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Secrets of Time Management

Written by Sumit Dua, MD, MBA.

Some of us may be luckier, wealthier, stronger, more athletic, more successful or more talented at a specific hobby than others. But luckily, the one thing we all possess in equal amount is time--24 hours, 1440 minutes and 86,400 seconds--every single day.

That’s it - you get no more, and certainly no less. You can’t sell it. You can’t buy any more (well, not exactly). You must understand how to protect this asset and you must learn time managment to utilize it to the best of your advantage. By effectively managing your time, you will be able to do the things you’re obligated to do, along with the things you enjoy, every day. There are many things I enjoy in life: magic (my all-time favorite hobby), photography, medicine, business, technology, etc. Not only am I passionate about these hobbies, but I also want to be competent at them - which means I have to work hard and dedicate a lot of time to these activities. In order to accomplish a number of work-related, education-related and personal goals while maintaining a social life, you must use your time efficiently. So many amazing things are possible when you manage your schedule wisely.

1. Value your time

The first rule of time management is to value your time. If you don’t value it, then you have no reason to manage it, protect it, or utilize it efficiently. Also, if you don’t value your time, others definitely will not. Why should they? Most of us are busy individuals - we don’t seem to have enough time in the day to accomplish everything we need to accomplish. And most people rarely have enough time to spend with friends and family. Ideally, we want to accomplish great things, which requires dedicated work and this requires a lot of time. If we use our time efficiently for work, we should have plenty of time for the other aspects of life. One way to manage time is to not be rigid. The goal is to enjoy life more while getting more done. However, some people become very time fixed, meaning they schedule things and then won’t change their schedule if something comes up, say a friend calling at the last minute to go catch a movie. You don’t want to miss out on life’s spontaneity. You don’t want to miss making some great memories with the important people in your life.

2. Prioritize

In order to use your time efficiently, you must concentrate on tasks that are most important. Unimportant tasks should be removed from your schedule entirely or delegated to someone else so that you don’t have to utilize your valuable time. Some tasks seem important, but if you realize that your time is valuable, you may be able to just omit certain tasks from your to-do list. Always look critically at your to-do list and remove those tasks that can simply be deleted. Lots of people who are very time efficient and organized are busy working through tasks and accomplishing them. They become efficient machines without a real purpose, often working on things that don’t truly matter. Everything you do must be in the context of how it relates to the larger purpose: your overall goals in life. This clarity will allow you to decide what is important and what can be taken off your list for good. If you are having trouble deciding what is important or if you are unsure of your overall goals, this is an important aspect you must sort out first.

3. Delegate non-essential work

If I were to somehow give you 27 hours in a day instead of 24 hours, would you give me $20-30 for those extra three hours? Imagine what you could get done or imagine an extra three hours to relax and enjoy your day. Obviously I cannot add hours to your day, but you can indeed create extra time each day. There are many chores that must get done, but not all of them absolutely require you to do them. Cleaning the house, running an errand, making random phone calls, fixing the design of a PowerPoint presentation, etc. These are tasks that can be handled by someone else for a small amount of money. You can use some of this freed up time to either work more (and get paid for your time at work), work on something you enjoy, or spend this time with family and friends. Another benefit is that someone who does this for a living, for example, cleaning, can probably do it better and faster than you can. If you can afford to do so, let the experts handle it. People may argue by saying they can’t think of what they may have someone else do and how any of this will save them time. Here’s the solution: delegate tasks such as having to research something online, stuffing wedding invitations to be sent out to guests, making phone calls, etc. If you are in business for yourself or have work-related tasks, then you could hand these over to other people, too.

