Why Time is the Final Frontier—and How to Get the Right Things Done

(With apologies to Star Trek)

Time management is a challenge for everyone. I’d like to share with you a few tactics that help me manage my busy entrepreneurial consulting life, and that hopefully can help you too.

Have you heard sayings such as?

  • Carpe diem.
  • Tempus fugit.
  • Time flies.
  • You can do a LOT in 30 minutes (thanks to my old college mate Mark, who had this on his office wall).

I could list many more of these old sayings, but I think that’s enough to illustrate that we have a fascination with the limitations of time.

What would you do if you had unlimited time? What possibilities present themselves? Take a moment and brainstorm this with yourself—both the mundane and the fanciful. Make a list. Include both business and personal items. Try to get down everything.

Have you started saying “yeah, but…?” I’m sure you have—I did. Don’t lose that list.

The “yeah, buts…” tell us our “budget” of time is limited. I posit that to get the most out of this limited time budget, we must manage our “bank account” of time just like we manage our finances. Just as with finances, we must be frugal with how we invest it and spend it so that we have enough in our bank for unexpected “expenses” and opportunities.

I’d like to share with you what works for me to manage my time, specifically tracking what I need to do and how I manage priorities. I’ve tried many of the systems and tools out there—some have worked fairly well and others not so much. I’ve taken the bits and pieces of what has worked for me to build my time management approach. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Let’s go back to that list. You likely have a mix of many things—recurring tasks, pop-up tasks, once-in-a-lifetime dreams, and so on. You’ll have both personal and business topics, and then categories within them. Ask yourself:

  • Are there any natural groupings of these items?
  • Are there any hierarchies?

The answers to these questions are the beginnings of organizing your tasks and better managing your time.

I find lists have consistently worked for my time management. What hasn’t worked are apps that are not available on all of my devices or are just too darn cumbersome to use. Some apps don’t enforce enough structure and some enforce too much. Synchronizing data between dissimilar apps is often painful. I kept coming back to paper lists, which required that they always be with me. That didn’t work either. What I needed was something:

  • With the just right amount structure that worked on all of my devices (desktop PC, laptop, iPad, iPhone),
  • That worked the same way on each device,
  • That kept my data in synchronized between devices,
  • That permitted me to share my lists where this made sense.

I ended up using Evernote. Within it I set up a To-Do notebook, which is where my lists live. I have a personal list and a business list, and also specialized lists as the need arises, such as my Thanksgiving dinner shopping list, which is pretty consistent from year to year. I share this notebook with my wife, and also periodically create and share other notebooks with friends and co-workers when it is needed. One of the other things I use is the Evernote checkbox, and I use two checkboxes for many list items. Why? Well, most of my to-do items aren’t “one and done”—instead they may be multi-step. For example, “service the car” consists of making an appointment and then actually taking the car in for the appointment. So an item with one box checked is “started” while the second check box isn’t checked until the item is completed. Being able to simply and visually provide and view status like this is where other apps consistently fell short for me. Because Evernote is on all of my devices it’s always in my face, which ensures I scan my to-do lists frequently.

So the right to-do list management approach is a giant step in the right direction. It’s not enough. We also need to focus on what’s important. I like to use Stephen Covey’s approach here. Recall his 2×2 system of matching “urgent/not-urgent” with “important/not-important” as a lens for examining almost anything we do. We’re on the quest for moving our lives into the “not-urgent/important” quadrant, although sometimes we can’t avoid the “urgent/important” (=crises) quadrant. Items in the not-important portion of the diagram should be avoided.

I borrow one more concept for my to-do management. Remember those “life’s dream’s” types of to-dos? They are important also, but probably need to be held separate from more immediate items. So, borrowing from David Allen, of Getting Things Done® fame, I also keep a “someday/maybe” list, which is where I have items such as “go Scuba diving in Fiji.”

So that’s my system. It works for me. It drives efficiency and effectiveness into my time management, which results in more available time to either get more done or to address unexpected challenges and opportunities as they pop up. If you are in search of a system then give it a try. If you see a better way to do this by all means speak up.

Don’t lose that initial brainstorm list. Sensibly organizing your information and physical stuff is also an important part of time management. We’ll talk about that soon.

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