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Spend More Time Managing Your Time


Making Time for Time

Something organized people don’t often talk about is how much time they spend organizing their time.

I think this is a shame.

The past half-decade has seen a trend in (online) time management discussions toward simplification. It’s now accepted by many that it’s enough to jot down each morning a couple “most important tasks” of the day on an index card, and if you get those done, consider your day a success.

Think about this for a moment. This belief essentially cedes the majority of your working hours over to meetings separated by bursts of non-productive inbox shuffling and web surfing.

I for one am not yet willing to give up so many hours, as doing so would significantly reduce what I’m able to accomplish in the typical week. Which brings me back to time spent organizing time…

The Necessary Grind of a Good Weekly Plan

It’s not unusual for me to spend two or more hours at the beginning of each week playing with the puzzle pieces that are my commitments, big and small.

It’s hard work figuring out how to make a productive schedule come together: a goal that requires protecting long stretches of speculative deep thinking while keeping progress alive on long term projects and dispatching the small things fast enough to avoid trouble (but not so fast that the deep stretches fragment).

During today’s planning session, for example, I had to balance immediate obligations like a paper deadline this evening, with short term obligations like grading midterms, with the many medium range obligations mounting from my next book launch, to long term obligations, like the need to continue to make progress on the theorems needed for an important February deadline.

Sprinkle in a dash of appointments and a heavy dollop of tasks and it’s completely reasonable to expect that making sense of these pieces would require some serious thinking.

I’m telling you this mainly to provide another data point. It’s true that many people approach their days with flexibility, perhaps hunkering down when an immediate deadline looms, but otherwise letting their reactions to input drive the agenda. But I want to emphasize that there’s another group of us who take our time really seriously, and aren’t afraid to spend hours figuring out how best to invest it.

This level of organization is not for everyone; but everyone should know that it’s an option.

48 thoughts on “Spend More Time Managing Your Time”

  1. Hello Cal,

    I have been following your blog for 4 years and I am a big fan of your work. I have read your book So Good and your student study guides.

    Today I had an big insight about what unifies your body of work on passion. I wanted to see what you think about it.

    The best way I found to understand “deep passion”(my own term) is by using the metaphor of the planet Pasionia.

    Imagine a planet similar to Earth, however in this planet the temperature is always 100°F and the only profession is tree farmer.

    The big question that the people of Pasionia face is where they should plant their “passion tree”. There are thousands of different fields available (professions) to plant their trees, this can make choosing a field a daunting task. The young people use sophisticated equipment to measure the nutrients in the soil, however the variation is always small (2-3%). The equipment used is also unreliable. Sometimes the powerful magnetic forces of Pasionia can effect it (human emotions/cognitive biases/past experiences) and give misleading results

    The wise elders of Pasionia tell the young people that the secret to growing a tall tree that can provide ample shade (comfort) and challenge (tree climbing) is to chose a good quality soil and plant a “passion tree” early and water it diligently. And most importantly, have faith that things will work out if they follow this process.

    The rebellious youngsters think they know better and they rely on their sophisticated technology to make the right choice. So they spend many years growing small trees and testing the soil of countless fields.

    What the elders forgot to tell them is that there is mysterious process that happens after the tree reaches a certain level of maturity. The tree falls down and decomposes. This in turn adds 500% more nutrients to the soil and paves the way for the growth of a even larger tree.

    Note: In this case the fall of the tree represent the ending of a stage of life. For example, for an engineer it could mean completing an undergraduate degree in their field. This will prepare them for even more growth in graduate school (they will start with a even more fertile soil of passion).

  2. So in the pic above do you list out your schedule in gmail by typing up each section uniquely or do you have repeating tasks throughout?

  3. Learning to really manage your time is a discipline. As with most disciplines, only a few people are willing to focus and put in the hard work necessary to become proficient.

    Congrats on being one of these few. Thanks for your post.

  4. I fully agree with Cal.

    There are plenty of tools to “help you” organize your thoughts and time, much as the wealth of devices and gadgets available to “help you” running, meditating, or even cooking (remember those multi-purpose slicer that are supposed to help you cutting faster and nicer?). At the end, it all goes in the same direction: making you focusing on the tool rather on the task. Materialistic option vs. flow.

    I am not against those tools, as I am myself using one to batch all my small and potentially forgettable tasks (wunderlist). But my time and project management, from weekly plan to long-term focus is done by hand-writing, as it brings me much more peace, focus and ability to enter the flow. Research have shown the cognitive benefits of hand writing vs typing, also because of the fact that you combine gesture with your thoughts. As if you were paving a natural road from your brain, through your body, and out in the world on paper.

    Give your best “tool”, your hand, a try: you might be surprised of its almost infinite possibilities. Almost as much as your brain. 😉

  5. Cal,

    do you track your time usage? And if so, how, and to which accuracy?

    Do you use time tracking to debug (failed) plans afterwards?

