Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.
I’m a big advocate of the Getting Things Done system of time management, but more than a few readers have written to me stating that GTD simply didn’t do the trick for them, but that other systems helped them get their time in order. One that kept turning up time and time again was Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management From The Inside Out; with such a loyal following, I was quite eager to find out what this book had to say.
Time Management From The Inside Out takes an overall philosophy that time management is not really any different than managing stuff (which makes sense, as the author became well known for her organization philosophies) – you sort through it, decide what’s worth keeping, and arrange that stuff worth keeping in a logical fashion so that one thing flows into another. The big advantage of this metaphor is that it makes blocks of time and the tasks that fill them seem like tangible objects that you can arrange as you wish rather than intangible units that can’t easily be organized.
Does this philosophy really work? Are there tips inside that can be applied to anyone’s life? Let’s dig in and find out!
Getting Inside Time Management From The Inside Out
Part One: Laying The Foundation
The opening section of the book focuses on some of the most basic problems people have with time management. Most of these basic problems, according to Morgenstern, are problems of perception – people view time in ways that isn’t conducive to effective time management.
1: A Whole New Way Of Looking At Time Management
The book’s opening is a brief chapter that outlines the one big metaphor of this entire book. Time, in this book’s eyes, is truly not all that different than a closet. Just as a closet is a small, constrained space that you want to optimally fill with stuff, time is a small, constrained space that you want to optimally fill with tasks.
What’s the big switch for people? It is recognizing that much like the walls and shelves in a closet, time itself has borders. Morgenstern’s philosophy is that people do not truly assign borders to their time – they get distracted and let the things they’re doing float lazily throughout the day. This phenomenon keeps people from really being efficient with their time.
2: What’s Holding You Back?
Most people have difficulty managing their time because of three distinct psychological blocks: technical errors, which are easily resolved problems that can be eliminated quickly through some careful analysis; external realities, which are environmental factors beyond your control; and psychological obstacles, which are internal forces that block you from finding the optimal solution.
The entire chapter focuses in on discovering which of these three blocks is really holding you back from becoming an effective time manager. For example, if your workspace is cluttered and you waste time finding stuff, that’s a technical error that you can easily correct by learning how to organize things. On the other hand, if you find yourself often paralyzed because of a fear of failure, that’s a psychological obstacle to isolate and investigate. The chapter moves through dozens of these possibilities and offers specific advice on how to handle each one.
Part Two: Analyze
The next section focuses mostly on self-analysis, which basically breaks down your preferences and needs so that the latter half of the book can help you build a time management plan that works for you, rather than adapting yourself to a time management plan.
3: Understanding Your Personal Relationship to Time
This entire chapter is an extended self-examination, with a lot of questions along the lines of No matter how busy I get, I always find time for… ? and so on. Why do this? It identifies the true priorities in your life – or at least get you to sit down and really look at them for a bit. In reality, though, this chapter mostly extracts the information needed to go through the next chapter – and from there, the rest of the book.
4: Developing Your Big-Picture Goals
Here, Morgenstern hits upon a few things that I’ve mentioned before on The Simple Dollar:
the importance of setting goals and determining values. What do you really want to be doing with your life and how does it really mesh with how you spend your time each day?
Morgenstern’s philosophy, which I strongly agree with, is that if you’re not spending your time in alignment with your big-picture goals, it’s hard to feel motivated and happy about the things you fill your time with, so you find yourself procrastinating and allowing your activities to fill up more time than they should because you dawdle and waste time. A good example of this is how most of us handled classes in college that we couldn’t really see the value of – we would put off work in those classes and often do them in a suboptimal frenzy at the last minute. Why? The benefit of the class to the values of our life was not really apparent to us.
Part Three: Strategize
This section is what many people think of when they think of time management: laying out a schedule and picking out appropriate tools for managing that schedule.
5: Time Mapping: Creating Your Ideal Balance
Morgenstern argues against laying out a very tight schedule, because for most people it’s just a matter of time before they break it and it falls apart. Instead, she argues on behalf of “time mapping” – taking the values (or “life areas”) defined in chapter four and assigning blocks of time to each one. I went through this whole exercise and defined several areas for me (work, family, writing, self, and knowledge were the big ones), then actually went and laid out blocks of time each day over a week to devote to each one. It seemed to work quite well.
One big advantage to this is that over time you can easily shift blocks around so that they flow well together. For me, I discovered that it was good to have family and self blocks near each other; they flowed together well. In a similar vein, writing and knowledge blocks flowed together very well, because I would often have my creative juices flowing after spending time reading. This led to me actually going to bed earlier and not reading before bed; instead, I started waking up earlier, spending some “self” time waking up and taking a shower, then reading for an hour (“knowledge” time), then writing for an hour or two before anyone else wakes up.
