Why You Must Define Your Time Management System

Once upon a time, time management systems came in a box.

I remember one of my first from Franklin Quest (predecessor to Franklin Covey).  It had a dayplanner with calendar, todo list, notes, and address book.  It had an archive binder to store your old pages.  And last but not least, it even had a 4 tape audio course from Hyrum Smith.

Time management systems have advanced by leaps and bounds since then. Technology has forever changed the landscape of available tools.  However, they don’t seem as nicely packaged anymore.

What is in Your System?

Try asking someone, “What do you use for time management?”

These days, the answer is usually not that simple.  You will probably get a response that is a conglomeration of Outlook, multiple todo lists on smartphones and online, email and text messages, Google Calendar and Wave, etc. etc. etc.

Most people do not know what is “in” and what is “out” of their system.  This leads them to use whatever is handy to try to keep organized.

Post-Its.  Pads of paper.  An appointment card from the doctor’s receptionist.  The infamous napkin in the restaurant.  These all have good intentions, but inevitably the pads end up in a drawer, the appointment card lost in a purse or wallet, the Post-Its on the floor, and the napkin forever buried in a stack of papers never to be seen again.

Clearly defining your system will prevent you from reaching for tools that you should not.  This is a simple, yet crucial exercise.

Exercise: Define Your System

To define your system, you must draw a boundary around your time management tools.  You must be specific about what is “inside” and what is “outside” your system.

Before you start, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Minimize the # of  Tools – You want to keep the number of tools in your system to a minimum.  Adhere to “Power of 1.”  You want one of each tool needed: notes, address book, calendar, contacts, and todo list.
  • Keep it Simple – Minimize the complexity of your system.  You do not want a bloated system.  Not only will it weigh you down, literally in some cases, but duplication of tools will result in added complexity and synchronization issues.
  • Pick Tools For You – Many people overlook this one.  Make sure the time management tools you select are ones that you can use.  I see people choosing technology solutions who are not tech savvy.  Pick tools with which you are skilled, and better yet, that you will enjoy using.
  • Beware Too Many Inboxes – Limit the access points coming into your system.  If you have two dozen inboxes to check you will never keep up with them.  An individual I recently spoke with had over a dozen inboxes ranging from email to Google Wave to their Facebook account.
  • What Is Missing? – This seems elementary, but beware of holes in your system.  You would be surprised how many systems are missing at least one critical tool.  What are you missing?  Do you have the capability to capture notes?  Contacts?  Where are you likely to lose info?

So how do you go about defining your system?

The exercise here is to literally list what is in your time management setup.  Which tools are you using?  Outlook?  Smartphone?  Dayplanner?  Google Calendar?

The best way to do this is to create two lists: In and Out.

Here are my some sample lists:

My “In” List:

  • iPhone for Contacts and Calendar – My iPhone has hundreds of contacts and keeps all of my calendars in one place.
  • Goodtodo for Tasks – Currently, I am using Goodtodo for all task tracking.  Simple but very effective.
  • Moleskine Notebook – When it comes to paper notes, nothing compares to a Moleskine notebook.  (affiliate link)
  • Evernote – I use Evernote to capture all things that are better captured digitally than in my paper notebook.

My “Out” List:

  • Post-Its – They are so attractive, but so dangerous for todos and notes.
  • Random Pads of Paper – I take all my notes in my one Moleskine.
  • Secondary Calendars – I do not keep separate calendars at home or work.
  • Email Inboxes – I do not use email inboxes for todos or keeping files.

Defining Keeps You on Top

Once you “Define Your System,” the key is to avoid going outside the boundaries.  If you can resist the temptation to let your information spill over into other tools and locations, you will find that you are much more effective.

Remember, it is your system.  Your “In” and “Out” lists can change when you choose, but make it a conscious choice.  My lists change often as I am testing or reviewing new tools, but I am always aware of which are in and out of my system.

What is on your “In” and “Out” lists?  Please share your lists below.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Excellent advice Craig.

    Like so many I tried and worked with a lot of tools in the past. I used Palm for the longest time. Then I got lazy about synchronizing it with my computer. Messed around with a few PC software. Then moved to paper thinking that it would be the most simple. Of course it wasn’t simply because I failed to update it 🙂
    Also for some reason I never got used to evernote. So all of these are my out.

    Here is my current IN system:

    *To do list: a spreadsheet on Google docs

    *Capture tool: 3×5 scratch pad. I clear the notes every day or two max.

    *Mail and contacts: gmail. I have a @deal label for anything I need to do. Usually no more than a couple of things.

    *Notes to keep: google documents with a document for each item.

    Like you said, this can change over time. But for now it is working for me.

    Consistency in using the system is the key to its success.

  • Excellent advice Craig.

    Like so many I tried and worked with a lot of tools in the past. I used Palm for the longest time. Then I got lazy about synchronizing it with my computer. Messed around with a few PC software. Then moved to paper thinking that it would be the most simple. Of course it wasn’t simply because I failed to update it 🙂
    Also for some reason I never got used to evernote. So all of these are my out.

    Here is my current IN system:

    *To do list: a spreadsheet on Google docs

    *Capture tool: 3×5 scratch pad. I clear the notes every day or two max.

    *Mail and contacts: gmail. I have a @deal label for anything I need to do. Usually no more than a couple of things.

    *Notes to keep: google documents with a document for each item.

    Like you said, this can change over time. But for now it is working for me.

    Consistency in using the system is the key to its success.

