3 Simple Steps to Better Manage Your Time

Why would anyone want to explain the difference between a to do and a project? The simple fact of the matter is, there is quite often a misconception about the two.

I’m sure you would agree that the redesign of a website is a project, a big one. But purchasing a gift for a friend… most likely not.

Let’s have a closer look at the two terms and see what qualifies as a project and what qualifies as a to do. Is the following a project or a to do? Buying a present for your best friend? The answer: it depends, and here is why.

It’s a to do if:
You know exactly what to buy, where to buy it and that it’s in your budget.

It’s a project if:
1. You don’t have a clue what you want to buy and need to do some research.
2. You have to figure out where you will get what you’re looking for.
3. You don’t know if it’s in your budget.

David Allen, who created the methodology “Getting Things Done,” came up with a clear and simple distinction:

To Do: If only one action step is required to reach the desired outcome.

Project: If the desired outcome requires several action steps.

Why is this important? Because it helps you think differently about your planning and time commitment. There is a big difference between ordering something online vs. having to do some research and then moving on to the purchase. Sounds kind of obvious, doesn’t it? But that’s not necessarily the way we think about it. By not being specific about the various steps (of this little project) we tend to greatly underestimate the time it will take to get it done. Our mind deceives us. Buying a gift for our friend equals to: “not a big deal” and “done quickly.” If, however, we consider the various steps, our mind changes from “done quickly” to “it’ll take a bit of time.”

If you look at the bigger picture it can turn into a vicious cycle. Because you underestimate the time you’ll need to accomplish something you constantly feel “behind” or playing catch-up which in turn results in stress. Something we all have enough of.

If this sounds like you and you feel you’re always behind and chasing time, there are three simple steps you can take to improve your time management.

Step 1 – Make a List

Make a list of all the things you want or need to do, either on paper or electronically.

Step 2 – Note All Necessary Steps

Determine what requires only one action step to be completed and what requires two or more action steps. Note all the necessary action steps required to finish each “project.” Remember, everything that takes more than one action step is not a to do but a project.

I’ll use my example “go grocery shopping,” something everyone can relate to. Here my process before I get into the car: 

  • Plan what I will make for dinner.
  • I may have to check a recipe for ingredients and add any missing ones to my shopping list.
  • I’ll also check what I have to restock in the fridge and/or pantry. I add these items to my shopping list as well.
Step 3 – Block Time in Your Calendar

Blocking time in the calendar. What is the best time to work on my project? Again, let’s use the project “go grocery shopping” as an example. I like to go shopping when stores are not crowded, i.e. not on weekends and not around the time school ends. Having said that, in case I’m on the road and pass a store, especially one that is a little farther away, I’ll do the shopping en route.

After all, the whole point of this exercise is to make the best use of your time and eliminate as much stress as possible.

If you have recurring action steps, keep an eye on the time for future planning. The more you learn about the time commitment for various tasks, the better for your planning. Being more conscious about your time will help you make better decisions of what to do and when to do it.

Last but not least, let’s have a quick look at some electronic task management and project management systems. You’ll find quite a few. Whichever tool you choose, keep it simple. Use tool(s) that appeal to you, that are intuitive, and fit your work style. The process is the same, but instead of writing things on paper you collect your to dos and projects with sub-tasks in a task management tool.

My repository for projects and tasks is the Microsoft To Do task manager. I find it’s intuitive and easy-to-use, and it synchronizes over all my devices (laptop, cell phone, office computer, tablet). No matter where I am, I always have my phone with me and can easily add something. This way I don’t have to worry about anything falling through the cracks. Other task managers I have used in the past were:

Now over to you. What are you doing to keep track of your to dos and projects? Do you prefer a paper list or are you more an electronic kind of person? What tools are you using? Do you have any tips? Or are you struggling to keep track of everything? Let’s talk or let me know in the comments below.

See you next time.