Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Six Time Management Tools from Julie Morgenstern

by Andre · 10 Comments

Julie Morgenstern Time management has become increasingly important to me, despite my reservations about excessive focus on time scarcity (see my time management system smackdown). In the last six weeks, I’ve gone from full-time freelance writing work to working for the Man, doing analytics for an internet firm in El Segundo — while still maintaining most of my professional writing. Between working during the day, the 3-4 hour round trip commute, and freelance writing during the evenings and weekends, I had to let go of activities that weren’t income streams, like blogging and programming. I’ve been anxiously looking for ways to carve out the time to recover those passions.

Since Julie Morgenstern’s book on decluttering, When Organizing Isn’t Enough, was easily the most useful book I read last year, I decided to go back and read some of her material on time management I overlooked in the past. I’ve written about time management in a few times, usually contrasting it to task management, but now that more of my time is externally claimed, I’m more receptive to focusing on ways to master the time that remains under my control.

While Never Check E-Mail in the Morning and especially Time Management from the Inside Out are rewarding reads, it’s clear that studying time management is a like going to church — the people who need to be there the most are the ones who aren’t. Those who most urgently need to manage their time are the ones who (think they) lack the time to read books on the subject. A much faster introduction to Julie’s time management principles can be found in her Time Management for the New Year seminar, recorded last month and hosted on Hay House’s site (the streaming version is $4.95, the downloadable version is $20.00). The two-hour talk covers her six main time management tools, interspersed with insightful listener Q and A.

Organizing Time = Managing Time

Morgenstern began her consulting career as a professional organizer. As she became proficient at organizing physical spaces like living rooms and closets, organizing her time was the last frontier — until she realized that organizing time is exactly like organizing space. A day has so many hours or minutes, just as a closet has so many feet or inches. The trick is knowing what fits. A day crammed with arbitrary activity is as discouraging as fitting clothes into a packed closet.

Here are here six tools for aligning time commitments with time available:

Tool #1: Self-assessment. For anyone frustrated by the inability to get to the most important priorities, the first question to ask is, “What’s keeping me from getting to them?” Julie outlines three kinds of mistakes:

  • Technical errors: mismanaged time that can be addressed by simple, mechanical fixes. Tackling high-focus projects too early or late in the day for one’s personal energy cycle, answering the phone before leaving for appointments, and misgauging the time necessary to complete a task can all be resolved by reversing those faulty habits (like ignoring the phone before leaving)
  • External realities: disruptive environments, unrealistic schedules, and obligations to others that need to be accounted for consciously. For instance, I’ve been so accustomed to virtual freelance work without commuting that it didn’t occur to me that my new commute consumes 20 percent of my waking hours — obvious in hindsight
  • Psychological obstacles: internal resistance or complications. Some people who are chronically late may be (1) calling attending to themselves, (2) avoiding arriving early to avoid having nothing to preoccupy them in the interim, or (3) artificially inducing a crisis situation for them to come to its “rescue” — what Julie calls a “Conquistador of Chaos” complex

Tool #2: Estimating how long a task will take. Julie recounts how she used to constantly procrastinate on washing the dishes, until she decided one day to time herself, only to find that it took seven minutes. From that point forward, washing the dishes was an easy chore, too short to be intimidating.

She notes that over 90 percent of her clients’ To Do lists lack time estimates next to the items. She recommends writing down a time estimate for every task. For the next week, time how long each task takes, or at least the ones you find yourself procrastinating on the most. Some will take surprisingly less time than imagined, while others will take surprisingly more. This one principle made me realize how much of my previous morning and evening routines were unrealistic in light of my new work schedule, mainly due to not factoring in the commute.

Tool #3: The 4 D’s. If you can’t do a task, you have four alternatives, which Morgenstern calls the “4 D’s”:

  1. Delete. Just because something isn’t worth doing now doesn’t mean it’s worth doing later. Many things aren’t worth doing at all. Don’t create schedule clutter by postponing unqualified activities. Get rid of them
  2. Delay. Consciously deferring lower-priority tasks isn’t procrastination; it’s triage. Procrastination is avoiding making decisions on when or if to do something, where “later” becomes default by definition
  3. Delegate. Enlist the help of others: employees, family members or friends. Many hands make light work. Sometimes resistance to delegation stems from an underdeveloped or overdeveloped ego, but often it’s simply the lack of a trusted technique of tracking external dependencies with a Waiting For list.
  4. Diminish. Exercise your “enough” muscle, and reexamine the assumption that more is better. A five-sentence email might accomplish 90 percent of what a five-paragraph email would. Shorter meetings might better leverage shorter attention spans. Identify the point of diminishing returns before investing unwarranted time and effort

Tool #4: Develop a big-picture view. So much information and so many opportunities are thrown at us every day that we need a vantage point to see the big picture that throws minutiae into perspective. In GTD these vantage points are life categories — like “Finance,” “Friendship” or “Fitness” — called areas of focus, which we clarify or review as a checklist or a mind map. Julie just calls them categories. Every activity, task and project worth attending to fulfills some meaningful category (even if it’s genuine recreation). Otherwise, it’s clutter that can be pared away.

