Time Management Beyond the To-Do List — An Advanced Treatise

1. Overview

Albert Einstein published his special and general relativity theories in 1905 and 1915. One of their most insightful predictions was abandoning the notion of the universality of time.

But surely that knowledge does not change how humans have or will experience time?

As professor Edgar Schein has explained in his book on Organisational Culture and Leadership a few decades later, time, for us humans, is neither universal nor objective. Instead, it depends on our personalities and cultures.

This article’s first sections summarise Schein’s theory on the nature of time viewed from an organisational and cultural vantage point. Using his model, Schein describes how that model influences interactions between individuals and long-term planning in an organization.

Once we fully grasp Schein’s views, we describe a few time management techniques. Examples from the software development world will be used to illustrate the concepts.

Finally, we tackle a few exciting topics, such as peeking into the future, using time as a measure of value, and measuring the cost of time lost.

3. Why is Time Management Difficult

Three reasons make Time Management an arduous task.

Why Time Management is Difficult
Why Time Management is Difficult

Let’s see what those reasons are:

First, time is scarce if you consider everything you need or want to get done; there just isn’t enough.

The second reason is that time lost can be difficult to recover: unlike money or other material resources, time wasted may have irreversible consequences. For example, if you haven’t been able to enjoy reading comics in your teenage years, those same books will not be read the same later.

Finally, time is a very subjective and culture-sensitive concept. This property makes the collective time management of complex social groups especially challenging.

Looking online, many people wonder what the best time management tools are. Alas, tools are never enough. 

To effectively and efficiently manage time, there are two things you need to do.

First, you must thoroughly understand how people perceive and value time and how their individual and subjective responses differ widely between global cultures. Next, you will need to master the usage of available tools and techniques.

4. The Nature of Time

4.1 Time as Subjective Experience

We usually consider time a unidimensional and universal way of structuring our social lives. It is what we use to put some orderliness around it.

Although time plays a fundamental role in human activities, we think it flows similarly for all of us. We also tend to believe that people experience time in the same way. That, however, is very far from the truth.

The flow of time and how we experience it are deeply subjective matters strongly related to our culture.

The following lines are from Edgar Schein’s excellent book on Organisational Culture and Leadership, in which he explains the central role that the perception of time plays in people’s interactions:

The perception and experience of time are among the most central aspects of how any group functions. When people differ in their experience of time, tremendous communication and relationship problems typically emerge.

Organisational Culture and Leadership – Edgar Schein

Think of punctuality, for example, in Western versus Middle Eastern cultures. Arriving late for a meeting in Beirut (mainly because of traffic) is not as inconceivable as it might be in Munich.

4.2 Past, Present, or Future?

Various studies (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961; Redding and Martyn-Johns, 1979; Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars, 1993P) have shown that people and organizations have different outlooks on time orientation.

Some dwell on the past and make very little progress towards the future: Being proud of the organization’s past and heritage makes it more robust in the face of internal pressure, but dwelling too much on it impedes future progress.

Others live in the present, always busy trying to get things done, even at the price of long-term benefits. Intense and continuous short-term focus can make efforts seem futile and daily tasks meaningless.

A different group might prioritize long-term growth and progress over short-term profits. On the other hand, long-term planning is essential for the survival of any organization as, contrary to the past-dwellers, it does not assume that things will not change and truths never need to be re-examined. Long-term planning also gives meaning to today’s sacrifices.

Find out where you stand regarding your outlook on the past, present, and future when creating future strategies.

4.3 Planning Time and Development Time

Frank A. Dubinskas, in his book Making Time: Ethnographies of High-Technology Organizations, distinguished between two forms of viewing time.

The first form, Planning Time, was where managers see time as an infinite ribbon divided into infinitely small pieces. Events, such as the completion of a milestone, can be pinned to that ribbon.

The second form, labelled Development Time, is where a natural process that cannot be altered for speed will take as much time as required to complete a particular task.

A common way of representing this dichotomy is in the following quote by legendary investor Warren Buffet:

No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.

— Warren Buffet

Schein argues that, despite those differences, both types can work together, provided they understand their respective views on time planning.

5. Time Management Techniques

5.1 The To-Do List

The To-Do list is one of the most basic and straightforward methods for managing your time. It consists of writing down the tasks you want to accomplish on a table. You can then use that table to track your progress.

We might assign priorities to each task to make the problem more practical. This addition will immediately take the issue to a whole new level. Let’s see why.

