An evenly planned monthly calendar, a packed weekly schedule, a neat daily to-do list, a readily available memo pad and a few color coded sticky notes — if that was all it took to become a master of Time Management, we would all easily carve out that extra 1 hour for ourselves every day with the right stationery and a little bit of planning.

But maybe that’s exactly where the catch is.

Time management is not so much about creating that 25th hour; it’s about seizing the 24 we get.

Sounds fairly simplistic and yet most of us complain that we do not have enough time to do things that matter to us the most.

I myself have multiple interests (writing for one!) and while I love my job as a Strategy Consultant at Bain, I was struggling to make time for my interests outside of work.

Alas! I decided to read and listen to some of the best thinkers on this matter and it all started to make a lot more sense.

Here’s what I found:

Time management is probably the biggest misnomer. No one has ever managed time; they have really just managed themselves.

As part of this post, I wish to discuss two big ideas from the best thinkers in the field, ideas which we can all apply TODAY to get more out our time:

  • David Allen’s GTD Model (my interpretation)
  • The power of saying “No” (multiple sources)

Getting things done (GTD Model)

David Allen, author of ‘Making it all work’ and a leading expert on time management says that two ingredients form the secret sauce for getting things done: Perspective and control.

Gaining perspective is about knowing whether something falls on your horizon of priorities.

Gaining control is all about getting your to-do list out of your mind and into an actionable format.

Gaining Perspective

David Allen talks about perspective spread across 6 levels:

To understand the 6 levels, picture yourself viewing your life while being seated in an airplane.

The runway comprises your day to day activities. At 10,000 ft. are projects you need to finish. Further up at 20,000 ft. are things that you need to maintain such as your health, family, etc. As you move higher and higher, at 30, 000 ft. are your goals, at 40,000 ft. your vision of success for yourself and finally at the 50,000 ft your values and principles.

You will realize that these levels are interconnected. And in fact, if they are not, you will not have a clear sense of why you are doing what you are doing.

Some of us are clear about our values and vision (30,000 ft. and above), but struggle with daily and weekly plans of how we can get there (runway).

The contrary is also true. A lot of us are stuck at the runway where we are responding to the various tasks that come our way but have no idea about how those tasks contribute to our overall goals and vision.

As David puts it, gaining perspective then is all about drilling down what each of these levels mean for us such that we can connect them all together to have a clear sense of prioritization to operate from. Once we have this clarity, we will be a lot more picky about where to spend our time. In other words, our runway will comprise a lot more of tasks that will contribute directly to our vision at the 40,000 ft. level.

Once we have the perspective on where to spend most of our time, how do we actually get stuff done ? This is where the second element, control comes in.

Gaining Control

David’s very simple argument is that our brain is for generating ideas and not for holding onto them. In other words, the more you retain your to-do list inside your brain vs. converting it into an actionable format, the less likely you are to get it done.

Holding ideas is inversely proportional to getting them done

Below is his step by step process to make your to-do list actionable and to thereby gain control:

Step 1: Jot down a few things that you have to get done.
E.g. Hiring a new employee

Step 2: Analyse your list of things:

  • Are they actionable?
  • If not, trash it. You shouldn’t be bothering about things that you have no control over

Step 3: Visualize what success would look like for the actionable items and write it down. E.g. more orders from customers

Step 4: Pen down your ideas for accomplishing the task. E.g. put a job listing on LinkedIn, hire a recruitment agency, etc.

Step 5: Structure these ideas and organize them into buckets or circle the most important ideas

Step 6: Now, out of the ideas, what is the immediate next step that you need to take to accomplish what you wrote in step 1?

If you actually did the exercise right now, you would notice how much more in control you would feel.

The logic is that by writing down and following this step-by-step process every time something occupies our minds, we can de-clutter our mind and free up space for clear thinking.

Finally, combining the two elements-control and perspective, we can assess where each one of us stands currently:

Low control, low perspective (Reactive): people in this quadrant merely respond to what comes their way. Such individuals can often feel that they don’t have time for themselves and for doing things that matter most

Low control, high perspective (Crazy maker): clarity about goals and vision, but lack of organization. Such individuals often feel that they have it all figured out and yet are not being able to get much done.

High control, low perspective (Control Freak): very organized but little to no idea about what they want to achieve, what their values are. This gives rise to a feeling of hollowness. These people make a lot of plans but don’t find meaning and a sense of fulfillment in them.