    • 15 weeks ago I started tracking my “focused” work time by using a combination of the pomodoro technique and an “unschedule.” I set timers for 15, 30, or 45 minutes, and I only mark it down (in an excel spreadsheet) as complete if I focus for that full length of time. I’ve gone from an average of 10-12 mindful, focused hours per week in the first few weeks to 25-30 hours per week over the past 3 weeks. It makes a massive difference to your overall output to know where your time is going.

      • 30 hours a week is really high! If you don’t mind me asking, what type of work do you do and how do you distributed 30 hours through the week? (e.g., Are you using early morning or evenings?)

        In my academic life, I aim for 15 per week, and this seems to be about at the theoretical limit for a professor not working at night and on weekends, during a teaching semester. Though there is a lot of variance here, especially when nearing major deadlines with major deep work requirements.

      • @Jonathan

        I concur, and this is why I ask the question. Also, Peter Drucker states in “The Effective Executive” as rule #1, “Know Thy Time”, where he suggests time tracking.

        Do you keep track of when you perform your pomodoro blocks, or just how many?

        I have not yet found the easiest and most painless way for me to do time tracking, judging from my internal emotional resistance. In past experience, once I found the most efficient way to get something done, my inner resistance vanished completely. So I use it as a yardstick for personal efficiency.

        I know it sounds strange, but I’ve made this discovery relatively recently. I track expenditures, and I often fell of the wagon. Until one day I implemented a command line program with a “dialog” to enter the data. When I realized that this was really the fastest, easiest and most efficient way to get this task done, my internal resistance to the job disappeared completely and I’ve never fallen behind tracking expenditures ever since.

        Currently, I’m looking for ways to do the same for time tracking. Obviously, it would have to be on a mobile device, as I don’t carry a laptop with a bash prompt everywhere.

        Having track records on time or money expenditure can be incredibly revealing, because sometimes one isn’t aware where one wastes time on a regular basis and is unaware of that fact.

  6. Yes! I didn’t understand this approach until I met my husband, who takes a couple of hours to plan his time each week. Now, I’m a convert. The balance between immediate, medium-term and long-term projects is a great point. It’s all too easy for those longer-term projects to keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile until suddenly they’re not long-term projects anymore, they’re due next week (or, without a deadline, they stay in idea limbo for good). Creating this balance is still a work in progress for me, but I’m getting better at it.

  7. Cal,
    I know you have a deep understanding of time management, but you might want to look into some of the systems used by lawyers/law firms to log time if you haven’t already. Having to bill your time at down to 7.5 min increments necessitates constant monitoring. Although not all lawyers are the best at time management, some of the monitoring techniques could be applicable to collect data for a periodic audit of time management systems and techniques.

    BTW top performer is great so far.

    • I have definitely talked to lawyers about this. In general, I think those who bill hourly often highlight interesting work habits. At small consulting shops, for example, you’ll find that they hold many, many less internal meetings than other types of companies (because it eats up otherwise billable hours), and it turns out, they’re fine!

  8. Cal,

    Thanks for this post. How do you “predict” or allocate how much time it will take for your deep projects? That’s the piece that always throws my time planning off, and which is why I’ve moved to a more flexible system. I have tried many times doing a very detailed plan of exactly what I need to accomplish each day for my deep projects — for example, my dissertation — and then I fail to finish my daily goal, mostly because I underestimate the time needed and because unanticipated tasks arise. On the other hand, when I overestimate how much time a task will take me, I end up “wasting” the extra time. I dislike that, so I go back to underestimating.

    How have you managed to plan for deep projects with accuracy?

    • My plans exist at a higher level of granularity than you might expect. Here, for example, is a (sanitized) version of what I had down for today in my weekly plan (this was translated into a time-blocked daily plan this morning):

      10 AM [long meeting]

      After that, work on grading for a while.

      Leave a half hour for to a task block that includes [particularly important time sensitive task]

      Pack midterms to bring home to grade tomorrow

      2:30 meeting


      At night: [a writing task related to book launch]

  9. Cal,

    Very insightful post as always.

    Along with my weekly planning and review , I break my daily time management into two parts :
    a) Planning
    At the start of the day I plan my day hourly or in chunks using my weekly plan as reference.
    b) Logging
    I log on an hourly basis my activities which I then review at the end of the week.

    I find seperating Planning & Logging to be highly effective.

  10. Cal,

    I am currently a freshman in school and have come to know first hand for myself how important time managing is. I jot down in my planner the assignments and task that are due that day that call my attention first. The problem I have been noticing is with the in-between times I have that are free and I am able to do something other than school with, I end up wasting away. I am not as productive. As I was reading your post, I realized that I have only been focusing on the short term obligations for the day and not the medium and long term obligations I have. Thank you for the advice. I will begin implementing it.