What about multitasking, when you can use time to multitask between two groups? By all means, do that – schedule blocks of time when you’re doing both, like an hour-long block of time on Saturdays where you call your mother and talk to her with a headset while you’re cleaning house (family and self), or when you’re reading a book on a flight (work and knowledge).
6: Selecting a Planner That Works For You
I’ve discovered that in many cases the traditional planner doesn’t work very well for me and neither do electronic models. Instead, what I often do is maintain a large desk calendar where I keep everything, a general weekly schedule that I basically have memorized, and then a portable planner that’s just a listing of appointments that I carry with me. During the day, I jot down notes in my small, plain reporter notebook and then transfer scheduled pieces to my desk calendar in the evenings.
This scheme probably won’t work for you; as Morgenstern points out in the chapter, the best schedule management scheme is different for each person. Instead, this chapter basically moves through the options available and highlights the good and bad about each one. It turns out that in terms of scheduling, I’m actually a very visual and tactile person, so the options for visual and tactile people were of great interest to me.
Part Four: Attack
Now that you’ve defined time blocks, how can you fill them effectively? This final section of the book focuses on a five-pronged attack for filling that time in an effective fashion, the SPACE methodology:
Sort potential tasks by category
Purge whatever tasks you can
Assign a home to tasks you have decided to do
Containerize tasks to keep them within the time alloted
Equalize – refine, maintain, and adapt your schedule
In my eyes, this logical flow has a lot in common with Getting Things Done; let’s dig into this final section and find out more.
Basically, for each item on your to-do list, ask yourself which of your time blocks the item fits well in and how long it will take to do. When you have to estimate, estimate long so that your schedule has some flexibility in it – the more rigid it is, the harder it will be to maintain things over a long period.
Another effective technique is to break larger tasks down into smaller tasks that are much clearer in terms of the time needed to actually do them. For example, you may have no idea how long it will take to change the oil in your car, but if you break it down into smaller steps, such as the time it takes to get newspapers laid down, the time to drain the oil, and so on, you can come up with a pretty good estimate of the time investment (and actually have a hole in the middle to do something else while the oil is draining).
If you can get rid of some of the short tasks immediately, do them. I like the Getting Things Done rule of thumb – if it takes less than a few minutes, do it immedately and get it off the list of things to do.
Morgenstern goes further than that, though; she suggests asking yourself if a task is really important or not and completely tossing it if it isn’t. For example, if you get an invitation to an event and you don’t want to attend, just send a gentle thank you note and mark the event off your list – don’t even bother doing anything more with it. Similarly, if it’s a task someone else could be doing, just go ahead and delegate that task as soon as you can and get rid of it from your to-do list. There are a lot of parallels here with pieces of the Getting Things Done model, really.
9: Assign A Home
Once you’ve trimmed down the list, then you can start placing tasks on your schedule into the appropriate time blocks. Since you already have time estimates on everything, you can realistically put tasks into various places on your schedule and then immediately see how that block is filling up with activities – plus, the time estimates prevent you from overfilling a block.
This chapter also has some great suggestions on how to make regular activities routine, such as buying all of your greeting cards for the year at once, filling out all of the envelopes, putting a date where the stamp should be, then sending close to that date by slapping the stamp on top and dropping it in the mail. This is a great way to handle birthday cards to family members, for example.
Basically, this is all about minimizing interruption within your time zones. For example, if email is a constant distraction, set a small task at the beginning and end of the time block to focus on email, then ignore it the rest of the time. Do the same thing for phone calls, people who drop by to interrupt you, and so on. If you need to focus, eliminate all distractions and make it clear to others that you’re not open to distraction by using a clear sign, like a closed door.
I find the more I do this, the more I seem to get done in a set period of time. In fact, it is because of this phenomenon that I have convinced my wife to convert the smallest bedroom into an office, because when I focus on my writing in a quiet environment, I get far more done than when I’m surrounded by interruptions. Thus, during writing times, I can just go here, close the door, and focus on content.
The book finishes with a very nice tying things up chapter. The idea here is very simple: a time management plan is never static and it changes as your needs do. Re-evaluation should be a regular, consistent process – Morgenstern recommends doing it every other month as a matter of routine.
Buy or Don’t Buy?
Getting Things Done is what I use to actually get things done; it’s a great framework that works very well for me. However, Time Management From The Inside Out offers a lot of additional material that does a great job of surrounding the GTD methodology with some sensible time management techniques.
In a nutshell, I didn’t find anything world-shattering in Time Management From The Inside Out; what I did find, though, are a lot of little things that can complement the things I do already. This book met a particular need of mine in terms of really looking at and defining where my blocks of time needed to be and after thinking about the material inside, I did make some changes to my daily routine that seem to already be paying dividends.
In short, buy this book if you’re looking for some great additional tips for time management – this book is loaded with them and will provide some good food for thought. If you already feel your time is quite efficient, thank you, don’t bother – but then you probably wouldn’t be interested in a book on time management anyway.