11 min read

We're Thinking About Time Management All Wrong

No matter what tools or software or anything you use, your time management will still be poor until you change the way you think about it to begin with.
We're Thinking About Time Management All Wrong
Photo by Kevin Ku / Unsplash

You've probably read some book or listened to some podcast about time management at this point, yeah?

Had conversations about work-life balance. If you own a business, you'll even have hired for this. Anything and everything from personal assistants, a full team, housekeeping, productivity coaches, and more.

I did the same thing.

I got big into productivity and time management around 2013/2014 when I started writing for Lifehacker. Writing about "life hacks" meant a lot of tech, tools, and tactics that made life easier, more convenient, and cut out a lot of the hurdles to do the things we wanted to do. Of course, many of them meant managing our time better.

Fast forward to 2019 and I'd just started my own agency in the marketing space. This meant I really needed to get my shit together and figure out how to better manage my time, which - to be clear - I still hadn't made much progress with even after researching & trying everything under the sun for years.

At this point in 2022 I'd say I'm much further along the journey of mastering the use of my time. And the vast majority of what's working for me and the people I know won't be found in popular books.

The truth is, we're thinking about time management all wrong. Especially if you are a neurodivergent variety of human.

And no matter what tools or software or anything you use, your time management will still be poor until you change the way you think about it to begin with.

So, let's get started.

Time Management is a Non-starter Without First Addressing Energy Management

Here's the deal, if we don't know ourselves enough to know how our own energy levels and quality of energy work, we're never going to get anywhere with managing our time.

This is especially true if you identify as ND.

You can have a beautiful day mapped out and hit a brain fog, task initiation, etc. at noon that kills your progress. A beautiful week of meetings to look forward to but you hit a spiral of negative thoughts and anxiety that kills your performance and has you canceling what you have left.

Time management is nothing without energy management.

And that's the thing no one tells you: master that first.

Going straight to the planners, calendars, to-do lists and bullet journals expecting them to fix all your problems without first studying your energy and what affects it is like trying to lose weight on a shitty diet & a gym membership.

It doesn't work because you're missing one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle.
So here's a crash course on energy management.

  • Understand that you have a quantity of energy, and quality of energy
  • Also understand that you generate energy, you don't just wake up with the energy you'll have all-day. You can generate it throughout the day.

The key is to:

  1. Figure out what tasks and activities give you a high quantity of energy
  2. Figure out what tasks and activities drain your energy
  3. Figure out which tasks, environments, people, etc. add to your quality of energy
  4. Figure out which tasks, environments, people etc. diminish your quality of energy

Then manage your time according to those things. How your energy works and what tasks affect it is the compass to figuring out what to do, when.

So let's go over that next.

Now, Schedule Your Energy, Not Your Tasks

You'll hear and read all kinds of shit about scheduling tasks based on priority yadda yadda.

I'll just say that this turns out to be bullshit and unsustainable for a lot of people.

When I was looking at time management as seeing which tasks fit where in a time block I could never complete all the tasks. Oftentimes this was because of a math issue we'll go over next section.

But it was also, and moreso, because I'd create a schedule that would kick me in the gut all day energy-wise. Then I'd wonder why I couldn't get through it.

I'd be overwhelmed, burned out, bored to death or otherwise bent out of shape by lunch and wouldn't want to log back in.

This is how people become work zombies. In fact I guarantee you any time someone works and lives like a zombie they'll also probably have zero idea that energy management is real, how important it is, and how much it can help them even if they're not working their dream job.

But when I started scheduling my tasks based on my energy levels, that fixed like 80% of the problems.

This meant figuring out which tasks & routines gave me energy versus drained my energy. Which tasks I needed to do but hated and would kill my vibe versus which ones would get me energized and excited.

And I'd schedule my day to accommodate those things, asking myself, "How do I manage my energy so that I can complete as much as possible without burning out?"

After a lot of testing I found out that putting my energy-generating tasks in the top and middle of my day produced the best days. Then I'd tuck energy-draining tasks between them in as short of spurts as possible.

