Time Management v Task Management

Image by Natalia Gustafson via Flickr

Dark and Silent

It’s 4:30am, dark outside, and the silence enfolds me.  The jangle of the alarm was a brief interruption, silenced quickly for the neighbours’ sake.  The clock counts down, only so many minutes before I have to leave for work.  It pays the bills, but I look forward to a time when I don’t have to leave to do it.

This hour is squeezed out of my day, cutting sleep and prep time to the bone, because my heart and true home is here: online.

The Price of Doing What You Love

I’m up early today, and most mornings, because I love writing and I dream of making a living online – independent of any paycheck.  I can’t tell you yet if the money will always follow, (it hasn’t so far) but I can tell you that with only so many minutes in a day, there WILL be things you’ll have to sacrifice to fit it in.  Following on from yesterday’s post, I’ve chosen to fit this into my priority list, and if you’re anything like me, that list goes well over what can fit into a single day.

By choosing to fill parts of my day with certain things, I have to decide which things won’t fit in, and either outsource them, or simply allow them not to get done.  That’s hard.   We’re all taught that we have to juggle multiple roles and look effortless as we keep our homes immaculate, our careers heading upwards, our family needs catered for, our fitness levels high, our social lives buzzing, our appearance immaculate…  you get the picture.  Deciding which of these isn’t going to even try for those standards feels like an admission of failure.

Getting to this point, I’ve tried everything to become the superwoman that we’re all taught we can be.  I’ve discovered that it’s not true.  There are only so many hours in a day, only so much energy you have to give, and forcing yourself to spend either on stuff that you really don’t care about is, to be perfectly honest, stupid.  Here’s why:

The Time Management Approach

The standard approach to fitting more into your day is to seek out advice on time management, right?  After all, the entire field is designed around helping you squeeze more productivity out of yourself.  The big names here are the Day-Timer and Franklin-Covey systems, although there are probably millions more.  There are devices to help too – I used to use my palm pilot a lot for this.  A good time management system allows you to capture all the stuff you have to do into a central list, and you then work through them, ticking it off as you do it.  By keeping it outside your head, you free yourself from that overwhelm paralysis that means you don’t get started on any of it.

Time Management is intended for people who want to eliminate time-wastage and accomplish more in the time they have.  It assumes that you’re not only willing, but happy, to let go of little things like rest and relaxation in the quest to fit more productivity in.  It’s the perfect tool to keep a hamster on a wheel.

The Task Management Approach

Some time-management systems like the Franklin-Covey (based on Steven Covey’s “7 habits of highly effective people“) and the  Day-Timer go beyond just time management, and build in a form of task management, or priority list.  The Day-Timer has you rank your tasks with a priority rating, so you get to the important stuff first.  The Franklin-Covey system has you evaluate what roles you have in your life, and when you do your weekly review, you set goals for each of these which sit at the top of your priority list – in fact on a bookmark that sits in front of you the whole week.  The idea is that getting these done means you’re progressing your goals, and making sure that none of the areas of your life are being neglected for others.

There’s another task management system that’s almost reached a cult status online, and that’s the “Getting Things Done” approach by David Allen.  I had this book shipped out to Australia, but since then it’s grown so much that it’s even hit our shelves.  This approach is purely about getting lots done, by sorting it into contexts – when you’re in one context there’s a single list of the stuff you can get done, so you work through that.  As you change contexts – go online, go down the street etc – you’ve always got a list of things you can do while you’re there.  You do go through a whole lot more tasks that way, but there’s no priority or ranking to it.  (I may be wrong, since I’m not quite finished the book – if there’s something in the end chapters I’ve not got to yet, please comment me and let me know!)

Task management is for people who want to make sure that everything they need to get done, gets done, regardless of how long it takes.  It’s a fine distinction, but there is a difference.  Don’t get me wrong – I use task management myself, but you have to remember that there’s more to life than just an endless stream of tasks, and sometimes you really need to get selective, and question whether a task should even go on the list in the first place!

The next level: Life Design

One thing both of these approaches have in common is that they work to fit your list of stuff to do into the time you already have set aside, either trying to make sure either you get as much accomplished as possible in that time, or that nothing gets left undone.  There’s a point, though, where that’s not enough: where you have to decide to create more time, and/or choose to allow some things to fall through the cracks.  You want to align your day to the direction of your life.

You’ll only reach that point if you’ve set yourself a major goal to create the life you want to lead – which is why most people don’t ever need to go beyond either time or task management.  Once you do get there, though, you’ll need something more than just a diary.  You’ll need to design your life, and draw elements of that down to design your day – this is where you find yourself changing the amount of time by getting up earlier, or dropping things off the list (outsourcing them or dumping them altogether) to make more room in your day for the stuff you’re working to put in there.  That’s where life-design comes in.

This approach means you need to have an idea how you want your life to look.  For me, my ideal day involves getting up, sharing my thoughts with you here, diving into some of my favourite online communities to spend time with my friends/colleagues, no matter where in the world they happen to be, and generally living online.  That’s balanced with offline time seeing friends, going to courses, conferences, seminars etc.   If I try to fit it in after a full day at work, it often doesn’t happen.  Last year, I got to the point where it just didn’t feel right that my life goals sat behind somebody else’s priorities on the list, so now my alarm goes off at 3 or 4am and my stuff gets done FIRST. It’s a powerful affirmation that it’s important to me.

Oh yes, my favourite two tools that use this approach are the “Unschedule” (read “The NOW Habit” by Neil Fiore, or just look it up online) and “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss.  I love both of these.  My day’s still a bit too varied to have an unschedule (one day) but the 4 hour workweek was eye opening – and I’m still working on implementing it!

The side benefits of putting yourself first

Life has a way of testing how badly you want something, often repeatedly, before it’ll give it to you.  The more hurdles you overcome in chasing your dreams, though, the more strongly you prove it’s important, and the more likely it is to happen.  If you are already pushing yourself to create extra time in your day, or get up 2 hours before you need to, then there’s less need for other hurdles to show up for you to overcome.  You actually make the path to your goal a bit smoother.

I’ve noticed, too, that time seems to have the same kind of compound effect as we all know about with money.  Put an intense focus and a lot of time into a project, and at some stage it reaches a tipping point where it almost carries on by itself.  The momentum is built.  Putting an all-out effort for a short intense burst can achieve incredible things! (You just need to have watched “The Biggest Loser” to know that!)

Closer to home, this year I went one step further than doing my stuff first in the morning – I took the first 5 days of this year off to work on the first of my 10 goals for 2009.  The results have absolutely blown me away!  Not only did I finish that goal, plus another, it’s snowballed into an incredible velocity that’s just seeing one personal achievement after another.  If this year continues as it’s started, you won’t recognise me in 3 months, let alone the end of the year!

What’s your designed life look like?

Do you have an idea how and what your dream life would be?

Can you go beyond just listing tasks and appointments to work towards it – are there elements of your dream day that you can find a way to slot into your existing one?

Even just the smallest inclusion is a powerful step along the right track…

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Dan January 20, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, you can use this application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:


    You can use it to manage and prioritize your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.

    Reply edit
  • Crystal January 22, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Thanks Dan, I appreciate you taking the time to comment, but as I mentioned in the post and a few other places in the site, I already have a GTD system set up. For me, most of it’s paper based, since I spent most of my time either at work or travelling to and from, where I don’t have access to my own applications etc.

    The point of this post was that even task management systems like GTD don’t quite go far enough towards the big picture and designing your ideal life, instead of just a very productive (read:busy) one.

    Reply edit

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