In the article “How To Get More Done in Less Time,” I wrote about a simple way that you could gradually enjoy higher productivity without spending more time at your desk. In this article I’ll describe additional ways to get more work done every week without putting in longer hours.
Time is your scarcest resource. You can always make more money, but once time has been spent, you can never get it back. When going to college many years ago, I decided to challenge myself by setting a goal to see if I could graduate in only three semesters, taking all the same classes that people would normally take over a four-year period. I knew I would start my own business once I graduated, so that goal inspired me to get out of school fast. There was no way I wanted to be stuck in school while the technology revolution was passing me by.
In order to accomplish this goal, I determined I’d have to take 30-40 units per semester, when the average student took 12-15 units. So it became immediately obvious that I’d have to manage my time extremely well if I wanted to pull this off. I began reading everything I could find on time management and putting what I learned into practice immediately. I accomplished my goal by graduating with two degrees (Computer Science and Mathematics) in just three semesters without attending summer school. I slept seven to eight hours a night, took care of my routine chores (shopping, cooking, etc), had a social life, and exercised for 30 minutes every morning. In my final semester, I even held a full time job (40 hours a week) as a game programmer and served as the Vice Chair of the local Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) chapter while taking 37 units of hardcore computer science and math courses. My classmates would add up all the hours they expected each task to take and concluded that my weeks must consistent of about 250 hours. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and ended up receiving a special award given only to the top Computer Science student each year.
I wasn’t considered a gifted child, and this was the first time I had ever done anything like this. I didn’t have any personal mentors helping me, and I can’t recall a single person encouraging me. In fact, pretty much everyone was highly discouraging. It took a lot of convincing to get the department chair to approve my extra units every semester. People assumed I was either cheating or had a twin or that I was just mentally unstable. I was perhaps the only student at the university with a two-page class schedule. I persevered by applying time management concepts that most people simply didn’t know but that were readily available in books and audio programs.
I didn’t tell you this story to impress you but rather to make you curious. The time management habits I learned in college have served me very well in building my business, so I want to share them with you in the hopes that you’ll find them equally valuable. They allowed me to shave years off my schooling while also giving me about $30,000 to start my business (all earned in my final semester as a game programmer, mostly from royalties). Without further ado, here’s the best of what I’ve learned about mastering time management:
Clarity is key. The first step is to know exactly what you want. In a Tae Kwon Do studio where I used to train, there’s a huge sign on the wall that says, “Your goal is to become a black belt.” This helps remind each student why s/he is going through such difficult training. When you work for yourself, it’s easy to spend a whole day at your desk and accomplish nothing of value. This almost always happens when you aren’t really clear about what it is you’re trying to do. In the moments when you regain your awareness, ask yourself, “What exactly is it that I’m trying to accomplish here?” You must know your destination with as much clarity as possible. This is one reason that all your goals must be specific, and they must be in writing. Your goals must be so clear that it would be possible for a stranger to look at your situation objectively and give you an absolute “yes” or “no” response as to whether you’ve accomplished each goal or not. If you cannot define your destination precisely, how will you know when you’ve arrived?
The key period I’ve found useful for defining and working on business goals is ninety days, or the length of one season. In that period of time, you can make dramatic and measurable changes if you set crystal clear goals. Take a moment to stop and write down a snapshot description of how you want your business to be ninety days from now. What will your monthly income be? What level of web site traffic do you want (visitors, page hits)? How many hours will you put into your business each week? What products will you be selling? What will your web site look like? Be specific. Absolute clarity will give you the edge that will keep you on course.
