Balance Your Time in a Busy World: Tools and Techniques

Work-life balance is a popular topic these days.  The world has gotten smaller.  That reduction has lead to jobs feeling like they require attention twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week.  However, we still have personal lives and families that need our time as well.  Thus, we have to learn how to make use of the time we have.

The concept of work-life balance often seems to be focused on reducing work.  We see that as a limiting view of the problem.  Instead of only focusing on time spent at work, we find it beneficial to look at everything you do as a whole.  Then we can find areas where our approach can combine tasks and shift effort in a way that reduces overall time spent.  We want to maximize the time available for the things we enjoy.  All this, while minimizing time spent on the tasks that are not fun or drain our energy.

What are the problems we want to solve by taking this class?:

  1. Does launching a business help my time requirements?
  2. Where do I start to address time management?
  3. What can I do to measure and manage my time?
  4. Are their tools or techniques I can use to manage time?
  5. What can I do to save time on everyday tasks?
  6. How do I reduce my overall time requirements?

What we will cover:

  1. The Most Valuable Currency
  2. Planning, Scheduling, and Moving Forward
  3. Productivity techniques
  4. Batching
  5. Simplifying

Class Goal: Student will have a schedule and plan for goals, both personal and professional.


Balance Goals, Not Time

If there is one concept to retain out of this class, it is that the most valuable currency is time.  Time always decreases, it never increases.  Any time that is lost can not be “found” or refunded.  That makes time the most valuable currency anyone has.  The key to time management is spending time in the right places and on the right items.  It comes down to goals and discipline in pursuing those goals.  We can not guarantee the time we have.  However, we can invest time now in the hope that it will increase the time available to do enjoyable things in the future.

The simplest example of this investment of time is retirement.  We invest time in work and career early in life in the hopes that we can rest and travel in later life.  Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that we will live to retirement.  That uncertainty is one fo the things we will address here.  We will look for balance in our current daily and weekly routine to allow us to do more that we enjoy now rather than decades from now.

Semi-Retirement

I refer to a perfect balance of work and non-work as semi-retirement.  The balance is the state of existence where one still requires an income but enjoys the finer things in life.  The finer things include recreation, travel, family and other tasks that are desirable.  Another aspect of semi-retirement is a job that is not too taxing.  When someone is exhausted by their job at the end of the day, that is not semi-retirement.  It is simply a job or a career.

The reason we have focused on building your business based on something you enjoy is to reach this state of semi-retirement.  The shortest route to our goal is to find ways to get paid doing what we love.  Then we free ourselves from the shackles of a schedule controlled by others.  Doing what we love and doing so on our terms is effectively retirement.  The only reason we will not consider ourselves retired is that we still need to generate income.

Setting Goals

Goal setting is the key to finding a balance in what you prefer to do and what you have to do in life.  The pull of need and preferences leads to the struggle many people face, setting goals for themselves.  In this case, we will set goals that are real and substantial.  Going to the movies every Friday night is not the kind of goal we need to set.  We need to break down our goals into what is required to achieve each one.  For the example of Friday night movies, we need to be able to afford the theater experience with both time and money.  Our schedule also must be flexible enough to allow us to spend that block of time in the way we desire.

When we set goals related to time management, we need to take a few steps to create them based on desired outcomes.  Here are the steps for the approach we will take.

  1. List your desired outcomes.  Account for the tasks you need to do.  Duties include proper sleep, exercise, cleaning, hygiene, etc.  Once you have your needs, consider your wants.
  2. Calculate the time required to accomplish the outcomes each week.  If your total time is less than the hours in the week, then you need to get a hobby.  Most people will have hours required far outnumber the hours available.
  3. Review your tasks.  Did you include things you want to do?  If you accomplish everything on this list for the next five years will you be happy?  If not, did you forget to take into account longer term goals?  For goals that seem unrelated to the week like travel or learning a new skill list those out separately.  We will get to those as well.  Call them the long term goals.

Planning and Scheduling

We have our list of targets so let’s find out how to squeeze them in.  It will help to make a list.  When I go through this exercise, I use a spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet allows me to tweak order and time requirements as I refine my schedule.  A spreadsheet might seem to be overkill, but it helps me keep things organized.  However, you might be able to put your plan together in your head or on paper.

Your Needs List

The first step is to order the items by priority.  The tasks are required and they take time.  This group includes sleeping, exercise, eating, hygiene, commute and job requirements.  You have now created your needs list.  If nothing else gets done in a typical week, these still will get done.  This is the hardest list to work with since they can be altered (in some cases), but not removed.

Your Wants List

The next group to build is the wants list.  These are tasks that you want to do each week but could survive without them.  This list includes “free time”, family time, television or radio, hobbies, and other preferable tasks to you.  These are tasks you can skip, but it will impact your happiness or cost you if you skip them too often.  For example, you can skip out on family time, but eventually, your relationships will fade or die.  House cleaning falls into this group as you can let it go for short periods, but eventually the work has to get done.

