Top 5 Time Management Tools from a Princeton grad and Learning Coach

Avthar’s Weekly Newsletter #17 (8/23/2020)

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What’s in this week’s newsletter?

Time is the most important resource we have in life. It’s the one thing we can’t make more of. Yet few of us are satisfied with how we spend our time.

In this week’s email, I want to share my Top 5 Time Management Tools, which helped me thrive as a student and technology professional and which I taught as a Learning Coach to dozens of Princeton students. I’ll also link my favorite resources to help you learn more about each tool and implement it in your life (look out for the 📚 emoji).

These tools will help you improve your effectiveness, work-life balance and output, whether you’re a student, working professional or entrepreneur.

Later this week, I’ll be sharing these tools in a workshop I’ve been invited to give at my alma mater, the international school UWC Costa Rica, where I’ll be helping 90+ students with Time Management and Prioritization. 

As always, let me know which parts spoke to you by replying to this email or hitting the comment button.


1. The Most Important Thing

We often feel overwhelmed by our ‘to-do list’. We will always have more things to do than time in which to do them. So we must decide. 

Being decisive literally means “to cut away”. We must cut away things and choose only those which are most important to us and our goals.

How to choose what to keep and what to cut away? Here’s two tools to help you decide what to keep: (1) the MIT: Most Important Thing and (2) 80/20 Analysis.

Most Important Thing

Every day, every hour and every minute, you must choose what to dedicate your attention towards. You have limited time and energy to do your best work. You must prioritize the most important tasks and projects that will help you achieve your goals.

Finding the Most Important Thing takes a combination of harnessing scarcity, long term thinking and finding points of highest leverage.

7 Questions to help you find the Most Important Thing

  1. What is the most important project/ thing for my work/ life/ company right now?

  2. What is the most important question I need to answer to be successful?

  3. If I could only do one thing on my list, what would that be?

  4. What is the most leveraged thing I can do?

  5. Which task would contribute most to my success 2 weeks from now?

  6. Which thing would my future self thank me for the most?

  7. Looking back at this week/ month, which project would I be most proud of achieving?

Framing priorities around long term goals helps us differentiate between things that are urgent (due soon) and things that are truly important (will get us closer to achieving our goals).

80/20 Analysis

The Pareto Principle states that roughly 80% of the outcomes come from 20% of the causes.

80/20 Analysis is all about finding what 20% of your actions generate 80% of your results and doubling down on them. Similar to finding the Most Important Thing, 80/20 analysis will help you cut down the space of possible things to work on into only the most important ones.

💪 See my article on Natural Leverage to help you find the 20% skills you can exploit to generate 80% of your results.

📚Resources on The Most Important Thing


2. 📅 Daily and Weekly Reviews

Sometimes we cruise through life without examining the present and whether our actions are getting us closer to our goals.  Reviewing and Reflecting is an essential part of managing your time and yourself. 

Reviewing ensures you’re clear about your priorities and goals. It clarifies actions which take you closer to your goals and the best order in which to execute those actions.

I review at 3 levels of time: daily, weekly and long term (e.g every 3-6 months or 1 year). I recommend others to do the same.

The Weekly Review

The Weekly Review has 3 components:

  1. Review how the past week went

  2. Plan next actions or negotiate timelines on current commitments

  3. Plan your most important things for next week

The Weekly Review is valuable because it allows you to take stock of what actually happened during a given week, analyze why and make changes as appropriate.

Creating a routine of review and reflection helps us understand our past actions, see why we succeeded or failed and isolate areas for improvement so that we can succeed in future.

Reflection

A good framework for reflection is the “STOP. START. CONTINUE" method.

In this method, you take stock of what things you need to stop doing that are hurting you, what you need to start doing that can benefit you and what good things you should continue doing that you already do.

In addition to doing task management, it’s important to reflect on your mental states during the week:

Where were you fearful, anxious or avoidant?

Where were you joyous, excited and enthusiastic? 

📚Resources for Weekly Review

There are myriad ways to do a weekly review. You must find the method that works best for you.

I recommend the Getting Things Done (GTD) method by David Allen:

Two other good resources on weekly reviews are:

  • The One Touch Guide to doing a Weekly Review by Tiago Forte [Article]

  • How to conduct a weekly review by Khy He [Article]

The Daily Review

Daily planning and review is a quick orienting and reflection exercise. I begin and end my day with the following questions:

Questions for the end of the day

  • What went well today?

  • What am I stuck on?

  • What is my Most Important Thing (MIT) for tomorrow?

By asking yourself this, you’ve already identified your priority for the next day. You can wake up with a purpose and attack the day, instead of deciding what to do first.

Questions for the start of the day

  • What can I be grateful for today?

  • What are my most important projects for today?

Gratitude and being thankful for life as it is right now is also a great reflection practice. I personally write down 5-10 things I can be grateful for at the beginning of every day in order to focus my mind on the abundance in my life, even when I’m having a rough time.

