I read a lot of books about time management. Ironically, I’ve been known to read these books when I’m supposed to be getting work done. This means I’ve sorted through countless tips, tricks, and hacks to figure out which ones work best. Here, 10 takeaways from time management books that have worked their way into my daily life and actually increased my productivity.
1. Know your “Why”
This one sounds big and intimidating, and not at all like it would help you bust through more work on a daily basis, but it does. You’ll be more motivated to get things done efficiently when you have a few good reasons why you do what you do. Of course, not every job is going to perfectly line up with your ‘why,’ but typically, you can figure out a connection. A steady paycheck might be what allows you to live by your value of taking care of your family or traveling, for example. Remembering that when you really don’t want to make another sales call can be a huge help. Figure out your why with Know Your Why: Finding and Fulfilling Your Calling in Life by Ken Costa.
2. Write everything down
In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen argues that our brains are terrible list-keepers. This is why writing a to-do list can help streamline all the little things you need to get down and, at the same time, give your brain a break. Whether it’s a planner, or a journal, or using a simple notebook, writing everything down is Allen’s best piece of advice. To take it another step further, he suggests to organize your writing in a thoughtful, useful way that works for you, and not for anyone else.
3. Know your MITs
Your MITs — most important tasks — are the ones that, if done, cover your primary bases for the day. These are the deadlines that have to be met, the report that needs to be turned in, the sales call that must be made. This one sounds simple, but it can actually be tricky, since often, we count on our calendars to inform us what our most important tasks are. But calendars are unreliable indicators of MITs: Calls and appointments that are scheduled often take precedence over getting that report written, even if the report is a huge part of your job for this sales quarter. That’s why it’s important to sit down in the morning and consider your to-do list as well as your calendar. Choose two or three key tasks that, if finished that day, mean the day is a success. Learn more about MITs and cutting out the unnecessary work in Leo Babuta’s Thriving on Less.
4. Do the hardest thing first
Brian Tracy had it right in Eat That Frog! It makes sense to tackle the worst, or hardest, or most procrastinated-on task first every day, while your energy is high. However, what most people miss is that sometimes, you have to be even more strategic with your frog-picking. It may not be about what needs to get done this day, but rather the task that is easy to put off but would unlock parts of major projects that are a bit daunting. That’s your frog.
5. Take time to plan for long-term
Michael Hyatt’s books are great when it comes to designing my day, and Living Forward is my favorite. It may not have the day-to-day tips for ultimate productivity, but it does help you sit down and spend time thinking through and designing the life you actually want to be living. Hyatt is a personal favorite because he actually combines all the parts of your life — personal, health, work, hobbies — in the process, which is a good reminder that time management doesn’t just apply to work goals. If you skip long-term planning, you might get a lot done, but you may not be moving in the direction you would like to be heading.
6. Bullet journaling isn’t for everyone, but everyone can journal
Figuring out a style of writing everything down — from daily to-dos to notes on bigger goals and dreams — is incredibly important when it comes to boosting your productivity and ability to stay focused. But not everyone is going to thrive using a bullet journal, and that’s OK. However you log your notes, everyone benefits from taking a minute or two each day to put pen to paper. (If you do want to start journaling but need some help, here’s a list of great books to help you on your journey!)
7. Practice the two-minute rule
Another favorite from Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity: If you can do something in two minutes, do it rather than just listing it. Think: sending quick emails or quickly making an appointment. But there is a caveat here: It’s easy to get sucked into two-minute tasks all day long and never dig into the important big projects, so if you realize you’re in a constant loop of two-minute tasks, start listing them instead. This rule can easily turn into procrastination.
8. Just do something
The Pomodoro technique (setting a timer and breaking work into chunks of time) works for some, but another way is to simply start a daunting project, even if it’s just a five-minute commitment. In 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, Kevin Kruse mentions that just getting started is the hardest battle. Often, our procrastination is based on inertia: An object in motion stays in motion, while a stationary lump on the couch stays on the couch. Whether it’s a workout or a work presentation, if you’re stalling, just start — begin with five minutes and you’ll find it rarely ends after the five minutes are up.
9. Time management doesn’t mean much if you’re not happy
Positive psychology expert Andy Proctor’s The Four Connections: Daily Routines to Ritualize Happiness and Boost Productivity is all about focusing on happiness because squeezing the most into every single day doesn’t really mean much if you’re not actually happy. He also argues that being happy (and most of the steps we can take to get us there) is actually good for our productivity, which is an added bonus.
10. Figure out what works for you and stick to it
This one is less of a tip from one specific book and more of a reminder about not letting the pursuit of productivity slow you down. Every book will suggest new apps, notebooks, calendar types, and to-do list styles, even as off-the-cuff casual remarks. It’s tempting to throw away your entire system in favor of a shiny new thing, but if you are hitting most of your deadlines and not forgetting important to-do items, chances are your system is working great. Try new things, of course, but if you’re changing your system on a weekly basis, you’ll never get a chance to actually figure out what system is right for you.