I finally got around to writing this article for The Audio Spotlight and, honestly, it’s about time.

Have you ever met people who just seem to be doing way too much for one person? They’re writing this, going there, meeting this guy, signing that deal … their whole life feels like a succession of genuine accomplishments. In the meantime you feel like you’ve been sitting in the same place staring at your screen for a week without anything tangible to show for it.

Most of these people have great time management skills. In some cases they have consciously learned and developed specific approaches to this and in other cases they just have a knack for it; an intuitive approach which yields effective results. I’ve been told I’m one of the latter however in this article I’ll try and explain the basic principles I use.

What is time management and why is it important?

Hopefully you’ve already understood that time management is important because it allows you to do more in the same time than you’re already doing. At a very basic level, time management revolves around accurately estimating the time required to complete a task, scheduling that time effectively and prioritising amongst multiple tasks to ensure that all tasks are completed within schedule in the most efficient manner possible. This usually starts to get more complicated once you have dependencies within tasks, such as waiting for feedback from a client or waiting for money to come in before you can hire people for the next project.

I think there’s another wrinkle in the situation for creatives and that is inspiration. As much as many of us are asked to write to order, we usually do require at least some period of thought and reflection where the creative muse is needed. For me this comes easiest when my mind is not cluttered but for some I speak to nothing gets their creative juices flowing better than the pressure of an imminent deadline. All of us have certain situations where we feel the most creative and this must be taken into account when dealing with any time management of creative tasks.

Why are we naturally bad at time management?

Firstly it seems a fact that most of us are naturally hopeless at time management. I can’t say for certain but I assume this stems from the fact that we are designed to make snap judgements and deal with things as they arise. We are also naturally curious and live in an age surrounded by things designed specifically to draw our attention and distract us. How many of you are now reading this as a way of procrastinating, delaying work that you really should be getting on with?

It’s a natural tendency to avoid tasks that are difficult, unrewarding, risky or pull us out of our comfort zone in some way. Similarly tasks with short term, easily achieved rewards are very attractive to us. Good games feel fun because the route to achieving unequivocal success is clearly defined. In real life it is usually a far more complex situation and often goals require compromise or sacrifice. We often attribute an inability to complete tasks to laziness but a bigger part of the problem for many people is simply understanding where to begin. Once multiple tasks are competing for your time it is natural to prioritise those which give quick rewards but in the long run this is usually a very inefficient approach.

Basic strategies and approaches

I use some incredibly simple techniques to handling time management. I often think they’re overlooked because people assume the answer must be complex and sophisticated. Arguably that is the problem in general: things are too complex and we need to break them down into very simple blocks that we can use:

1. What do I have to do?

The first place to start here is to make a list of the actual tasks you need to achieve. Without this information all further decisions are likely to be flawed. You can use various electronic ways to do this (and Evernote is great) however I still like to write the list out on paper on my desk. I will also go one step further and break down any particularly complex tasks into the various simple steps required. For instance filing my tax return might require 3 sub-tasks (calling my accountant, photocopying my documents, and completing details on a web page). Breaking them down like this allows you to clearly measure progress, ensure steps are not being missed and at all time keep you focused on what you should be doing right now.

2. Prioritise the list of tasks

Once you know what you have to do, you really need to know when you need to do it by. Some tasks are likely to be more urgent than others. Some tasks need to be done and some tasks can be left. Knowing how to prioritise is an important skill. While I can’t teach this in an article I can say the first step to good prioritisation is ranking tasks in order of their urgency, not personal preference based on immediate rewards as I mentioned above. Once you start to do this you also can trust yourself more. You can put off a lesser task until later in the week confident that you achieve it when it comes around.

3. Ensure difficult tasks aren’t being avoided

Part of good time management is being brave and not avoiding tasks. Don’t put things off when they need to be dealt with. Avoiding a task is a very common way to really break up good time management in many ways. Firstly the task is scheduled, time is allocated and then the task is not completed. Secondly, the task is usually in some way still on your mind, distracting you from your other tasks. Finally the task itself frequently grows out of proportion in your head making it difficult to tackle and difficult to schedule accurately. If you find you are doing this then try and write down the steps necessary to complete the task. You’ll often surprise yourself by realising that you can complete it far more easily and simply than you initially thought. Don’t be afraid to ask advice when dealing with difficult tasks. Other people may have already done this and why waste the time learning the hard way?

4. Work to your own schedule as much as possible

Only you really know how much you have to do and how you can schedule your tasks accordingly. If you are doing tasks for others then many of these people will make assumptions about your time and the priority of the tasks they have given you. In essence they will try to make you work to their schedules. This is only natural and hopefully something you will have already taken into account when prioritising your workload in the first place. Unfortunately other people will often unknowingly disrupt your schedule in all manner of ways. The simplest example of this is when someone contacts you when you are working. Do you drop what you’re doing and answer the phone or read the email or answer the chat? There is very little doubt that this will interrupt what you’re doing, even if it’s the client calling you. You have to know when you can do this and take that break and when you have to be strict and explain that you’re working and aren’t free to chat. This is definitely a difficult decision to make and some tact is often required to ensure people aren’t offended. When I’m particularly busy I’ll ask people to contact me by email and then will set aside time to read and respond to their messages. The really good news is that because you have managed your time better, you will generally have more free time to speak with them and will be more relaxed when you do.

5. Recognise when you are trying to do too much

At certain times in my life I’ve started to become stressed and then slowly realised I had become over-committed and was doing too much. Very quickly it meant that any disruption of my schedule suddenly meant that lots of tasks were being dropped or rushed. Things were way too tight and that leads quickly to stress. In situations like this you have to prioritise at a high level and look at which long term goals are important to you and which might have to be postponed or even dropped. I make long term re-evaluations like this many times a year to ensure that what I do on a day-to-day basis is part of a larger journey towards my long term goals. It can be surprising to discover how you have ended up devoting a lot of time to tangential or irrelevant activities and sometimes you need to pull back and readjust your schedule accordingly. Similarly some friends and acquaintances can (often unwittingly) end up monopolising your time. You may have to explain that you only have so much time to give.

Consistently summoning your muse

I mentioned previously that creatives have another aspect to consider. While a significant part of any job requires craft and work, most creative tasks include an element of inspiration. This could be a great melody or chord progression, innovative instrumentation or just a novel concept behind the music. While inspiration is frequently elusive you can at least help to create the ideal conditions for the muse to strike. This means ensuring that your schedule leaves room for you to create those conditions. If, like me, you function best when your mind isn’t cluttered, try to remove all those nagging tasks first. If you can’t complete them all then at least try to make sure you’ve made progress and can think about them tomorrow.

Another thing I do here is to recognise when I’m in a creative mood and when I’m not. If I need to write a new melody and I know I’m just not in a creative zone then (schedule permitting) I will spend the time working on my template or other useful tasks that need to get done. I also have several methods I use to break mental blocks however I think they would be best explained in a dedicated article.

Some final thoughts

Writing this article was the classic task that was never started. There was no deadline or urgency and so it kept being de-prioritised and therefore postponed. While this may seem bad, the task never actually dropped off my radar and so when a space came up (actually during a vacation) I wrote it very quickly. There is always a sense of achievement when completing tasks and so don’t worry about postponing tasks provided you don’t postpone them indefinitely.