Once you start to remove unnecessary chores from your schedule by delegating them to other people, you will find more time. And you’ll be giving others something to do. You’ve heard the cliché: every once in a while life throws you a curve ball. You may need to move or a family member may become ill, so you are taking care of them while taking care of your own responsibilities. Realize these are areas that someone can help you. If you are apartment hunting, then someone can look for these for you, make the phone calls, gather the information based on your pre-specified questions, put them in an Excel sheet for you (something most of us would write in scribbles on napkins), and schedule the appointments. These tedious tasks eat up a lot of valuable time. If you have a sick family member, you may need to arrange many things - wheelchair, nursing home, lawyers, doctors, etc. Again, these are tasks that can be handled by someone else, saving you time and lots of headaches. I offer these as examples to help you find similar situations in your life that may fit. How does one go about getting someone to help them? There is a growing industry of virtual assistants, who help with variety of tasks.

There are private individuals and large-scale companies offering this service. A virtual assistant won’t be able to pick up your dry cleaning for you, but can handle many of the abovementioned tasks. It does take some work to find a good assistant and then to train that person correctly. These are topics that are beyond the scope of this article, but something I will discuss in length at another time.

4. Break it down

Hopefully at this point you have a clear direction of what is important to your overall goals in life. Hopefully you also know which tasks you can eliminate and delegate. This should leave you with only the most important work that you need to get done. Important work is also usually complex. For this reason, many people tend to waste time even before starting a task. So, just realize this fact and when faced with similar situations remember that things are much easier after starting. Just start! Another reason that people have trouble starting is because the project may be complex and they just don’t know where to begin. In that case, it’s better to break up the project into pieces and actionable steps. You must first ask yourself what actual step needs to be completed first. For me, the big project was to build Project LIFE website. This is a huge task, so in order to even know what to do and where to begin, this had to be broken down into multiple little projects.

Here is my thought process on figuring out Project LIFE: Design platform to use for content management system, find programmer, hire programmer, design of site, incorporate design with content management system, fix design, test and debug, changes to website, launch. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what needed to be done, but you get the idea. Even the following need to be broken down into steps that can be completed. For example, I. figure out platform to use for content management system a. research top content management systems on market b. detail out what is needed for us c. speak to a computer person to see which best fits our needs d. go through each of top ones and see which specifically works for us e. research out how difficult to implement, scalability, and third party plug-ins available Now it’s easier to see how to go about building the Project LIFE website. In addition, there are many tasks that need to be accomplished, so even if you are stuck on one, you can move to a different one and keep moving.

5. Be more efficient

In order to be efficient with your time, you need to be effective and focused to complete a task quickly. There are several strategies to achieve this. Stay focused: When working on something, you must focus on it. This means no distractions - no phone, no email, no surfing the Internet, and no disruptions from people. It is hard to maintain intense focus for significant periods of time, therefore do this in bursts. Pick a step and decide how long you will work, work hard during this pre-selected time and then take a break. At first, you will be able to do this for small periods of time (even 10 minutes is fine). As you get better at this, like any skill, it will become easier and you will be able to maintain focus for extended periods of time. I usually try to do about an hour of intense work before taking a short 5-10 minute break. However, at times (when need be), I have been able to maintain this focus for 8-10 straight hours (though this isn’t routine for me by any means). I mention this to highlight that even extended periods like this are possible. You must also understand how you work. For me personally, I work best if I am working on something and just continue.

Suppose I am working on photography, I will dedicate an entire day and work on photography. I tend to work best in long stretches. On another day, I will pick something else, like studying for an exam, and I will concentrate on that for 12-14 hours. I tend to get more done; I don’t waste time restarting and stopping. This saves me time on having to get everything in place every time I want to engage in that activity. Others are able to focus on one thing for several hours and then need to change the activity to something new to keep that kind of focus. Find which of these two strategies work best for you and utilize that. Good Enough: Most things we do in life do not need to be perfect. They just need to be done. Therefore, you must have an idea of the length you should go do to complete something. If it is something that must be done, but does not have any long term benefits or consequences, get it done and move on. Don’t waste time making it perfect. Obsessing over every detail and fixing things that matter very little is a great way of wasting time.

