Most of the time management advice that’s out there sucks. It’s all written by men who write about time management while their wives are at home taking care of their kids, or by men who don’t have anything to do except write about time management. We need time management advice for people who have a real life.
See that photo? It’s me, in New York City, supposedly working during my workday. And my son supposedly eating during lunchtime. And you know what? I got everything done I wanted to get done that day. Here are rules I follow to accomplish that.
1. Experiment in ways that won’t risk the sanity of the people around you.
Steve Pavlina was one of the first bloggers I ever read. And every time I clicked over to his blog I was more appalled by what I saw. Here’s a great example: His sleep experiment where he naps every four hours instead of going to bed like everyone else. He decides this might make him more productive. What blows me away about this experiment is that he has kids. So this means his kids’ needs would have to conform to and bend around his crazy sleep schedule. His sleep plan requires a wife who doesn’t need that high level of productivity that crazy sleep schedules provide. The wife can have the hum-drum sleep schedule that matches the kids, so she’s available to them.
Tim Ferriss, (who I have complained about in the past) also, provides the fastest, easiest way to lose weight. He’s a time management guru and he’s extended that to weight loss. You don’t have to spend time at the gym. Instead, you can do stuff like eat in extremely restricted ways and binge one day a week. But how do you do this with a family? What do you tell your kids when you’re eating like a crazy person?
For someone who cares about family, the experiments we run on our own lives need to be limited. There are people depending on us, not just to be there physically, but to be a role model. The kids want to do the crazy stuff and have the parents be there with the limits. But the time management crowd does not acknowledge this.
Here’s a way to experiment in your life without ruining other peoples’ lives: fifteen-minute increments. You can do that while you’re waiting for dinner. You can do it while you take a shower. You can do it in between meetings. You’d be blown away by what you can get done in this world in fifteen minutes a day. If fifteen minutes of yoga works then it’s easier to make time for a class each week. It’s much more difficult to carve out time for that class before your body is used to feeling good after yoga and wanting it more.
Fifteen minutes a day of writing a novel can get you halfway done. And after that it’s a lot easier to set aside an hour to write.
2. A single to-do list is living in denial.
David Allen has a time management empire based on getting everything you want to do on a single list.
Has he never seen a family calendar that has four different colors to keep track of four different people? Has he never seen a parent on a smartphone at a football game? Tell me, when the kid is playing a regional football game at the same time your company’s new product is launching, which is the A on the list?
The correct answer is that there is no A. There is a parent trying to figure out how to make both sides of his life feel that he is present at the same time. Time management becomesless about lists and schedules and more about emotions and perceptions. In this case, the best time management advice would be that the kid just wants you to be watching during the times when he’s on the field, so stand right behind him on the bench so you can see when he stands up to play. And the launch team just wants to know that you’re available 24/7 in case anything goes wrong, so answer all emails and phone calls immediately except when the kid is on the field.
I have found that multiple to-do lists help me understand how I will keep multiple parts of my life on an even keel. It’s more complicated to look at, for sure, but it’s hard to have a secure feeling that I’m taking care of multiple facets of life if I do not see multiple plans written out. And that, really, is what a to do list is—a plan to get what I want from that part of my life.
3. An empty inbox is for full-timers.
I had an empty inbox for a while.This is what I found: that it’s great for making me disciplined when I can check email throughout the day. If you have a work routine then you can have an inbox routine, and you know that every few hours, you will empty your inbox.
But what if you don’t have a work routine? What if your day is determined by what kids do? What if you work part-time but you do that by making it feel to people that you’re working full time?
The best way to manage your inbox in those situations is to let it be a mess. Sometimes it is a mess, when work is not a big priority. And sometimes it is cleared out, usually when you get anxious that you’re not spending enough energy on work. Because an empty inbox gives you the sense of control, but if you don’t work in front of your computer all day, you probably don’t need that control over your work. You’ve got other stuff going on.
I have found that sometimes I feel good having an empty inbox. But other times I feel good having it full and messy because it means I paid attention to other stuff that day.
4. Manage your time by week and month rather than by day and hour.
The crux of time management is being able to prioritize work and family in a way that does not reek of work-life-balance-bullshit. The bullshit of work-life-balance is that you can have balance. You can’t. But you can look at a given week and decide who needs what when. You can do a whole day of work and sleep on your office floor and then turn off your iPhone to go on your kid’s field trip the next day.That’s not balanced. But it’s imbalanced in a useful way because you looked at time in terms of weeks. That week, you did some days for work and some for family.
If you manage yourself hour by hour then an interruption when grilled cheese sets off the fire alarm is actually calamitous because you messed up your hourly plan getting a ladder to yank the batteries out of the fire alarm. You can’t schedule hour by hour when interruptions are so frequent. But you can’t manage two very different types of lives if you can’t cope with interruptions.
When the Farmer first met me, he told me I remind him of a Kurt Vonnegut novel where one character can never have a solid thought because he’s always getting interrupted. And he slowly goes nuts.
I am almost like that, it’s true. But I schedule time for no interruptions. The thing is, that time is sacred. And in the list of things I could do during that no-interruption time, work is not high on the list. Breathing. Sleeping. Reading. Those are things I crave that I can’t do when there are interruptions.
But if I think in terms of weeks, then I know I’ll have alone time and I know I’ll have work time and I know the work time will be interrupted. But there’s balance.
Penelope Trunk has founded four startups. Her most recent is Quistic. Her career advice has run in 200 newspapers. She lives on a farm in Wisconsin and homeschools her sons. We are delighted she agreed to feature this article with us, check out her blog here.