This meant that as soon as I was done with this relatively short-lived, painfully shitty task, I could get back to spiking my dopamine up w/ something more my speed.

I get to start my day on a fun & high energy note I look forward to, another pick-me-up in the middle, and everything else just feels better with those boosts cushioned around them.

I also routinely feel hump day, so I schedule lighter or more energizing days on Wednesday to keep me upbeat or just to take it easy and give myself a break.

That's just for me. You'll need to figure out what works for you.

But as an example, this is a basic structure of a work day for me:

4AM: Morning routine is gym, protein & green shake, meditate, set intentions, get dressed & ready for the day (generate high quantity AND quality of energy)

7AM: Finalize schedule for the day (generates clarity which adds to quality of energy and confidence for the tasks I'm about to dig into for the day)

730AM: Write/Deep Work that's solitary (I like to start my day out on a note I enjoy and work alone since I'm introverted and socializing drains me fast)

9AM: Admin (draining quantity + quality, but at this point, my cup is hella full from my first 3 segments of my day, so I have spoons for this and am all good)

10AM: Calls (draining quantity, generative for quality though as I tend to enjoy my client calls)

Noon: Lunch + movement and/or reading something different. (The point here is to disconnect from work in a generative way before I dig into the most draining part of my day. I have to give myself a boost here)

1PM: Coms & firefighting for the rest of the day (draining)

3PM: Log off, decompress & self-care (generative & relaxing)

Personally, I find that if I put my most generative activities at the top of my day, I have better stamina to get through the entirety of it. If I find myself doing a task that's painfully draining at the top of the day, it sets the tone for the entire day.

I can get completely zapped before I even get to really get stuff done, causing me to shut down for the rest of the day. Or I'll spend the rest of the day playing catchup energy-wise and the quality of my work suffers.

I aim to order my tasks from most generative to most draining accordingly with a little bump in the middle.

You may discover that something different works better for you. I know a lot of people like to get through the hell part of their day first and reward themselves with more enjoyable work after the fact.

Even I'll bump a quick & easy draining task up earlier if I can get through it in 20 minutes or less, just to get it over with.

But going from difficult to easy as a standard didn't work for me, because it would drain my mental space before I was even out the gate and I'd spend the rest of the day running on fumes.

Discovering how critical it is for me to spend the first hours of my day solely doing generative work was a huge game-changer for me. It put a lot of stuff into perspective and a lot of my tasks into place.

The point is, you can't find out what works for you if you never take a look at what drains you vs. energizes you to begin with.

It's interesting how it works, but if you can find a way to account for your energy when you build out your schedule, you'll be much further along than most people when it comes to managing your time and getting more shit done.

Calendars Aren't What You Think They Are

I used to hate using my Calendar. Hate hate. Why press a bunch of buttons to figure out what time I need to do something when I can to-do list (poorly) with the best of them?

But like I said, in 2019 I was the busiest I'd ever been, drowning in everything I was committing to. A friend and colleague on the same team who appeared to have it all together said, "yeah guys if it's not in my calendar it doesn't exist" in response to not knowing about a meeting.

Something about that statement stuck out to me.

That boundary was just... sexy. I don't know how else to put it. And I didn't have sexy boundaries around my calendar and time. I knew he had something figured out that I didn't, so I asked him for a call to brainstorm the way I was scheduling my time.

After hopping on a quick (and painful) call with him to brainstorm how I can get in the habit of using my calendar and manage my time better, I walked away with another big realization.

Calendars aren't for what I thought they were for.

I thought calendars were just for knowing which time to do which tasks. Because that's all I'd ever heard anyone reference them for.

But I realized that calendars are for seeing that you had enough time to do everything you were committing to, to begin with. It seems simple, dense even.

But ask yourself how often you actually know you have the time to do what you say yes to?

How often do you do the math? How often do you overbook and overcommit doing it all off the time of your head? How often do you say "Oh yeah I'll get that to you tomorrow" after a quick look at your to-do list, just to realize that those 2 tasks you had left were actually a lot more time-intensive than you assumed?

