Monthly Archive: October 2018

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Ultimate Productivity Hacking Guide (Part II): Time Management

“It is not enough to be busy… The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau
Time management is process of aligning your time with your priorities. The strategies discussed in this guide are to address the following questions: How do you spend your time? Does the time you spend every align with your goals? The people who benefit the most from this section are people who have diverse set of goals and workloads and consistently need to allocate their time. Conversely, people whose goals are singular (e.g. I’m going to focus on taking care of my child) and have a strong conception of direction will benefit the least from this section.

Planning Your Time

Daily Planning Every day you should set aside 15 minutes at the start of your day to plan your day. Take out a post-it. First, figure out what obligations you have for the day. Do you have classes to attend? Friends to meet? Appointments to go to? It’s worth writing the ones that aren’t part of your regular schedule down. Then, figure out what you’re going to do for the day and assign an upper bound estimate on the amount of time you think it’ll take. You can comb through through your gathering points in the “Priority Management” section to figure out what you need to and want to do. Examples could be “Read chapter 5 of Intro to Probability (1.5 hrs)” or “Respond to recruiter emails (30 mins)”. Add up all the hours of your tasks and double check to make sure it doesn’t fill up more than 70% of your daytime outside of strict obligations. Now stick this post-it somewhere visible like your laptop, your planner, or your desk. Weekly Planning At the beginning of every week you should give yourself an overview of what larger tasks or goals you have. If you have a diverse workload or a diverse set of goals you generally should write these goals in a spreadsheet. If you have math homework due every week, you should make a note on how many hours you expect it to take. I also take tasks off my project management software and throw them onto this spreadsheet. I found it useful to write down what I expect to complete by the end of the week and make sure I’m not overloading myself.

Example of my master calendar

Once you take note of your weekly goals, you need to start blocking out time on your calendar to work on these tasks. I generally have a recurring weekly schedule, and just modify events as necessary at the end of the week. Here’s the calendar I have:

Example Google Calendar

It’s quite a lot to take in, and I’m not asking you to plan every hour of your life. I’m going to break down different milestones you’ll reach as you begin to start blocking out times for goals and obligations. Take your time to reach each milestone. It took me two whole years to go from the easy milestone to overkill mode. Easy: Put only obligations on your calendar. These are appointments you have, friends you promised not to flake out on, classes you need to attend. This prevents double booking your time with your obligations. Medium: Put on time blocks to work on goals with hard deadlines. These are homeworks you need to turn in, work projects you need to complete, tasks you just have to do. Hard: Put on time block to work on goals in general. Overkill: Not for the faint of heart — put on everything else: sleep, shower, mealtimes, transportation. This will give you insight into how you want to spend your time across all verticals of life. Let’s talk through the calendar methodology. Putting time on your calendar is a great way to visualize how you’re going to spend your time. It’s also a great litmus test to check whether or not you’re being overly demanding on yourself or trying to do too much in a week. Because you’re laying it all out on a calendar, you’re not double counting any time period and overcommitting your time. Here’s what the different colors mean:
  1. Sleep (Blue)
  2. FoShoTrans (Red/Pink): FoodShowerTransportation. This is the time you spend to get ready in morning, to get from place to place, to shower, and to eat. This can also be named “Essentials”.
  3. Break (Yellow): The time you spend resting or taking a break
  4. Exercise (Turquoise): Time spent exercising or healthy living
  5. Social (Orange): Time spent with friends or engaging in a social activity
  6. Work (Purple): Time spent working
  7. OutsideEd (Brown): Education I pursue outside of my usual obligations
  8. Blogging/Journaling (Grey): When I journal, blog, or self reflect.
  9. Read (Blue)
  10. Miscellaneous (Green): Miscellaneous tasks and obligations.
Even something like rest or break time should be planned in. Break should let you rest and give you energy. If an activity like playing videos games doesn’t make you feel better after having done it, it doesn’t count as a restorative break (more on this later). Every morning you’re going to go through all the tasks on your to-do list and make sure they have corresponding events on your calendar. If a task takes <5 mins long, it’s better to do it right now and not have to bounce mental reminders in your head. If your task takes from 5 – 15 minutes, then group them together under an event called “Personal Errands”. These tend to more shallow and mindless, and I would put the event at some time which you are not at your peak energy level, like in the evenings. Everything else goes on your calendar as individual blocks/events. If they aren’t on your calendar, you’re not being intentional about how you’re going to spend your time. If you don’t have space on your calendar, then you’re asking too much of yourself, and should review the “Priority Management” section of the guide. Why it Works A calendaring system reduces the cognitive load with planning. If I didn’t have my calendaring and task tracking software, I would have to keep all the information in my head. “What should I be doing right now?” “Should I study or work on interviewing?” “Do I have the time to go to Jay’s party or would that ruin my morning run the next day.” Those are the dialogues that happen in my head ALL THE TIME  if I don’t set aside 30 minutes each week to just lay out all my time visually. Those thoughts are extremely draining, and when you have to overcome the issue of “what should I do?” before starting to work, you’re going be more likely to make poor decisions (I’m looking at you, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit). Putting everything on a calendar (as opposed to say, a planner) also forces you to specifically allocate time towards your goals, values, and obligations so you don’t double count your hours spent. Time is your most finite resource, so it makes sense to set aside time to figure out how you’re going to spend it wisely, rather than haphazardly deciding on the whim. When you follow the system, you end up consolidating a lot of gathering points and merge it into one place. Instead of checking 20 places to figure out what you need to do, you just check 1. A calendaring system can be used to consolidate gathering points, like gleaning emails to throw to-do’s on your calendar or to copy homework due dates from your classroom website. “What if you go off track?” Going off track of your schedule is not a crime. It’s more important to notice that you’ve gone off track than to judge that you’ve gone off track. Judging your behavior at this point only brings about negative emotions, but the noticing helps collect useful information to help us understand how we can do better next time. I think of my calendar less as a behavior enforcer, and more as a ledger of intentions. Without it, I simply wouldn’t know what to do with my life, and I’ll probably meander aimlessly with a constant fear of forgetting something important. I actually change my schedule frequently, maybe 3 – 5 times a day, to account for any possible changes. Sometimes it’s a disruption, or a task that took too long. Other times it’s a riveting conversation with a friend that went over an allotted time. I don’t see deviations of my schedule as transgressions. As I like to say, it’s easier to change plans than to make them, so plan first and change if needed. Planning my day forces me to be more mindful about how I spend my time, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for mindless activities.

