Achieving internal efficiency by managing your time and organizing your tasks

Achieving internal efficiency by managing your time and organizing your tasks

I’ve been meaning to write about how I manage my tasks and organize my work for a good couple of months by now. Then work got in the way, so while I was heading home from the summer cabin, I had some time to put my thoughts together on this.

We all have diverse ways of coping with our work and tasks. I can’t proclaim I’ve found The One Way that works for everyone. But I’ve found a model that works for me! So, in full transparency, I wanted to share my thinking around these topics, and hopefully, some will gain better internal efficiency – or what we usually call productivity – after reading this. I can’t share insane statistics that show how my productivity skyrocketed when I did this one thing, but perhaps it’s better to reveal a bit more internal data about my internal efficiency and the process. This isn’t to boast, but rather to say that by doing certain things I seem to be getting things done.

Currently, I juggle the following things in my life:

  1. Full-time work at Microsoft
  2. Part-time school at Hanken & Stockholm School of Economics – I’m hoping to graduate in April 2021
  3. Sleeping at least 8.5 hours each night – on average I do 8 hours and 30 minutes of sleep week-over-week (I use a plethora of gadgets to track things)
  4. Running a podcast with my co-host Tobi, with weekly episodes
  5. Maintaining my fitness with a personal trainer, with 3 visits to the gym each week
  6. Writing a book – plans to get the next one out around August 2020 timeframe
  7. Publishing on average 2 blog posts a week here
  8. Managing investments together with my brother through our holding company
  9. Mentoring 2-3 people at a time
  10. Spending as much time with the family as possible – with 3 kids, it’s always busy
  11. All the things I count as hobbies – scavenging good wines, running, sourcing new gadgets, reading, and I think I forgot something here

(I might forget some meaningless activities here, but that’s the essence of it)

Sometimes when I chat with people I get asked “but how do you have the time for all that?“, and to be brutally honest in a Dutch-kind-of-way, I’m really good with two things: identifying activities that steal my time, and doing certain things very fast. A few things I identified that stole a lot of my time were Facebook, browser bookmarks (yeah, really), watching TV, and playing games on the PC or console. I feel someone reading this now might mutter “you must be fun at parties,” and I hear you. But it isn’t about pruning out all the great and fun things, just focusing on the things that bring you joy and dropping the things that steal your time without giving much in return.

Measuring and managing time

We all have 168 hours each week. From this, I deduct about 60 hours for sleep (8.5 hours average):

That still leaves me with 108 hours. Work takes about 37-40 hours each week, so I’ll round that up to 40 hours to be fair. That leaves me with 68 hours for everything else. The school takes about 50 hours per month or 12.5 hours per week on average. I now have 55.5 hours for everything else on my list (items 4 through 11).

I usually don’t work in the evenings. I used to do that for almost two decades but opted to stop a few years ago. I might take a glance at instant messages or take a business call when needed but beyond that, I don’t switch to work-mode anymore after I stop working each day. I also don’t work during the weekends or when I’m on vacation.

With the 55.5 hours I have at my disposal I try to divide it based on preference, priority and energy levels:

Family, for me, is of highest priority so I’m usually ‘giving’ it 35 hours each week. It’s hard to measure, so I tried my best estimates here. Maintaining my fitness is relatively low in this context, but I’m still doing about 6 hours each week of some serious sports. Together, family and fitness take 75% of my time. And that works out very, very well.

The raw data I used to generate the chart is here:

Fitness (gym)6
Writing (book)3
Writing (blog) 2

Not each week is identical to this, obviously. Sometimes family priorities take over, and the gym or hobbies or writing has to give way. Sometimes things fall apart with the podcast recordings and post-production, and it eats more time. That’s life.

Doing this simple exercise was an eye-opener for me, too. Mentoring, writing this blog and hobbies seem relatively minuscule in this comparison, yet they often take a lot of my thinking at the same time. It’s hard to compartmentalize everything and I don’t think that should be the goal either.

At one point in my life, I tried to manage my time through a formula. It more or less was something like this, and I hope you’ll excuse my poor attempt at creating an equation with abstract values:

Efficiency = Waking Hours – ((Work + Hobbies + Fitness) x Effort)

Efficiency should be a positive number. The effort is usually a relative multiplier between 1 (regular day, regular energy levels), and 2 (pushing hard to survive the day). I openly admit I haven’t thought about this too deeply. It didn’t really work too well. I’m not a math person so I rarely think through numbers or financials first. Days are dynamic, everything is in constant motion so applying a formula like this might work for a snapshot of a given day, but not to manage or run your days. Yet, I thought in full transparency it would be fun to share a bit of my thinking here, too.

