Four routes to better time management

Much of the waste isn’t your fault, but there are ways to make the most of the hours you have left

THE WRITER Tom Hodgkinson has made a career out of doing rather little. Author of How to Be Idle, his philosophy follows that satisfying maxim of eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson that “the happiest part of a man’s life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the morning.” But for those less liberated from the constraints of modernity, such attitudes can be intensely irritating. Indeed, a 2012 survey by into the biggest time-leachers for professionals today found that most aren’t even the individual’s fault: 47 per cent blamed excessive meetings, 37 per cent pointed the finger at having to fix other people’s mistakes, while 36 per cent accused annoying co-workers and 20 per cent excessive email.

So how can you make better use of the hours you have left? Here is a selection of the techniques and tips out there:

While there are plenty of defunct theories about who can multi-task and who cannot, only a thin slice of humanity actually has the capacity to do two or more things at once without performance collapsing. In 2010, researchers at the University of Utah, for example, studied the effect of people talking on a mobile while using a driving simulator. Only 2.5 per cent of the sample showed “absolutely no performance decrements” on either task – people the researchers termed supertaskers. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to isolate what makes these “rare and intriguing individuals” so different, so it’s probably best to avoid doing too much at once.

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, Pomodoro is a low tech approach to more efficient time management. Write a list of what you need to do, apportion it into 25 minute chunks, wind up a kitchen timer (ideally tomato-shaped), and work until it pings. Then take a short break and move on to the next task. Pomodoro claims a number of benefits. First, while there are now digital alternatives, the physical process of winding up the timer is meant to reinforce determination. Second, mandated mini-breaks (even if just a couple of minutes) are credited with quashing burnout. Third, pre-emptively dividing up larger tasks into more manageable 25 minute units can give you a clearer idea of where you are with an overarching project, while prompting better prioritisation. Finally, Pomodoro allows you to gain an edge in economies of scale by encouraging the completion of similar tasks in one go.

Researchers at the University of Bristol broke new ground in 2008 by demonstrating, for the first time, that exercising during work hours has both physical and mental benefits. As part of the study, they asked 200 people what impact exercise had on their work performance: 72 per cent reported improvements in time management on exercise days and 74 per cent said they managed their workload better. But beware. A 2011 study found that, if you’re highly stressed, exercise can actually lead to decreases in productivity, “perhaps indicating that individuals cope [with stress] by exercising more and working less.”

Sometimes known as the law of the vital few, the pareto principle states that 20 per cent of something causes 80 per cent of the results. It’s been applied widely: from economics to sport, from health to software. But some argue it also has time management applications: 80 per cent of what we achieve comes from just 20 per cent of what we do. So what? Essentially it’s about stopping yourself from doing low performance tasks (thus reinforcing the ratio), and maximising time spent on what is important. Easier said than done, of course. But even being aware of the rule might encourage you to judge priorities more effectively.

Digital time management
Pomodoro Timer Pro
Designed for Android devices, Pomodoro Timer Pro claims to be “the ultimate weapon in your battle with time”. It takes all the principles of the Pomodoro Technique, and streamlines them in app form. You can create lists, add multiple tasks, view your history, and of course make use of its in-built timer.