In my last posting on time management, I discussed Magnitude, Urgency and Importance. Today I will dwell a bit on the first of the three, magnitude.
Our life is filled with countless projects, big and small. Some items are as simple as a quick phone call, others may require not just minutes but hours, days, or even months to finish.
To effectively manage your time you must come to terms with projects of all sizes.
For simplicity I will categorize three sizes of projects: Mega Projects; Special Projects; and Revolving Projects.
What constitutes a mega project for you may be different that for another person in a different field. If your normal day is occupied by a 9-5 of required routine work, the writing of a project that might take 5-10 hours could well be a mega project.
The writer who churns out articles that require anything from several hours to several days of work may see their planned attempt at Great American Novel as a mega project requiring months or even years.
Revolving projects are those things that you do regularly day in and day out. They are the required functions of your daily life from brushing your teeth to getting haircuts to the day to day routine functions of your job.
Special projects are the “in between” category of things. For some people, their day to day work may be made up of a never ending stream of “special projects.”
Mega projects are in some ways the easiest to deal with. Their sheer size casts a shadow across everything else you do. Sometimes their daunting size can intimidate you. Sometimes their size will cause you to put off starting them because any number of excuses. While I started this series talking about creative procrastination, this is where the negative aspect of procrastination takes hold.
The simple key to dealing with Mega projects is to break the projects down into smaller chunks. Such projects almost always have things that need to be done first, and then those that follow. When such a time line can be sketched on a piece of paper you have the beginning of a plan. If your project doesn’t have a clear first and then next timeline, you have the freedom to arbitrarily assign such a sequence.
Once you have a timeline, you can begin to assess the amount of time each chunk will require. As a general rule most people will underestimate the time required. For planning purposes, for projects greater than 10 hours you may want to give your best estimate and then plan on double the amount of time. Some suggest tripling it. You will need to be your own judge in such matters, and your estimates will clearly be better and more accurate as you gain experience in your field of endeavor. You will get better at such estimates if you actually make estimates and then actually pay attention to the amount of time the various segments actually take.
To effectively deal with megaprojects that take multiple days or months you clearly need a planning calendar that permits you to assign tasks of weeks, months and years as required by your circumstances. A daily planner may not provide that long term picture.
Some people will find themselves best served by having two time management systems. One that keeps track of their day to day, and another that deals with a longer time frame.
Once you have chunked you mega project you may still need to sub chunk the chunks, and then assign goals for each week or day.
Mega projects require assigned blocks of time. I tend to recommend creating four 90 minute blocks of time in each day. You may want to assign 1-4 of these blocks to your mega project on a daily basis. That depends on what else you have on your plate.
As a general rule, for mega projects it’s often a good idea to make it a personal rule to make at least a little progress on it every day. Even on days when you purposely schedule only other activities, you should review the status of the project and how you are doing in terms of the long run timeline.
Revolving projects are those that recur on a regular basis. These are the things we do every day, every week, every month, every quarter, every year, and every seasonal event as well.
There are a lot of these, and this is where a lot of time is expended. And where a lot of my four ninety minute blocks get challenged. Ideally they get handled in the in between times.
While a trivial task that take only a five minutes may seem insignificant, repeated on a daily basis five times a week is equal to almost 14 and a half of my 90 minute blocks in a year. Imagine what you could get done with that much time focused on a specific money making project. Now think about the myriad of such little time robbers we engage in daily. How much time do you spend reading the paper? Surfing the web? Making coffee? Combing your hair?
In many ways this is the front lines of the time management war. It’s not that you shouldn’t be doing these things, it’s recognizing what you are doing with your time that matters and then making choices and decisions.
The first step is to log your daily activities, ideally at least for a week. You will need some discipline with this, and yes this too will take time from your day, so be quick about it. At weeks end evaluate what if anything you could do without or less of. What items can be combined or rescheduled? If you check email more than three times a day, can you get that down to three? If you do three times, can you get by with once or twice a day?
There is a lot to be said about this topic that we will save for another day, but while this exercise can be very valuable, keep in mind not just daily recurring tasks, but those that happen at less than daily intervals. Quarterly tax filings, annual tax preparation, monthly haircuts, weekly staff meetings, Bi weekly bill paying, etc. Many of these may not show up on your initial weekly log.
As this is the major battlefront be sure to setup a second log on these recurring events as well. Does your office seem to have a little birthday party every other week for a co-worker? Do you spend 15-30 minutes sharing coffee and cake? That’s okay, maybe. It’s a time suck, but if these are important be sure to accommodate them in your logs and plans.
Special projects are those items that fall in between the mega project and the routine. I think of them in two categories, those that take less than three hours and those that take from 3 to 10 or more.
The shorter projects in general should be tackled in one fell swoop. I still recommend using 90 minute blocks, so you can get up stretch and refresh yourself. The goal of the 90 minute block is to find time to focus on the specific project. During this time you do not want phone calls or interruptions. And this is the next challenge of time management. If you are to be successful in the long run with these special project of any other, you need to be able to focus. That means creating as conducive an atmosphere as possible to do your work. Time management may require you to tell your colleagues or family members to “buzz off”. Turn off the phones, disable the instant messenger, get someone else to answer customer inquiries.
If the work you are doing merits your attention, give it.
Projects longer than three hours or half a day may or may not be best tackled in one sitting. As a general rule, it takes time to get up and running on any project and the fewer times you need to get restarted the better. On the other hand, a break can permit your subconscious an opportunity to recalibrate your thoughts and permit a clearer look at the project once you return to it after an interval.
There is value to both propositions. You get to choose according to you other obligations and personal preferences. As a general rule though, it’s best to get a project done as soon as possible. Rather than doing two or three projects in tandem each using a block or two of time each day, my opinion is you are better off to get them done first one then the next and so on. This allows greater focus, and rewards your psyche with a series of accomplishments.
As we have seen there are big, middling and small projects to deal with in life. You particular mix will vary. This complexity is just one reason no one time management system works well for everyone.
In my next offering I will discuss Importance and Urgency and the distinctions between the two.