I’ve been tracking my time in one form or another for just under twenty years. Until recently, I must confess that my motivation for tracking my time has been largely accountability. Although I have never had issues remaining productive, I don’t have good memory for certain things. I remember numbers, equations, programmingimage languages, solutions, etc, very well…I just can’t remember what I did yesterday! Even though I’ve never had someone ask me what I’ve been working on, or question my priorities, I’ve always felt the need to be able to recant that information should I get asked. More recently I’ve been using my penchant for time tracking to squeeze more things into my days and weeks.

My role at PaperWise has been evolving into more of a coaching, mentoring, and advisory role. A handful of years ago, I spent most of my time leading the Development and QA groups, as well as writing code for the suite. During that period I used a Franklin Covey planner to keep track of my tasks and prioritize them. I kept delegated tasks in my planner as well. Over time, I evolved the Franklin Covey system to suit my needs, removing the C tasks altogether and coming up with a better way to manage delegated tasks (better in my mind, that is.) That worked great while I was intimately involved with the day-to-day operation of the departments that reported to me.  Once my role started changing to more of a coaching, mentoring, and advisory role, the system broke down. A lot of my self-esteem was tied directly to the tasks that I was able to accomplish myself, as well as the checkmarks that I got for helping others complete tasks that I delegated to them. Naturally, my self-esteem went down as I moved from delegating tasks to delegating projects and spending a lot more time communicating, motivating, and teaching.

So, for the past few weeks I have been researching time management techniques, trying to find something that allows me to get the checkmarks that I need in order to feel accomplished and is flexible enough for me to get things done in-between meetings and helping people. What I found was time budgeting and time blocking. I believe these two techniques, used in tandem, to be the solution to my problem.

Time Budgeting

Rather than making lists of things, and checking those tasks off as you get them done, time budgeting involves predetermining the amount of time to spend on certain aspects of your life. You can then allocate time for projects or tasks. Creating a time budget is very similar to creating a money budget. I’ll walk you through the process that I used to develop my own time budget. You’re also welcome to download and utilize the Excel spreadsheet that I created to manage my budget.

Like a money budget, in a time budget you set realistic goals regarding how you spend your time. And, very similar to money budgeting, time budgeting probably doesn’t work unless you keep track of how much time you’re spending for each allocation. Sometimes you’ll come in under budget and sometimes you’ll come in over budget, so don’t worry about being 100% accurate.

The articles that I’ve read indicate that time budgeting can stop you from falling into a few productivity traps. First, it can help you stay away from neglectful prioritization. I’m very guilty of getting stuck in this trap. Neglectful prioritization occurs when you give the majority of your attention to something until you feel like you’ve neglected something else. To keep from dropping the ball, or a spinning plate depending upon your favorite analogy, you refocus your attention on the thing that you feel like you’re neglecting…until you decide that you’ve been neglecting something else. While this type of prioritization can make you look and feel productive, it also causes stress, missed deadlines, and upset spouses. (I have an account at Allison’s Floral.)

Second, budgeting your time can help you become proactive about your time instead of reactive. Email invariably sends me into reactive mode. The fires must be put out, I guess. If you’re not proactive about at least some of your time, though, you won’t have any to spend on growth. Eventually, I suppose that you could be in danger of becoming the sum total of all of the smoke and ashes!

Lastly, there is a subtle form of procrastination that sneaks up on a person. It’s sneaky because you can procrastinate while being very productive. This form of procrastination happens to me because I like to finish tasks. If I’m not very careful to reduce projects to tasks granular enough that I can finish them without too much interruption, I have a tendency to work on lesser priority things that I can fit into the time slots I have available. As a result, I put off larger tasks or projects until they become neglectfully high priorities.