That was probably my worst habit. And if you share that habit, then this is what you're missing.

The calendar does the math for you. It's like a time calculator. Hella fucking handy.

I realized I was "eyeballing" the time that I had to commit to everything I was saying yes to throughout the week, and I was doing a terrible job. I literally didn't have enough time to do everything I was signing up for. The math didn't work. No wonder I was drowning.

After realizing this I decided to do a habit challenge for using my calendar to see if this could work for me long-term.

I'd tough it out and use my Calendar for 30 days straight, rain or shine. All this involved was me opening the calendar every morning and making sure my tasks were in there as I planned to do them.

And as a side-effect of that, I wouldn't say "yes" to anything without first checking my calendar.

Throughout the challenge I found myself having a much easier time saying no to commitments that I didn't have time for, because the math was right in front of me. "I'm sorry I'm booked out next week" was okay to say to people.

And I found myself able to keep my promises to people, and to myself, in terms of what I'd do with my time.

I also found myself able to get a hell of a lot more done throughout the week because I wasn't feeling as overwhelmed either.

Remember that section about energy management?

Well trying to fit 16 hours of work into 8 hour days is about as draining as it gets. You'll find yourself feeling like a superhero going a thousand miles an hour when you see a reasonable workload in front of you for the day.

Suddenly you'll be able to get that much more done, just from that alone.

It's wild.

Create Space

Now, here's one little key that's also huge and I realized recently that a lot of people don't do.

I was on a coaching call with some clients showing them my calendar for the week and we were going over how to organize it, etc. One of them called out how much "white space" I had in my calendar.

As in, I give myself 15-minute breaks between each task, no matter how short the task is.

I didn't realize that people didn't do this.

Like, James, babe. You already know you get up and do literally random nothingness for 5-15 minutes between tasks, naturally.

Why not schedule it?

But one of my clients was surprised, "Woah. I think I might try that. Your calendar looks way less scary."

Yes. Because it is.

Imagine being in school and having 30 seconds to switch from one class to another, as a teacher or a student? It doesn't make sense. Again, the math doesn't add up.

This white space between my tasks are little tiny energizers for me to reset my headspace, disconnect really quick, give myself time to do human things like grab a snack, coffee whatever, and jump into the next task. Not to mention a great buffer time for if a call or task runs over a bit.

It's like reloading the gun between rounds. Only the gun is your mental-emotional state, which happens to be the single most important thing for you to manage throughout the day.

Don't schedule your tasks back to back. Schedule your breaks between your tasks so you can reload and get going.

Even if it can't be a full 15 minutes, do 5's and 10's between every task with a bigger break in the middle of your day.

Schedule Recovery, Too.

Honestly I think one of the shittiest things about popular time-management rhetoric is that it completely neglects the emotional & mental well-being of the humans its designed for.

Here's the deal:

You have bad days.

Bad days usually happen as a result of stress, burnout, or some sort of acutely painful/stressful event.

Expect those days.

Schedule recovery proactively as a preventative measure for those days.

Schedule time to destress your nervous system.

Prioritize this just like you would a high-priority work deadline.

For me, you might see things like:

  • Walks
  • Gym
  • Therapy
  • Muay Thai Class
  • Sensory deprivation floats
  • "NOPE"
  • Social hangouts with close friends I feel relaxed with

All sprinkled through my calendar any given week.

I schedule time to read. I schedule to sleep. I schedule time to play.

I schedule time to explore. To socialize. To vent. To move my body.

Schedule things that regulate your nervous system. Schedule them on purpose and hold them sacred to you. They will help you reduce stress and stay mobile throughout the week.

Don't Beat Yourself Up

Last but not least, this isn't a game of perfection. It'll never be perfect. So try to get in the habit now of forgiving weird time & energy management weeks.

Consider it a practice.

You'll have good weeks. Rough weeks. Shitty weeks. Spot on weeks.

The point is to just keep practicing, because overall (you'll see) your life will probably feel a lot better if you can live it with intention, and consideration for how your mind & body actually work to get shit done.