A few years ago, I got on a reading binge on the subject of time management. It seemed to me as if the most accomplished people I knew had some ace up their sleeve, some sort of secret technique that allowed them to get more done in a day. I don't think that's the case anymore. After reading maybe 12 books and applying various tips and tricks both personally and professionally over the years, I feel comfortable saying that there is no magic bullet. You have to find what works for you.
You may think that time management is something that only uptight business people need to worry about. You'd be wrong to assume this. It doesn't matter what your career or vocation is. You could be an elite athlete, an aspiring musician, a stay at home mother, your problem is still the same -- the days are long, the years are short, and if you don't consciously navigate towards your goals they simply won't happen.
Now it's true that the best laid plans change all the time. But the exercise of planning still helps you get where you are trying to go. In fact, a good planning system is all about course adjustments.
The danger of not periodically reviewing what you are doing is that you can spend years working in the wrong career, or staying in the wrong relationship, simply because you have no system that allows you to periodically reflect and hone your focus. I have friends who are guilty of this (by their own admission). The reality is that most people don't think regularly on a long term horizon, which is why it is such a life advantage to do so. It's easy to move forward by inertia alone.
People who set realistic goals and track progress towards them also have the side effect of being happier and more optimistic about life than people who don't.
Ok, so on to the planning system:
Once every 90 days I write up a set of goals up on a whiteboard. I might take a whole day on a weekend to consider them. If my goal relates to getting some travel in, I'll figure out which friends or places would make the most sense to visit. If it involves working on a new prototype for a hardware project, I'll do some research and figure out what would make sense to attack over a 90 day period. I take the time to appropriately research the goals before I set them.
Over the course of 90 days, I circle the ones I'm currently focused on, and check off the ones I've completed. At the end of 90 days, I take a picture of the board, erase everything, and start from scratch. That's it. It's a simple system.
This sounds really unnecessary... I don't need to be so formal about it, and anyway I don't have trouble remembering my goals.
Good luck with that. Our memories suffer from distortion. Without some kind of interval based system, it's easy to stretch out time periods for goals indefinitely. The idea here is that it's better to fix time and flex scope than vice versa. Also, having a more formal system keeps you accountable and let's you plan holistically so you can get crazy travel stuff in AND get that professional certification. Finally, most people's intentions aren't 100% stable over a 90 day period. Writing down your goals helps you refocus.
Why a whiteboard?
I've tried keeping this on a computer, or on paper... These don't work for me at least. I lose interest in them. There is something about passively walking by a board on a wall and physically seeing carefully set goals that creates a kind of 'animal spirits' motivation to get them done. It's the difference between a photo stored on your computer somewhere and a photo hung up on your wall.
Why 90 days?
When I first started formally setting and tracking goals, I started with 2 week intervals. Later I tried 1 week intervals. Later I tried setting goals for each day. None of these worked for me. I find that when I shorten the time interval too much, the ambition of my goals shrink dramatically. It gets worse the smaller the interval.
Goals should be about achieving major life ambitions, like running a marathon. In a 90 period you can make significant progress on almost any major life goal (or realize after putting in real effort that maybe it's not a worthy ambition after all).
When I planned on shorter intervals, things like doing laundry made its way onto my list, which isn't the sort of thing I'm trying to track with this system.
It's true that large projects slip one day at a time, and for some people there is value in tracking progress at the day to day level. But I personally found that the time and overhead involved in tracking goals every day wasn't really worth it. Your mileage may vary though, try out different intervals and see what works for you.
What sort of goals do you set?
Anything and everything goes on this list. Objectives for my company. Trips to visit friends. Running events. Reading lists. You name it.
What happens if you don't finish stuff on your list?
Nothing happens. I just try to get better about creating a more realistic list next time. When I first started, I was pretty bad at estimating what I could actually get done in 90 days. I've since gotten much better.
If I still want to finish goals that I didn't get to, I'll just put them in my list for the following quarter. Sometimes though, I'll realize that they maybe were not worth working on at all and discard them.
Each quarter should be starting from a blank slate and considering what's important.
This sounds stressful... What about just having fun?
I used to be much more stressed out when I didn't do this, because I was worse about juggling my existing responsibilities, my future ambitions, and doing stuff for fun. It's relaxing for me to know that I've already thought through everything - both responsibilities and the fun stuff.
So on your spare time, you pick a goal from your quarterly list and work on it to the exclusion of everything else?
Yeah, mostly. I have some slack if I want to do other stuff, but mostly I try to focus. Remember that I have recreational stuff on here too.
What about stuff that comes up randomly during the 90 day period? You can't plan for everything...
Most of the time, the sorts of things that come up don't have any particular date attached to them. I might read an article about the Seattle tech scene and think to myself that I should really make a trip out there. So for stuff like this I make a note of it and keep it on the backburner. When the quarter ends, I look at my backburner list and also think about new things that I'd like to get done in 90 days. If whatever the thing is that comes up is really important, eventually it will get done. I have stuff from a year ago or so that I kept on my backburner, ignored for several quarters but am finally checking off now.
If stuff comes up that is time dependent, like a business opportunity or a music festival or something, I'm not overly rigid. Sometimes I'll drop what I'm doing for the opportunity. Most of the time I don't do that though.
How do you know which goals to set?
I don't. This is the hardest part, because 80% of my results come from maybe 20% of my goals. The 80/20 rule unfortunately only works in hindsight. Setting the right blend of ambitious and realistic goals is the hardest part.
Didn't you say there was no special system? Why is yours any better than anyone else's?
My system isn't better than anyone else's. But planning and executing a set of formal goals on some type of pre-defined interval system set is better than just winging it or going with the flow. I think the most effective people are good at ruthlessly focusing on just a few things for a long period of time.
Yeah, that's pretty much it, so get to work.
1 The How of Happiness - Sonia Lyubomirsky