This is Part 3 of my Productivity Systems series. You can check out Part 2 on Weekly Planning here.
Society, our parents, and school officials expect us to simply just be able to do a lot of things. Whether it’s knowing how to study, manage your finances, or get a job, it can be intimidating to ask for help for these things because they are supposed to belong to the realm of “common sense.”
But all too often, common sense isn’t common.
One of these common-sense things is time management. After years of trying out different time management systems, I’ve discovered something most people get wrong about this pursuit of balancing the same 24 hours everyday: rather than focusing on the exact steps you take to manage your time, you should focus on consistency.
The time management system itself isn’t as important as the answer to the question of whether you’ll stick with it every day, especially when things get busy—that’s when you need it the most.
Today’s post is about the simplest time management system I’ve come across and have continued to use, year after year. I’ve battle-tested this system, both in university and in the workplace, so you can guarantee that this works like a charm, regardless of whether you’re in high school or in your third summer internship.
If you only read one post in my productivity series, make it this one.
Let’s get into it.
The whole premise of this time management system hinges on two parts:
- A way to capture tasks
- A way to prioritize and schedule them.
Truth: we can get into the nitty-gritty of how to plan, how to stop procrastinating, and how to focus more… But the truth is, a lot of the time, we’re not productive because we’re not sure what we should be doing. By focusing on figuring out these two components that help you know exactly what you have to do for the exact moment you’re in, you’ve already won half the battle.
OK, now let’s get specific.
What I Use to Capture Tasks
To capture general tasks as they appear day-to-day, I use Google Tasks. It’s simple and lightweight, but it also has enough robustness to capture details for each task.
I also like the fact that I can schedule my tasks right in Google Calendar when I’m my computer.
If Google Tasks is too bare-bones for you, you can also try a number of other task management and capture apps:
I’ve tried all of the tools above, but I always go back to the simplicity of Tasks. Here’s a time-management secret: the tool you use doesn’t really matter, as long as the tool simply allows you to get things down as quickly as possible. So, yes, a pen and a sheet of paper work very well, too.
What I Use to Schedule Tasks
The next step in my time-management system happens at the end of each day: I add new tasks to my calendar and move old tasks around. For this step, I use Google Calendar because it syncs well with Google Tasks and Google Keep, across both mobile and desktop. But as always, you can use whatever calendar app or tool you prefer.
For my calendar, I started off with paper planners back in 6th grade when my mom first taught me how to use them. I used them all the way until I got into university, when my workload doubled and I needed a more comprehensive way to manage everything.
Today, I use electronic calendars like GCal because of the recurring event feature and the ability to drag blocks of time around when my schedule changes.
(You can learn more about how I use Google Calendar to plan out my time every week here.)
Finally, for recurring tasks that don’t really need an appointed time, like reminding my friends to pay their portion of the Netflix subscription we split, I use Google Keep.
Of course, Google Keep is not just for recurring tasks. Keep also does checklists well. This second feature helps me to keep track of longer projects that have multiple milestones and requirements—or sometimes just a list of movies to watch.
These three tools form the foundation of my productivity system. But now that you know the tools, how do you get started?
Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of how you can start managing your time in just 20-30 minutes a day.
(If 20-30 minutes seems significant, keep in mind that the total time you spend on planning decreases over time as you get more used to the system—plus the things you have to do lessen, because you’re being productive day-to-day.)
A Time Management System Day-by-Day
Assuming you want to start from a clean slate to manage your time, today is when you set up your productivity system. Don’t be worried if you don’t get everything done or if you forget to write down a task. As you stick to the system, you’ll slowly but surely remember everything you have to do. The key is to just start.
- Do a brain dump of everything you need to do, whether it’s for school, work, personal errands, etc. Capture everything you need to do on paper or in your task app of choice. Don’t worry about scheduling them into your days just yet.
- Go about your day, and as you remember more stuff to do, write it all down.
- At the end of the day, take out your calendar and start entering your tasks into specific days. Don’t worry about making everything perfect—you can always move things around later.
This is when the system starts kicking in. In the beginning, the initial time-blocking step will take more time, especially if you’ve never done anything like this before. You will also under- or overestimate how much time a task will take. Rule of thumb: When in doubt, give more time than you think is necessary.
- Set aside time at the beginning of the day to create a rough schedule and block out time to complete your to-do’s. You can use pen and paper or do this directly in your calendar app. Remember: If it’s not scheduled, it won’t get done.
- As you go through your day, keep capturing to-do’s on paper without scheduling them. Get into the habit of writing everything down, without worrying about when you need to do everything.
- Feel free to move things around in your schedule during the day.
- At the end of the day, schedule tasks into your calendar and re-schedule tasks you didn’t get to do. In addition, take a look at the rest of your week, up to the next 2 weeks, and move around your tasks. Bonus tip: try to find tasks you can delegate to other people to get things off your plate, and don’t forget to delete tasks you no longer need to do.
Wednesday to Friday
At this point, you’ll have gone through the entire process once and you just need to rinse and repeat Tuesday’s process. As you do, learn from the previous day and adapt the system so it’s tailored to how you do things.
… And That’s It
These days I have a lot of projects going on, both in school and in my personal life, so I need more time to plan but that’s basically my whole time management system, day-to-day. I use a few other systems that might help once you’ve mastered this basic one, and I’ll get to the specifics of those in other posts.
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