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Updated: March 27th, 2020
There are few things more upsetting than the crushing truth that our lives are primarily shaped by the two things that we’ll never have enough of: time and energy. Every single thing we choose to do necessitates a tacit agreement that we’re not going to do some other thing that we could be doing instead.
As a small business owner, your time is your most precious commodity. These tacit agreements and exchanges of time have a profound impact on what you’re able to accomplish in the daily management of your business. Some structure, a plan, even a small amount of self-awareness about the sand passing through the hourglass, will help you to overcome the inherent obstacles faced by anyone with too much to do, and not enough time and energy to do it all.
So how can we make the best use of these two finite resources? Humans have been trying to solve this question since basically forever ago. Long before clocks and calendars appeared, we were trying to make the best use of the daylight we had for farming. The struggle to make the best use of our time is as real as it ever was.
Daylight isn’t the same foe it once was, but the battle against time and depleted energy wages on. Meanwhile, an entire cottage industry of books, products, apps and life coaches has sprung up to try to help you, the ordinary human, become a hyper-productive, high-performing overachiever, virtually oblivious to the ceaselessly marching procession of seconds, minutes and hours that mark our short time on this mortal coil.
Some of it really works. Some of it doesn’t. It’s kind of subjective, if we’re being honest.
The important thing to realize is that time cannot be controlled, but it can be managed.
One very effective technique for managing time is known as Time Blocking.
At some point, you’ve probably found yourself thinking, ‘Ok, I’ve got this very important thing that I’ve got to work on tomorrow morning.’
‘Tomorrow morning,’ is a very nebulous, non-specific quantity of time. There is a concept called Parkinson’s Law, which suggests that the duration that work on a given task will take will expand to the point that it fills all of the available time allotted to complete the task. So, if you say ‘Tomorrow morning’ is the amount of time needed, then it will likely take you all morning to complete the task. However, if you say, between 10AM and noon, then odds are you stand a decent chance of completing it in the time allotted. Depending upon when you get started in the morning, this could seriously free you up to get more work done.
Time Blocking makes use of Parkinson’s Law by demanding that you carefully schedule the tasks that you must complete into specific allocations of time.
In order to do this, you have to have a clear idea of what must be accomplished. It would be ideal to work this out the day before, but work can begin whenever you get to it.
Here’s how to begin:
Ask yourself, ‘What do I absolutely have to do?’
Write the first task down or put it on your calendar or do whatever works for you. I’m a paper person. Rate it on a scale of 1 to 3. 3 means ‘necessary’, 2 means ‘would be nice’, and 1 means ‘not urgent’.
Let’s assume you’re scheduling the tasks you must complete for the next day.
How much time will each task take? Be as realistic as possible, but realize that as time goes on, you’ll get a much better sense of how long your tasks actually take to complete when you’re working in a way that shuts out distractions. Assign a number value in minutes or hours to each task.
If you’re using paper, write out the hours that you intend to spend working tomorrow. If you’re using a calendar app, zoom into the timeline of your day to see the day segmented into blocks of hours and partial hours.
First, assign all of your ‘necessary’ tasks across the range of available hours. Don’t block them all together. Don’t put all of your most difficult and demanding tasks all in a row. Have some awareness of when you are the most productive and alert, and schedule the tasks that will require the deepest focus for that part of the day. For me, this period occurs first thing in the morning, and again, shortly before lunch.
Now, fill in the remaining segments of time that are needed to complete the ‘would be nice’ tasks. If there is any amount of time left over, fill in the ‘not urgent’ tasks, or save them for another day.
Things like responding to emails, taking phone calls, meetings and other ambiguous tasks which often create more work that might be unknown at the time that you’re blocking out time can also be scheduled.
If at all possible, try to limit responding to emails to two or three times per day. The same goes for returning phone calls and receiving guests or walk-ins, as well as for completing the tasks that arise from your daily meetings and activities. Try to adopt a policy of making room for these inevitabilities within your time-blocked daily structure. If you explain to people that you have a certain way of scheduling your day that helps you to stay on top of your work, they’ll most likely be understanding.
They’ll probably even ask you how they can do it themselves, because time and energy are finite resources, and the universe is either expanding or shrinking, and either way, the heat death of the universe is a plausible eventual outcome.
We might as well make the best use of our time while we still can.
Samantha Novick is a senior editor at Funding Circle, specializing in small business financing. She has a bachelor's degree from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. Prior to Funding Circle, Samantha was a community manager at Marcus by Goldman Sachs. Her work has been featured in a number of top small business resource sites and publications.