Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ask Wednesday: How do you manage your time?

By André Duvall

The “you” in today’s question is me. The editor had noticed that I seem to have found methods that work well for my own active schedule of teaching, practicing, performance, and other obligations and hobbies, so he asked me to discuss how I manage my time, or how I “approach time management.” I make no claims to be an expert on time management. However, the editor assumed that I must be doing something right, so I’ll share what I know.
    I suppose time-management techniques vary greatly from one person to another, depending on the nature of one’s work, personality, desire for alone time vs. time with others, the degree to which one controls one’s schedule, and physical traits (such as one’s optimum amount of sleep and ideal bedtime).
    While the methods I employ are not impervious to occasional periods of being “snowed under,” they have, for the most part, helped me maintain, over a long period of time, stable control of my commitments and their associated requirements of time and energy. Perhaps some of my observations of how I manage my time can help others manage theirs.
    I imagine most of us will find the answers to the following questions helpful in determining a healthy apportionment of our time.

    Because my career involves several different types of “jobs,” some of which are freelance, my daily routine varies greatly from one day of the week to the next, and my weekly schedule often varies from one season to the next. Even on my busiest of days, I usually have little pockets of free time built into my schedule. Quiet times and moments of meditation and reflection are some of the ways I recharge my energy. Thus, it is important for me to use a portion of these opportunities each busy day for some type of quiet time. This can take the form of a simple walk outside to breathe the fresh air, taking a moment to read a poem, eating a piece of fruit, or listening to a short piece of music that moves me.
    An important component of these short “refresher” activities is exercising the will to be fully present in them. For example, if you are eating a piece of fruit, really savor each bite and experience the taste, smell, and texture of the food in your hand and mouth while you are eating it. For those moments, don’t worry about the work from which you are taking a break. If you are outdoors, see what little details you might otherwise not notice, such as the shape and color of the plants surrounding you, or – if you aren’t near anything green – the patterns of the building materials surrounding you. I find that time in nature is one of the best utilizations of these time pockets, so if I can manage to get to a spot outdoors to do one of these activities, I take that opportunity. If you don’t have a very visually appealing environment near you on your breaks, close your eyes and focus on your own breathing patterns, perhaps while listening to music. Even if you’re not able to be fully present for the entire duration of these breaks, attempt to be so for a portion of them.

Another important set of questions relates to your individual physical traits.
  • What times of day do you work best, and do you best enjoy free time?
  • How much sleep do you need to be the most effective while awake, and when does the sleep need to commence and end to maximize its effectiveness?
The answers will vary greatly from one person to another.
    Some of my work requires me to labor into the evening hours for a certain portion of the week. I have experimented with different scheduling templates for the length and time of my workdays in different semesters, and I have found a system that works well for me. Generally, I structure a typical week so that on two of the weekdays I work quite far into the evening, on one to two weekdays I work into a portion of the evening, and on one to two weekdays I keep as flexible days (meaning I can use this time to either relax, catch up on work, schedule freelance work, or have free or social time, depending on the needs of the week). That is, I make sure I always have at least one weekday evening free from work obligations, and sometimes two. I recognize that I value free time in the evening, as well as some free time in the morning. Thus, when creating my schedule, I do not mind sacrificing whole evenings to guarantee that I will also have some whole evenings free. Moreover, on one of the two late-evening weekdays, I schedule a substantial portion of the morning as flexible time.
    Obviously, this plan will not work for people who have set hours each day of the week that cannot change. However, one can experiment with the concept of planning one’s extracurricular activities around free hours that best correspond to one’s sleeping habits and times of day when one feels the most energized and productive. I should mention that, for me, all of this scheduling happens in the context of having weekends that are often a mix of work and free time. Some weekends I have completely booked, and others are roughly 75% free. Therefore, I recognize it is important that I structure my weekdays in a way that I can make sure I have both small and longer pockets of free time, to serve as the equivalent “weekend” of the person who works a consistent 9-5 job during the week.

A key element to my method of time management is the awareness that each new activity – whether a one-off event or one recurring weekly (or even monthly) – will require of me some amount of extra time and energy beyond the actual time allotted to the activity. It is important to recognize this fact. I see this as a major reason people get overcommitted and burned out.
    Empty time in one’s schedule is easy to fill. Be judicious in deciding how – and if – you will fill it. I recommend that before you add new commitments to open slots in your routine, you ask yourself the following questions:

  • What outside preparation will this activity require?
  • How much time will this take, and can this preparation occur anytime I am free, or will it honestly need to happen during a time when I really should be relaxing, such as when my family, friends, or free-time activities are most readily available?
  • What type of mental and emotional energy will be associated with this new activity? Will it add energy to my day, or will it take away energy? Both energy-adding and energy-taking activities are “valid,” but the answer will affect how much energy you have for the rest of your activities on that day.
    It is very tempting for me to schedule a regular activity on one of my free evenings, or take on more clients at these times, but I resist, because I know it will on occasion also require a certain amount of preparation outside of those hours. Even a seemingly innocuous commitment – such as serving on a committee or joining a special interest group that meets for “only” an hour and a half once every five weeks – can potentially take much more time than one thinks. It may require extra phone calls or paperwork at some random time during the year, and chances are that these times will at some point occur when you are “snowed under.” Adding one or two of these “only once-a-month” activities may be well within your reach and can be fulfilling, but guard against adding too many of them, because they can add up quickly. For me personally, it is much more appealing and healthy to agree to fill designated free time with one-off activities, as I see fit. This allows for impromptu activities (a friend calls and invites me to attend a fun event or to go to dinner), but it also protects my time for use as down-time.