Just as an airplane on autopilot must make constant corrections to stay on course, you must periodically retarget your goals. Reconnect with your clear, written goals by re-reading them every morning. Post them on your walls, especially your financial goals. Years ago, I went around my apartment putting up signs in every room that said “$5,000 / month.” That was my monthly business income goal at the time. Because I knew exactly what I wanted, I achieved that goal within a few weeks. I continued setting specific income goals, even amidst occasional setbacks. When I started focusing on shareware marketing in 1999, I was making less than $500 / month from shareware. I set a goal to reach $2000 / month, then $2500 / month, then $3000 / month, and so on. If you are really serious about growing your business, then get serious about setting clear, written goals. If you don’t decide how much money you want to make, you’ll have to settle for the results of random chance. Clarity can not only save you time — it can make you very wealthy.
Be flexible. There’s a key difference between knowing your destination and knowing the path you will take to get there. A typical commercial airplane is off course 90% of the time, yet it almost always arrives at its destination because it knows exactly where it’s going and makes constant corrections along the way. You cannot know the exact path to your goal in advance. I believe that the real purpose of planning is simply so that you remain convinced that a possible path exists. We’ve all heard the statistic that 80% of new businesses fail, but a far more interesting statistic is that nearly all of the businesses that succeeded did not do so in the original way they had intended. If you look at successful businesses that started with business plans, you will commonly find that their original plans failed miserably and that they only succeeded by trying something else. It is said that no business plan survives contact with the marketplace. I like to generalize this to say that no plan survives contact with the real world.
Renowned author and business consultant Stephen Covey often uses the expression, “integrity in the moment of choice.” What that means is that you should not follow your plans blindly without conscious awareness of your goals. For instance, let’s say you’re following your plans nicely, and then an unforeseen opportunity arises. Do you stick to your original plan (missing the opportunity), or do you stop and go after the opportunity (throwing yourself off schedule)? This is where you have to stop and reconnect with your major goals to ask which is the better course. No plan should be followed blindly. As soon as you gain new knowledge that could invalidate the plan, you must exercise integrity in the moment of choice. Sometimes you can reach your goals faster by taking advantage of shortcuts that arise unexpectedly. Other times you should stick to your original plans and avoid minor distractions that would take you further from your goals. Be tight on your goals but flexible on your plans.
Failure is your friend. Most people seem to have an innate fear of failure, but failure is really your best friend. People who succeed also fail a great deal because they make a lot of attempts. The great baseball player Babe Ruth held the homerun record and the strikeout record at the same time. Those who have the most successes also have the most failures. There is nothing wrong or shameful in failing. The only regret lies in never making the attempt. So don’t be afraid to experiment in your business. Sometimes the quickest way to find out if something will work is to jump right in and do it. You can always make adjustments along the way. It’s the ready-fire-aim approach, and surprisingly, it works a lot better than the more common ready-aim-fire approach. The reason is that after you’ve “fired” once, you have some actual data with which to adjust your aim. Too many people get bogged down in planning and thinking and never get to the point of action. How many potentially great ideas have you passed up because you got stuck in the state of analysis paralysis (i.e. ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-aim…)?
Failure is not the opposite of success. It is an essential part of success. Once you succeed, no one will remember your failures anyway. Microsoft wasn’t Bill Gates’ and Paul Allen’s first business venture. Who remembers that their original Traf-o-Data business was a flop? The actor Jim Carey was booed off many a stage while a young comedian. We have electric light bulbs because Thomas Edison refused to give up even after 10,000 failed experiments. If the word “failure” is anathema to you, then reframe it: You either succeed, or you have a learning experience.
Letting go of the fear of failure will serve you well. If you are excited about a new product idea but you are afraid it might not work, jump on it and do it anyway. Even if it doesn’t work, you’ll learn something valuable and can make a better attempt next time. If you look at the independent developers who are making $100,000 per year or more, you will commonly see that almost all of them had one or more products that failed before they finally hit on one that succeeded, myself included. But I think most of them will agree that those early failure experiences were an essential part of the ultimate success. If your business is just getting started, begin pumping out products and don’t worry so much about whether they’ll be hits. They probably won’t be. But you’ll learn a lot more by doing than you ever will by thinking indefinitely.