Time Blocking

Time blocking gives me the satisfaction of checking things off of lists, and making progress, without forcing me to find large blocks of time to fit large projects and tasks into. Instead of completing a single project or task at a time, I can spread multiple projects and tasks over time and make steady progress on all of them. Time blocks are allocations of fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour in length, that you can reserve for items in your time budget.  As you complete each time block, you mark the block as completed. I love blocking time because I can have twenty four or more checkmarks every single day!  :)

Articles that I found while researching this time management philosophy recommended lower resolution for the time blocks, thirty minutes or an hour. I chose thirty minutes for my time tracking purposes, and this is how the spreadsheet included with this article is structured.

The Process

Once I had the basics of the system down -- the time budgeting and blocking -- I moved on to implementing my new found time management system. To create the time budget, I started with a mind map. Mind maps are very powerful brainstorming tools that help you organize your thoughts. To build a mind map, you start with a main topic. My main topic for this exercise was “Work Time.” I decided to break my time into both work time activities and personal time activities, because lost time at home is as big of a frustration for me as lost time at work.

There are a handful of tools out there that you can use for mind mapping. I like to use MindJet’s MindManager application, but you can also use Visio’s brainstorming template. MindJet’s MindManager is very easy to use, since it is built specifically for mind mapping. The brainstorming template in Visio is clunky.

Mind map created with MindJet mind mapping tool

Try not to think so linearly while building your mind map. With a mind map, you have the ability to jump around from thought to thought and organize your thoughts as you go. And, it’s the ability to jump from thought to thought that makes mind mapping such a powerful tool. If you need to see your map in a more linear layout, both MindMapper and Visio can show your map as an outline.

While you’re building your mind map, think hard about what you really need and want to spend your time on. I discovered that I’m spending my time on many things that are just really not that important in the grand scheme of things. Axe the things that truly aren’t that important. Also, your work time mind map is a good starting point for dialog with the person you report to. You can use your mind map to discuss with them your priorities and make sure that your priorities are inline with company priorities.

Once I had created the mind maps for both work time and personal time, I started building my time budget. When you create a money budget, I think it’s a good idea not to try to budget 100% of your income. Similarly, don’t try to budget every bit of your work time and personal time. You’ll most likely get frustrated and stop using your budget. Some articles that I read suggested starting with a low number like 50%. I was comfortable starting with 80%.

To build the time budget, I created a spreadsheet in Excel. The spreadsheet contains the work time activities from my time budget and then I estimated how much time I should devote to each activity. Because there are many things that I want to accomplish, I ended up breaking my time budget into two different budgets: one budget for week one, and another budget for week two. By squeezing everything that I want to accomplish into one week, I didn’t feel like I was giving enough attention to those activities. As a result, I decided to rotate them. You may find that a single and consistent time budget works for you.

Building a budget is not effective for me unless I track how well I’m doing with regard to the budget. Included with the time budget in my spreadsheet is a breakdown of every day of the week, Monday through Sunday, in thirty minute intervals from 6am to midnight. I’m usually awake at around 6am and I generally don’t go to sleep until midnight, so I figured the aforementioned arrangement was adequate for my tracking purposes. I can use these breakdowns, which are included as additional sheets, to plan and track tasks. As I complete tasks, I simply associate them with items in my budget (by referencing the cells containing the budget items) and then mark them with ‘X’ to indicate that they’re completed.

Excel spreadsheet showing the breakdown of my time budget (by percentage.) Excel spreadsheet showing how to record time...

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My spreadsheet automatically tabulates the time I spend on each budget item as I mark ‘X’ next to tasks, provided that the task references are set to cells containing my budget items. This is quite handy and the spreadsheet is available as a download. (Time Budget)

To make this system work, I think you’ve got to stick as closely to your budget as possible. Otherwise, you risk falling back into old habits. One of the articles that I read suggested using a kitchen timer, or egg timer. I purchased Egg, a software-based egg timer, to use to keep me on track. As soon as the egg timer goes off, I’m moving on to the next thing!

Now I feel like I’m in control of my time, rather than letting my time control me! Here are some time management resources that you may find useful:

http://litemind.com/time-budget

http://litemind.com/time-blocking

http://www.43folders.com/2005/10/11/procrastination-hack-1025

http://www.franklincovey.com/blog/tag/franklin-covey

http://www.davidco.com/