A lot of my friends have asked me how to better manage their time and not feel like they are wasting it. I’m no expert but I’ve been coding and studying between 6-8 hours (depending on my schedule) every day for a few months.
This system has worked for me in the past too when I was studying between 8-9 hours every day for college entrance exams. So I’ve decided to write this article for my friends.
I’ll start with a few assumptions then move onto the principles, the system, additional tips, and finally, some recommended and suggested readings. But before that a few disclaimers.
- Although this system works for me it may not work for you. Nevertheless, give it a shot and tune it according to your needs. It’s easy to get started so try it out.
- Ease into the system by gradually implementing pieces of it instead of completely changing your workflow. Try starting with the 2nd component (work in chunks) for a week or two.
- I will mainly explain the system and what works for me without explaining all the whys and guidelines for goal setting and planning (hence “abridged”). You can go through the suggested readings if you’re interested in learning about why these techniques work.
I’ll only be talking about how to meet daily goals. Goal setting, planning, learning strategies, or work habits won’t be covered. You can check out my learning strategies here.
I’ll assume you know how to:
- Set effective long-term goals.
- Break down your goals into smaller tasks.
- Set deadlines.
- Prioritize tasks.
With that out of the way, let’s get started with the guiding principles.
Everyone is born knowing nothing and no one becomes a master overnight. The more ambitious and worthwhile your goal, the longer you’ll have to keep at it. Aim to always get something done each day, however small it may be. Never have a zero day.
Even if it’s almost midnight and you haven’t gotten anything done, force yourself to do the smallest task you can imagine. Trying to be a writer? Write one line instead of an entire essay. Trying to exercise? Do one push up instead of a whole routine. Trying to learn coding? Do one problem or read one article instead of building an entire app. Because one is still non-zero. And a non-zero day means progress. Read the comment by ryans01 here for a great take on consistency.
Conserve Your Willpower
We have a limited reserve of willpower. Every choice we have to make depletes this reserve and makes us more susceptible to impulsive behavior. The best way to save up your willpower is to have a consistent routine, build good habits and remove distractions.
Always try to have an overview of what you need to get done. Mindlessly doing tasks will make it harder for you to retain focus and information. Plan your week and account for emergencies.
Keep It Simple
Start out with a very simple system (like the one below). Diving head first into complex systems like the GTD system will cause you to focus more on the system rather than your task. So start small, get the basics right (consistency!) and then you can add on to the system as your needs grow.
It’s essential that you reward yourself when you meet your goals to reinforce your good habits. So relax a bit after completing your focused work - have a chocolate, watch a show you like, take a nap - do whatever makes you happy.
Take Care of Yourself
You won’t always meet your daily goals. And that’s fine. Everyone has bad days. When I got sick, I only managed to practice for 2.5 hours before getting a headache. So be grateful for everything you have and learn to forgive yourself when you mess up.
This is a very simple system. But it’s worked wonders for me. The app or tool you use doesn’t matter much so long as you are consistent.
There are three components. The first two are essential. Use the third one if you have to get a lot done within a short period. It’s a bit exhausting so I wouldn’t recommend it for long-term but if it you can manage it, that’s great!
Here’s the system:
Track Your Commitments
Put all of your tasks, appointments, meetings, and chores in a central location. This will help you get an overview of what you need to get done, so you can prioritize and plan accordingly.
I use Google Calendar for this. You can have separate calendars for work and personal stuff, set reminders, use Google Tasks right in the browser, and there’s a lot of customization options. But you can use any other calendar or app you want.
Work in Chunks and Track It
We are not wired to focus for long periods of time. If you work continuously for too long, you’ll notice your concentration dropping and start making mistakes. So use the Pomodoro Technique to do focused chunks of work.
So what’s the Pomodoro Technique? Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus only on the task at hand. Take a 5 minutes break and then repeat. That’s it. Each block of work-break is a single Pomodoro. Here’s a Video Explanation of the concept.
You can adjust the timings based on the type of work you are doing. For example, I usually work in chunks of 45 minutes because 25 minutes is too short to solve programming problems.
I’d recommend starting out with the 25-5 timing and sticking to it for about a week. Adjust it later if you feel like it. And remember to adjust the break time along with the work time. So if you work for 45 minutes take a 10-15 minutes break instead of 5.
It is essential that you focus singularly on the task at hand. Put your phone on silent, wear a headphone (no music), clear any clutter from your workspace. Trying do multiple tasks will greatly hamper your progress. Look up “context switching” and its impact on focus and productivity.
Decide how many Pomodoros you want to get done daily and stick to it. I do 8-10 (45-15 minute blocks) daily and use Toggl to track my work. It allows you to categorize your projects and also generates reports. Enable the Pomodoro Timer in settings.
Remember to rest properly and reward yourself when you complete your goals.
Timeboxing - Make a Routine for Every Single Day of the Week (Optional)
It’s pretty much what the heading says. You plan out every single minute of each day of the week ahead of time. Decide what you want to get done, how long you are willing to invest and plan accordingly.
This method is a bit extreme but can be highly effective for some people who have a hard time concentrating. I used TimeTune for this method when I was using it for my entrance exam prep. But you can use Google Calendar for this as well. Just make a new calendar for the routine.
Pretty simple, right? You can get started today and see if it works for you. Good luck and hope this helps!
Do a Weekly Checkup
Make sure you are actually working on tasks that get you closer to your goal. Sometimes we can get bogged down with busywork. If you feel like you are not progressing, reassess and plan the next week accordingly
Use Efficient Learning Methods
Spaced repetitions, chunking, active recall, quizzing, etc. can be used to improve both your understanding and retention over the long-term. Read the second suggested book to learn about these methods. Check out my learning strategies here.
Track how you spend your time to find out your time sinks
You can use RescueTime or the built-in features of your phone. Both iOS and Android have screen time tracking features. My biggest time sinks were YouTube and social media sites, so I’ve strictly limited their usage.
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg - A great book for learning about how we form habits and what we can do to form better ones.
- A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley - A book on how we learn and what we can do to learn more efficiently and effectively.
- When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink - An insightful book on how our sleep cycle works and how to build the ideal schedule for yourself.
- Essential Scrum by Kenneth S. Rubin - This is for planning large scale projects with multiple people working on them. It’s not necessary for personal time management but has amazing insights for teams.