Do it now! W. Clement Stone, who built an insurance empire worth hundreds of millions dollars, would make all his employees recite the phrase, “Do it now!” again and again at the start of every workday. Whenever you feel the tendency towards laziness taking over and you remember something you should be doing, stop and say out loud, “Do it now! Do it now! Do it now!” I often set this text as my screen saver. There is a tremendous cost in putting things off because you will mentally revisit them again and again, which can add up to an enormous amount of wasted time. Thinking and planning are important, but action is far more important. You don’t get paid for your thoughts and plans — you only get paid for your results. When in doubt, act boldly, as if it were impossible to fail. In essence, it is.
It is absolutely imperative that you develop the habit of making decisions as soon as possible. I use a 60-second rule for almost every decision I have to make, no matter how big or important. Once I have all the data to make a decision, I start a timer and give myself only 60 seconds to make a firm decision. This includes deciding what product I’ll develop next, whether or not I’ll accept a new licensing offer, or what to write about for my next article. I think people too often delay making decisions when there is no advantage to putting them off. Many people probably spend more than 60 seconds just deciding what they’ll eat for dinner. If you can speed up the pace of making decisions, you can spend the rest of your time on action.
One study showed that the best managers in the world tend to have an extremely high tolerance for ambiguity. In other words, they are able to act boldly on partial and/or conflicting data. The software industry has accelerated to such a rapid pace that by the time you have perfect data with which to make any decision, the opportunity is probably long gone. Where you have no data to fall back on, rely on your own personal experience and intuition. If a decision can be made right away, make the decision as soon as it comes up. If you can’t make a decision right away, set aside a time where you will consider the options and make the decision. Pour the bulk of your time into action, not deciding. The state of indecision is a major time waster. Don’t spend more than 60 seconds in that state if you can avoid it. Make a firm, immediate decision, and move from uncertainty to certainty to action.
Triage ruthlessly. Get rid of everything that wastes your time. Use the trash can liberally. Apply the rule, “When in doubt, throw it out.” Cancel useless magazine subscriptions. If you have a magazine that is more than two months old and you still haven’t read it, throw it away; it’s probably not worth reading. Realize that nothing is free if it costs you time. Before you sign up for any new free service or subscription, ask how much it will cost you in terms of time. Every activity has an opportunity cost. Ask, “Is this activity worth what I am sacrificing for it?”
Apply zero-based thinking. Ask yourself, “Would I have ever gotten started with this project, relationship, line of business, etc. if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I now know?” If the answer is no, get out as soon as possible. I know a lot of people that have a limiting belief that says, “Always finish what you start.” They spend years climbing ladders only to realize when they reach the top that the ladder was leaning against the wrong building. Remember that failure is your friend. So if a product isn’t working for you, dump it, and move onto something else. There is no honor in dedicating your life to the pursuit of a goal which no longer inspires you.
Locate and recover wasted time. Instead of watching a one-hour TV show, tape it and watch it in 45 minutes by fast-forwarding through the commercials. Don’t spend a half hour typing a lengthy email when you could accomplish the same thing with a 10-minute phone call. Batch your errands together and do them all at once.
Apply the 80-20 rule. Also known as the Pareto Principle, this rule states that 20% of a task accounts for 80% of the value of that task. This also means that 80% of a task only yields 20% of the value of that task. In college I was ruthless in my application of this principle. Some weeks I ditched as many as 40% of my classes because sitting through a lecture was not often the most effective way for me to learn. Often I would simply refuse to do an assignment because I determined it was not worth my time. There was one math class that I only showed up to twice because I could learn from the text book much more quickly than from the lectures. I only showed up for the midterm and final. I would pop my head in at the beginning of each class to drop off my homework and then again at the end of each class to write down the next assignment. I actually got the highest grade in the class, but the teacher probably had no idea who I was. The other students were playing by the rules, not realizing they were free to make their own rules. Find out what parts of your business belong in the crucial 20%, and focus your efforts there. Be absolutely ruthless in refusing to spend time where it simply cannot give you results. For instance, don’t spend hours adding cutesy graphics to your web site that won’t have any impact on your sales.
