Making time management suck less

I'm no productivity expert - but there are a few things I've found that help me get more done in less time, while still keeping my sanity.
This article first appeared in the
edition of The Ongoing.

One tidbit you may not know about me is that I'm actively working to build up two businesses instead of just one.

On top of writing and consulting, my wife and I are in full swing marketing her private counseling practice. Although her little practice is fast approaching its fifth birthday, we've never spent much time marketing or expanding it beyond a couple of clients at a time. To put it simply, there has never been a need - my job paid more than enough to cover our family expenses, which killed all our motivation to build up something on the side.

The last couple of months have been a nonstop whirlwind of networking meetings, conference sponsorships, content writing, web design, and client work. And on top of that, we're also juggling the constant demands of our two-year-old daughter, who single-handedly adds the equivalent of another full-time job.

In order to maintain our sanity and get anything done, we've forced ourselves into a crash course in time management, planning, and maintaining focus. Neither of us is a productivity expert - but there are a few things we've found that are helping us stay productive (and sane).

Write it down. Write it all down.

Every Sunday evening, once the kiddo's in bed, we'll sit down together and list out everything each of us needs to get done over the next week. Usually we end up with 2-3 big projects each - for example, this week we're launching a Facebook ad campaign to raise awareness of Sarah's business with her target audience of new moms.

Those bigger projects then get broken down further, into tasks that should each take only a couple hours to complete. For example, launching the ad campaign included the following tasks:

  • Write an informative article on a relevant topic
  • Edit the article
  • Post the article on Sarah's website
  • Create 2 different graphics to test against each other
  • Write 2 different headlines and ad copy to test against each other
  • Double-check that the Facebook tracking pixel is working properly
  • Create a new Facebook audience targeting new moms in the Denver area
  • Launch the ad

Once we've listed out all the tasks we can think of, everything gets mapped onto our calendars. Both of our calendars are shared with each other. Everything gets color-coded to make it easier to digest - green for me, purple for Sarah, and red for Amelia. The only time we have to work together is naptimes and in the evening - during the day, only one of us can be working at a time.

Getting everything to line up feels like playing Tetris:

Making time management suck less - Kieran Tie

Getting everything written down has done wonders for our productivity - it's easier to stay focused on the task at hand, and more importantly, not to feel bad for taking time away from the other person while we're working. It also lets us schedule different kinds of work for times when we're most productive - for example, I usually spend each morning writing, and the afternoon doing design or other client work.

In the past, I've tried every to-do list app under the sun, and every one of them stopped getting updated after about two days - but putting everything in my calendar has been working well.

Now I'm not saying this is the best solution for you - but the important thing is to get your plans out of your head and into your calendar, onto sticky notes, a big-ass whiteboard, or whatever method you find works best. The best productivity tool is the one you actually use - keep experimenting with different options until you find something that sticks.

Prioritize relentlessly

Looking at the huge list of things-that-must-be-done to build a business (let alone two) can be completely overwhelming. You end up worrying about the minute details of every little task before they're even important.

There's an easy way to beat this, though, and it's a trick I learned working in product management. Don't try to break everything down at once - focus only on the big pieces, like the Facebook ad campaign, or a website redesign, and only break the big pieces down into tasks right before you're ready to work on it.

Start by writing down all the ideas, projects, and other things you have on your radar. Don't worry about forgetting anything, or new things coming up - this list is meant to change over time.

For each thing you've written down, take a guess at roughly how much time you think each item on your list will take you to complete. Your guesses don't need to be precise, or even close - I like to write down a T-shirt size for each item - small, medium, or large.

This early in the process, it doesn't matter whether your guesses are accurate or not - it's more important to compare each item to the other things on your list. For example, redesigning your website might be a large amount of work, but launching a Facebook ad to promote a blog post you've already written will probably be much smaller.

Got it? Great.

Next, write down how much impact you think each piece will have on your business growth. Again, keep it simple - low, medium, and high works for now.

Now, put all the projects that are low effort and high impact together - these are the things you'll want to focus on first. Now, and only now, you can start thinking about breaking down the first 2 or 3 of these that you want to do into smaller tasks.

Don't waste effort thinking about small details that aren't important yet - focus on the top 2 or 3 things that will have the biggest impact on your business, right now. I'd say this has been the single biggest factor in helping us make sure we're getting the most bang for our time-management buck.

Set specific deadlines

When was the last time you finished an open-ended task without any external deadlines? Without any bosses, clients, teachers, or friends pushing you to get it finished?

If you're like most people, the answer is probably "I can't remember," or "Not recently," or even "Never."

Getting work done without anybody to hold you accountable is hard - but it's a key skill to succeeding in running your business. Without it, you'll never be able to build and launch that side project you never finished, or maintain any consistent marketing schedule, or free yourself from trading hours for dollars. You need to create your own sense of urgency - and the best way to do that is to set hard deadlines for yourself.

Regardless of what you do, your work will always expand to fill the time you give it (thanks, Parkinson). Unfortunately, the flipside of this is also true - happy-fun-time will also expand to fill the time you give it. If you don't set deadlines, you're effectively granting yourself unlimited time in which to do it - which inevitably means it'll never get done.

For every project we take on, every marketing campaign we launch, and every article we write, we're making sure to set a hard date by which we need to get it done - ideally before we even start work. We're creating our own intrinsic motivation and sense of urgency, and it's working wonders for our productivity.

Be realistic with how much you can achieve

None of us are robots, and none of us can work continuously without burning out.

We need a steady stream of downtime - to sleep, eat, hang out with friends and family, and get out from behind our desks - to maintain our best work. Playing in the backyard with Amelia, taking a proper lunch break (I used to eat at my desk ALL the time), or doing a short workout all help me focus better and work faster when I get back to my desk.

None of my best article ideas have ever come to me while sitting at my desk. They usually happen in the shower, or while driving, or in bed at night. Without giving your mind space to wander, you'll never be able to hit on new ideas, or alternative ways of tackling problems.

By listing all our tasks on our calendar, it makes it easy to see when we're both busy and needing a break. I can make sure we've got at least one, preferably two days a week that neither of us is working, plus a couple of evenings off a week. This keeps us sane and helps us do our best work.

Find what works for you

There are a million productivity tips online, and these are the things that are working for us - but I want to hear what works for you.

What are some of the tools and methods you use to stay focused and productive? What have you tried that hasn't worked? Send me an email and let me know - I'd love to hear your thoughts.