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Really? Time management?

Yup. You heard it here first. Time management. What they tried to teach you when you were in elementary school and the teacher gave you a little schedule thing to write down homework. The thing none of us ever did. It’s back. But really, why is time management so important? We all know what it is like in the depth of projects, there never seems to be enough time. We constantly seem overworked, there’s never enough time for both our work, our social lives, side projects, and more. I’ve been lucky enough to have found many resources along my career that have helped me make the most out of working time (which in turn makes my projects go much smoother), and still have time to do whatever else I want (such as blog here every week, teach in my new TouchDesigner HQ group, do side projects with friends, and still have time to re-watch Sicario for no reason).

Where to start?

The best place anyone can start is with Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s not a long read, and it’s very straightforward, so I think most people can finish it in a few days or a week. There’s no wishy-washy wording in it. It’s written by a computer science professor, that should tell you enough that it’s going to be straight forward. Cal’s book focuses on the idea that we have too many distractions in our (work) lives, and that they stop us from really being as productive as we might be. His philosophy revolves around the concept that to really work with 100% focus on something will allow you to make breakthroughs, but you can only sustain that kind of work for a few hours. So he gives you a few different ways you can do that, such as blocking off a few hours in the morning where you don’t check your phone, answer email, or anything like that, and you purely focus on your one task that you’ve dedicated this block of time to. You can also have a few smaller 1 hour deep work slots in a day and then have some shallower work (like answering emails or taking meetings) scattered around those. His system is pretty flexible and can be molded to whatever lifestyle you want.

He’s also a big believer in scheduling your day in 30 minute chunks and planning your whole day in the morning (or even better, at the end of the previous workday). Both of these I’ve found not only keep me accountable and chugging forward through work, but planning my whole day before I get going helps me make sure I’m working on things that are actually important, and not just treading water on random tasks just because they’re on my mind. This is big trap a lot of us fall into, especially with our fluid work lives. We just have stuff on our minds and we start working on them (kind of) and hope to make progress. If you can really make todo lists every day of the few key things you need to get done, and then a secondary list of nice-to-get-dones you will find that you will start to naturally prioritize different tasks. You will probably start prioritizing tasks you know you can actually get 100% complete, instead of tasks that you might only get 50% before needing to wait for some other dependency.

You can get Cal’s book basically anywhere, and if you want to just try a sampling of what he talks about, his blog is a great place to see how he thinks and what he talks about.

Get in the right mindset

Having a work system in place is only the first step. I don’t know about a lot of other people, but my mind is a busy place. There’s constantly noise in there. Thoughts about today, tomorrow, yesterday, work, friends, family, food, coffee, travel, bills, my scratched phone screen, my laptop battery running out….you get the idea… Working with all this noise in my head is basically like walking with weights on. I’m a big fan of mindfulness meditation and think everyone should give it a try and make a habit of it. Mindfulness helps you be present and helps give you the tools and techniques you need to not be swept away by thoughts or emotions. Another way to describe mindfulness is training yourself to have hyper-focus and hyper-awareness. Many sports psychologists train their Olympic level athletes in mindfulness, not because it helps them chill at home, but because it helps them perform when it’s go time.

There are many places and ways to get started with mindfulness. I started way back with the Headspace app, which is on mobile and web platforms. You get 10 sessions for free if I remember correctly. It’s a great intro to it and really helps get you going. Recently I switched over full time to Sam Harris’ new app Waking Up. I’ve always been a big Sam Harris fan, from his books and podcasts, and he really brings the same depth and level of quality to his meditation app. There’s a lot of focus on learning the actual techniques behind mindfulness, which is nice, compared to Headspace which is a bit more routine focused. So at this point, I’d recommend people try both, but I’m definitely heavily leaning towards the Waking Up app.

Wrap up

You might be thinking to yourself “really, that’s it? Make a schedule and meditate a bit?” …Well ya! There’s no golden ticket, but you have to trust me on this. If you read Cal’s book, start implementing some of his strategies for working without distractions, planning your days, and then you combine that with a really strong mindset of being present and hyper-focused, you’ll find you’ll blast through work and you’ll discover all this extra time you didn’t realize you had.

I possess a deep knowledge in many professional fields from creative arts, technology development, to business strategy, having created solutions for Google, Kanye West, Armani, and more. I'm currently Technical Director of zero11zero, and lead the nVoid division. Yo!

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  • Fausto Brusamolino

    Fully agree with this post Elburz…

    What works for me, is blocking 10-15mins at the end of the day to write a quick to do list for the following day.
    After doing that, I sometimes put a number next to each item in the list, to indicate the priority I allocate to that task.

    I check and respond to urgent emails in the morning, then close all emails and social tabs (I don’t minimise them, I literally close them) turn off notifications, and get to work. I do take short breaks, drink water, but don’t check social media or emails.
    After my lunch break, if I am still in the zone I go straight back to what I was doing and leave checking emails until the end of the day. Alternatively, if after lunch I need a bit of time to get back to speed, I might check my emails, respond to urgent ones first, attack one or two administration emails (for 5 or 10 minutes max), and then close all tabs and get back on my project until the end of the day, when I do my to do list.

    I schedule my phone calls meetings, and don’t answer to calls unless I know it’s something that requires my immediate attention (e.g. I know that I have a technician installing a work, and he/she might call me to help trouble shooting something).

    Another thing that works for me, and that I have learned the hard way, is that I have to clearly separate my work (anything that generates my income) and my life (friends, family, hobbies, physical activities…).
    I make my own schedule, and let’s say if one day I decide to work until 5pm, I will finish at 5pm. Then my work emails are closed, my work is saved, the computer is shut.
    I always have a piece of paper and a pen next to my bed, in case I come up with an idea in the evening, or if I am worried about something work related, I write it down immediately.
    For me that’s a way of parking that thought until the morning after. I do value sleeping, and if I sleep well, the morning after I will have the energy to deal with anything. If I spend the night thinking and worrying, I will end up in the morning completely exhausted, and with little or no energy to deal with work/clients/meetings/challenges/coding…

    One last thing to conclude my long comment: when you have a kid (or two, or three..) time management becomes a skill that you absolutely need to acquire if you want to keep freelancing, be successful in what you do, and be a nice & present parent/partner.


    • elburz

      elburzelburz

      Author Reply

      Couldn’t agree more with everything you said. A lot of the things you mentioned are strategies Cal talks about in his book. I read an article by a VC investor/entrepreneur once where he also used the strategy of only scheduling calls at the end of his work day, and putting them back to back, that way they wouldn’t be mid-day interruptions to working. Also paper/pen working uses different aspects of your thinking and your brain from what I’ve read about it, so it can even be a nice change of pace during the day, when I’m stuck on a problem I might just try to draw it out on paper. Many of my friends and business partners have kids, so I can attest to your last comment. When they are managing time, life is great…but when they get a little lazy about time management, everything goes to hell!!


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