All you wanted to know about time management

The fundamental lesson of time management is that if you feel you need to manage your time, then things have already gone wrong. If that’s true, you can still recover, but that will require you to get into damage control mode and this post is not about that. This post is about setting up the parameters of your life in such a way that you sail through it without feeling that you lack time.

How does one achieve that? The answer is that instead of trying to manage time, you should focus on managing attention, energy, and motivation.

Attention management

Attention determines the rate at which you will get work done in the same amount of time. A typical work hour in modern times is full of distractions. Your email, text, and social networking apps are constantly open trying to notify you of every single event as soon as possible. This creates a huge overhead and drastically compromises one’s productivity. An hour spent working in isolation with all electronic equipments on a do-not-disturb mode is several times more productive than otherwise. For more tips on how to cultivate similar “deep work habits” visit Cal Newport’s blog.

OK, so switching off electronic equipments is the obvious thing you can do to improve attention. What else? Improving attention is equivalent to eliminating distractions. So what other sources of distraction can we eliminate? We often get distracted if we are not certain about what we want to work on. If you sit at your work desk with the goal “get better at math” you will spend a lot of time deciding whether doing something will make you better at math or not. For example, say in order to get better at math, you sit down with a set of exercise problems in combinatorics where you encounter the notion of the Catalan number. You get curious and fire up your browser to check out the Wikipedia page on Catalan number. You quickly glance through many mathematical formulas and reach the History section on the page where you read Euler’s name, which reminds you of Project Euler and you get curious to know why this guy’s name keeps showing up whenever you read about math. Several clicks and an hour later you know everything about Euler but have hardly made any progress with your exercise problems. So even though you are now more likely to win the next Math Trivia contest, this hour should be called a distraction because it was not the aim you started with.

Productivity experts have developed several tools to fight these kinds of distractions. The central idea is to reserve a block of time and be very articulate about what you want to achieve in that block. For example, you could reserve a one-hour block with the precise aim of “solving as many problems as you can from this set of 20 exercise problems in combinatorics.” This is precise and makes it much easy to decide whether something contributed towards this goal or not. For example, if you open Wikipedia to fulfill some temporary curiosity, it satiates your curiosity and that’s all. It does not help you progress toward your goal of solving those 20 exercise problems.

What’s the ideal length of a block of time to reserve for focussed activities? It depends on you. Clearly, a 4-hour long block is usually not good. Focussed work is taxing and doing it for four hours at a stretch is close to impossible. The pomodoro technique posits that the ideal block is 25-minutes long. We suggest that you experiment with it for a while and figure out what works best for you.

Finally, one can also optimize attention by playing around with the time of the day when one is most productive. The human body operates in a rhythm that makes certain times of the day more productive than others. Some people are more productive early in the morning and some in the night. But for most people there is a specific block of about 2-3 hours per day when their productivity hits its peak. It’s important to figure out what that block is for you and exploit it to its fullest.

To summarize:

  1. Find a block of about 2-3 hours per day when you are most productive.
  2. During those 2-3 hours, switch off all your email and social networking apps.
  3. Make a list of precisely defined goals that you want to work towards in those hours and devote your full attention towards those goals.

Motivation management

It is hard to consistently force yourself to do things that you hate doing. At the same time, work is work and it’s unreasonable to assume that you can truly enjoy your work all the time. No matter how much fun your work is, there will be times when getting together with friends and making stupid jokes will be way more fun. So you can’t always enjoy your work and you shouldn’t always hate your work. The more motivated you feel about your work the more productive you are going to be. Thus it’s important to maximize motivation. How does one do that?

First, the obvious. You should pick something to work on that feels like fun at least sometimes. If you have never enjoyed problem solving in your life, do not pick a career based on math. If you hate writing and have never enjoyed reading literature, then no need to try to become a writer. So let’s assume that you have picked a career wisely. What else can you do to maximize motivation?

