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.

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