Feeling busy but unproductive? 8 time management principles to help you prioritise your time and focus on what matters most


I used to think of time management as the boring side of work - but came to realise that a good system frees you up to focus your time and attention on more enjoyable, creative tasks. If you’re in a position of leadership, your time management and prioritisation has implications for the workload of your team. There’s a lot of ways to think about improving time management, so for now I’m just throwing out a few different time management principles and ideas and leaving it to you to apply whatever is useful. I don’t think any of them are particularly revolutionary ideas, but when you apply them together in the right way for you they can be really helpful. 

The ‘capture bucket’ frees up your mind to generate and implement ideas, rather than having to remember them. If you’re constantly holding a whole bunch of tasks and ideas in your head, it adds stress and decreases productivity (you may have come across the idea of ‘open loops’, basically unresolved things that your brain is working on - a capture bucket closes these loops.) Create a space (physical or digital) where you can record any idea, forgotten task or interesting avenue to explore (professional or personal) - this is your ‘capture bucket’. You can then ‘empty’ it periodically by doing the things you’ve listed, transferring them do a relevant ‘to-do list’, ‘backburner’ space (where you keep a list of ideas you want to come back to in future) or ‘reference’ list (where you keep any books/articles/podcasts that you want to get to someday).

The week review can help you plan ahead and make sure you’re on track. Set aside a time each week (preferably regular) to review your progress (you can do this professionally and/or personally). This could involve checking progress against your goals, emptying your capture bucket, scheduling in important/essential tasks for next week, setting your ‘inputs to zero’ (basically, answering all your emails/messages, rescheduling any tasks you didn’t get to, and enabling you to start the next week without being ‘behind’ on anything), and perhaps just reflect on your wellbeing and think about how you structure the next week in light of that. The man behind this and the capture bucket is Greg Allen - you can listen to him being interviewed about ‘getting things done’ on the Tim Ferriss show (one of my favourite podcasts, although there are some stranger episodes, and this one does go slightly rogue in the middle) here.

Essentialism is the idea that some things we spend time on are essential, and some are not. We should work out what is most important/essential for achieving our goals, do a lot of that, and do little non-essential work. It’s about separating out the really, really good things from the quite good things. There’s another good Tim Ferris interview on this with Greg McKeown. If you’re leading a team that feels very busy at the moment, helping separate the essential from the non-essential is a big help!

The important/urgent matrix is a two-by-two grid whereby you can categorise your tasks by how important (how much impact they’ll have) and urgent (how quickly they need to be done) they are. Quadrant 1 contains things that are important and urgent - these are probably at the top of your to-do list. Quadrant 2 contains things that are important but not urgent (e.g. personal development, big-picture thinking, planning ahead, looking after team wellbeing) and quadrant 3 contains things that are urgent but not important (the meeting you’ve been invited to later that you don’t really need to be at, the email threads that don’t really matter, the tasks that aren’t really a priority but that you’re being asked to complete this week). The problem is that most of us spend more time in quadrant 3 than quadrant 2 - which has negative long-term consequences. The more that you can say no to things in quadrant 3 and spend time in the ‘important’ quadrant 2, the better. Managers/senior people - try to give your teams as little quadrant 3 work as possible!

The 80/20 rule (sometimes called the Pareto principle) is the idea that 80% of our impact comes from 20% of our time - some of the things we do are much better than others. Similarly, with each individual project or task, we can potentially achieve 80% of our desired impact in 20% of the time that it would take us to achieve 100% of our desired impact. This rule is a strong pushback against perfectionism. It suggests that it’s worth doing a lot of things quickly (and potentially only being 80% satisfied with them) rather than getting everything just right. Of course, there are some things we don’t want to rush - but in general, it’s worth looking for tasks or projects that we can ‘80/20’ in order to free up time to spend longer on the most important (perhaps even essential) things.

Calendar architecture/automation is basically a way to try and reduce the time you spend planning or deciding things. Work out things that you want to do on a regular basis (be that daily, weekly, monthly, yearly etc) and put recurring slots of time in your calendar. That makes sure they don’t get forgotten and you don’t have to keep scheduling them in (you can always move them if you have to). The more things you can automate, the less time and brainpower you have to spend deciding things. An extreme example of this is the Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg decision to wear the same outfit everyday. (I recently did this with food shopping - rather than suffer from chronic indecision while trying to decide what to buy each week, I wrote down a list of all the things I like to cook and put them into an 8 week rota (with the occasional gap for experimentation), meaning that the decisions are now made for me – aren’t I fun!)

Procrastination probably isn’t a problem we can solve in a couple of lines. A few quick tips - try to be well rested, break down big tasks into small chunks, schedule realistic time slots and rewards for completing things, introduce accountability, define your bad habit and identify what triggers it… and, listen to this podcast where Adam Grant interviews author Margaret Atwood about procrastination.

A shutdown ritual is a good way of separating work from non-work time, especially in these times. Basically, the idea is to adopt some sort of ritual at the end of the working day that reinforces to your brain that you are finished with work until tomorrow. It might be that there’s a particular thing you say when you shut down your laptop (I don’t know if that feels a bit weird), some actions you take, a particular place you put your laptop - any kind of repeat activity that will be a concrete barrier between work and rest.

Hopefully they all make sense - I’ve found that getting into a good system with capture bucket, week review and calendar architecture is really helpful, but it took me a long time to get my head around it all – there’s a lot of ‘time management’ content out there, so it can be a good thing to revisit periodically until you get into a good rhythm with it.