It’s important to recognize that some events that seem as though they might drain energy actually add to your energy in the long run. In this way, it is possible for me to have certain weeks that seem incredibly busy to people on the outside. And they are right – I am extremely busy at those times. But I’m doing activities that add to my energy. Again, the key is recognizing the way in which your activities add or take away your energy.
    Also, the sequence and combination of contrasting activities can either compliment or distract from each other. For example, when I attend a chess tournament, it may take up a good portion of the day. Even though I am using my brain energy most of the day and I do feel somewhat tired afterwards, there is a thrill that comes from playing chess with scores of other people around me. Perhaps paradoxically, I feel energized in the process of using my energy. Exercise, such as jogging, hiking, and bicycling, have the same effect for me. I imagine most people can identify something that does this for them. However, if I were to play a chess tournament on the same day that I’ll need to do large amounts of paperwork or critical planning for a conference, I know it would require too much of the same type of brain energy. Thus, playing chess, while it always takes energy, can either result in a net gain or a net loss of energy, depending on the schedule surrounding it. Therefore, it’s important when managing your time to recognize that the sequence and context of events will affect your ability to be your best during each activity.

Emails: I tend to get a large quantity of emails. I’ve found it most helpful to set myself a policy of answering business-related emails within 24 hours (not counting days off), and if I can’t respond adequately within that time frame, I’ll do my best to send a short message acknowledging the message and saying that I’ll write back soon. This is critical practice for me, since a portion of my work is my independent business, and another is freelance opportunities that must be seized quickly.
    With all of this email, I often have to put my personal emails on hold for a little longer than 24 hours. I do my best to address the most pressing ones first, but there are certain days on which, if I sat and answered all of my email at once, I’d be at the computer way too long. I recognize it’s important to divide the email load, keep it at a manageable level, and answer all emails within a reasonable timeframe according to their priority. If you have friends that expect you to write back lengthy, detailed, personal emails every other day, and you feel the need to write back lengthy responses, take the time you need to respond. But in most non-pressing cases, they shouldn’t expect you to write a lengthy response every day you converse. Speak with them about this if they “guilt” you!

One final word: everyone has the potential to get snowed under at some point. I believe this is normal and natural if you are an active person. Unfortunately, even the best time-management methods can not foresee deaths in the family or emergencies. During certain periods of being overwhelmed you are simply not going to have enough free time, such as preparation week before exams for students in college, or the preparation before a major recital for a musician, or even, in some cases, entire months due to special circumstances at work or school. These overworked periods may be necessary for a certain period of time, depending on your long-term goals. Good time management can help you keep unnecessary snowed-under periods to a minimum.

Copyright © 2015 by André Duvall


  1. André, in searching for images to illustrate your column today, I discovered the website of Personal Mastery Coaching, which has the statement "Time Management is Energy Management" in its masthead. How apt for both your column and Bill Johnson's column last week. I wonder whether Bill, who is "a consultant and life coach who has taught time-management seminars throughout the country," is familiar with Personal Mastery Coaching.
        It is manifestly clear from my own personal experience that energy management is key. I agree with Bill, with you, and Personal Mastery Coaching in that. Much of my energy comes from the simple[?] act [is it an act] of letting "creative ideas" flow in the morning as I am preparing breakfast for me and my wife. Almost any morning when I feel somehow "compelled" [by my muse, I like to think] to jot down a list (it could be short – two or three items – or long – ten or twelve) of things I'm excited about doing – many of them things to write or do in relation to Moristotle & Co. – is a morning that is starting well.
        I acknowledge that I hardly "manage time"; I seem to be in thrall to a Daemon of Energy and inclined to live by letting it flow through me.
        Of course, I'm "retired"....

    1. The concepts on time management that I presented on August 26 – addressing issues that deplete or enhance energy – apply to anyone regardless of circumstances.
          The situation may differ from one person to another (empty nesters, single parents). I may have more time to do fulfilling things than a parent with children, but it would still be useful for both of us to find even 5 minutes to meditate. André does a beautiful job of identifying ways to increase positive energy by offering tools that apply to any circumstance.

  2. Replies
    1. I think the post's teachings about being in the moment mean the most to me. I have always admired André his natural talent for "being present." Also his emphasis on protecting one's energy and planning one's schedule to take it into account. Very important [as André says]. Somehow, the idea of scheduling to "manage one's energy" makes everything so much simpler!
          What did you find particularly helpful, Dawn?

  3. Great writing, Andre. Sounded well thought out and insightful

  4. André, it has occurred to me that you are single and don't have to deal with the needs of other family members on a day-in, day-out basis. (And William A. Johnson and his wife's children are adults managing their own lives and time.) I wonder whether you and Bill think that everything you said in your column this week, and in his column last week, nevertheless applies to, say, the father and mother of children living at home? What additional advice, if any, might you, André, or you, Bill, have for a situation like that?
        I of course know that Andrés sister and brother-in-law are parents of the above description. I wonder whether Sara or Tad would be interested in writing their advice on time management? [Their daughter Bindi's Tuesday Voice article, "Everyone poops," appeared on February 17.]