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Bill Liao Headshot

Don't Waste Time with Time Management

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Moments in time are all we have, so If you want to get more done, then I recommend that you give up time management. Sound crazy?

When people see what I am up to in the the world, they often ask me how I manage my time, and they are usually taken aback when I tell them that I really don't manage my time anymore.

You see, having tried just about every time-management system out there, I realized about seven years ago that for me, nothing worked. I did do one excellent course called "Mission Control" by the guys at Landmark Education that gave me some great insights, but being a child of the computer age, carrying around pen and paper didn't work for me, either.

So I set out to develop my own system of doing things. I worked for years refining it, and as it got better and better, I got more and more done. Last year I even created an app called iNow, so I had a great excuse to carry around my iPad and use it, but the key insights have nothing to do with time or task management and I'd like to share them.

If you want to get more done, you need to manage your emotions and your head space, and you need to schedule your distractions.

The people with the toughest to-do lists in the world must be air traffic controllers, and if they drop the ball, then someone dies, so it's critical that they stay focused on what is going on right now, and it's also vital that they stay calm.

So if you, like me, figure that these guys are pretty effective, it's probably worth investigating what it is they manage and how. So I did exactly that and came across some real insights. It turns out that beneath all the gadgetry you have a tool called a flight strip, which has the details of the aircraft on it and is attached to a little wooden block that goes in a rack. That simple tool allows millions of flights to be successfully managed across the world, and despite computerization, in many places these little blocks of wood still do.

Fascinating though this is, it was not the little blocks of wood that that held my attention long in my discussions with controllers. What grabbed me was that they all had two things that kept showing up: they all did things to keep calm, and they all wanted to get their planes out of their air space as fast as they could.

This led me to insights about my own life. The first and most important was that I had a strong emotion around all the things that I was procrastinating about. The second insight was subtler: I realized that all the things that were not getting done left me with a crowded head space, and just like and overcrowded air space, my overcrowded head space was significantly slowing me down.

It did not matter how much or little time I had; it was all down to how I felt and how many things I was juggling, and how much I was or was not getting done.

So the key to getting more done was managing how I felt about what I was doing and also giving myself permission to let go of things that had some attraction but in reality were just crowding my space.

I started by making a huge list of all the things that I wanted to do or had to do, and then I put next to each item how I felt about it. I then started deleting stuff off the list ruthlessly and quickly realized that this was not helping.

So I put everything back and tried again. This time I put the list into a text editor, and I made two files: "Now" and "Not Now." I went through the big list and divided it between the two files, and this time I made sure that the "Now" list only contained what I could get done in a week. That week I got a lot more done.

I did two things with each item: I made sure that it was in either "Now" or "Not Now," and I made sure that I came to terms with how I felt about each thing. Was I resentful that someone had dumped something on me? Was I worried that I did not know how to complete a task? Was I afraid to ask for a critical piece of the puzzle? Was the thing too big for me to tackle alone? Was I upset because I had failed at something previously?

I soon realized that if I simply took a deep breath in and out when looking at each item and then sorted them into my "Now" or, better yet, my "Not Now" folder, I was able to keep a lot calmer, and my head space became much less cluttered. The less cluttered I felt, the more I got done.

Eventually it dawned on me that a week's worth of stuff was too much, so I switched to daily checks of my two lists. I also came to realize that my electronic calendar was not the place to put my real work. I then had my third major insight: I realized that I was constantly getting interrupted and that to maintain productivity, I had to separate and schedule all interruptions like calls, meetings and a lot of routine stuff. I had to separate all this from my "Now" tasks, and I did so. I actually got pretty good at using electronic diaries and running my schedule to prevent interruptions. Years later I outsourced the whole calendar to my wonderful assistant Sally, who arranges my meetings, presentations and phone calls. Sally does not touch my tasks, though I get those done in the gaps that make up my "Now."

By having distractions like chats, networking, phone calls, meetings and presentations scheduled in my calendar for specific times as events, I then had other chunks of time between these things that I could operate in and do the tasks that I had set for myself in the "Now." I wrote this article on the train between events and had three more hours that were blank, during which I would not be interrupted and for which I had already sorted in iNow the things I would be working on.

The wonderful John Lloyd (producer of the BBC historical sitcom "Blackadder," among other things) also gave me a great, effective tip: he told me that in preparing for a speech, I should leave it to the last minute, because I would likely do my best work in the shortest time. So now my schedule has blocks of free time (gaps) to do "Now" things like preparation for speeches, and all that "Now" time is kept sacrosanct. (Thanks to John, my speech preparation is jammed right before the day of the speech, and since taking his advice, I have spent much less preparation time on speaking, yet I have consistently delivered better results. Again, it was a matter of emotion in that getting permission from a seasoned professional to cram freed up my mind and emotions, so I did a better job.)

This brings me to the last point: e-mail. I find e-mail to be the most difficult thing because it can be an interruption, and because it is such low bandwidth that it is very easy to misinterpret. Also, it is very easy for someone to write very long e-mails that make no sense to the recipient because they lack context. So I treat e-mail as a task to be done in the "Now"; I do not use a push e-mail service like a Blackberry, and if there is something at stake, I schedule a call or a meeting rather than send an e-mail. Urgent e-mails are, in my view, a bit of an oxymoron, because if it's really important, then you need to have a discussion with the sender.

So to sum up, if you want to get more done and thereby be more effective:

  • Deal with how you feel about each task you set yourself.
  • Ruthlessly put anything you can into a "Not Now" place and rarely take it out again.
  • Put all your interruptions (especially calls) into your schedule and train people to not interrupt.
  • Defend your "Now" time with vigor.
  • Treat e-mail as a task and not as a master.
  • Mange your "Now" so that you are always doing things that are really important to you and the missions you are passionate about.

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