November 25, 2018

Time Management – Not How, But Why


I read a lot of time management/productivity books.

All of them give useful snippets of information/hacks. And (usually) they all suffer from the same problem.

They tell you what to do, but they won’t tell you how to make yourself do it.

It’s great to do things in advance, and not leave them to the last minute. But there are powerful forces at play stopping you from doing that, such as procrastination. Left on their own, most people will do things last minute. What’s the point of doing things in advance and spending precious energy if things can change any second?

As I said many times, this type of thinking made perfect sense when we lived in a dangerous prehistoric world. Our life today is a little more certain, and we can afford and benefit from some forward planning – and running out of calories is not a worry for most people.

Recently I came across a book on time management called The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity. This books gives an elegant theoretical explanation on why time management matters. It goes beyond looking at time as a resource to be managed.

four quarters

The 5 Choices separate all things we do into the four categories above. This is pretty standard. You should do important things and ignore unimportant things. Lots of books will tell you that.

I always had one issue with the productivity advice that was suggesting to concentrate on important things and ignore unimportant ones. I was thinking, unimportant things tend to become important if ignored. If you push something away long enough as ‘low priority’, time will come when it becomes ‘high priority’ only you don’t have any time to deal with it now.

However, The 5 Choices define what unimportant means. Unimportant means that not doing whatever was requested will not result in any consequences. When these consequences come is a matter of urgency and not importance. Turns out I was confusing importance with urgency – and I am sure I was not the only one!

The 5 Choices goes on to look at the 4 quadrants in terms of how much pay-off you get from the time invested in them.

Q1 is important things that have to be done right now. A call from a hospital telling you that your sibling has had an accident. Finishing a paper that is due tomorrow morning and can’t be postponed. An exam. Things that can’t be postponed or rescheduled. Time investment return here is lineal, you get back what you put in.

Q4 tasks are neither urgent, nor important. Like binge-watching Netflix on a Saturday. Time invested here is fully wasted – no return at all.

Q3 is things that are not important, but somehow feel urgent. For example, you’ve just received an email from Amazon about a book you might be interested in, and you feel compelled to drop whatever you were doing and immediately go check it out. Or you hit a wall in trying to figure out how to solve a problem, and your mind tells you that this is a really good time to play your favorite video game for a while. Time invested in Q3 actually provides negative return. It’s not only wasted, it hurts you because it makes you interrupt other important things you were doing, and that sometimes results in hours down the drain before you can get back where you were.

Finally, Q2 – things that are important but not urgent. Preparing for your workday the night before. Learning a skill you always wanted to have. Starting working on a task well before the deadline. Exercising. Cultivating relationships with your loved ones and with new people you meet.

According to The 5 Choices, any time invested in Quadrant 2 gives exponential return.

There are a few good reasons why. First, when you do things before urgency kicks in, you can get through obstacles by throwing time at them. If you come across something you don’t understand, you have the time to research it or ask someone. You require input from other people, you can ask for it and get it. Finally, some things just require more time than you thought they would. If you are running into a problem  last minute, then you either won’t be able to solve it or you can solve it through great cost.

One interesting sub-category of important and non-urgent things are problems that may or may not arise. Somebody who’s in a hurry to deal with urgent things won’t have the time to prepare for outcomes that may not happen. Yet any time invested in preparing for an event that’s not certain is “worth its wait in gold” if the unlikely occurs.

I have a habit of leaving well in advance when I am catching a flight. I am always amused at how friends I am visiting are actively resisting the fact that I want to leave early. For them, the extra time spent at the airport is wasted – and the fact that I may be delayed on my way there and miss my flight if something unexpected happens is somehow not a concern for them.

If I have to take a connecting flight with short connection time, I always make sure there is another flight later on the same day I can catch if I miss the first one. Takes a couple of minutes to research, but can save me a night stranded in another city, stressful search for a different flight and missed appointments next day.

The 5 Choices provided a good foundation to bring together many different ideas I came up with or heard before. 

I remember a colleague saying that he used to work in a service company where the guiding principle was ‘not to work to deadlines’. Any task had to be started as soon as possible. This was a big part of the company’s success as they would never be late with an order.

I also remember working in another company, where I relied on specialist input when sending out proposals to clients. After a while I noticed that the amount of time I allowed them did not matter at all. They complained when they weren’t given enough notice, but in practice every single task I gave them was always done absolutely last minute – whether I asked one week, two weeks or a month in advance. Not surprisingly, my colleagues were always running out of time and could never do a great job, costing us business.

I remember a quote which unfortunately I can’t trace anymore.  A university professor telling a student who was late with an assignment and was asking for an extension – ‘You’ve got to stop putting your fate in other people’s hands’. Deadlines, when not respected, put us at other people’s mercy. Some people pride themselves on being able to talk themselves out of trouble. Others get upset as they think they are being treated unfairly/singled out. But life is easier if you don’t give others a chance to decide for you.

As they say, the difference between clever and wise is that a clever person will easily find a way out of a difficult situation, whereas a wise person will never end up there in the first place. Coincidentally, how would a wise man avoid a bad situation? By managing his time to prepare in advance ;). 

To keep with the spirit of this article, I am publishing it whole 12 hours before my self-imposed deadline of early hours on Monday. Enjoy the Sunday reading, and hopefully you can do a few things before the deadline too!

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