To summarize this, it’s crucial you manage your time, and don’t just go through each day in autopilot mode. For me, this was made possible when I sat down, listed the things I want to do, and the things I’m really not going to miss. This produced the list of ~12 items for me and then it’s a simple task of allocating your hours between those.

Organizing your tasks

Now, on to tasks. For me, all areas of life have tasks. They might be items on a To Do-list, simple tasks (“get milk for lunch”), achievements (“get certified on Azure”) and stuff to do (“plan the workshop and schedule accordingly”).

I’ve used all the possible tools and software for managing tasks. A friend suggested using a Bullet Journal (or BuJo for short). I really tried, twice, but couldn’t get it to work for me. I’ve then resorted to tracking and organizing my tasks with two very different platforms.

First, Microsoft To Do app, which works on mobile and desktop. It’s a clean app for managing and organizing your tasks. I track individual tasks and organize them into flexible categories:

It’s important to understand that not all tasks must be completed now. Some take time. I have tasks in my Writing topics list I’ve added 3 years ago and I never got to writing on those. Sometimes I cross them out, other times I review and prioritize them again. In my Home 2020, I have a never-ending list of things we need to buy or find for our home. Things like “Research and buy a digital piano”, which we might never get in our current home, but at some point, we’ll want one. It’s relaxing when you get these off from your mind and they’re safely stored and easily shareable.

I don’t use the My Day, Planned, Flagged email or Tasks views in To Do. I map things in my mind through lists, not through artificial views.

Using To Do on my phone, on the web, and on my laptop and other computers is so efficient, I’ve given up on my old todo.txt files. There are obviously other task tracking apps also, but I’ve found Microsoft To Do integrates neatly in my workflows. I haven’t done any automation around these tasks – such as adding a new task when I’m mentioned on Twitter. They are fancy but at the end of the day, meaningless tasks.

The other platform is plain old paper notebook and Post-Its. I prefer the Moleskine Classic Pro Project Planner (A4 size). Paper quality is great, and it’s easy to write on. The Post-Its I put on the pages for tasks I know I’ll get done within the day. This is how it looks right now:

I often jot down small tasks, ideas and things to do when I’m attending a call. “Oh, that’s a great point, I need to check that” and it ends up on my Post-Its. These then go to Microsoft To Do at the end of the day – or if they get done, I’ll scratch them over and consider them completed. That’s also why many of these notes look like they were written by a 5-year-old – I don’t want to spend more than a few seconds on these.

To summarize, I have a two-pronged approach here: Using a digital approach for long-standing tasks, and for daily and ad-hoc tasks I use a pen and a paper. The latter ensures I internalize what I do, and nobody else can manage these tasks for me. Thus, I don’t need to overcommit or need to justify my choices later on. If something doesn’t flow from a Post-It to To Do at the end of the day, then I either feel I can tackle it the following day, or I’m not certain it’s a task worth doing anymore.

What about calendars?

Glad you asked! I have many calendars – work, private and kids. All digital, managed through Outlook mostly.

Next week looks like this with all 3 calendars overlaid (blue is private, green is work, kids calendar doesn’t have anything to show):

You can see I’ve blocked each day from 4:30 pm to 8 am for family time. I had to resort to this, as otherwise, I would either book them with interesting calls and meetings, or others would inject things in there that I found challenging to decline. This blanket block works well for me.

School eats three days (Wed-Fri), and I do have two webinars to deliver a presentation on also. It’s busy, but not overly busy. I like to work in a way so that I have time to think and reflect – and not do back-to-back meetings the whole day.

As I’ve written previously, we plan our weeks on Sundays. The calendars are always self-updating and in motion, but the structure remains the same – and that’s the key to not feeling fatigue and depression when you start each week.

In conclusion

Writing this post was a journey for me, as it forced me to revisit some of my habits and reflecting on my own thinking. I don’t claim that I’ve mastered managing my time and tasks, but I’m positively progressing toward a destination where I get most things done in time, and still have time to rest and enjoy life.