Social circle is the biggest determining factor in how motivated you will feel for working towards your goals. The primary source of motivation in humans—and, in fact, in all other species—is social reward points. Subconsciously, we all work towards being recognized as a respectable member of our own social circles. So you should engineer your social circle so that this fundamental driving force works towards helping you achieve your goals. Hang out with people who are working passionately on goals similar to yours. If you want to pick one thing to do right now, this is it. The impact of a smart, energetic, and productive social circle cannot be underestimated.

These two steps should get you to about 80% of the maximum motivation level you can achieve. You can perform further tweaks by gamifying things. Measure your progress, create fun little competitions, compete with yourself and with your friends, create records, break records, and so on.

To summarize:

  1. Pick a career that does not make you do many things you hate doing.
  2. Hang out with people working passionately towards goals similar to yours.
  3. Gamify!

Energy management

This is usually not an issue with the younger crowd, but it is important that your body feels energetic a reasonable amount of time. If you feel sleepy all the time then you should fix that. How? The three most important areas to focus on are diet, sleep, and exercise.

Everyone should exercise, no matter what their age. At the minimum, pick up a sport and play it regularly. Sports are fun and will not only keep you healthy, but also help you grow as a person. Sports teach you how to perform under pressure: a skill that comes in handy at every important occasion in life. If you cannot play a sport, then make arrangements to be physically active at home. Buy a pair of dumb bells and lift them every alternate day. Or buy a resistance band and do some resistance training. If you do not want to buy anything, try body-weight fitness. There are many online communities where people working on their fitness get together and share tips and tricks. One example is the body-weight fitness subreddit. If you do not like any of the suggestions above, just go out and jog. Being active at least 20 minutes per day is *much* better than not being active at all.

Next thing is sleep. Going to bed at a regular time every day has immense advantages. At a young age, this may not be a big issue but older you get, the more benefits you will see from fixing your sleeping schedule. But in any case if you do feel lethargic most of the day, then an irregular sleeping schedule could be causing it.

Finally, eat healthy. Eat nutritious food and avoid junk food. We cannot explain in this one small post what constitutes healthy food. But the fundamental principle is that healthy food gives you all essential nutrients in the proportion that’s best suited for the body. Buying cooked food outside hardly ever achieves this. Restaurants and fast-food chains are trying to maximize their profits, which means they siphon millions of dollars of money into researching the food that’s most likely to get you addicted, not the food that’s most likely to keep you healthy. In short, staying off of pizzas, lays, and samosas is a good thing. Eating home-cooked food rich in a variety of nutrients is a good thing.

To summarize:

  1. Be physically active.
  2. Try to go to sleep at the same time every day.
  3. Eat nutritious food. Avoid junk food.


If you do the things described in this article, you will not feel the need to “manage time”. And that’s how time is managed.

Sunday, May 10th, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

Useful online resources

Two kinds of resources are going to be useful to an ambitious high school student trying to engineer a bright future for himself/herself: resources that provide advice and resources that provide knowledge.

Advice resources:

A recurring pattern that has emerged in career-related advice is that passion is overrated. People generally tend to feel passionate about things that they turn out to be good at. So the idea that one should find a field they are passionate about and then become good at it is kind of backward. Becoming good at something and becoming passionate about it happen together. The best way to pick a field is to use external inputs to judge how likely it is that you are going to enjoy the field in future and once you’ve found something good enough, become really good at it. This will automatically make you passionate about the field as well. Anyway, the reason I mention this is to point you to the excellent blog maintained by Cal Newport at. He is a big proponent of the passion-is-overrated theory and offers generally good advice on his website. Another similar blog is the one maintained by Scott Young.

Knowledge resources:

This of course depends on the kind of knowledge you want to acquire. But assuming you are a high-school student trying to become exceptionally good at Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics, I would point you to the Physics Stackexchange, the Chemistry Stackexchange, and the Mathematics Stackexchange respectively.