Guard thy time. Software development takes massive amounts of concentration and sustained mental effort. To work effectively you need uninterrupted blocks of time. When you know for certain that you won’t be interrupted, your efficiency is much, much higher. I believe this is one reason that many programmers enjoy working late at night after everyone else has gone to bed and the level of phone calls and email drops off dramatically. When you sit down to work on a particularly intensive business task, dedicate blocks of time to the task during which you will not do anything else. I’ve found that a minimum of 90 minutes is ideal for a single block.
Work all the time you work. During one of these sacred time blocks, do nothing but the activity you are focused on. Don’t check email or newsgroups or do web surfing. If you have this temptation, then unplug your modem while you work. Turn off the phone, or simply refuse to answer it. Go to the bathroom before you start, and make sure you won’t get hungry for a while. Don’t get out of your chair at all. Don’t talk to anyone during this time. If necessary, warn others in advance not to interrupt you for a certain period of time. Threaten them with acts of violence if you must.
The state of flow, where you are totally absorbed in a task and lose all sense of time, takes about 15 minutes to enter. Every time you get interrupted, it can take you another 15 minutes to get back to that state. Once you enter the state of flow, guard it with your life. That is the state in which you will go through enormous amounts of work and experience total connection with the task. When I’m in this state, I have no sense of past or future. I simply feel like I’m one with the code I’m writing. Programming is effortless — it feels like lines of code are just flowing through me into the machine.
Multitask. The amount of new computer knowledge is increasing so rapidly that by default, everything you know about your business is becoming obsolete. The only solution is to keep absorbing new knowledge as rapidly as possible. So much of what I use in my business didn’t even exist five years ago. The industry today is radically different than it was even just two years ago. The best way I know to keep up is to multitask whenever possible by reading and listening to audio programs.
When watching TV, read a computer magazine during commercials. If you’re a male, read while shaving. I use an electric shaver and read during the 2-3 minutes it takes me to shave each day. This allows me to get through about two extra articles a week — that’s 100 extra articles a year, enough to keep up on a few monthly subscriptions. This habit is really easy to start. Just grab a magazine right now, and put it in your bathroom. Also, rip out magazine articles or print out on-line articles to read later. Whenever you go out, carry at least one folded up article with you. If you ever have to wait in line, such as at the post office or the grocery store, pull out the article and read it. You will be amazed at how much extra knowledge you can absorb just by reading during other non-mental activities.
Listen to educational audio programs whenever you can. Whenever you drive your car, always be listening to an educational audio program. Nightingale Conant sells excellent ones on a variety of subjects, produced by experts in their fields. Most include six tapes or CDs and sell for about $60, and they are well worth the price. There are many programs on marketing and sales that can be especially useful to independent developers, especially if you know very little about these subjects. The material tends to be much more practical than what you would learn by taking classes at a university. Whereas people with degrees in marketing or business have been taught by college professors, you can learn about these subjects from millionaires and billionaires who know what works and what doesn’t. One of the best ways to save time is to learn directly from people who already have the skills you want to master.
Multitasking was perhaps the most important skill that allowed me to go through college in three semesters. My average weekday involved about seven or eight hours of classes. But on Tuesdays during my final semester, I had classes back to back from 9am until 10pm. Because I was taking about a dozen classes each semester, I would have several tests and projects due just about every week. I had no time to study outside of class because most of that time was used for my job. So I simply had to learn everything the first time it came up. If a teacher wrote out something on the board, I would memorize it then and there; I couldn’t afford to fall behind. During my slower classes, I would do homework, work out algorithms for my programming job, or refine my schedule. You can probably find numerous opportunities for multitasking. Whenever you are doing something physical, such as driving, cooking, shopping, or walking, keep your mind going by listening to audio tapes or reading.