Planning Tips

Potpourri of tips I’ve had working with a schedule for 7 years:

  • Avoid doing any mentally straining work for more than 1 – 2 hour chunks at a time and more than 5 – 6 hours a day. Despite my best efforts, I can probably focus for at most 3 hours before needing some kind of break.
  • Do the hardest things first: Willpower tends to decline as your day progresses. Some tasks become extremely difficult as you reach the akrasia zone of 2 – 4 hours before their bedtime. Because of that, I try to schedule the most cognitively or energy demanding things in the morning and menial tasks before bed.
  • Try to fit your habits in the morning: Especially post-graduation, most of your social time will occur in the evening. It’s hard to uphold a workout routine if you’re friends with people who make plans on the day of. One way to avoid this pitfall of making hard choices between your habits and your friends is to move your habitual stuff to the morning, where people have less of a chance to interfere or interrupt your schedule.
  • Find ways to double up your time: You can save some time by doing two things at once. For example, reading a book during your commute saves you from spending all your time commuting. Eating a meal with friends can fulfill your social and dietary needs. Just be careful not to mix two cognitively demanding tasks, and not to give up break time in order to squeeze in more activities.
  • Set plans are about 1.25-2x the cost of normal times: Any set plans that cannot be moved (like any appointments, obligations, or engagements) should be treated as costing about 1.5 to 2 times the amount of the time they take. For example, if I wake up earlier than expected for a 9am coffee with a friend, I’m wouldn’t be able to adjust my schedule nor squeeze in something other activity before my engagement. Concrete plans cannot be moved and I find that the flexibility of the schedule I lose is approximately 50 – 100% of the time of the obligation. This means that I generally treat concrete plans as costing more and try to do more things that are flexible, like running by myself over joining an intramural sports league.
  • Identify high variability factors that can throw off your schedule: My biggest hidden variable is sleep. My sleep duration varies quite highly, and I have to adjust my schedule accordingly. I try to avoid concrete plans in the morning to avoid my sleep from clashing with my other plans.
  • Read More

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    Ultimate Productivity Hacking Guide V2 (Part I): Intro & Priority Management

    Note: I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since I first wrote my productivity hacking guide. I was a freshman at Berkeley when I published that article. Now I work full-time and still juggling various aspects of my life. A lot of productivity methodology has changed, and yet a lot has stayed the same. I’m rewriting this guide from scratch, and organizing the information in a more referential manner. That way, people can reference material that’s relevant to them and ignore everything else. I’m also releasing this guide in 5 parts, as not to overwhelm people too quickly. Read More