There’s an analogy that consultants often use about a professor who tries to fit some rocks, pebbles, and sand into a jar. The punchline is that if you put the rocks in first, there’s magically room for everything else around the edges. If you fill the jar with sand, it will fill to the top.
In daily life, it can be hard to prioritize our most-important goals, given the constant distractions we encounter. One trick to improve how you manage time is to recognize how well you manage your energy. When our energy reserves are low, we focus on the easiest and vaguest tasks before us. Instead of paying our bills, or embarking on a new creative pursuit, we catch up with Facebook.
You can also notice how well you manage your attention. In an attention economy, where other people’s ideas, ads, and entertainment products are ever-present, our most powerful skill is our ability to control our own focus. Be mindful of where your eye goes — and where your mind’s eye goes — and your to-do list and calendar might take care of themselves.
Here are some of my favorite time, energy, and attention management resources.
Getting Things Done
David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a time management classic, and it is excellent. One thing I’ve noticed after using GTD techniques consistently for many years is that not only do I get through my high-priority tasks efficiently, but also the “shadow” work I’m avoiding quickly becomes obvious. It’s often the work we ignore, not the work we do, that exhausts us. A good to-do system can become a way to see yourself more clearly, and to grow.
Your Brain at Work
David Rock’s Your Brain at Work is another excellent book, describing the many ways the brain can hijack itself, particularly in typical office situations. One of my favorite suggestions: if you find yourself bored during an important conversation, get curious about what the other person is saying. Curiosity produces dopamine, which makes it easier to focus.
Good ol’ pen and paper
There are many software applications that help people keep track of their to-dos. Which one will work best for you depends on your individual situation and personal preference. I have many clients who prefer to use no system at all (because their to-do list is short) or to use paper and pen only (because it keeps them physically in the moment). I use paper to-do lists myself when my usual systems get overwhelmed, and they have some interesting cognitive benefits.
That said, my life and business are filled with many complex, long-term projects. So for me, it helps to have a system that’s quite robust and flexible, yet aligned with GTD principles. I find Asana to be delightful and fully sufficient for my needs. Although Asana is optimized for collaborative projects (for which I use it too), it’s also excellent for personal time management. And for individuals and small teams, it’s free.