6. Make decisions quickly

Most decisions are minor in the grand scheme of life. Learn to make decisions quickly and move on. This will save you a ton of time. Having more information or collecting everything you can before making a decision does not necessarily correlate with better decision making. If it is a major decision that will have a significant or long-term impact on your life, then by all means, take the appropriate time to make that decision. Otherwise, make a decision and move on. If need be, you can modify it later. Organize: I have wasted many hours of my life searching for things. I had it. I put it somewhere. It’s no longer there. And the hunt goes on. Hours will go by before I find the darn thing. This is the biggest waste of time and is a problem that plagues many of us. Get organized. If you do this, you will know where your things are and have quick access to them. This will eliminate a lot of stress and wasted time. Do what you want: Don’t force yourself to get something done. I only work on a project when I want to work on it. If I need to study, I do it when I feel like it. I don’t force this - therefore, when I do want to work on something, I am very focused because I am doing what I want. If I don’t feel like working on something, then I find something else I can do now and move this to another time - I find that there are moments when we can do certain things better. If it’s something that requires a lot of thought, I cannot do this when I am tired. If the task is something that’s not too mentally exhausting, I can accomplish it later in the day.

7. Manage your time

One aspect of being able to manage your time and efficiency is to have an understanding of your working capabilities and how long it takes for you to accomplish your work. This allows you to plan better and allows you to stay focused. I will explain how to go about learning this. When you are working, it is a good idea to write down what you plan to do during that session.

Here is my sample list:

  • Email Marisa, Danielle, Jaimin
  • Finish working on article 1 Start article 2 Edit and finalize 4 articles

Then you should add the amount of time that each of these may require:

  • Email Marisa, Danielle, Jaimin, etc. 20 min Finish working on article #1: 30 min
  • Start article #2, finish introduction and outline: 30 min
  • Edit and finalize 4 articles: 40 min

Total= 120 min or 2 hours

This gives me a snapshot of what I need to do and how long I anticipate this will take. This time can be adjusted as I go through each task. If article 1 only took 15 minutes, then I adjust this on my list. I end up making multiple lists like this and keep readjusting. In actuality, you just need to cross out times and fix as you go along. This has several benefits. One, it keeps me on track. Second, it keeps me focused - I have budgeted 20 minutes for a task and I tend to try to get it done in those 20 minutes. This makes me pay attention to the time so I don’t end up wasting an hour without realizing it. Third, over time I have learned how long it really takes me to accomplish things, which means I am able to better plan out my time and projects. I find that people tend to grossly underestimate how long it will take them to finish a project. This leads to missed deadlines and unmet expectations. Some people might be concerned with time involved in repeatedly making and adjusting this list as you work. It actually is a fairly quick process and only takes about a minute. I actually don’t even need to write too many things down anymore - my brain now automatically processes this type of information and calculates these times without a second thought.

The process I described above is something I did use for years until this became a habit; an automated way of working. I now have a very clear understanding of how long everything takes and can automatically plan projects. Eventually this will become second nature for you, too.

8. Take time for yourself

Hopefully the principles discussed above will help you get your work done faster, more efficiently and n-time. This will take some work. The only way to become competent is to practice and continuously improve. Once you do, you will have much more control of your time. Use some of this new found time to work on whatever you find important in life - hobbies, spending time with family and friends, traveling, working out, etc. No matter how busy you are, you need to make time for yourself.

One strategy I use to make sure I get to do whatever I need to, whether it is working out or relaxing, is to set apart 30 minutes a day for this. The rest of 23.5 hours can go to work and sleeping, but I can take 30 minutes for myself out of each and every day. That’s not asking a lot - just 30 minutes out of 24 hours. That’s just two percent of your day. If you do this and work on yourself and your dreams, it will go a long way.

Continue learning more about time management and productivity by reading our article on How to be a More Productive Person.

Sumit Dua, MD, MBA
Sumit Dua, MD, MBA

Sumit Dua is the founder and CEO of Project LIFE, Inc.  Sumit attended the University of California San Diego for undergraduate studies, where he majored in Biochemistry & Cell Biology and in Psychology. He went on to attend the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine for his M.D. and the Marshall School of Business for a.. Read more

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