Why Hacks Won't Help You Manage Your Time
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Here’s a confession: When I first began writing this article, I had to pause a few times, stop, and then start again. The words wouldn't come, so I gave up and went to the gym.
Two hours later, my thoughts started flowing, almost like magic.
If I’d gutted it out and forced myself to articulate my ideas — it would have been time wasted. That’s because in my thirteen years as an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that going against my natural prime time only produces half-assed results. So instead, I wait for when I feel fresh, alert, and my creativity is at its peak.
Sure, there’s no shortage of apps to help me organize my schedule, but they all mean very little if I don’t possess the self-awareness to know when I’m at my sharpest.
In his enlightening story for Harvard Business Review, professor of management and entrepreneurship Erich C. Dierdorff notes that “using a scheduling app without the prerequisite time management skills is unlikely to produce positive time management outcomes.”
We all have moments like the one above — beginning a grueling project and realizing the energy just isn’t there. We might slog through and force ourselves to get it done, believing we’re making the best use of our time. But was the quality of work worth the time and pain it took to do it?
Many of us have tried using different tools to manage our days, but the reality is, there’s no hack that will help us better schedule our time than simply knowing ourselves. Luckily, it’s an ability that can be honed and developed.
Better time management is about being strategic
Time management has been shown to help us organize our personal and professional lives, leading to greater levels of well-being and job performance.
According to Dierdorff, people who are able to harness their productivity use three key skills to separate time management success from failure:
1. They are realistic about their time and are aware that it’s a limited resource.
2. They organize their goals and schedules to use their time effectively.
3. They’re flexible and able to adjust to interruptions and change priorities accordingly.
Imagine you stayed up all night with a sick toddler. Your schedule the next morning has you working on a big report for a 90-minute block. Only, your thoughts are scrambled from lack of sleep and you jot down whatever comes to mind, which let’s face it, isn’t all that great.
In the end, it wasn’t your best piece of writing.
Rather than forcing yourself to follow a rigid schedule, being flexible and realistic about your energy would allow for a better performance.
It all comes down to listening to yourself.
A little self-awareness goes a long way
“Self-awareness is our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.” — Stephen Covey
As the founder of JotForm, a company with over 150 employees and 5.3 million users, preserving precious brainpower has been essential for making good decisions. The cornerstone of my growth has ultimately come down to becoming aware of and working with my natural rhythms (a process that’s involved a lot of trial and error to get right).
But understanding when I’m at my best is only half of the equation to be effective. “Self-awareness is useless without an equally important skill: self-management,” writes Jennifer Porter, which she defines as demonstrating a more productive behavior. When I can channel my productive energy into my creative work, I’m excited to head into the office every day.
Below is a no-BS (mini) guide to time management:
Harness your prime time
Keep a personal journal where you monitor your activities and evaluate your energy levels while performing them. This doesn’t have to be an all-consuming task — try it out for a week and pay attention to when you feel your brightest. Dierdorff recommends that we break up our typical day into three to four time slots and rank these from our most and least productive. This will also allow you to become more realistic in how you assess the amount of time you thought it would take to do something versus how long it actually took.
Observe your energy levels, and plan accordingly
Just as you shouldn’t slog through your most creative work after staying up with a sick child, it’s also important you allow flexibility for rescheduling when the unexpected comes up. If that morning meeting lasted longer than you planned, avoid taking on critical projects afterward. There’s no use in forcing yourself to actively engage in a heavy workload at those times. Opt instead for completing smaller, low-energy tasks like admin work or responding to emails.
Allow for pauses
Relaxation promotes creative thinking — and giving your mind a chance to freely wander will do more for your work than dragging yourself throughout the day. A vital part of successful time management is allowing for these moments of recovery. There’s also evidence that shows even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve our ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.
Respect and honor your downtime
In today’s competitive workforce, many of us are tempted to glorify the 24/hour hustle culture, trying to squeeze out every last inch of juice from our day. But unlike CEO of digital marketing company VaynerMedia, Gary Vaynerchuk, I don’t encourage founders to work relentless 18 hour days. I like to think that one of the things that sets us apart at JotForm is our dedication to sustaining a work/life balance. For this reason, I encourage my team to pay attention to their prime hours, and also to honor the time spent away from the office — to take Slack off their phones and use up all their vacation time.
I don’t know what will work for everyone, but I know this: No scheduling app or life hack can make up for listening, acknowledging, and respecting your own needs.