Dealing with the Time Management Problems That a System Won’t Fix

As I discussed recently, I view time management as a key element of personal finance success. A good time management system frees you up to engage in the things in life that you deeply value without the need to “throw money” at the situation.

I use a system that’s largely based on Getting Things Done to manage my time. The system works really well for me, but there are still problems that pop up in terms of using my time effectively that virtually no time management plan can solve. Here are six things that can destroy even the best laid plans – and how I deal with each one.

Life emergencies Sometimes, life happens. A child gets sick. I get sick. A toilet overflows, flooding the bathroom and the hallway and causing water to drip through the ceiling onto a lower floor. A friend or a loved one is in a dire situation. A relative passes away. Life hands us emergencies that disrupt all of our best-laid plans.

For me, the best response to this is to maintain a professional “buffer.” To the absolute best of my ability, I try to keep several articles ahead in terms of my writing responsibilities. Ideally, I shoot for having enough written that I would be safe for two weeks. Having that buffer means that if I suddenly have to travel, there won’t be a problem.

Yes, this doesn’t work for some jobs, but it never hurts to look at your life responsibilities and commitments – professional and otherwise – and ask yourself which of those tasks you can “bank” as a time “emergency fund” of sorts.

Self-discipline You might have a masterfully constructed checklist for the day, but if you don’t have the self-discipline to execute that list, the list doesn’t matter too much. You have to be willing to stick to that list and do your best to finish it.

For me, the best approach to this problem is to offer myself a small non-financial reward for completing the day’s to-do list. Usually, it’s something like spending an hour reading for pleasure or an hour engaged in a personal hobby. I often write this as the last item on a to-do list so that it stays in my mind throughout the day.

I don’t make the reward very big because I want the primary pleasure to come from all of the things I completed. However, a little reward works really well for convincing me to choose to keep my nose to the grindstone rather than goofing off.

External influences Sometimes, an external influence will shove something urgent on your plate, completely disrupting your to-do list. You’ll get an email from your boss with a top priority task. You’ll recognize that you forgot to submit a freelance article you agreed to. Suddenly, your entire list shifts – and that can be painful.

My solution to this problem is to prioritize my list. I make a to-do list each day, but I also prioritize it. For example, writing two articles for The Simple Dollar is a priority one task, but writing another post is a lower priority task. I actually mark these with different pen colors so I can tell at a glance whether I have any top priority tasks left (they’re in red).

If I’m going to fail to complete my list for the day, I want to drop some low-priority tasks rather than some high-priority ones.

Overload Sometimes, things will converge in your life and you’ll find that you’re consistently unable to keep up with the things you need to do. You have things undone on your to-do list every single day. Usually, when I have a string of days like this, I recognize that I’m headed for burnout, which can be very bad.

When I’m feeling overloaded, I find value in stepping back and reassessing my commitments. If I’m not able to keep up with all of my obligations, the best approach is to figure out which obligations I can step back from.

It’s much better to step back from two obligations and commit great work to your other obligations than it is to try to keep up with all of them and produce mediocre effort across the board.

Cognitive issues My ability to focus changes throughout the day – and also changes from day to day. My energy level does the same. Sleep plays a factor, as does my activity level and diet and season and exposure to viruses and bacteria. Sometimes, things come easier. At other times, things come harder.

The solution to this for me was to figure out what days and times I tend to focus the best and use that to my advantage. I spent about two months keeping careful track of the times of the day and the days of the week in terms of productivity. I realized that I tended to write best in the middle of the morning (around 9 AM to 11 AM) and my productivity for the week usually peaked on Tuesdays.

I took advantage of that in terms of planning my tasks for the week. I try really hard to get most of the focus-intensive work done earlier in the week and I usually leave tasks that don’t require a ton of thought for the afternoons on a given day. This has helped quite a lot.

Misplaced values At the start of the day, I’ll think to myself that some particular task is important and I’ll add it to my list. Later in the day, I’ll look at it and seriously doubt that task’s importance. Sometimes, I’ll just cross it off. At other times, the reverse happens – I’ll think of an important task later in the day and be annoyed that I didn’t consider it important earlier in the day.

When I find this sort of thing happening, I need to spend some time re-evaluating my values and priorities. Clearly, I’m not certain how important a particular element of my life is because that relative importance is changing throughout the day. Without having a consistent idea of what things are important and what things are not, it becomes far more difficult to maintain the important things in my life.

At the end of the day, time management simply means that you’re trying to exert some control over the responsibilities of your life. Knowing how to deal with the unexpected makes your life run that much easier.

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