Time Management

Lately I’ve been reading yet another time management/productivity book, and I thought I’d take the time to review some of the useful ideas I’ve got from various sources.

The three systems I’ve tried over the past few years each have their own areas of focus, approaches to time managment, and tools for handling tasks.

I’ve found Flylady, which is more a system of housework than time management, good for handling routine chores, though many of her values as expressed on her website drive me insane. Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management from the Inside Out takes a top-down approach, encouraging people to consider their values in designing a “time map” that schedules time for personal projects as well as work. David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a bottom-up method that talks more about how to get the little stuff done, rather than about deciding what projects to undertake in the first place. (I’ve also got Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog!, but haven’t read it.)


The core of Flylady‘s system, at least the part I found useful, is creating a schedule for getting routine but necessary household tasks done, and doing it in little bits at a time. She advises doing an overall cleaning once a week, and tackling tougher problems in 15-minute chunks the rest of the week. She also has morning and evening routines for daily stuff.

The brief weekly cleaning is just enough to maintain the house’s state, but not really enough to improve things.

Each week, you switch to a different “zone” of the house and work on it for 15 minutes a day, decluttering if necessary, deep cleaning (like scrubbing baseboards) if it’s already picked up.

What I like about this system is the way it makes decluttering and cleaning (and paying bills, doing laundry, other routine chores) into a series of small tasks. I used to put “clean the apartment” on my calendar for Saturdays, and then not want to do it because it was such a huge project. So I’d put it off and the apartment would be that much dirtier the next week, so I’d put it off again…. This way it gets a quick onceover most weeks and whatever doesn’t get cleaned waits for next time.

Time Management from the Inside Out

Reading Time Management from the Inside Out is a great way to realize that there isn’t enough time to do everything you want to do, so you have to decide what you really, really want to do and let the other stuff die.

Morgenstern’s tool is the time map. A time map is a weekly schedule, not too vague, not too detailed, upon which you schedule everything you want to do in a week. I say “not too detailed” because you don’t need to write “Wed. 7 – 9 p.m. crochet afghan”. You simply mark those two hours as “self time”, rather than “work” or “family time”, and when the evening rolls around, decide whether to work on the afghan or read a book or go jogging. (Or, at the office, designate a certain time of day for paperwork or phone calls, but not specify which papers or which calls.)

For me, making the time map was more useful than following it, because it made me select a small number of things to focus on. The examples in the book are telling: the executive who’s writing his autobiography has no other hobbies; the working mother has no hobbies; the marathon runner has no hobbies. (See the trend?)

(Ok, I’m being slightly unfair. There are certain blocks of time designated as “self time” or “family time” which the example people could use to crochet their afghans. But they don’t have any big blocks of time to designate for big projects. No one in the examples is working and running marathons and writing their autobiography while volunteering in the parks and cooking gourmet meals.)

To make a time map, you not only decide what you want to do (go to work, write a novel, and exercise), but when the best time of day is for each project. If you’re more creative in the morning than at night, you schedule writing time before work and exercise time after work.

Getting Things Done

David Allen’s Getting Things Done seems like a good plan for people who really, really like to make lists. Like me. This is the system I’ve tried most recently, and it seems to be pretty close to how I naturally work.

The key to Allen’s system as I understand it is the Next Action. Everything you do that takes more than one step he calls a Project. For every project, there is a next action – the next physical thing that you have to do. For “write novel”, that might be “go over scene 2.2 for plot inconsistencies”. For “crochet afghan”, that might be “get the green yarn out of the craft bin”.

You don’t have to figure every step out in advance. You keep a list of projects (possibly subdivided into work, home, writing, and further divided into current projects (like “write post on time management”) and “someday/maybe” projects (like “write these eight books”)). Each project you’re working on has a next action. You don’t schedule it unless you have to. Whenever you finish one task, you look at all your next actions and pick one, based on what you can do, want to do, and need to do at that moment.

(Allen divides actions into context lists, so if you’re at a phone you only look at a list of calls to make, if you’re at a computer you only see computer tasks, etc. I haven’t found that useful yet, except for dividing “home” and “office”.)

Allen’s approach is designed to clear your head: you write every single thing down, in an organized system, to free your brain from the work of reminding you about it. The weekly review provides the chance to bring new projects off the “someday” list, so they aren’t forgotten forever, but they aren’t nagging at your brain.

I hope that was useful to some of you. Obviously there’s a lot more I could say about each system, but I tried to write down the main ideas that I took away from each of them.

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