or having too much to do or too many kids to manage or too much of anything. Time management is first and foremost about syncing up the wants and the should wants of our life.

    If you ask people what they want they can rattle off a hundred things they want. But if you look at how they spend their day, they consistently act against their own best (said) interests because they are in battle between what they say they want and want they think they should want or what sounds good to want.

    When we REALLY want something – like a better relationship with our kids and for our kids to to know we are there for them – we sure as hell will make sure we aren’t messing with our smart phones when she is is on the court or on the field. If we really want to accomplish something in our work then we will go without sleep or drinks with our friends or bad reality TV so we can make it happen no matter what.

    So, when we get honest about what we want from a certain part of our life, managing our time becomes easy.

    Thanks for a great post.

  31. toastedtofu
    toastedtofu says:

    the 15 minute increments thing is so SO useful to me. I actually break it down into 7 minute increments for “tasks” like cleaning, or studying flashcards that I can do in those weird time gaps, like the space between when I am ready for work and when I actually have to leave the house.

    When I’m writing however, my entire to-do list gets dumped if I’m on a roll. I never interrupt flow if I can help it.

  32. Ashley A
    Ashley A says:

    Great post, P! I have started breaking down work into periods (the so called Pomodoro). I don’t use rigid 15- or 25-minute bursts, though. I just do few tasks (often related) and then take a break. The breaks help me to not get so exhausted.

    Secondly, I track what I have DONE. It’s nice to look at all I’ve done, rather than say oh here’s my to do list and I’ve only done 3 of 7 items. Sometimes I didn’t because of I did 12 other things!

    I love the advice on interruptions and clean inboxes. I say don’t spend too much time organizing…there is a point of diminishing returns, where that extra organization time doesn’t translate into many additional gains.

  33. Anna
    Anna says:

    Fifteen minutes a day of writing a novel can get you halfway done.

    Sounds rational at a glance, but: the mind doesn’t work that way…switching on, switching off, switching on to something new
    … you can’t write a book like that, is a mental process.

    Also, it isn’t really possible to give general advice about how people should manage their time because what works for one personality type won’t work for another.

    I think your mini-time slots in between other priorities sounds like a horrible system. You get into something you would like to continue to do, and then you have to stop it before you even really get into it… why start then.

    I would never be able to be productive if I had to shift briefly in and out of tasks. It can take me hours to get back where I ‘left off’, but then I can stay concentrated for many hours/days and don’t get bored (unless the task is boring in itself).

    I am happy to be this way, because everybody I know who are good at multi-tasking do also seem to have what I would call a pervasive concentration problem: they easily become chatty and unfocussed, often never become really good at skills (e.g playing an instrument) because they don’t persevere with practice, they don’t prioritise to do things over an over, because they in their mind have a brief time slot allocated to each task because they see their whole day as a coordination task. I can see that multi-tasking is practical and useful, but I wouldn’t want to pay the price for being good at it, if the price is distractibility.

    Tell me now that lengthy focus isn’t compatible with raising kids. I know. Just about anything written by a parent about raising kids agrees with you, and says that raising kids requires relentless multi-tasking and always-readiness for to give attention to a multitude of little issues. I don’t have kids yet, but I can see that too and yes, it does look like a potential problem.

    My point is that although parents need to be good at multitasking and shifting between tasks, not everybody have a mind structure that works well with such a time management regime, and then they’ll have to find ways to give themselves longer periods of uninterrupted alone time to be productive and un-stressed. There is no reason to judge people because their need for recovery-time structure during the day isn’t practical in relation to family life, we are all different.

    Ps. I agree with the other things.

  34. Googie Baba
    Googie Baba says:

    I’ve been experimenting with the Seinfeld “don’t break the chain” game. I made two daily goals for myself. First, write a page of a novel every day and second, exercise for ten minutes. As long as I do these two things, I haven’t “broken the chain.” My novel is now at the half way mark with 139 pages. I haven’t lost any weight, but I feel better.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m a lawyer with 2 small children.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is inspiring to me. The idea that you can feel good by doing such small amounts. It’s not how much time something takes but rather how significant meeting the larger goal is to you.

      Knowing you want to write a novel seems so difficult. Putting aside ten minutes seems difficult, too. But you remind me that this stuff is within reach. Because it’s just ten minutes. The commitment is mental, but it’s not about time as much as faith in oneself.


  35. Charity Kountz
    Charity Kountz says:

    This is so brilliantly simplistic – I absolutely love it! I’ve known for years there had to be something wrong with all the time management advice when I just couldn’t make it work in my life. I would start a to-do list and then have to put a date on it. That was always the beginning of the end because something would come up more important and delay it. However, because of the system I was using to track it, it became more than a derailment. Psychologically, because I missed the self-imposed deadline, that to-do item no longer mattered as much as the next item on the list that had an upcoming deadline.

    I have shared this with several LinkedIn groups and my tweeps on Twitter. And am sharing it with my husband so he can finally get off my case about my time management. lol

  36. LKWatts
    LKWatts says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I think people underestimate the time it will take them to get certain things done. But like you say it’s amazing what you can achieve in fifteen minutes. I think more people should just do things rather than wonder how long it will take them. And most things you can always come back to if you haven’t got time to complete the task.

  37. Jimmy
    Jimmy says:

    I especially like the fourth one. I tried doing up to the minute list of tasks and I went crazy. :) I figured out that I need not concentrate too much about the minute by minute blow of things that I need to do, but to list and finish tasks in order of priority.

  38. Amy
    Amy says:

    I do list my priorities that should be completed within the week, as I am not trying to be so hard on myself in completing these tasks on a specific day or so. Through experience, I have learned that the more that I set specific tasks by the day, the more that I get disappointed when I do not get to accomplish it because of random factors (unexpected concerns, people coming by to visit me, etc.)

  39. Pari man
    Pari man says:

    “It’s all written by men who write about time management while their wives are at home taking care of their kids”

    Pure feminist.

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