I have been a time management consultant (and to a lesser degree, a coach) for over a decade. I have consumed numerous time management books and programs. I have also developed two of my own time management systems (the Check System and E3D), both of which I overview in my primary book, The Unchained Man.
I have used my time management knowledge to build multiple companies, help raise my two kids, have an active dating life, and travel the world, all without working too many hours per week (at least for most of my adult life). Time management works.
While there are some crappy time management systems out there, there is no “best” time management system. Time management is a highly personal thing, and what will work best for you may not work the best for me. Every time management system should be modified and customized to each individual for maximum effectiveness, even if that means combining two or more time management systems or using bits and pieces of several different systems and coming up with something that works for you.
Regardless of if you use my time management systems, or someone else’s or come up with your own, here are the three basic building blocks every complete time management system must include for it to work effectively.
1. It must have a system to organize all the different items in your life.
A proper time management system should give you the tools to organize all of the different areas, roles, to-do items, projects, and priorities in your entire life. If it’s just for your work life that isn’t enough. If it works just for your dating life, girlfriend, marriage and/or kids that also isn’t enough. If it helps you manage projects but not individual to-dos, that isn’t enough, and the reverse is also true (if it helps you with to-dos but not big projects).
Time management is life management, not just your work or the crap you need to do around your house. It must be all-encompassing.
I use my time management techniques to manage everything: my work, investments, travel, sex life, relationships, family, spirituality, and yes, even my recreation and days off (even if I set aside time to sleep in or just “fart around.”)
Lots of guys make the mistake of focusing their time management just in their work life. It should cover your entire life.
2. It must manage both the micro and the macro.
“Micro” in this case means day-to-day tactics you can use to maximize a day or a few hours. “Macro” means your overall, big-picture objectives. Whatever time management system you use should cover both of these things, not just one or the other.
Some time management systems, like GTD and Pomodoro are really good at managing the micro but completely ignore or leave out the macro. Other systems like Stephen Covey’s are fantastic at the macro but very weak on the micro.
If you focus mostly on the micro, you run into the danger of “majoring in the minors.” The odds are very high you’ll focus a lot of time in the wrong areas getting good at the exact wrong things. (This is a huge problem with more intelligent or technical men.)
If you focus mostly on the macro, you’ll spend a lot of time planning and mentally masturbating but very little time actually getting off your ass and taking regular, daily action to actually achieve your objectives. (This is a huge problem for more extroverted or emotional men.)
I’ve worked with a lot of people who were overly focused on one of these (macro or micro) while largely ignoring the other. Big mistake.
The micro will get you working. The macro will ensure you’re working on the right things. Speaking of which…
3. It must ensure you are working on the right things.
This is the most important one, by far. Working 13 hours a day and being very efficient doesn’t mean you’re working on or being efficient at the things that will yield the highest results aligned with your long-term objectives and plans.
When you drive a new Ferrari from San Francisco to Los Angeles, as you’re hauling ass down the freeway at great speed, you’re being very efficient, but if you’re driving east, you’re not being effective at all. So, it’s possible to be very efficient and completely ineffective at the same time.
That’s why I make such a big deal about the difference between SW (Standard Work) and IW (Improvement Work). Most people who work really hard focus 90-100% of their time in SW. This means they look really busy and brag (or complain!) about how hard they work, yet years go by and they never seem to actually achieve anything. They may even be really good time managers… at the micro level. But they’re not progressing in any meaningful way.
For example, one thing I do every day is time my work (I’m timing this right now as I type this). I keep careful track of the different types of work I do in my timer system (I use an app called Toggl). However, if all I did was time my overall work with a goal of working at least X hours per day, that would be a terrible idea. My brain would simply seek out all the SW busy work it could find, which would be easy, and I would fill my day with those useless work hours.
Instead, I need to be focused on certain types of work (IW) and ensure that those types of work are bringing me closer to my goals; goals I’ve made very, very sure are what I want and not what Societal Programming has told me I should want (I talk about that in The Unchained Man in great detail).
That way I’m being both efficient and effective, literally every day, even the days I designate as days off (to rejuvenate and recharge so I can leap back to work and maintain beast mode effectively).