Ever feel like you have a never ending list of things you want to do but just don't have enough time to get to it? This is what led me to the rabbit hole that's time management. After wading through books, videos, podcasts, blogs, and trying a bunch of techniques (with more failures than success), I finally found a system that works for me!

Manage your Focus, not your Time

What's the difference, you ask? Time management is all about making lists, scheduling your day, and sticking to that plan. Focus management, on the other hand, is about understanding when you're most productive and creating an environment that allows you to concentrate on the task at hand. It's about quality over quantity and surprisingly (or not!) leads to getting things done more efficiently.

Here's the system I currently use - both for work and my personal tasks. You may choose to try it on selected parts of your day to start with and then tweak it to make it work for you. If you find other tips that have worked for you, do share! :-)

Manage your Focus, not your Time

Step 1: Map it Out
  1. Plan for a week, not a day
    Matthew Kelly in his book, The Long View, says "Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a month." If you too feel frustrated that you aren't able to get your daily to-do's checked off, maybe it's because you are trying to do too much. Laura Vanderkam's book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, helps you tackle this problem by zooming out and planning for a week rather than trying to manage your tasks within a day.

    To keep it simple I split my weekly hours into 3 - 56 hours for work (including prep time, commute etc.), 56 hours for sleep (stretch goal!) and the rest for everything else. You may opt for a different split but the main thing is to understand how much time you do have and figure out how to make the most of it. Here's a modified version of Laura's 168 hours time tracker that can help you figure out where you are currently spending your time and which parts you want to optimize.

  2. Make a list of everything you need/want to do
    Before you start planning for the week, empty your head! Drop in everything you want to or need to do on paper (or a doc/note if you work digitally). I split my lists into Must-Dos (essential and need to be done), Should-Dos (Important tasks but maybe not as urgent), and Someday (things I want to do but probably not in the near future). Some also include a Won't-Do list to trim off any unnecessary tasks. Listing it out helps you avoid distractions later in the day/week since everything is captured.

  3. Prioritize your tasks
    If the lists look overwhelming, relax. This next step will help you weed out the unnecessary stuff and help you figure out which ones have the most impact. There are different ways you can prioritize your list. I use the Urgent/Important matrix suggested by Ankur Warikoo. It's a 2x2 matrix that maps your tasks in a range of Urgency vs Importance. Your tasks could fall under one of these 4 quadrants (starting from the bottom right)

    • Not Urgent and Not Important - This is the zone of distraction for eg. doom scrolling. Your goal will be to eliminate it or at least reduce the time spent on it.

    • Urgent and Not Important - These are unexpected tasks that crop up on your plate. For eg. your phone rings when you are focussed on a task (I usually ignore the call but sometimes you may not be able to). Or you have a plumbing emergency at home. You can't ignore it but maybe you can delegate it so you aren't spending as much time on it yourself.

    • Urgent and Important - This is where you'll spend most of your time. This could be your core work that needs to get done that day or week. Use the tips below to get this stuff done!

    • Not Urgent and Important - These are tasks like personal development (sharpening your saw) which would add value to your life but usually gets put off. Schedule some time for it every week to help you keep motivated and help you get better every week.

    If you want to go a step further, you can also track and categorize your tasks using this template and understand where your time is being spent.

  4. Chunk them into smaller sub-tasks
    Now that you have your lists, the next step is to chunk it into manageable tasks. There's a quote attributed to Desmond Tutu - "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!" If your task looks too overwhelming, try breaking it down to simpler steps. For eg. to write this article, one of my bites was to map out my system, then categorize it into the three buckets, next one was to sketch it out, and then write each section. Breaking it down and checking off each bite/sub-task makes it look more manageable and helps you get things done faster.

    Side note: Don't eat actual elephants, they are too cute!.

  5. Pick the top 3 tasks for each day
    Brain Tracey author of Eat that Frog suggests the Rule of 3 for optimal focus and productivity. He asks you to answer the question "If I could only do three things on this list, all day long what would be the three tasks that would contribute the most value?". This will help you get the tasks you should be focussing on for the day. In my case, since I'm planning for a week, I usually have 10-15 high level tasks which then get distributed for each day.

    Side note: I don't follow the tip on eating your frog (the most unpleasant task) the first thing in the day. Instead, I pick the task I'm most excited about so my day starts off well and keep the frog for later in the day.

  6. Pick your Champagne Moment for the week
    The next tip is from Demir & Carey Bentley of the Lifehack Method and authors of Winning The Week. Once you have your week mapped out, scan through it and find your Champagne Moment. Ask yourself which is the one task that if you got done this week, you'd celebrate with Champagne (or ice cream if that's what you prefer). This helps you focus on impact and make sure each week is worth celebrating.

Step 2: Make it Happen
  1. Timebox your tasks
    Now that you are armed with your lists, it's time for the fun stuff - to actually work on the tasks! Your calendar is your best friend here. Block off time for the top 3 tasks of the day and block off time for any additional tasks that you anticipate for the day (meetings, lunch, etc.) One tip on estimating the time a task would take; add a buffer of at least 50% to your first estimate. If you think a task would take an hour, block off an hour and a half. This is to account for any unexpected requirements while working on a task. Maybe you need to do more research than expected or there's a tool issue which causes a delay. The buffer time can help keep you on track and reduce stress/frustrations.

    While scheduling the day, keep a buffer of an hour or two for the same reason. Many studies have shown that we encounter anywhere between 30-60 distractions during a work day. This could be someone pinging you for a quick question, an urgent email, or something personal. So, instead of scheduling yourself for the full 8 hours, and getting frustrated at these distractions, plan for 6 hours. If you are lucky enough to not have to use these 2 hours, use it to catch up on next day's tasks or pick something from your Important but not Urgent list!

  2. Pick a technique for each block (or use the same one for all blocks)
    Once you are ready to get started on the task, there are different ways in which you can tackle the block to be more productive. The most popular one (based on all the blogs etc.) is Francesco Cirillo's Pomodoro Technique. In this method, you work in short blocks of 25 mins followed by a break of 5 minutes. Once you finish 4 Pomodoros, you can take a longer break (usually 15-20 mins). Rinse and repeat. This is great if you are putting off a task and just need a way to get started. 25 mins is short enough that it doesn't feel overwhelming and if you follow the chunking method, you can break your sub-task into even smaller tasks and make them fit into the 25 min block.

    The method that I prefer is from Cal Newport's Deep Work called Focus Blocks. Focus Blocks are larger blocks of distraction free time, anywhere between 1 hr to 4 hours, that you spend focus on one single task. I prefer 2 hour blocks and have noticed I can get much more done when I get into the flow state. A major tip for making Focus Blocks work is to take into account your ultradian rhythms. Ultradian rhythms are biological rhythms that repeat every 90–120 minutes, alternating between periods of high focus and alertness, and lower energy and rest. Use the daily review (coming up next) to identify when you feel energetic and slot your top 3 tasks then.

Step 3: Master your Schedule
  1. Schedule a 15 min session at the end of the day for daily reviews
    The power of this system is in it's flexibility. At the end of each day, review how you felt about the day and make changes to your schedule. Keep a track of your flow state hours (regardless of which technique you used) to help you decide which times of the day work for you. Couldn't finish a task as per your plan? Figure out why and how you want to adjust it during the upcoming days (the buffer time will come in handy here!).

  2. Schedule a 30 mins session every Friday to plan for next week
    You are at the end of the week now and are hopefully celebrating your Champagne Moment (YAY!) Before you wrap up the week, spend 30 minutes planning for the upcoming week and blocking your calendar. This way, when you log back in on Monday, you can get started right away!