Any viable solution would need to observe the following rules:

  1. Priority tasks take precedence over the others; they need to be finished, a.s.a.p.
  2. Though not a priority, the remaining activities would still need to be completed before a specific period.

This representation of the To-Do list is a slightly modified version of the familiar Travelling Salesman Problem (TSP).

In our version, the salesman still needs to visit all the cities, except this time, she needs to ensure that visits to the top priority cities are completed as soon as possible. In addition, she still needs to visit the lesser priority cities before, say, 6 PM.

There is no obvious way of determining the best solution to the TSP problem besides brute force (unless you use quantum computing).

Exact solutions for complex problems are usually tough to find, and the difficulty of finding them can grow exponentially with the input size.

That leaves us with heuristics. Heuristics are problem-solving techniques that allow us to find solutions most of the time. Although these solutions are approximations only, they usually do well for all practical purposes.

The problem of the To-Do list with priorities is no different. If the number of entries is small, you can quickly find the best solution. If not, you will need to use a heuristic to complete the priority tasks. The rest will have to be postponed.

5.2 The Eisenhower Matrix

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent. — Dwight D. Eisenhower

The above quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower seems to be at the origin of the Eisenhower Matrix, a technique for categorizing work along two dimensions: importance and urgency.

Eisenhower Matrix
Eisenhower Matrix

You have probably seen this matrix before if you have read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and if you haven’t, it’s not too difficult to explain, which we will do here.

The best part of the Eisenhower matrix is that it helps you put things into perspective.

Start by filling this matrix with the activities you perform every day or week. Next, take a step back, and determine whether you like what you see. Think of your long-term objectives and whether the way you are spending your effort is aligned with those objectives.

If not, rearrange the tasks the way that you would like them to be. Use the below rules for guidance on evaluating the result.

  1. Rule 1: Avoid spending time on tasks that are neither important nor urgent (Quadrant 4). The most prominent example is probably social media. Turning off notifications is a great way of reducing unnecessary distractions.
  1. Rule 2: Delegate urgent but unimportant tasks (Quadrant 3). Driving yourself to work is an excellent example of urgent but unimportant tasks. If you delegate commuting to public transport, you will have more time to read a book or listen to a podcast, both Quadrant 2 activities.
  1. Rule 3: Prioritize important but not urgent tasks (Quadrant 2) as these typically have long-term benefits on your health, finances, or well-being.
  1. Rule 4: Important and urgent tasks (Quadrant 1) place you in crisis management mode. Granted, going to the hospital after breaking a leg cannot be planned, deferred, or delegated, but this is not what we are referring to in this case. However, tasks in Quadrant 1, generally, are a symptom of poor or insufficient planning.

The Eisenhower matrix is a powerful time management tool you can use to your greatest advantage.

5.3 Queue Management and Triage

This section will describe a time management problem where we have one or more servers (such as tellers or help desk staff) and a queue of incoming requests.

Assuming all servers have the same processing capabilities and all requests require the same amount of processing time, how best do we distribute the load to optimize the usage of their times?

Queue Management and Triage
Queue Management and Triage

More specifically, how do we ensure that:

  1. Servers process high-priority requests first
  2. Low priority requests do not stay in the queue forever

In this case, the following solution suggests itself:

  1. Triage: Create one or more queues labelled with different priorities. A person in charge of triage would investigate every new request and assesses its importance. Once its priority is determined, it is placed in the appropriate queue.
  2. Processing: A counter is updated each time a high-priority task is completed. Once the counter hits a certain maximum, a low-priority ticket is pulled from the queue for processing.

We can make the problem more interesting by allowing a variable processing time for every ticket. The logic would remain the same, but we now monitor the processing time for high vs low priority queues instead of counting tickets.

We then estimate a ratio of relative processing times favouring high-priority requests by a certain degree.

A key takeaway from this section is that low-priority tickets are not kept waiting forever. Starving low-priority tickets is a common problem in customer service where support staff never find the time to address these unfortunate tickets.

5.4 Delegation, Enablement, and Automation

Time management is recognizing that you can’t be everywhere all the time.

Is it possible then to manage your time, as a leader or a technical staff, in such a way as to increase your productivity without risking burnout?

The answer turns out to be Yes. You can be more productive by:

  1. Delegating as much work as possible to your staff
  2. Enabling your team to become autonomous
  3. Automating all repetitive, labour-intensive tasks

This three-step solution seems to be relatively straightforward. Does it merit an entire section? Unfortunately, the answer is also Yes.

