Do more with less: Nine ways to manage your time and tame your to-do list

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

 Guest Article by Josh Phillips, Nobly POS

You’re a busy person, aren’t you? Even if your business is the most chilled-out joint in town, chances are that you aren’t.

You’re spending every waking hour in the office, replying to emails as they ping into your inbox, no matter where you are or when you get them. Your calls are best described as marathons, and you’ll drop everything to save the day when stuff gets messy.

But you have to do that, right?

If you’re doing this, chances are, you’re confusing motion with progress.

But you’re not aiming to move — you’re aiming to progress. This means clambering off the horse, getting on a real horse (actual or metaphorical) and making sure you know where you’re going and how to get there.

You’re aiming for less motion; more progress.

Here’s some examples:

If I write a note to call someone, that’s motion:

If I make that call, that’s progress;

If I make a to-do list, that’s motion:

If I start doing the things on the list, that’s progress;

If I get a gym membership, that’s motion:

If I start actually going, that’s progress;

Simply saying you’re going to do something, or even coming up with a plan to do it, doesn’t count as progress. Without action, it’s simply just motion.

In the words of Nike (and Shia LaBeouf): Just do it!

Breaking the association between long hours and productivity is the key to making your time work better. It’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter.

This blog will help you make the most out of your day.

As busy as the day is long

Multiply 24 by 60, and you get 1440. That’s how many minutes there are in the day. It’s a powerful number to keep in your head.

Kevin Kruse, a leadership guru, has written an article for Forbes on how keeping sight of that figure reminded him that he “needed to ‘invest’ each minute of my day very wisely.”

Realising that he needed to keep this figure front and centre in his professional practice, both metaphorically and literally — he printed it out in big text and stuck it to his office door — this was an “epiphany” for Kruse.

He writes:

“Time is unique. You can never lose time and get it back again. You can’t spend time and go out and earn more of it. You can’t buy it, rent it, or borrow it. Time is our most important asset.”

Of course, you can’t always do this. Some pressures are non-negotiable. But what you can do is work with what you’ve got, and make that time work for you.

Making the most of your time

Time is Money

Time is money: it’s an old saying, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

And you can calculate just how much money your time is worth.

The phrase opportunity cost refers to the amount of money that you could have made if you took one action, but instead decided to do something else. It’s basically how much you could have made had you done something else.

There’s a simple way to work it out:

Return of most lucrative option – Return of chosen option = Opportunity Cost

Knowing what your time is worth can act as a powerful incentive to stay on-track, and to spend your time as efficiently as possible.

What would this be like if it were easy?

When getting started in a big task, planning and getting started can be the hardest part. 

Productivity guru Tim Ferriss asks this simple question to ask, to test whether you are getting started on something new, or auditing old processes:

“What would this be like if it were easy?”

The flip-side of his question would be: “Am I making this harder than it needs to be?”

Ferriss has published books on hacking your life so that you only need to work four hours a week, so he definitely knows what he’s talking about.

He says that we do some things purely out of habit, because doing them has become so ingrained in our mindsets that we actually don’t notice how unproductive they make us.

Auditing how you work might be a tricky task — habits are hard to break, even if they don’t work for you — but it’s a necessary task.

To answer this question, you need to look at your tasks and ask what fat can be trimmed, what processes can be streamlined, and what can be dropped entirely.

Top tools for time management

A whole industry has sprung up around time management.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of time-management systems out there, each making miracle claims:

You can buy branded notebooks and pay to attend glitzy conferences headlined by rock-star level business consultants. But you might end up spending more time managing your time than you do actually working.

Each of these works for some people, though, and the best ones have some pearls of wisdom that you can take home and put into practise even if you don’t dive into the system.

With that in mind, we’ve curated a list of some of the most popular — and the  most immediately actionable — ways to manage your time.

Tomay-toh, tomah-toh: the Pomodoro Technique

Francesco Cirillo is one of the grandaddies of the lifehacking world — his Pomodoro Technique dates back to the 1980s. It’s an old’un but a good’un.

The genius of the Pomodoro Technique is that it works with your mind’s tendency to wander when you have to concentrate for long periods of time, and that it’s very easy to get started.

All you need is a timer: the name comes from the popular tomato-shaped kitchen timers that you twist to set.

Alternatively, you can use the timer on your phone, or a website. It doesn’t matter.

Set your timer to 25 minutes, and work solidly until the timer goes ring. Or buzz. Or whatever.

Give yourself a five-minute rest break.

Set your timer to 25 minutes again.

Rinse and repeat.

One of these half-hour work-break stints is known in the trade as a Pomodoro.

If you’re in for a long stint, then Cirillo advises that for every four Pomodoros you give yourself a longer, ten-minute break before starting again.

There’s not much else to it.

One of the best things about the Pomodoro Technique is its flexibility. You can work a full day Pomodoro by Pomodoro. Or, you can do as many or as few Pomodoros as you need.