Your “That would be cool…” List

The third group is the nice-to-have list.  These are things that would be great to do, but not missed if you don’t do them.  The list includes tasks like cleaning the garage, throwing out old clothes, etc.  These tasks have cyclical lives where they are completely forgotten some weeks and weigh on your mind at other times.  These items tend to move up to the wants list or disappear completely from your “goals” over time.

Assess the Lists

The third list can be dropped altogether.  This is where you either move a task to the wants list or forget about it altogether.  The items do not have to be done immediately, but they are stumbling blocks to scheduling so let’s tackle them first.  For the tasks on this list that need to get done but can be done quickly and then forgotten, create a list of quick hits.

Now you have three lists wants, needs, and quick hits.  Let’s review the wants.  Any of these tasks that can be moved to quick hits should be.  Move them to the top, but they still move to that list.  Now look at the wants and cleaned up needs lists.  Do they still take more time than you have?  If not then you can move to the next step.  The wants list can be reduced by looking at each want and asking if it can be broken into smaller items that can move to quick hits or reduce the weekly time requirement.

A good example of this is how I scheduled getting this course created.  I knew I would struggle to find the time to accomplish the task in a week or two so I spread it out.  I found an hour a day I could put towards the course.  This added up to being able to complete the course over a few months.

Incremental Motion is Still Motion

According to Duolingo, I have an over 50% mastery of Italian.  That does nothing for me as I have no one to speak Italian with, but it will be useful when I get to travel to Italy.  The learning was accomplished in Duolingo fashion by putting in about ten minutes a day over what is now a few years.  I moved the needle a little each day (or even week).  However, that added up to an accomplishment.

This is something that must be embraced in order to truly accomplish all you want and need.  For each task that seems insurmountable, break it into smaller tasks and tackle those.  This approach will allow you to reduce the time requirement of your wants.  Thus, reducing your tasks to a manageable number of hours each week.  Use this method to look at long-term goals and break them into short-term and manageable tasks.  This course is an example of that approach.  We took a goal of building a way to generate revenue and broke it into a series of smaller steps.

Putting it together

Now you have a list of tasks to get done and the time required for them.  The hours and days of a week are set so in this step will fill the days with our tasks.  It may seem like a full schedule, but we will look at ways to reduce that.  First,we will look at the means to ensure we complete the tasks on our list.  We have said we will be happy if this list of tasks is accomplished.  Therefore, our happiness depends on execution.


Productivity Techniques

We have a plan.  However, plans often fall to pieces as soon as they are put into motion.  Nothing is perfect, but here are some techniques that improve the likelihood of executing your plan.  It helps to start with the biggest problem.  Focus and distractions are productivity program killers.  These two things are at the heart of why a plan fails.

 A lack of focus will allow other tasks to creep in.  This often occurs when faced with an unpleasant task.  Other chores get done instead of the ones that we planned because they are easier or more fun.  Distractions happen all the time and are hard to avoid.  These may be useful distractions like answering the phone or useless ones like surfing the web via click-bait.

 Set Boundaries

The common denominator of productivity techniques is a need for boundaries.  The most productive people find a way to focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions.  This requirement is for those things that require attention.  Washing dishes and loading laundry do not fall into this category.  However, even with mindless tasks, it helps to set some sort of framework or goals.  When we break large tasks into smaller ones it can add fuzziness to declaring something as done.

The end result of the boundaries should be to allow us to fill a period of time with related tasks.  However, we want also to avoid distractions while working.  Distractions are defined as anything that draws us away from the main tasks we have set for ourselves.

Boundaries can be physical and mental.  Do not be afraid to block out time in your published schedule.  A “reserved” block of time lets people know you are busy and do not want to be disturbed.  Those that have a room or office available for completing tasks should shut the door or otherwise limit outside distractions.

Avoid Distractions

Distractions come in many forms.  However, most of those forms include a way to avoid them.  A phone can be turned off.  As can Email and other notifications.  Even pets and children will not be distractions if you schedule appropriately.

All that being said, the cell phone is the worst tool of distraction for most people.  Leave your cell phone in another room, turn it off, or place it in a hard to reach location.  The addictive aspects of being able to “quickly” check a phone are too hard for us to resist.  There is also a form of blindness that develops in a lot of people where they do not even realize how often they check their phone.  Stop the messaging and checking of email and your productivity will improve immediately.

The Big Tomato

A well-publicized technique for improving productivity is the Pomodoro method.  Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and often involves a timer that looks like its namesake.  I am not sure why that was the item to associate with the timer, but that’s the origin of the.

