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An informal, stream-of-consciousness reflection on business ideas, events and issues in modern business, modern life and with some specifics to the web-software industry by Paul Tomori, Internet Entrepreneur

Time Management Tricks
By Paul Tomori
Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 12:09:39 (EST)

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog entry about Time Being On Your Side (if you want it). That prompted me to get a few questions as to what specifically I do to manage my own time better. Afterall, who doesn't want to be on time and better organized? Yet, these are kind of abstract wishes unless you determine specific actions you can take to actually improve. For example, it's one thing to say, "I want to eat a healthy dinner tonight" (which is vague and abstract and will probably not compel the necessary action steps to actually have a nutritious meal) and it's another thing to say: "I am going to take a few minutes right NOW to go on to CanadianLiving.com, find a recipe that contains sweet potatoes and shitake mushrooms and I am going to schedule a visit to the grocery store on my lunch break to get the necessary ingredients". Specificity of revised action steps is everything when it comes to making actual improvements in life.

The 3 biggest improvements I made in time-management related to the following:

1. Work Backwards From Your Next Appointment

One of my worst offenses is to try to cram more tasks into a given timespan than what can realistically be completed. This has worked wonders for me in one sense, because having so many milestones I am trying to reach actually allowed me to accomplish a lot. However, those accomplishments were often at the expense of good punctuality and respect for others' time. So, if you know you must be somewhere at 3 p.m. and it is 1 p.m. now. Start by determining when you want to arrive. Do NOT make the mistake of trying to arrive right at 3 p.m.. Always aim to be about 10 minutes early and THEN take into account possible delays. So, if I know my drive time is about 40 minutes and if I allow 10 minutes for traffic or other unforseen delays (i.e. needing to stop for gas), then I need to leave at 2 p.m. You see, in the past, I would think to myself "the trip is 40 minutes so leave at 2:20. In the past, then, after cramming an extra 10 minutes of tasks before I would leave, my actual departure was 2:30. If traffic luck was off that day or if I forgot that I needed gas, then I would be arriving more like at 3:15 or 3:20... QUITE late. Now, I tend to arrive 10 minutes early... and I am much more relaxed and mentally prepared for the meeting too. It's great.

2. Break Down Your Tasks Into More Granular Chunks

My need to get a LOT done has not changed. I just try to get a handle on tasks better by breaking them down into smaller time chunks. 15 minute tasks rock. Four 15-minute tasks put together can complete a 1-hour project over the course of a day. Just make sure that the 4 chunks are discrete enough that you won't lose mental flow if you must do the 15 minute chunks at intervals of a few hours. For example, if you are a web programmer like me and you are creating a new input module to collect some kind of data, then the first 15 minute chunk might be to map out the requirements and tie-ins to existing databases/webpages. The next 15 minute chunk might be just to create the form with no functionality yet. The next 15 minute chunk might involve the storing and editing of the form info. And lastly, the fourth 15 minute chunk might be your testing and go live task. Each of the 4 chunks is related, but they are discrete enough to allow time spans in between each of the 15 minute chunks. This way, if I know I must leave at 2 p.m. to get to a 3 p.m. appointment... and it is now 1:45, I can safely embark on one of the 4 tasks related to this 1 hour project and I can then leave knowing that I have not created a mental derailment when I return to the next chunk say at 4:30 when I get back.

3. Have And USE An Electronic Calendar/Reminder System

There is nothing worse than getting through a work day and readying to go home, when you realize "Damn, I forgot that I needed to do such and such today". Sometimes, when in the zone, it's easy to keep going on a project and to become oblivious to other obligations and responsibilities. Then, you can find yourself in major time crunches where you start dropping balls... Inevitably, such situations throw off your timing too. A couple of years ago, I resolved to do as David Allen (time management guru) suggests and to get all that "stuff that has to be done out of my head". I created a web calendar that would allow me to enter:

  1. one time to-do items like meetings, bill payments, etc..
  2. recurring weekly to-do items like file backups and accounting, mortgage payments
  3. recurring monthly to-do items like invoicing, car payments, etc
  4. recurring yearly items like birthdays, anniversaries, domain name renewals

I emptied my brain of all that stuff that was hovering around and which mostly came out when needed, but occasionally didn't. To my calendar, I added a reminder system so that each day at around 5 a.m., that day's to-do's would be emailed to me, so before I start my work day, I get to see an overview of everything on deck for the day. This allows me to pace myself better and to keep me on time. It also allows me to not be late paying any bills, not to miss birthdays, not to forget important administrative tasks, etc... It's great. As soon as a new bill arrives, I simply pop it into the system and file the paper copy. Then, a few days before the bill is due, I simply get a reminder and I pay the bills owing without ever being late or having a second thought about them. When you have the cash anyway, it's pointless to be late paying bills. The interest sucks. And, if you are an investor, you are basically undermining your own growth if you allow late penalties to gnaw at your net worth on one hand while you are trying to grow your investments on the other. Google offers a free calendar and so does Apple. As well, there are countless other systems available for free or low-cost. This one change in my life has given me wings.

Here's something you can do starting today...
Here's one more tip especially for the men. You know what you see on December 24 at the shopping mall? Scores of empty-handed men walking like zombies for hours occasionally stopping in at the record store to look CD's THEY want, occasionally stopping at the electronics department to look at new gizmos THEY want. As the closing time gets closer, the desperation gets thicker. These guys start buying impulse presents that are not really suitable for people on a list that doesn't exist. Inevitably, they spend more than they should on the wrong things and they forget to buy for certain people.

Well, it's just October 28th today, so guys, here's the tip. Make a list today of everyone you want to give xmas presents to. That list will no doubt grow over the next few weeks. Next, start paying more attention to these people. What are THEIR interests? What are THEIR needs/wants? Aim to get your shopping done by mid-November. You'll have better selection, you will have a more complete shopping list, you'll have zero stress AND your actual time at the mall will be minimal. I recently purchased a gift for a loved one for a special occasion. In advance, I determined with pretty narrow specificity what this person needed/wanted. I listened closely and observed a little more presently. Then, in advance of the occasion, I researched online and determined that the precise item was not readily available, but it didn't matter, I had time to revise the goal or look further afield. Finally, I found something that would definitely go over well, an improvement on what was initially searched for (something that planning ahead gave me the luxury to indulge!), which required some creative thought on my part (always good for a personal gift!), be high quality, cherishable and available. I then went directly to where it could be purchased, but lo and behold, it was not on the shelf. Fortunately, by planning ahead, I knew that they showed stock in their database, so I asked and voila, it was retrieved from a drawer. If I had just walked in off the street, I never would have known that that particular item was even available for purchase. Plan ahead! With the item in hand, in 2 minutes, I assessed and announced my purchase intent. The sales staff were quite bewildered and even attempted to try to keep selling me after I was already decided - they didn't know that I had done all my prep ahead of time and knew the facts about the item perhaps as well as they did). I was out of the store with it gift-wrapped in 10 minutes. Additionally, because I prepared ahead, I knew and had a printout of the "internet-stated-price" which was lower than the in-store tag (they honoured the internet price which was a 25% discount!). Again, I benefited by planning ahead. It was a very pleasant and rewarding experience and very respective of my own time (i.e. I was not wandering aimlessly from store to store for hours). The present was a big hit. I have learned my lesson. For Xmas 2009, time is still on your side if you want it.

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