We’ve all seen the bits in TV shows or movies where a character has two dozen things they need to do and they’re shuffling them all and doing everything wrong and all of a sudden their countless spinning plates come crashing down in a heap. We’ve probably all been right there in those shoes.

This is about how to keep those plates up and even spinning of their own accord. How to make your time work for you.

Time management is an essential life skill. You only have so much time in a day, in a week, in your entire life. Why spend it ineffectively?

Time is the only true non-renewable resource.

After you master your time management abilities, you’ll find that others see you as more dependable, more effective, more able than you were before. This “one little” change will instantly raise you above your peers and open many doors both personally and professionally.

So we’ll explore how to do more with less. How to make others believe you truly do have two dozen plates all up spinning — and how to make them see you, impossibly, add more and more. All while gently lowering those which have finished their rounds, and skillfully delivering everything you promise.

Give Good Time Estimates

Our minds are optimistic at their core. When you try to figure out how long a task will take, you typically only think about the task itself. Which is reasonable! But you don’t always consider everything else you need to get done in a day. The time it takes to talk to your coworkers, to go to the kitchen when you need a drink or to wash your dishes, restroom breaks, everything.

A measly fifteen minute task can easily have a time cost of an hour. You have to ramp up mentally, then get started, then deal with the overhead of interruptions, emails, instant messages. This is obviously a worst-case scenario — but for some of us, it’s a daily reality.

An Estimating Rule of Thumb

Providing accurate time estimates is one of life’s Unsolved Problems. However, we can still come pretty close. There’s a tried and true method: consider how long you think it will take you to do something, then double that time. Usually, this estimate is still low.

Your goal here isn’t to be accurate. We don’t want to be precise about exactly how long it will take us to do the thing so that we can move on to the next thing. Consider the interruptions. Also consider the time between tasks. Everyone needs breaks.

So double your estimate, then double it again. It may seem like a lot at first, but soon we’ll see it’s exactly right.

Under-Promise, Over-Deliver

Allotting Time (Making Promises)

A coworker comes to you and asks you to pick up a small task. Should only take fifteen minutes. Not bad, right? Following our new Rule of Thumb, shouldn’t you just tell them to come back in an hour or so?

No.

Ask them, “Can I get this to you by Friday? What does this entail? Tell me how you’d like it delivered.”

In this way, you establish a clear deadline. You gather requirements for what the task entails. And you decide on a clear deliverable for its completion.

Always get the furthest away deadline you possibly can. Most tasks simply are not that important. They can wait. Even if you get it finished immediately, no one will care to eat the fruits of that labor until later.

So now you have this one fifteen minute task that has to be done by Friday.

That’s a whole three days away. Here’s the thing: this isn’t the only fifteen minute task you’ll take on. Take on four of them. Take on a project that will take two hours, and promise to have it done by next week. Then take on several more of those, each spaced out.

Soon you’ll find yourself faced with a sizeable chunk of stuff to do. How is this different from before, when you juggled helplessly?

Spending Time (Delivering)

Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is the tastiest.

There are countless ways to divvy up work, but I’ve found most people do one of two things: sort by importance, or by difficulty, then attack in ascending / descending order.

I like to mash the two together.

Pick the shortest task with the closest deadline

Do that fifteen minute thing you promised to get done by Friday. This is your warm up work. Something easy; not particularly engaging. Just to let your brain know what’s coming.

Pick the hardest task with the closest deadline

Work on this for twice as long as you worked on the previous task. As we’ve already discussed, “work” does not include time spent warming up. Many longer tasks are also more difficult, and it takes time to get into the zone on these. Sometimes it takes you four times as long just to see measurable progress.

This is why we include so much buffer time in our estimates.

It’s okay to spend extra time here. Just remember…

Take a break

An overworked brain doesn’t work.

Take a break. Get up and go get a cup of water or coffee. Talk to someone about what you’re doing. Ask them about what they’re doing, as long as you’re not interrupting them.

This is good for several reasons:

  1. There’s no better way to get unstuck on a problem than to take your mind off it
  2. Talking about what you’re doing lets people know what you’re doing — when they know you’re doing a bunch of things, even if you’re just talking about it, you seem busier
  3. It’s good to socialize with your coworkers, when appropriate. Don’t take them away from their work, though
  4. Breaks are good for your health. Sitting all day is very bad for your health. Seems like a simple enough equation.

Rinse and repeat

Get into this cycle. Warm up, solve a harder problem, then take a break. This is a marathon, not a race, and pacing yourself is important.

Why This Approach Isn’t Bullshit

I’ve been using pretty vague, general terms so far. Let’s deal with a concrete application of this philosophy that’s actually used in the real world: Scrum.

In Scrum, work is divided into discrete chunks called Sprints. Sprints are typically month-long (or shorter) activities comprised of multiple action items, each of which are assigned a type of time value. There is only so much time in a month, so the time value is used to ensure you don’t overcommit in a given Sprint, and can surely deliver what you’ve promised.

Sound familiar? We’re doing the exact same thing, only more generalized for a broader application.

Set and Maintain Boundaries

All of the above will only work if you’re capable of setting and maintaining your boundaries with others. You have to respect your own time and work ethic before others will. Here are a few simply ways how.

Communicate clearly

Use clear language and short sentences (when dealing in writing). Confirm that what you are communicating is understood. Confirm that everyone involved understands in the same way.

Get it in writing

When possible and applicable, email someone instead of walking over to their desk. Have them return the favor. Our memories are liars. It’s easy to forget a conversation, and easier to “forget” a vocal agreement. Don’t assume the worst. Just get it all in writing.

Only commit to something you know you can deliver

If you know you won’t be able to finish something on time, then admit it. Point the asker in another direction — either to another coworker, or toward a simpler task.

Do not move your deadlines unless there is an actual emergency need

Moving deadlines says you had it in you the whole time. That you could have delivered this sooner and you were just sitting on your hands. Whether or not this is the case, it’s not a message you want to send. Be firm with your deadlines (that are hopefully agreed upon, and in writing).

Of course, the real world always has other plans. This is one of the reasons you doubled your estimate twice: to account for vagaries and distractions.

Be firm

Don’t change direction on anyone’s whim. Do what you’ve promised. Be clear when someone is attempting to move the goalposts that they are doing so.

Summary

In short, you always want to:

  • Double your estimates twice
  • Set and agree on a deadline as far in the future as you can go
  • Do your work in small chunks throughout the day
  • Take frequent breaks

I hope all this helps you as much as it’s helped me!