The key to the Pomodoro method is to pair periods of focus and short breaks.  This time-frame is typically twenty-five minutes on task with five-minute breaks.  A work and a break combine to make one Pomodoro.  The goal is to complete as many Pomodoros in a day as you can.

This method requires some forethought in order to break up tasks so they fit into Pomodoros.  Although the rigid structure of the process helps, I see most productivity gains come from the well defined and small tasks.  This approach makes it easy to mix in a number of tasks each day.  This means there will be some forward progress on a large number of projects.  It also makes it easier to stay “fresh” through the day as you can mix in tasks that allow you to recharge and think out of the box.

Finding Balance

A combination of different types of jobs can make all of them seem easier and less stressful.  I have found that mixing sedentary tasks among physical tasks makes both go better.  For example,  I will break from writing for a period with loading laundry or working out.  When I return, I feel refreshed and more mentally alert.

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Our work schedules normally push us to get up, go to work, then come home for personal life.  When we can find ways to mix up those two large blocks (work and family) we can be more productive in both.  This is like the children who always complain about being bored near the end of a long break.  If they had that long break broken into two with school work in between they would enjoy the break time more.  They also would be more productive at school as it would not feel so drawn out.


Batching

When we looked at boundaries we set the stage for batching.  Batching is when a group of similar or same tasks is done at the same time.  Thus reducing the cost when compared to doing then separately.  Washing dishes is a great example.  No one would fill a sink, wash a plate, empty the sink, and then repeat for the next plate.  Dishes are done in batch.  Thus, the sink is filled, the dishes are washed, and then the sink emptied.  This concept is one that works with a variety of tasks.

Find the similar tasks

The entire purpose of batching tasks is to find shared requirements and use those across multiple tasks.  The easiest form of this is doing multiple iterations.  For example, wash two cars at a time instead of one.  Run multiple errands at a time rather than individual ones over a number of days.  We do a lot of this batching naturally because it is common sense.

We can find similar tasks and make similar productivity gains.  Reading mail and paying bills is a good example of this.  We store mail in a single location through the week.  Then we schedule a time to read through all of our mail.  There will be bills among the mail and we will group those.  We can then add that group to any other bills we have to pay and address all of them at once.  This not only saves time by removing the “store bills for later” step it also saves time by avoiding the chance that we lose the bills and have to search for them.

Finding Similarities

Similarities among tasks are not always obvious.  Start with the setup and breakdown parts of your regular tasks.  These parts might include logging on to your computer, pre-heating an oven, or going to your backyard.  When a job shares a step with another task or tasks, then there is an opportunity for batching.

A simple example for my situation is making my morning tea.  I make my tea with a brewer.  This takes a few minutes and requires me to be in the kitchen by the sink.  I could focus on the one task and wait for my tea to be brewed.  However, I combine tasks (going to the kitchen) and also make use of the dead time (standing by the brewer) to add in doing dishes.  I can load or unload the dishwasher in a few minutes.  Although I may take a little longer than I would if I were simply brewing tea, this saves me at least several minutes each day.

The batching approach is one that can be built and refined over time.  Make it a goal to add one batch process each week.  Before you know it you will find yourself saving hours each week and month.


Simplifying

Batching tasks together is a great way to save time.  However, eliminating tasks can save even more time.  This is where simplifying your life comes in.  Simplicity requires thought and is best done over a period of time.  It is also something that has a snowball effect so it gets easier as you become more experienced with it.

Simplification is a process of setting priorities.  We set the priorities then we remove the things that we do not value enough.  For our purposes, time is the highest priority.  We want to spend time in ways that are most pleasing to us.  Our goal can be accomplished either through avoidance, automation, or replacement.

Avoidance – Simplify through removal

We can simplify by removing items.  This may be a task we do not perform or an item (or person) we remove from our life.  The key to removing  is the ability to say “no.”  When you look at your weekly list of tasks you will have tasks you could remove.  This may have a price, but it is an option.  When you consider whether something can be eliminated, ask yourself two questions.  First, is this something I want or need?  Second, what is the worst that can happen if I remove this?

You can move on to the next item when the answer to the first question is “Yes.”  When the answer to the first question is “No.”  Decide the value of “the worst that can happen.”  When the cost of lost time is greater than “the worst thing” then say “no.”  Otherwise, you move on to the next task and reconsider at a later date.

Automation – Simplify through analysis

Automation is an excellent way to simplify.  It is often used with Internet-related tasks.  There are tools available and, of course, we are learning skills to help automate tasks for ourselves and others.  Any task that is well-defined and repetitive in nature is a candidate for automation.  However, you should always test your automation to ensure you are getting the proper results.

A template is a simple automation method that we have seen throughout this course.  There is not need to recreate a document or communication every time we send it.  Use templates to simplify all of your everyday communication tasks.