  11. Managing your time may be time consuming, but it surely is worth it. My father always sits down at the start of the week to plan out his time schedule for the week and that is how I learned how to do it. It has some ups and downs, but it has really helped me out to focus on what I really have to get done. It may take a lot of hard work, responsibility and discipline. Many people do not have these characteristics, but it really helps to have them when you are trying to find time to put out a time schedule.

  12. Cal,
    I love this post! I believe that in order to be more efficient and organized planning is needed. Over the past two months I haven’t been scheduling or planning as much as I used to and I’ve noticed it negatively affecting my life, mainly school. Just these past couples days though I have been writing down the homework assignments I have right before I begin studying. I put numbers next to the assignments (usually 1-3) that need to be done as soon as possible and then if I have time or am feeling up to it I can work on the “long-term” assignments but by writing down everything I don’t forget what needs to be done. Planning what homework assignments I need to get done doesn’t take me to long and it helps me prioritize. And yes! It also feels great getting the main things you wanted done. I’ve already seen a positive change in my academic work and life.

  13. Hi Cal,
    Thank you for this great post. It validates what I have sometimes been hesitant to admit to others- that I spend hours planning my days/weeks/life (both personally and professionally). Others might think it is a waste of time or overkill but I think it makes for an intentional, well-lived life.
    I am currently working on a life/planning system that helps me live my values and develop my craft. A big part of my efforts have been inspired by your blog and book. Thank you!

  14. Hey!

    Ate you still using the research Bible/Closed-Loop Research System and mind giving an update on how you have changed it or why you dropped it?


  15. While reading this reminded me of my own endeavors when it comes to my planning. I feel like Cal is making a really valid point that we must set out time to “shuffle” through our goals and write down our plan to accomplish them. I personally believ that without this step life can seem meaningless and daunting. It is the follow through that has a deeper positive effect on your personal growth desires and goals.

  16. I always seem to be running out of time, but this year I have been way more organized, thanks to my many to-do lists I make. I make many throughout the week and every time I get to cross something off my list I get very excited. It is a great feeling to know I am so close to being done with everything I have on my list.

    Thanks for the helpful blog, from every college student.

  17. Great post Cal on this matter. I have been doing planning and task listing, but usually, I spend only a few minutes to do my weekly and daily listing. After reading this post, I understand why at times, I feel that it is not working. Question, do you list daily activities for each day at the beginning of the week, or the night before the day? I appreciate response from other readers as well.

  18. Hi Cal,

    Do you plan out your non-working hours as well? I see that your work day is normally 8:30 to 5:30 and is fully planned, but I’m wondering whether you plan your time outside the office as well. If so, do you do this as part of your weekly planning? Do you also use your red-black notebooks for non-work schedules and block out your time in a similar fashion?

  19. Dear Cal

    I agree that putting everything you had to do down on a schedule would help you complete your task much more. Because I always forget what task I have to do during the day and I don’t complete every task I do. You just have to simplify your task margining skills.

  20. Hi Cal,
    This blog reminds me of several other time-management guru’s who have suggested to keep a log of your activities (when you do them and how long you spend on them). I tried it, but found it exhausting and impractical.
    What do you think about time tracking?

  21. Thanks Cal. This post was very helpful to me in my life right now. Weekly planning has been taking me a long time – more than an hour typically – and I thought there was something wrong with me.

  22. Hi Cal,

    Cheers for blogging. I find this idea interesting. I have two main questions.

    Firstly, what happens if you do not spend these 2 hours planning your time? Namely, approximately how many hours of “deep work” time do you think you gain by spending 2 hours per week planning? And how much time do you spend planning at the beginning of each day in addition to this?

    Secondly, if hypothetically you were working on a single research project and had a negligible amount of meetings, would you still spend 2 hours planning your week? To be specific, let’s say you’ve planned all your other stuff, and have made boxes that say 10am – 5pm every weekday is deep work (with a couple of little breaks in between). About how much time would you spend planning the details of what to do in this time?

    P.S. It seems incongruous to ask questions in the comments of a blog about time management. So if you interpret these questions as rhetorical, you have my full endorsement:)

  23. Hi Cal,
    I would be grateful if you could advise me on this.
    What steps do you do between having the text in front of you and you’re seeing it for the first time and the exam?
    I know you have to read it and perform active recall, but do you perform active recall immediately after reading a paragraph on that paragraph, or do you read the whole thing once through first before going back and doing active recall etc? Do you make notes from a textbook then do active recall on that or directly from the textbook or etc? Do you underline etc on the first reading; do you say things out loud (physically spoken or out loud in your head) or just read it with no inner speech and verbalise it all on paper or etc? And what order do you perform these steps in?

    All your advice is greatly appreciated.
    thanks, APR

  24. For anyone having trouble printing Cal’s posts, I’ve found that using reader view (CMD+SHIFT+R) on safari is a great way to do this. As for non mac users, I think chrome has several reader-view-like extensions for that could also accomplish this.

    Thanks for this great blog Cal!


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