I was speaking on a podcast recently and the interviewer asked me a question:
“How do you manage your time?”
The first answer that came to mind was something tactical. Everyone always wants the “quick answer” that makes it seem like effective time management is the result of pressing 1 key on your life’s keyboard. “All you have to do is wake up at 6 a.m.” or something like that.
But as I sat there thinking about it, all of the tactical answers that came to mind weren’t “the answer.” The answer, I realized, was what each of these tactics had in common
“Obsessively,” I said. “I manage my time obsessively”
Time is your most valuable resource.
It is a cliché that gets thrown around, usually by people who haven’t yet truly learned the value of what they’re saying. Time is money. Time is work in progress. Time is an investment. Time is a loan. Time is a relationship. Time is, quite literally, everything in your life. If you cannot manage time, then all the rest becomes chaos.
So, the way I manage my time is I work backward.
I ask myself what I absolutely, positively, no matter what want to get done in a day—and I block off the required amount of time for me to complete those things, first.
Sometimes that’s early in the morning.
Sometimes that’s late at night.
Sometimes it’s haphazardly throughout the day.
Regardless, I have a clear understanding in my mind of what I need to get done, and all day I fight for the time to make it happen.
For example: When I was getting really serious about lifting weights, I knew I needed to get to the gym for at least two hours every single day.
Before I would fall asleep, I would consciously look at all the things I had scheduled for the following day, and I would look for where I could squeeze in that two hour window.
If I had classes all day (back in college), then I would deliberately choose to either go to the gym early in the morning, or late at night. If my entire day was “packed,” then I would go down the list looking for the thing that was less important I could cancel to make time for the gym.
And if my day was truly, truly packed, and there was absolutely no chance I could make it to the gym, then I would do some serious reflecting on why and how my schedule had gotten to that point, and I would vow to make the necessary changes a day or two later so that my true priority could manifest.
I have done this with every single one of my passions and pursuits—this constant structuring of what is “most important” to me.
A lot of people ask me, then, how they can pursue multiple things at the same time.
The answer is to take the above and duplicate it.
If you want to get to the gym every day, you need to block off two hours in your schedule and get there, no matter what.
So block those 2 hours off.
If you want to get to the gym every day and learn to play the piano, you need to block off two hours for the gym and 1–2 hours to practice the piano.
So now block 4 hours off.
If you want to get to the gym every day, and learn to play the piano, and read more, then you need to block off two hours for the gym, 1–2 hours to practice the piano, and an hour for reading.
So now block 5 or 6 hours off.
And so on.
Over the years, I have gotten to the point where 70% of my day is now blocked off
The night before, I know exactly what my day is about to be like—and I have already learned (usually the hard way) what things are going to “pop up” that will try to steal time away from each of my blocks.
- An event that just happened to “pop up.”
- Phone conversations
- Email requests
- Random, unforeseen necessities around the apartment (the washing machine stopped working, the laundry needs to get done, etc.)
Where most people go wrong is they say to themselves “I want to do X, Y, and Z,” without first auditing their current schedule.
They make the mistake of adding to an already-full, already-dysfunctional daily routine—instead of first looking for inefficiencies, removing them, and more intentionally replacing those blocks of time with new activities.
If you are able to truly “block” time off to get done what you really need to get done, each block then becomes a very intentional investment in yourself.
This is what makes success a process—instead of a hope, a dream, or some distant destination.
When you manage your time this way, success is not an “if.”
It’s a “when.”
If I want to improve at something, all I do is look at my daily schedule and routine, realize I need to insert a block of time to devote to this new thing I want to get better at, and decide where to put that block. If I have no open spaces for that block, I have to make a conscious choice to either remove a block to make room, or cut into my sleep (or look for other efficiencies, like less time wasted doing pointless things, etc.).
All in all, time management is an extremely simple concept. You want to do something, so make the time to do it.
The hard part is denying all the other things that come up as potential options.
The best way I can describe it is this: Just because you have 100 spices in your kitchen, doesn’t mean you need to use all 100 spices when you’re making pancakes.
The same goes for time management. Just because it’s Friday, and there are 100 different social things going on (friends getting together, parties, events, movies, shows, restaurants, etc.), doesn’t mean you have to go to any of them — if that’s not what you truly want to, or what you’ve already decided your block of time is dedicated to.
And as soon as you realize that saying “No” actually means saying “Yes” to yourself, your goals, and your vision, the process will become so much easier.
This article first appeared on Medium.