The fundamental law of learning is that you learn ten times more by solving problems than by passively reading through a textbook. The Stackexchange communities make problem solving way more fun that it already was. On each website linked above, people from all over the world ask and answer questions. The website has set up a system of upvotes and badges on top of it that makes it too much fun. If you come up with an elegant solution to a question someone asked, not only will you gain satisfaction and knowledge, but you will also get more points! In short, the website has gamified the problem solving process and we highly recommend spending time there.

Monday, April 27th, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

Gamifying your preparation

Back in 2005, when I was preparing for IIT-JEE, I hated Inorganic Chemistry. It just looked like a huge collection of uninteresting facts to me, which I was unable to memorise. I attempted it several times, but just couldn’t get through it. I tried several books, but none of them managed to make it interesting. Around 1-2 months before the exam, I decided to give it one final attempt. This time I ended up inventing a technique that was very effective at making Inorganic Chemistry enjoyable! I had accidentally done what is now popularly known as “gamification,” i.e., making things enjoyable by converting them into a kind of game.

Here’s what I did.

Even though I hated memorising facts, I still liked problems that we used to call “roadmap” problems. A typical roadmap problem would provide you with some information about a few unknown compounds and ask you to identify them. For example, one piece of information could be that when mixed in Sulfuric Acid, the compound gave a red colored precipitate. Or perhaps the compound made the flame turn green. Or may be it burned violently when put into water. These kinds of problems had a very detective-like feel to them. You could imagine yourself at a crime scene having just found traces of a yellow colored powdery substance. What could the substance be?

The only problem was, since I was too impatient to read through those giant Inorganic Chemistry textbooks, I never knew how to interpret these facts. What does it mean when something turns the flame green or burns violently when put into water?

So I got a book that had a large collection (around 300 problems) of solved roadmap style problems and directly started attempting to solve the problems; with no background whatsoever. The first problem I read made no sense to me. So I just read the solution. But when I read it, I learned a few new facts. This time, those facts were interesting to me, since those were exactly the facts that were required in order to solve the problem. So I had a greater retention capacity for them in my brain. In fact, the first 10-15 problems made no sense to me and I just kept on reading the solutions and trying to remember as many of the facts as possible. But on the 16th problem, I read something I had read a few problems ago. The unknown compound in question had the same behavior when put into some kind of acid as the unknown compound from 5 questions ago! Thus I knew that we were dealing with a copper ion or whatever. With some extra guessing and extrapolations, I started getting the answer right with a reasonable accuracy.

I realized that this was just a more advanced version of the popular “memory game”! Memory game is the one where you place several cards face down on the table and you can see what’s on the cards one by one, starting from the top left. and keep each card back face down on the table after seeing it. If you see a card and feel that you’ve seen its copy before, you go back and flip the card you think is the copy. If it does turn out to be a copy, you can leave both the cards face up. Your final aim is to have all cards face up on the table. So the challenge is in remembering which card was what. Similary, in the Inorganic Chemistry game, each question presents you with some information about a compound and you need to remember from the previous questions what the particular piece of information meant.

Gradually, I started spicing up the game. I started counting the number of correct answers I got in one continuous streak. If I got 7 correct answers in a row and then 1 wrong answer, that would give me a score of 7. So I started trying to beat my own previous record. Slowly, things became very exciting. Eventually, I managed to know a significant part of the “roadmap problems” portion of Inorganic Chemistry.

The moral of the story is not just that you can make Inorganic Chemistry interesting. But that, you can make anything interesting by building an interesting game around it. Setting up a scoring system and then trying to beat your own previous record already makes things interesting. You can also set up a system of rewards and compete with other friends.

I learned the trick of counting the number of correct answers in one continuos streak from my father when I was perhaps around 10 years old. He told me he used to do it when he was small. In fact, his method has an extra step too. You can assign these scores to the batsmen of the Indian cricket team in the sense that a wrong answer means a wicket and a correct answer means a run. This way you can have a full India vs. Pakistan match! I have “played” this game in the past and it gets seriously addictive.

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013. Written by Vinayak Pathak. 2 comments.

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