Learning scientist and head geek. Formally Labster CTO
Train Your Brain #5: How to prioritize your time
Learning to manage your time will make you capable of focusing your efforts and eliminating any unimportant tasks.
In this part (see part 1, part 2, part 3 or part 4) you will learn the most important time management skills that will help you excel in just about any area of your life, and especially in your studies.
So let’s get to it!
FOCUS ON THE TASKS THAT MATTER
First, we’re going to introduce you to a way of thinking about time. The method was developed by the author Stephen Covey, and is a powerful technique that you can easily apply to your own life with little effort.
The idea is quite simple: Just eliminate the daily tasks that are not really worth spending time on, and instead focus your effort on the tasks that really matter.
But which tasks are those?
The following task matrix can help you get an overview:
Go ahead and create a similar matrix on paper, and then write your personal tasks for each quadrant, so you can familiarize yourself with the task matrix.
Try to fill in all the tasks you find yourself doing on a regular basis. That way, you’ll get a better idea of what you actually spend your time on and decide what priority these have in your life.
NOT IMPORTANT TASKS
Now you should have created yourself a better overview of what is taking up your time, you might find that a large chunk of it goes in the non-important quadrants.
If you were a perfect human being with a perfectly rational mind and a perfect ability to prioritize, you could just go ahead and eliminate those activities and carry on with your perfectly organized life.
But let’s be honest - no one is perfect. So instead of trying to eliminate these activities, try to simply organize them in time slots. Take breaks (e.g. 15 minutes every 90 minutes) and use them as a reward for completing the important tasks.
If you’re finding it difficult to stay focused because you keep getting distracted, try using apps like the Pomodoro Timer to stay ‘hyper focused’ for a certain amount of minutes at a time, or the Rescue Time desktop app to track what you’re doing and lock down pages that are stealing away your attention.
People often spend a lot of their time in the first quadrant (the important and urgent things). Some people feel that it’s a great way to spend their time because they’re being effective, as all the tasks are really important and urgent.
But truth be told, spending most of your time here is a sign of failed time management.
The reason is simply that spending time on important and urgent tasks rather than important and non-urgent tasks is a little like putting out fires instead of preventing them.
When you are doing urgent tasks, you’ll find that you’re typically feeling more stressed, less prepared and not in the right state of mind. If you focus your energy on the important, non-urgent tasks instead, you’ll be able to reduce the number of tasks that move from being important non urgent to urgent tasks (from quadrant 2 to 1).
THE 80/20 RULE
Now that you have an overview of the types of tasks that you want to spend your time on, let’s see how you can leverage your time better with the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 rule, also called the Pareto Principle, simply states that the first 20% of the time spent on any task delivers 80% of the results, and to finish the last 20% of a task/project, you will have to spend 80% of the time allocated to the task.
So how can you use the rule to improve your studies?
Simply develop the habit of asking yourself: What are the most important parts of this task, and which parts can I leave out at this point? Then focus your effort on the parts of the task that really matter, and you’ll find yourself having an 80% done task, in only 20% of the time.
SET MANY AND SMALL DEADLINES
Parkinson’s Law of Complexity states that the complexity of any task is directly related to the amount of time allocated to it.
Confused? Let’s look at an example.
Let’s imagine that you have a 10 page report to do in 1 month with 90 allocated hours. You can pick any subject. If you started the first day, and allocated 3 hours every evening to write the report, you could then spend the total of 90 hours on writing the 10 pages.
Have you ever planned writing a report before like that and actually succeeded? Most people haven’t. But if you really wanted to create the perfect report, it certainly wouldn’t be impossible.
In this case, you would have time to do large amounts of research online, pre-read 4 or 5 books beforehand on the same subject, and then spend 5-6 hours on writing each page.
If you, on the other hand, only had 2 days, could you then write a 10 page report on any subject of your choice? Absolutely.
And in this second case, you would spend time on quickly determining how you could best use the limited amount of time to write the 10 pages. For example, you might first pick a subject that you know by heart already, and then secondly you might spend less time on fine tuning all graphical elements such as the front-page, headlines, headers, pictures etc. All things that are often less important for the end product.
In other words: If you tell yourself that you have less time to do a task, you will automatically make the task simpler, and become several times more effective - and that’s what Parkinson’s Law of Complexity is all about.
So how can you best use this to your advantage?
You need to teach yourself to set deadlines in your own mind. These should be small and plentiful.
We even used this tool when writing this guide. We would set deadlines for every hour, and during our writing phase, for example, we would write 5 draft pages per hour. The pages weren’t perfect of course, but by doing so, we automatically also applied the 80/20 rule and focused on what really mattered, which was getting our knowledge down on paper, so we could communicate it to you quickly and effectively. Design and layout was not even considered at this point, and the first drafts needed much editing. But it made us super effective and focused. And we hope you can now do the same!
This trick is used everywhere in practice. Having worked at a top management consulting firm, I’ve been used to using this method on a daily basis, and I know many others use it too.
In the consulting environment the work effort is constantly optimized by setting deadlines almost always every hour to force the mind to be focused on delivering the most impact in the shortest amount of time.
You may also have experienced this law in action when doing various exams or tests. First, when you start working on e.g. a 4 hour exam, you find yourself working steadily and well-organized. But by the end, when the teacher announces that you have 30 minutes left, you suddenly realize how little time is left, and you work like crazy to get as much completed in the last 30 minutes. Even questions that you may not know fully, you quickly write down what you were thinking about. It may not be perfect, but you get a lot done! You get focused on the goal and the things that really matter to get the best possible result with minimal time and effort.
So try to apply this technique in other situations, by remembering to ask yourself whether you are spending your time effectively, and by setting many small deadlines.
To teach yourself to use this in practice, try the following:
- Set a goal for the next hour
- Set the alarm on your mobile phone to go off once every hour while you are studying (both reading and writing)
- Every time the alarm goes off, ask yourself the following:
- Past: “What did I just learn and how can I use it?”
- Future: “How can I spend my time more productively for the next hour?"
- The 80/20 rule: Focus your time on the parts of a task that really matter!
- Parkinson’s Law of Complexity: Set short deadlines to force yourself to focus and simplify tasks.
- By simply asking yourself the following question, you will be able to dramatically increase your effectiveness and ability to provide the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time: “Why am I currently doing this, and how can I spend my time better now to meet the goal of this task faster?”
- Develop the habit of asking yourself this question as often as possible.