The Right Way to Manage Your Time


Elon Musk wasn’t happy. The team building his Starship rocket system, which is intended to fly to Mars, weren’t working hard enough. It was one o’clock on a Sunday morning and they weren’t in the workshops, hammering steel, and designing thrusters.

So he called an all-hands meeting.

In the middle of a weekend night, he had everyone assemble at SpaceX’s south Texas site and demanded to know why they weren’t at their workstations. He wanted the company operating 24/7. When the staff told him that they didn’t have enough people to work shifts around the clock, he told them to increase their hires. Don’t employ a “brother-in-law who can’t ever get a job,” he told them but employ anyone they could find and who they would put their reputation on the line for.

Twelve hours later, the company held a recruitment gathering. Twenty-four hours after that, it held a second. At 8pm on Monday evening, SpaceX was already holding its third job fair. Within three days, the company had hired 252 people, doubling its workforce, with most of the new employees told to report for work the following morning.

There are two possible reactions to that story. On the one hand, you can admire Elon Musk’s drive. This is someone who gets things done and expects the same dedication from his staff all the time. But on the other hand, you might wonder about his management abilities. SpaceX’s staff might be just as dedicated as Elon Musk but they still need to sleep. They still have families and lives, and the need to wind down and rest at the weekends, especially in the middle of the night. While SpaceX has since sent a crew to the International Space Station, it would be interesting to know how many of those 252 new recruits are still working for the company eight months later, and how many have taken a job that doesn’t require midnight, weekend work meetings.

Elon Musk’s demands are usually how we feel pressure on our time. A driving boss expects us to be available at every hour of every day, and making best use of every minute. We respond by managing our time. When we get it right, we’re able to work at maximum productivity and still have time to rest and enjoy our lives. When we get our time management wrong though, work demands intrude into homelife. Stress increases. We struggle to balance the hours we work against the hours we rest. Tasks are left incomplete. Deadlines that were always too tight are missed. We try to add more hours, sacrificing sleep and family time, but fatigue only pushes down our productivity. Morale and confidence fall. In Japan, the result is karoshi, death by overwork.

That’s rare. In general, we manage. As stress increases, we adjust our time management until we can’t adjust it any more. At that point, the company risks losing an employee so it’s forced to adjust, to organize a recruitment drive and bring in more people to add more work hours and take the strain. Experience teaches us how to manage our time.

Today, though, that experience has less value. As we’ve shifted to home working, we’re all seeing less of our bosses and very little of our workplaces. We’re also seeing a lot less of our friends, our hobbies, and the beaches, and we’re seeing a lot more of our families. The routines that we grown accustomed to using to maximize productivity have gone. As work has switched from the office to the home, and with nowhere to go but the kitchen and living room, we’ve had to think again about how we organize our time, how we maintain productivity, and how we balance home and work when they’re both in the same place and we never leave either.

How Working from Home Is Changing the Way We Work

The freedom not to have to go to the office clearly brings a number of benefits with its change of routine. The absence of a commute means that we can all wake up later. Meetings are still taking place but there’s none of the small talk that comes before and after a gathering in the meeting room. Nor are there conversations around the watercooler or workplace gossip to distract us from getting the job done. A text exchange across Slack doesn’t have quite the same ability to pull us away from a spreadsheet that a comment about the weekend’s broadcast of Saturday Night Live can do.

The result has been a change in the way that we work. When lockdowns began, NordVPN found that Americans who were working from home were spending three hours more each day logged into its service. (Workers in France, Spain and the UK were logging in for an additional two hours; Italians didn’t appear to be working any more at all.) Peak email time has moved from 8am to 9am. People appear to be making the most of the opportunity to lie in, eat a leisurely breakfast, and start work later. But they’re also heading back to the computer in the middle of the night. Other VPN providers have reported seeing a new usage spike between midnight and 3am.

