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A New Time Management System

Cal Newport is a professor at Georgetown University and author who writes about academic and professional success, technology, minimalism, culture, and the intersection of these topics.  In his 2007 book How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, Newport outlines a useful time management system.  Not only is it applicable to the general public (it’s not just useful for young college students), it’s flexible and focuses on one day at a time.  If you’ve been struggling with endless lists of to-dos and seemingly no progress on checking them off, take a look at the system outlined below.

The Theory Behind the System

Newport writes that his time management system is designed to take about five minutes a day once you’ve adapted to it.  Its purpose is not to “cram as much work as possible into the day”; rather, the idea behind his method is that once you clearly know what work needs to be done in one day and when it will be completed, you can relax when you’ve scheduled your downtime and can work with purpose knowing that periods of fun or relaxation are coming up.  He refined this method during his undergraduate years at Dartmouth and realized that the most successful students from Ivy League universities and other elite colleges use very similar time management strategies.

What the System Requires

In addition to the five to ten minutes a day this method requires, you also need two physical objects: a calendar and a sheet of paper.  The calendar can be either digital or paper, but it has to have space to record at least 12 to-do items. The sheet of paper needs to be accessible to you virtually all day and can be scrap as long as you have some blank space for writing.

How to Use the System

The system is fairly simple: keep track of all to-dos and deadlines or events on your calendar, and record new to-dos on your scrap paper each day beside what Newport calls a “pessimistic” outline of your day.  This method requires that you only look at and deal with your calendar once per morning. What you do is you open your calendar to today and look at what events are going on and what to-dos you’ve previously recorded for work on this day.  (When first using this method, you may need to do a large dump of deadlines and to-dos on your calendar, but after you clear this hurdle, you’ll be dealing with less information each morning.) Next, you grab your scrap paper and divide it into two columns; the left column is for outlining your schedule for the day, and the right one is for new to-dos to jot down throughout today.  You input yesterday’s to-do list/reminders (the right column on yesterday’s scrap paper) into your calendar at this time as well.  

A key focus of Newport’s method is that you just don’t transfer your calendar’s entries into a massive to-do list for today; instead, you realistically figure out what you can accomplish in a day, and leave it at that, transferring excess to-dos to a different day on your calendar.  You outline your day using specific times that you are going to complete various tasks to keep you focused, but the system is flexible – if you end up not doing something at 1:00 that you intended to, you can either reconfigure the rest of today’s schedule, or do the task another day.  You also don’t put all of yesterday’s to-dos in today’s schedule – allocate them appropriately throughout the week or month. Another great feature of the system is you can move items around as much as necessary, so long as you get them done when they really need to be.

Tips and Tricks

Be honest about how long something is going to take – don’t plan a day with the superhuman version of you in mind.  If you know something is going to take 2 hours, don’t pretend like you’ll get it down in 45 minutes. Again, as Newport puts it, be pessimistic about what you can accomplish so you don’t overload yourself.  

Make sure to give yourself 1 hour for meals if at all humanly possible – staying hydrated and fueled is an important part of his method, so don’t be afraid to take your lunch hour.  It’ll help you get things done later in the day, so a meal is really an investment in what you set out to do afterwards.

Consider keeping a journal or other piece of paper in which you track if you completed all of today’s scheduled items or not.  If not, make a note of what got in the way of you completing the tasks. This may help you figure out recurring obstacles in your schedule.

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