Developing a big-picture view involves three steps:

  1. Define your life categories. Julie recommends no more than six, to avoid diffusing your efforts
  2. Ask, “What’s my big-picture goal?” for each category. “Finance” is a category. “Save $1.3 million for retirement” is a goal
  3. Decide what two or three activities will get you to these goals — three maximum

Having a big-picture perspective reconnects you to the purpose that drives each activity, giving you the motivation to stay engaged with it. We don’t exercise to exercise, but to achieve or maintain health and fitness.

Tool #5: Time maps. Unlike an actual schedule, a time map is a template of how we generally allocate our time during each day of a normal week. You can see some sample maps Julie created for some of her clients, or check out Lifehacker’s “Map your time” article, which has a downloadable spreadsheet of a time map template.

Where a schedule would have a specific task assigned to a time, like “1:00-3:00 PM: Edit Chapter 6,” a time map would simply denote the more general, regular activity like, “1:00-3:00 pm: Editing.” Identifying and creating spaces for general routines does two things: (1) it allows you to see whether or not you’ve actually made sufficient time available for all categories and (2) it allows you to see the cyclical nature of your time, and realize that it’s much less erratic than you might otherwise assume. For those with more varied schedules, like teachers or consultants, it’s easy to design updated time maps as needed.

Tool #6: Planner. Whether you use a paper or electronic system, your planner is the landscape that holds everything you intend to do, and when you intend to do it. Unlike Dave Allen’s hard landscape approach to getting things done, where only non-discretionary time is scheduled, Julie recommends scheduling every To Do, arguing that tasks not connected to a “when” tend not to get done. As mentioned earlier, she makes no distinction between organizing time and organizing space; so she applies the SPACE method she outlined in Organizing from the Inside Out:

Two hours of time well spent

Time Management for the New Year is much more extensive seminar than I would have expected in such a short length. The Q-and-A, which I didn’t cover in the six tools above, goes into advice on how to use commute time more productively, how to stick to taking personal time off, and factoring in daily interruptions when scheduling high-focus projects. After being completely overrun with work for weeks, I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel thanks to much of the material in Time Management.

Tags: Productivity


  • Liam MonahanNo Gravatar // Feb 16, 2009 at 9:34 am

    This is a fantastic article. I really liked the comparison between time and space organizing.

  • GeorgiaNo Gravatar // Feb 16, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Welcome back! Good luck on your new projects. There is some upside to a commute if you find ways to “use” instead of “lose” the time. One of my regrets is the number of hours I lost to unproductive commuting in the past because it didn’t occur to me that I could be learning a language or listening to books on tapes or recording my thoughts instead of allowing talk radio to frazzle my nerves. Re tool #4, I’m trying to focus on the big picture view right now having immersed myself in just the task-handling aspects of GTD. I am astonished to find so little correspondence between how I spend the bulk of my time and what I believe to be important to me. Lots of work to do here!

  • David PierceNo Gravatar // Feb 16, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    This is great stuff. I particularly like the point about estimating the time required for a given task- though I’m TERRIBLE at estimating how long things will take. I’ve learned to overestimate how long various things are going to take, and that way it’s always a pleasant surprise when things get done, instead of a constant panic trying to cram too many things in.

    Using the time estimates with the time map might just work for me- thanks for all the tips!

  • CarlaNo Gravatar // Feb 19, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    I love the time map idea. This will really work for me, especially on the days that I’m working at home.

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    One of my newest favorite time savers (for those of us who use twitter, facebook, linked-in, and multiple e-mail accounts) is
    It’s an aggregator of anything new across all those services sent to you at times you control. So now instead of spending time going to several places to see what’s new, it comes to me once in the AM, once in the afternoon, once in the evening.

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  • Tim WilsonNo Gravatar // Oct 5, 2010 at 7:59 am

    With regard to estimating how long tasks will take, I’ve learnt to always factor in some “buffer” time to account for the inevitable interruptions.

    For example, if I have a window of 3 hours to use as I choose, I would plan what to do with no more than 2.5 hours and leave at least thirty minutes free.

    This method means I usually get everything done that I wanted to.

  • Dave GlassNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 2:49 am

    I like the explanation on why some people are late. I have a friend who is a chronic ‘later’ in this way, and he still never change!I like the explanation on why some people are late. I have a friend who is a chronic ‘later’ in this way, and he still never change! I’m going to see what his response is when I tell him about the psychology behind his lateness as outlined here.