And this technique works perfectly with blocking out tasks, so you can use Pomodoro to structure your day — for instance, you could set aside a Pomodoro (or more) each day to work on emails, and another to do staff scheduling or ordering inventory.

But it’s also useful in working on long, complex tasks that otherwise might become tedious. The structure of a Pomodoro, with breaks built in, provides incentives to work in short, intense bursts before switching off for a bit, where you might have otherwise given a task half your attention for much longer.

You can also use it to break down a task into actionable chunks. For example, if you’re trying to create a menu, you might use one Pomodoro to work out starters, another to do mains, and so on.

Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done, or GTD as it’s known by its adherents, is two things really — it’s a best-selling book by productivity guru David Allen, and it’s a technique for, well, getting things done.

Rather than being based around time like the Pomodoro Technique, GTD is based on tasks. The basic idea is that you write down what needs to be done, and the steps you need to take. This means that you can concentrate on doing, rather than remembering what needs to be done.

To get started, you make a to-do list. A big one, in fact. The mother of all to-do lists.

One with every task that you need to get done, or you want to get done, or you hope to get done. This is called a Mind Sweep, and tasks are called Open Loops by those in the know.

Then you break these down into Next Actions.

Once you know what you need to do, you either do it, or if it takes longer than two minutes, you write down the next physical action you need to take, and save it for later.

GTD works by getting you to disgorge the contents of your brain onto a page. The principle behind it is a simple one, even if it has birthed a whole mass of daunting buzzwords and people who follow it with a cult-like intensity.

There are as many different ways to do GTD as there are people doing it, but most GTD-based systems divide their lists into three sections: need to do, want to do, and hope to do.

One of the big selling points of GTD is that it is platform-agnostic, meaning that you can write your lists on anything you like. If you want to use the notes app on your phone, that’s fine. If you’d like to use something like EverNote, a wildly popular cloud-based note-taking site which syncs across all your devices, then whatever floats your boat. Or, if you’re more of an analogue person, then by all means use a pad of paper and a pen.

GTD can generate a lot of information, which is one of its strengths, but also one of the things that puts new starters off. One way to organise this is by using the Hipster PDA. It’s basically a stack of index cards held together by a bulldog clip.

There are a few benefits of using index cards over a notebook. You can assign a single Open Loop to a single index card, along with all of its actionable tasks. Perhaps more importantly, you can arrange and rearrange index cards whenever you need to — unlike with a notebook, where once you write something down on a page, it stays where it is in the book.

GTD takes a while to get started, but once you’re on the bandwagon, it becomes a powerful way of organising your time and Getting Things Done.

Bullet Journals

If you’ve been hanging around Instagram or Pinterest lately, you’ve probably seen these photos. There’s over 1.2 million of them floating around on Instagram now. Really elaborately laid-out journals written in a rainbow array of colours, with picture-perfect calligraphy. These are bullet journals.

But there’s more to bullet journalling than the #aesthetic.

All the drawings and quirky handwriting is pretty, sure, but that’s that’s not what it’s all about.

At heart, a bullet journal is a simple and powerful way of organising your thoughts, based around a technique called rapid logging.

Rapid logging has four components:

1. Topics and page numbers

Each page in a bullet journal has a topic, and a number: this helps you keep your thoughts organised and easy to index and find later. This could be as simple as the date for that day’s tasks, or it could be topic-based — the steps you need to take to complete a bigger project.

2. Bullets

The bullet journal does what it says on the tin. Rapid logs are based around a system of bullet points that help you organise your entries into three categories: tasks, events, and notes.

3. Tasks

This part is basically a to-do list with a few extra elements. Every actionable item you need to do is a task, and they are represented by a simple bullet point. There’s a little extra notation for when you complete a task, or if you decide to reschedule it — it’s a slightly smarter way to tick stuff off a to-do list.

4. Events

Events are represented with an ‘O,’ and it’s this element that makes a bullet journal less like a traditional to-do list and more like a diary or journal.


Notes are represented with a dash, and they’re pretty much a grab bag of thoughts, ideas, and observations. Basically, it’s anything that isn’t a task and isn’t an event.

There are a variety of other symbols that have been developed, and the system can be finessed into pretty much any shape.

As with GTD, bullet journalling plays nicely with EverNote, but one of the nice things about it is that all you need is a notebook and pen.

German stationers Leuchtturm have designed a notebook specifically for bullet journaling, with a handy guide to the bullets and to the general ideas behind the technique, but you can just as easily use any notebooks you have lying around.

The bullet journal works well because it’s flexible, and the index and page numbers allow for you to quickly look up information.

The general idea is to think about what you’re doing and your schedule, and to detail it efficiently, so that you can work out what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and get on with it.

There’s one thread that connects all of these tips and techniques — they all make it easier for you to organise your time and to get on with getting stuff done. And, at the end of the day, that means that you’re not wasting time procrastinating or dealing with filing, in the end freeing you up to spend your precious time as you wish.


-This post is courtesy of Josh Phillips. Thank you, Josh, for providing an insightful article for my readers!