Experiment. Everyone is different, so what works for you may well be different than what works for everyone else. You may work best in the morning or late at night. Take advantage of your own strengths, and find ways to compensate for your weaknesses. Experiment with listening to music while you work. Pop a CD in your CD drive, and see what effect it has on your productivity. I use the free WinAMP player, which can stream commercial-free radio directly to my computer all day long with a variety of stations to choose from. I find that classical music, especially Mozart, is terrific for design work. But for most routine tasks, listening to techno music makes me work a lot faster. I don’t exactly know why, but I’m twice as productive when listening to really fast music as compared to listening to no music. On the other hand, music with vocals is detrimental to my productivity because it’s too distracting. Try a simple experiment for yourself, and see if certain forms of music can increase your productivity. For me the difference was dramatic.
Cultivate your enthusiasm. The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek entheos, which means literally, “the god within.” I really like that definition. I doubt it’s possible to master the art of time management if you aren’t gushingly enthusiastic about what you’re going to do with your time. Go after what really inspires you. Don’t chase money. Chase your passion. If you aren’t enthusiastic about your business, then you’re wasting your life. Switch to something else. Try a new product line. Remember that failure is your friend. Listen to that god within you, and start doing what really excites you. The worst waste of time is doing something that doesn’t make you happy. Your business should serve your life, not the other way around.
If you’re like most people, you can get yourself motivated every once in a while, but then you get caught up and sink back down to a lower level of productivity, and you find it hard to continue with a project. How easy is it to start a new project when your motivation level is high? And how difficult is it to continue once your enthusiasm fades? Since most people are negative to one degree or another, you’ll naturally lose your positive charge over time unless you actively cultivate your enthusiasm as a resource. I don’t believe in pushing myself to do something I really don’t want to do. If I’m not motivated, then getting myself to sit down and work productively is nearly impossible, and the work is almost painful. When you’re highly motivated though, work feels like play.
While in college I could not afford to let my enthusiasm fade, or I’d be dead. I quickly learned that I needed to make a conscious effort to reinforce my enthusiasm on a daily basis. I always had my Walkman cassette player with me, and while walking from one class to the next, I would listen to time management and motivational tapes. I also listened to them while jogging every morning. I kept my motivation level high by reinforcing my enthusiasm almost hourly. Even though I was being told by others that I would surely fail, these tapes were the stronger influence because I never went more than a few hours without plugging back in.
If your enthusiasm level is high, you can work so much more productively and even enjoy the normally tedious parts of your work. I’ve always found that whenever I want to take my business to a new level, I must take my thoughts to a new level first. When your thinking changes, then your actions will change, and your results will follow. Unless you are a naturally hyper person, your enthusiasm is going to need daily reinforcement. I recommend either listening to motivational tapes or reading inspiring books or articles for at least fifteen minutes every day. Whenever I’ve stopped doing this, I’ve found that self-doubt always returns, and my productivity drops off. It’s truly amazing how constantly feeding your mind with positive material can maintain your enthusiasm indefinitely. And if you multitask, you can get this benefit without investing any extra time into it.
Balance. I don’t think it’s easy to sustain long-term productivity, health, and happiness if your life is totally unbalanced. To excel in one area, you can’t let other areas lag behind and pull you down. While in college I made an effort to take off a full day each week to have a personal life. I exercised, went to parties, attended club meetings, played computer games and pool, and even had time to vacation in Las Vegas during my final semester. The high turnover rates at the end of “death march” software projects are the result of a lack of balance. To focus exclusively on your business at the expense of every other area of your life will put you in a situation where you feel like everything is an uphill struggle. Keep the balance by paying attention to every area of your life. As your business grows, be sure that your personal life grows as well.
The main goal of time management is to squeeze as much life as possible out of every day. By developing a few new habits that allow you to work more effectively, you’ll have more time for family, friends, and your personal life. It is a great tragedy to have to sacrifice personal time because you still haven’t finished your work at the end of the day. Fortunately, you can avoid this problem by cultivating your time management skills.