📚Resources for Daily Review

  • Template for Daily Review by The Five Minute Journal [Article]


3. 🏆Deep Work

In an age of digital distraction, the ability to focus and pay attention is a prerequisite for success in every field.

Deep Work is a practice that helps you cultivate focus and uncover insights so that you can do your best work.

Principles of Deep Work

  • Our best work is done in 2-4 hour uninterrupted periods, called periods of Deep Work. Major breakthroughs in understanding or insight often come after 90 minutes or so.

  • Our attention ‘resets’ every time we get distracted or take outside input. Outside input includes checking email, messages, social media or watching videos. Activities like exercise, taking walks and water breaks are fine. 

  • To achieve anything great, we must create an environment where we can habitually do Deep Work and avoid distractions.

Avoid the Grey Zone

If you try to ‘multi-task’ by checking social media or scrolling the internet while trying to ‘focus’ on something, you’re training your brain not to be fully focused and that it’s okay to run away and find stimulation at the slightest hint of boredom. What we want is to train our brains to focus intently, so that we can effectively complete our work, and then move on to having fun with friends or relaxing. 

What we don’t want is to live in this grey zone of mild anxiety between working with full attention and relaxing without guilt.

In the grey zone, you work, but don’t really pay full attention and you relax by scrolling the internet, but you don’t really relax because you feel guilty about not working and wasting time.

📚Resources on Deep Work


4. ⚡ Energy Management

While many people are aware of time management, few are aware of energy management. 

Energy management refers to how you allocate your focus, attention, enthusiasm and other emotional states.

You have limited energy and time in a day. How to use your time and the states of mind you embody will determine how effective you are in your work. 

Stress and Recovery

To grow and perform optimally, we need periods of action and inaction - periods of stress and recovery.

Stress is activity that pushes us to our limits and tests us mentally, physically and emotionally. This could be working our job, running our company or navigating the demands of being a student.

Recovery is activity that rejuvenates and renews us. It balances the impact of stress and allows us to use stress to grow rather than to decline. 

Beware of too much stress and too little recovery.

You must make time for recovery in your daily routine, otherwise you will ‘burn out’ or feel out of control and overwhelmed. Try to pair a period of stress with a period of recovery. Work as hard as you can. But ensure that you’re taking breaks to truly refresh your focus and energy, for both your mind and body.

📚Resources on Energy Management

  • The Power of Full Engagement: Why managing energy, not time is the key to high performance by Jim Loehr [Amazon Link] [Summary] [Summary 2]

  • The Art of Learning Project: Stress and Recovery [Article]


5. 📖 Reading for meaning

You were taught how to read aloud as a child, but you were probably never taught to read for meaning. 

Reading for meaning means reading things with purpose. 

It’s a useful reading hat to put on when you’re dealing with information dense writing, like textbooks, non-fiction books, blogs and academic papers.

Reading for meaning means reading aggressively. You have questions and you’re looking for answers.

Your purpose for reading could be to increase your understanding of some theme, getting clarity about a topic you’re confused about or answering a burning question.

Finding your purpose for reading something is as easy as asking: “Why am I reading this? What do I want to learn?” before you read.

That question primes the mind to look for information which is relevant to your purpose.

Avthar’s System for Reading For Meaning

Here’s a system I used to read textbooks and scientific papers while at Princeton University. It can be adapted for non-fiction, blogs or any information dense writing:

  1. Write down your goals or questions you want to answer by reading. This might be the stuff on the test, a formula, principles

  2. Understand which questions in the syllabus this chapter (or paper) corresponds to. (For personal reading, understand what question this specific chapter or part of the text might be helpful with). If you don’t recognize some words in the syllabus, then write them down and look for the meanings in the text first. 

  3. Read the introduction, conclusion, charts and table of contents. Get a lay of the land first. This builds signposts in your head about where this article/ book/ chapter is going and helps you better navigate it to find the answers to your questions.

  4. Then take a second pass. Search for where you think the most important information relevant to your goal or question is located and make a note of it. Also note down areas of difficulty or areas that look tricky to come back to.

  5. Make a third pass to get the information to answer your questions

  6. Take a final pass at the areas of difficulty to take them with more context in mind.

  7. Summarize and synthesize the information you’ve taken from the text so that successfully answered your questions from step 1.

Notice how you don’t just read once over. Here we make 4 or 5 passes over the text in one reading.

Moreover, remember that you don’t need to read a book from start to finish. You don’t need to read every word or every page. You don’t need to finish it all in one sitting and remember every single line.

📚Resources on Reading for Meaning

  • Study Skills by Tony Buzan [Free Slides] [Amazon book] (See section on ‘Speed reading’ / reading for meaning)

  • How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren [Amazon Link]

  • Speed Reading for Dummies [Amazon Book Link]

  • James Clear’s Reading Comprehension Strategies [Article]


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I hope you have a week full of success, happiness and peace.

Thank you so much for reading!

With gratitude,

Avthar