At the same time, though, meetings have acquired a new role in the day. Instead of forming a social highlight in which team members can come together to exchange views, they’ve lost much of their social characteristic. Teammates appear as small boxes in which facial expressions and body language are hard to read so communication becomes more restricted and more tiring. “Zoom fatigue” means that while we’re still holding meetings even as we’re sitting in our spare bedrooms, those meetings are a bigger drain on the day than they used to be, and a heavier weight in our schedules.

The result is that we’re having to rethink the way that we organize our day. Without the morning commute, we’ve lost the time we used to spend mentally ordering the tasks we need to perform before we arrive. Without face-to-face meetings to break up the day, we have to find new ways to add variety to the routine. Without the moment in which we turn out the office lights and head out of the building, we lack a clean break between the workplace and home life.

In the end, we run the risk of having neither: home responsibilities such as child care and laundry push into work time; work duties such as emails and research and Zoom meetings intrude on time we would have spent with family. When you’re home anyway, and you know the person you’re calling is also at home, why not give them a call? If you’re sitting at the kitchen table and the office is only upstairs, why not just take your boss’s call instead of taking the risk of screening them out?

The adjustment to not just a new way of working but to a new way of organizing time isn’t straightforward. Ellen Faye, a productivity coach who teaches entrepreneurs, academics, and executives how to manage their time, found that the start of the pandemic was “problematic” for her clients. People didn’t just find themselves at home, they also found themselves at home with kids. For small children, childcare provided a simple solution. Teenagers needed support and have a habit of interrupting. Having access to a quiet place free of those interruptions has become more important than ever.

One of the biggest challenges, though, has been creating a structure. Without site visits or the ability to call on customers, and without even the chance to vary the choice of lunchtime sandwich bar, days have become similar. That doesn’t just make time less interesting it also makes it feel longer. What we don’t achieve by the end of today, we can do tomorrow because tomorrow is a lot like today. To give time a structure, restore that lost productivity, and ensure that there are clear lines between leisure time and work, Faye recommends creating a detailed checklist.

Since the beginning of May, she herself has been using an Excel worksheet, and says that she’d be lost without it. Each day has its own column and Faye marks off the days on which she has successfully completed certain tasks. Some of those tasks will be leisure activities such as meditation, yoga, or a walk. Others will be work-related, such as the morning email review and her top three tasks list—a list that consists of the most important task she has to complete, as well as two others. The prioritization ensures that the day’s focus remains in one place.

Faye also lives by “intentions,” a set of rules that govern the work day in the same way that habits dictated the pattern of in-office work. She makes sure that she doesn’t work any later than 6pm, keeps 8-9am for email and daily planning, and marks off two-hour blocks for project work. She also makes sure that she meditates for at least five minutes each day and works out twice a week.

“Make the time, and take the time to plan each and every day,” she says. “Write out what top task you want/need to accomplish for that day. Use that to stay focused and productive.”

That combination of checklists and “intentions” can help to bring structure to a day. You know that you’ll be starting the day by looking at your emails and planning your tasks. You’ll know that you’ll have at least a couple of hours to focus on the most important thing you’ll need to get done. And if you can force yourself to stop working at 6pm, you’ll have a division between work time and home time. A technology Sabbath during which you don’t approach your computer or your phone on Saturday or Sunday will also reduce the temptation to shoot back a quick email or work when you should be resting.

One simple method to ensure that you’re managing your time well is to manage your workspace well, says Faye. Even if you’re working at a kitchen island, keep a drawer for your Post-It notes, pens, markers, and lists, and clear the work surface at the end of the day. Taking all your work tools off the kitchen table or the living room sofa creates another separation between work and home life, removes work distractions, and provides a new setting-up routine. It might not require as much time as the morning commute used to do but you can do it later in the day, you won’t have to sit in traffic and it will bring you into your workspace. And avoiding that place when you’re not working is also important.

We can all be grateful that the pandemic means we won’t now be getting called into the office for midnight, weekend meetings. But if we want to be sure that days don’t merge, that our time is productive, and that our leisure and family life remains protected, we do need to manage our time and structure our days even when the office remains closed. And that applies to Elon Musk too.

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