Assessing and categorizing email is another task that is easy to automate.  Use the filters or rules provided by your email client to label and sort email.  There are often features to allow you to set priorities on email to bring them to your attention just as there are ways to send junk emails to the trash.

Replacement – Simplify through exchange

Another way to simplify is by replacing a task or item with another one.  When we simplify we want to substitute a larger number of steps with a smaller number.  There is also the option to remove complicated things from our lives.  Alternatively, we can trade money for time and pay someone else to deal with it.

An easy-to-achieve method of simplification is reducing steps in a process.  Sometimes steps can be eliminated, but more often steps can be combined into a smaller number.  One way to cut steps is to remove duplication of effort.  Duplication often occurs when items are similar.  Thus, take a close look at similar steps to find ways they can be combined.

A backup process is a good example.  You can backup each folder in your home directory (multiple steps) or get the same result by backing up your home directory.  There is a loss of granularity (you lose the ability to quickly grab a single folder from the backup), but how often will you need to do that?

 


Quick Hits

Here are a few suggestions you can use today in the spirit of saving time and improving productivity.

Planning Suggestions

  • “Eat a frog” – This approach focuses on the unpleasant tasks first.  Start every day with the thing you want to do least at the top of your list.
  • Wake with a Plan – Use the winding down period each night to create a list of tasks for the next day.  Once the list is complete, do not think about work or your daily tasks until the next day.
  • Get Organized – Get in the habit of keeping items you need to perform tasks in easy to remember locations.  This includes keys, wallets, purses, pens, pencils, phones, chargers, etc.  Searching for lost items can completely derail a great schedule.  The less time you spend searching for items the more time you have to use those items to get things done.Fill in the Gaps – Keep a list of quick tasks handy.  These are tasks you can get done in fifteen minutes or less.  When you have dead time during a day, such as waiting on someone or something, knock out a task or two.  These are great things to have when you are at a doctor’s office.
  • Plan Big – Pick an enormous task that seems almost impossible.  Break the large task into smaller tasks that can be accomplished daily or at the rate of a few per week.  Track progress on the big goal and watch how it shrinks over time.  Regular progress can be a great motivator while helping you see the power of incremental tasks.

Motivational Suggestions

  • Make Learning a Hobby – Select something you would like to know.  You can choose a foreign language, a period in history, or a technical or physical skill.  Set a goal to spend a few minutes on it each day.  The goal should be something fun or rewarding and schedule it towards the end of your list each day.  The fun task can be your reward each day for getting through your main list.
  • Be Reasonable – Do not go crazy when building your list.  It should be achievable.  Also, avoid creating a list where you have to give up needs to get it completed.  For example, a list that is full of tasks and leaves only a few hours to sleep, or no time to eat, is not helpful.  You may have days where this has to be, but make it the exception.
  • Celebrate Lunch – Select a task or two each day that you will get done before lunch.  Hold off on going to lunch until these are done.  It forces you to accomplish something and makes lunch your midday meal break a sort of celebration.

A Final Note

Do not be afraid to cut corners when there is no gain in doing otherwise.  There are examples of this throughout life.  An easy to read signature has no more value than a quick scrawl.  Many forms we are asked to fill out have extraneous information.  There are times when spending time on finishing touches is valuable.  In those cases, pay attention to the details.  However, when there is no gain in spending time on the details, skip them.

This includes planning your day and week.  A daily plan should be something you put together in minutes.  If you are crafting some complicated schedule for yourself, it is most likely a waste of time.  There are too many things that can happen through the day to throw off your schedule and force a change of plans.  Give yourself a loose framework to focus your day, not a rigid schedule that frustrates you as soon as you stray from it.


Assignments

  1. Create a list of needs, wants, and nice-to-haves
  2. Adjust items on the lists.  Reduce the tasks to two lists: needs and wants.
  3. Review your tasks and select a candidate for automation.  Write up a brief plan for automating.  Send it to the facilitators for discussion.
  4. Review your tasks.  Select three items that can be simplified out of the list and write up a plan.  Send it to the facilitators for discussion.
  5. Create a weekly plan for completing your tasks.  Provide a schedule for each day.

Bonus: Try out a productivity technique such as the Pomodoro method or Getting Things Done for a few days.  Share your thoughts with the facilitators.


Further Reading

Time management and productivity are popular topics for self-help books.  There is one for every style and preference.  We recommend you look at these to get some ideas and take your first steps.

Web Sites

http://gettingthingsdone.com/

https://hbr.org/2015/12/9-productivity-tips-from-people-who-write-about-productivity

The Pomodoro Technique site

 

Books

Work Smarter Not Harder: 18 Productivity Tips That Boost Your Work Day Performance

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

PowerPoint Presentation Secrets – Create Beautiful Slideshows and Impress Audiences with Microsoft PowerPoint While Saving Time and Money (Unofficial)

 

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