High control, high perspective (Captain of the ship): these people lead lives of abundance and fulfillment as they have a strong internal compass (perspective) and the skill of getting things done (control). They set their mind to a vision for themselves and put sustained effort over time linking their daily, weekly, monthly and yearly activities to their overall vision and mission.

There is no need to feel disheartened if you didn’t land in the “Captain of the ship” quadrant as you now know the technique to increase your control and/or perspective. Hope to see you there soon.

In a nutshell, the GTD model advocates for a fierce sense of prioritization regarding where you should be spending most of your time (perspective) and then offering a step by step process to accomplish daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals in your chosen area (control).

As a natural afterthought, this model begged me to ask the question- that must mean saying “No” to a lot of things that are not priority and will not add to my 40,000 ft. vision. Thereafter, I set out to understand how I could get better at saying “No”, without the word traumatizing my conscience.

The Power of saying “No”

Think of the last time you said “yes” to something simply because you could not get yourself to say “no”. Think of how it made you feel- drained, exhausted, regretful ?

Now consider this other garden variety situation: You said “yes” to something without thinking twice about it, only to later realize the opportunity costs of your time. You felt like you had taken on more than you could manage comfortably.

We find ourselves in these kinds of situations very often. We end up going about our lives saying yes to most things that come our way.

We dread the word ‘no’ for we have associated it with rejection since childhood. We also dread it because we are people pleasing beings. We feel that saying no to a person will hamper our social relationships.

The result?

We say “yes” to work that doesn’t interest us

We say “yes” to boring social obligations and meetings

We say “yes” to things that don’t fit with our goals

We say “yes” to more than we can manage

And the list goes on…

It doesn’t seem surprising then that the two letter word “no” has the power to bring so much abundance in our life, by freeing up time for things that really matter to us.

There are various ways in which we can get better at saying the elusive two letter word “no” and also appreciate it when we hear it from someone else and this is what we will talk about next..

Avoid knee-jerk reactions

Instead of diving straight into an answer, it’s always a great idea to think things through before responding to a proposition- evaluate the opportunity cost of your time and effort and whether the proposition aligns with your larger goals.

More importantly, we tend to say “yes” to things that interest us. It’s not necessary though that we take up everything that is of our interest. We must consider their fit with our goals and whether taking them up would mean our cutting corners in areas which are critical.

A great way to avoid knee-jerk reactions is to buy time. At times, the other party may put pressure on you to respond immediately. In that case, it becomes more difficult to buy time. The age-old negotiation technique of “I need to run this by my partner before I can make a decision” really comes in handy in such cases. What this basically means is that you need to run it by yourself. But using a partner, spouse, etc. in the equation gives you more bargaining power than saying that you need time for yourself to think things through.

Keep in mind that you are saying “no” to the proposition and not to the person

The reason we fear saying no so much is because we feel that it will hamper our relationships with people. And let’s face it; no one likes to hear a “no”!

In this light, it becomes extremely important to convey to the person that we are saying “no” to their proposition and not to them. Offering an explanation for why you can’t take up the job helps. Also, genuinely empathizing with their situation and offering to find an alternate person, or taking up an advisory role in the project also helps in ensuring that the relationship stays intact.

The caveat is that we ought to be polite yet firm because we don’t want to give the impression that we might change our stance and take up the proposition.

Saying no to the high and the mighty

It might be most challenging to say “no” to your boss or to someone who wields a lot of influence over you. However, authority or seniority should not preclude you from protecting your best interests. You ought to say “no” when you feel that you are being inundated with more than you can handle or are being asked to do something, which is in conflict with your values.

In such situations, it is advisable to sit down and explain to your manager, boss, etc. that taking on a particular project will significantly impact your overall well being and efficiency and will impact the accomplishment of goals shared by both the parties.

Closing thoughts

Having struggled a fair bit with managing my time, and having applied the frameworks and techniques discussed above to see remarkable results, I have come to the conclusion that the secret to getting more done is not to become an obsessive productivity ninja.

Rather, it really boils down to 3 simple things-

  1. Having crystal clear clarity of the vision you have for yourself
  2. Gaining control of tasks by writing them down to prevent them from occupying precious mind space
  3. Unabashedly saying “No” to things that are not worth your time and energy.

By applying these 3 simple techniques you will witness a paradigm shift from “trying to create extra time to do things that matter most” to “spending most of your time on doing things that matter the most, and actually getting them done!”