  • Hi Craig!
    I’m just starting my Time Management System journey. I chose GTD and I’m reading the David Allan’s book. At the same time testing some tools, like RememberTheMilk, Google Calendar, Google Tasks, etc. So I still don’t have my “In” and “Out” list. But thanks to you I will keep that on mind! Thank you for the blog!

  • Hi Craig!
    I’m just starting my Time Management System journey. I chose GTD and I’m reading the David Allan’s book. At the same time testing some tools, like RememberTheMilk, Google Calendar, Google Tasks, etc. So I still don’t have my “In” and “Out” list. But thanks to you I will keep that on mind! Thank you for the blog!

  • Hi Craig,

    I like the five points you make, particularly the first three about minimizing, simplifying and motivating.

    With a time management system, the whole point of the exercise is to actually keep using it. I use a plain, unlined notebook which I make into a good quality page a day task-diary.

    I don’t use master to-do lists. Instead, I aim to do things the day after they come in, unless they’re genuinely same day urgent.

    So, for example, if I get a request to call a parent (I’m a teacher), I’ll put it in my notebook to do tomorrow.

    This system gives me a finite number of things to do each day. I know exactly what needs to be done, and the system is easy to use.

  • Hi Craig,

    I like the five points you make, particularly the first three about minimizing, simplifying and motivating.

    With a time management system, the whole point of the exercise is to actually keep using it. I use a plain, unlined notebook which I make into a good quality page a day task-diary.

    I don’t use master to-do lists. Instead, I aim to do things the day after they come in, unless they’re genuinely same day urgent.

    So, for example, if I get a request to call a parent (I’m a teacher), I’ll put it in my notebook to do tomorrow.

    This system gives me a finite number of things to do each day. I know exactly what needs to be done, and the system is easy to use.

  • I’m trying to get my system nailed down. I got my Franklin Quest system back in 1996, and I’ve had some system or other ever since.

    I used to use Outlook with Windows Mobile. I ditched Windows Mobile for the iPhone last year. I wish I could get Outlook tasks synced to my iPhone. I’m currently using Google Calendar and ToodleDo. Pocket Informant on the iPhone syncs with both of them.

    I also use Evernote. It’s good for capture on the go, plus Note2Self on my iPhone.

  • I’m trying to get my system nailed down. I got my Franklin Quest system back in 1996, and I’ve had some system or other ever since.

    I used to use Outlook with Windows Mobile. I ditched Windows Mobile for the iPhone last year. I wish I could get Outlook tasks synced to my iPhone. I’m currently using Google Calendar and ToodleDo. Pocket Informant on the iPhone syncs with both of them.

    I also use Evernote. It’s good for capture on the go, plus Note2Self on my iPhone.

  • Anonymous

    When I am working on a project, blog post or anything else, I usually just ignore email, RSS feed and TweetDeck. The one thing I have done is shut off all notifications from all of them. I don’t know if I have a new email until check. Nor does TweetDeck ding me when I get a new tweet.
    cursus timemanagement

  • Anonymous

    What! a great tips , I like your way of Management System

  • Anonymous

    nice work

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  • Phick Steven

    Time management keeps more importance when ever there is a certain amount of tasks that needs to have been delicately completed in the respective time. As with the technology and movement of the speedy world time management as well has been operated with much more priority and applicability. And one more thing I would like to draw focus onto is that no time management is complete with a proper time tracking. So for the same we have been using cloud based time tracking software from Replicon – http://www.replicon.com/time-tracking-softwares.aspx that has an ultra modern technology for the time tracking and makes things goes in the right way ahead.

    What is your kind of time tracking or management by the way?

  • Take control of your life

    This post is really interesting. I’ve been struggling with time management and organisation for a very long time, however I think i finally have it figured out.

    The thing with time management and the tools we use is that everyone’s brains work differently, what works for me may not work for you, and so you have to experiment and find what works for you. I think the main reason why time management wasn’t working for me was because I was researching how OTHER people manage their time and how they organise their notes etc.

    The most valuable piece of information you can take from this post is to make sure that YOU understand your system and to keep it minimal and simple. The thing with technology is that it is moving so fast and there is always these new tools and features being released so I think you have to be open to change. The important thing is make a decision NOW of what you want your system to be like and lay down a basic foundation, this way if you come across a better tool or app to get something done more efficiently you can always tweak your system. If you don’t do something now and experiment you will never know whether a specific system works for you or not.

    I wish I had found this post sooner as I wouldn’t have had to go through the endless hours of researching other people’s time management styles. But I guess everything happens for a reason and hey I’ve learnt a lot about myself and how I work best.

    My in list
    1) I use my iPhone for contacts and calendars.

    2) I use the reminders app on my iPhone to write down to do lists.

    3) I use the notes app on my iPhone to write down any important information or even just random thoughts. I have 1 folder for notes relating to my personal life, I also have a folder for personal development and learning, I have a folder for quotes and I own 3 different businesses and therefore have a folder for each business.
    You could go an extra step if your an OCD type of person and have a folder for each separate area of your life, e.g family, health, Finance, spiritual etc but I found that with powerful search features in the technological world today it is really really easy to find any note you want quickly by just searching for the title or keywords within that note. So I guess you need to be organised to an extent but don’t over do it to the point where your spending more time organising and planning rather than actually living.

    My out list
    – I never really found a system that actually worked before this so I guess my out list consists of everything that didn’t work for ME;
    – loose pieces of paper
    – emails to my self
    – multiple notebooks for different things (yes i once carried 6 notebooks with me) I realised that same day this wasn’t working.
    – I used to write my to do lists and schedule within my notes tool, now I write my list in the reminders app and my schedule is in my calender app.