  • First of all, the ability to freely delegate is rare, and this is perhaps what makes it one of the main attributes of outstanding leadership.

Why is it rare? Because delegation essentially requires two acts: the first is sharing power, while the second is trusting your subordinates. Both of these require plenty of internal security.

  • Second of all, enablement requires a constant effort in training, coaching, and upskilling your team members. It also means supporting them when they fail.

These tasks can be hard to accomplish if, for example, there is an ongoing power struggle or the organisational culture is toxic.

  • Finally, automation is easier said than done. Since this is a website mainly around software, think of test automation or DevOps and the challenges of implementing them.

Effort, resources, infrastructure, and special skills are a subset of the prerequisites for automation.

6. Peeking into the Future

This section looks at two useful tricks for peeking into the future and gleaning valuable information: Agile practices for software delivery and the concept of a Minimum Viable Product or MVP.

6.1 Smaller Features, Shorter Cycles

One of the principal weaknesses of Waterfall was its sequential approach to software delivery. You typically start with a requirement gathering phase, then an analysis and design phase, before moving into development, testing, and delivery.

It might be several months before the customer can glimpse the new features or application.

More often than you might hope for, customers end up with unusable features or features that require significant rework. Deadlines would be missed, budgets overrun, and customers frustrated.

The Less-Than-Ideal Solution

The traditional solution to this problem was a stronger focus on clarifying requirements before project kick-off and creating a solid design before any development. This solution only seemed to aggravate the situation as it meant additional effort in the project’s earlier phases and, consequently, costlier rework and redesign if that were to happen.

In 2000, a team of software experts convened and came up with 12 principles proclaimed in the Agile Manifesto. The first and second principles went like this:

  • Principle 1: Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Principle 2: Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.

In these recommendations, we can find a superior solution to what had been attempted before.

The premise is as follows: delivering smaller changes in shorter cycles would allow the developers to get valuable feedback from the end-users, information that would otherwise have not been available until very late in the project.

6.2 Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Let’s now look at the Minimum Viable Product (or MVP). The idea of an MVP allowed developers to test the prospect of a brilliant idea with minimal cost.

Minimum Viable Product MVP
Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

The way it works is as follows. You are encouraged to release new software to the market without perfecting any aspect.

The core components of the software will be available in the first release, but the blows and whistles will be postponed until the usability of the new idea has been established.

This work is not hard to gauge; it can be explained by the Pareto principle of the vital few.

In its most generic form, this principle states that 20% of the causes produce 80% of the effects. Translating this principle into our current context, we can assume that around 80% of the product’s value is carried by 20% of its features.

From a time optimization point of view, the MVP allows you to peek at your new idea’s prospects. This ability will help you determine whether to invest more in it or just cut your losses and drop them altogether.

7. Time as a Measure of Value

You can tell a lot about a group of people by looking at how they spend their time. Do they spend it arguing or trying to find a consensus? What does that tell us about their culture and the nature of their interactions?

Leaders may opt for different decision-making styles, which would be designed to “save time”.

For example, they can make unilateral decisions for reasons of efficiency. They might also decide to “spend more time” deliberating a particular topic because their objective is to find the best possible solution, regardless of how long it takes.

Did you ever ask for help and get told, “Sorry, I don’t have enough time?” Did that person get away with it? What does that say about the value of assisting others within your team?

The way people choose to spend their time can say a lot about what they value and what they don’t.

Time management is also about where you spend your time and not just how to get the most of its limited availability.

It is essential to articulate the core values you want your team to espouse and then prioritize any time spent strengthening these values over everything else.

8. The Cost of Lost Time

Because time is a scarce commodity, squandering it will most certainly have a cost. How can that cost be measured?

The most common measure of lost time is in dollar values. If an employee needs to spend a day reworking a defective feature, then the cost of that loss is whatever his day rate. If the defect is a blocker, the cost becomes their day rate compounded by the cost of the delay.

Another measure of time wasted could be opportunities lost. For example, if your competitors beat you to market, your loss is not just the time spent working on the product but also the profits that never materialized. If you consistently arrive late, you might even lose your business.

9. Conclusion

You can be efficient in managing your time by:

  1. Appreciating the subjective nature of how you and your team members experience time
  2. Deploying efficient time management techniques that allow you to make the most of your efforts
  3. Mastering prioritization, delegation, and enabling of your coworkers
  4. Understanding/articulating the long-term goals of your group

We hope this article helps you achieve exactly that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *