I have a confession to make.
I forgot how to be organized. I grew complacent about my productivity and lost all my skills.
Well, my pride and my ego became my downfall. I thought time management was like riding a bike, that once you know how to do it, you always know how. I thought that I could never lose my time management skills.
It turns out I was wrong. Being able to manage time, productivity and focus are more like muscles – they need to be practiced. Just like how my muscles atrophy and get weaker when I stop exercising, I lost a system I spent 6 years building because I stopped using the habits.
It all started about a year ago when I interned full-time for a total of 8 months. Since I wasn’t juggling as many tasks and projects at work and I was followed a routine schedule day in and day out, I thought that I didn’t need a rigorous time management practice. So I promptly stopped managing my time altogether.
Huge, dumb mistake.
Instead of dropping time management just I didn’t need it at the time, I should have just adopted a different system, one that was more catered towards the workplace than school. Because I stopped working out my habits, things started to slide.
At first, it was just the little things – small tasks that I could put off with no major consequences. I promptly got used to the notion of putting things off and ignoring tasks until the last minute. As a result, I started missing deadlines and life became hectic. By the end of my 8 months of work, my procrastination had snowballed so much so that when school started, I couldn’t implement my systems even when I wanted to! I felt that my life was a mess. I was up to my neck in urgent deadlines and urgent tasks, I finished one thing, another deadline would loom. I felt so overwhelmed that at times I would dread waking up to go to school because somehow, I felt that I had forgotten to do something that was due that day.
But thank goodness that after a while, my type A personality trumped my ego. I admitted to myself that I needed help and that my self-discipline needed work… Ok, a lot of work. So a couple of months into the school term, I had to get back to basics.
The 3 Building Blocks of Effective Time Management
From my experience, time management is simple in theory, but frustratingly hard to do. Honestly, there are just 3 parts to any productivity or time management system – Capture, Plan, Do – but the devil is in the details. I want to add that the devil is also lurking in the execution. There can be a lot of detail and little logistics involved in each step, so let’s talk about what each step means.
1. Capture. This means that you take note of everything you have to do, not just your school-related tasks. This includes personal stuff, errands, exams, events and family reunions. To capture my to-do’s, I’ve tried a handful of list apps but I’ve found that paper and pen, in its simplicity, is still the best. And if those simple tools aren’t handy, I use Google Tasks – the simplest task-list application I’ve used.
2. Plan. This is when you take whatever you have captured in your sheet and schedule them into your calendar.
- If the task is a project with multiple parts, like an essay, put it down on the date when it’s due and schedule the work leading up to it.
- If it is a one-off task, like buying pen refills, then schedule it to be done on a date that works for you.
- The key to planning is to be flexible and to have enough leeway to move things around.
3. Do. This is when you buckle down and actually do the tasks for the day! Now, there are a ton of apps, methods and tricks that focus on this one step so here are two tactics to cut through the noise and get you going:
- The 2-Minute Rule. If a task takes about 2 minutes or less, do it now. This can apply for tasks that are scheduled to be done today or for tasks that are in your capture list, before you put it into your calendar.
- The Pomodoro Technique. This is like interval training for your brain. Repeat the steps below 2-3 times during the day:
- 25 minutes of focused, undistracted work. (25 minutes = 1 Pomodoro).
- Then take a 5-minute break after every Pomodoro.
- After 3-4 times of the above, take a 20-30 minute break after.
I usually cycle through Capture, Plan and Do as I go about my day. For example:
- In class, when my professor mentions that essays are due on October 3rd, I capture the due date by making a note on Google Tasks from my phone.
- At the end of the day, I look at my capture list, add the essay due date to my planner, and plan out the essay. I break down the work it takes to finish the essay and assign dates to do researching, writing and editing. I like to set my personal deadline a day or two before the actual due date to give myself wiggle room.
- Finally, I do the work required, focusing on just the part that I’ve scheduled for the day and trusting the plan I made.
(I’ll be covering more strategies and tactics for the Do step in a follow-up post.)
And finally, some pieces of advice as you craft your own productivity system:
1. The perfect system does not come overnight. Remember, it took me 6 years the build the system I had. Hopefully, with my tips, it won’t take you as long but still, be patient with yourself!
2. Tools drive the process and not the other way around. It’s easy to get caught up in all the productivity apps, systems and planners out there and it’s even easier to chase every shiny object that promises to 2x or 10x your output. But resist this and choose instead to focus on tools that help refine a step in the process instead of creating a new step.
Don’t take on nifty apps or tools just because they look cool – this is additional clutter you don’t need as you try to re-organize your life.
3. Don’t ever feel trapped into rigidly following one system. Remember that there are no one-size-fits-all time management systems, just as there are no one-size-fits-all jeans.
Don’t think that once you commit to a tactic, that you have to follow it to the T, or else you wouldn’t be reaping the full benefits. Initially following to the T is fine, but once you have been doing it for a while, making little changes to the initial steps transforms the tactic to better-suit your situation.
Take the what’s best for you and make it your own.
This blog post is meant to be a primer to productivity systems and to supplement what you already have or to start you off if you’ve never had such a system before. Now that I’ve given you the fundamentals to play with, go ahead: try and integrate it into your life.
Take what’s useful for you and throw out what’s not. Then when everything is humming along, stop chasing after shiny tactical objects and stick with the system that works for you.
A final word: yes, this 3-part system is meant to help you organize your life… But keep in mind that just as it took time to get into whatever organizational mess you are currently in, it will take just as much time (or even more!) to sort things out!
Personally it has taken me about 4-5 months to get my life back in order and even then, there are still broken pieces I have yet to fix. So again, I can’t stress this enough: trust the system you are building and above all, be patient with yourself!
Your Action Item
Take stock: What time management/productivity system do you use right now?
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