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Monday, January 27, 2014

How to Find More Time in a Day

written by Paula E. Bird, ©2014

How to find more time in a day? Impossible, you say. Everyone is given the same 24 hours each and every day. How can we find more time?

Have you noticed how some people seem to get more done in a day? Perhaps you are one of those people who accomplish much in a day. Have you wondered why that is so? I have observed that I go through periods when I am quite productive, almost unstoppable in my ability to get things done on my never-ending list of things to do (lists, actually). And then there are my moments of sluggishness, when the urge to be phlegmatic overtakes me, usually during a holiday break. During those periods I marvel at how I got so much done in my productive periods, while I struggle to regain momentum and energy during my "down" periods.

I frequently lament that there are not enough hours in the day to do all that I know I need to get done. That is when I remind myself that it is indeed possible to gain more time in a day. The secret lies in how you think about time.

Finding more time is all about how you manage time, and being successful at time management is all about how you think about time. I like to think of the passing of time like a conveyor belt, which of course leads me to the memory of Lucille Ball and her cohort working the candy factory conveyor belt. If you recall that particular television episode, you will remember that Lucy let the conveyor belt get beyond her ability to do her job effectively, and the rest is comedic history.

Consider though how conveyor belts and assembly line systems work. Typically there are several people at work at one time. There are supply stations nearby with the necessary systems to handle overloads, problems, or repairs and maintenance. There are systems in place to address necessary work stoppages. Things rarely reach the point of disaster as they did for Lucy.

Most importantly of all, assembly line systems fall under a more general plan of oversight. Someone has designed the system's work flow so that things do go smoothly for the most part, and the system has possible problem scenarios built into the flow in case of unexpected (or in this case expected) work stoppages or interruptions.

How we manage time is about how we think of time. If we think of time as a conveyor belt system, one in which the belt keeps moving, then we may have the same problems as Lucy had if we are unprepared for our responsibilities on the assembly line. It comes down to what your plan is and what tools you use to achieve your plan.

Some of us have little in the way of a working plan. We sort of drift through our lives, reacting to the demands of others or managing our work load as it arises. Some of us have a general idea of where we are headed in our lives and a little bit of a sense of how we will get there.

There are those, however, who know exactly where they are going, why they are going that way, and how they plan to get there in the foreseeable future. It is this group of people that I would like to take a closer look at, because these folks hold the answers for the rest of us. How do these successful people get so much squeezed out of their day? How do they find the time to do as much as they do?


They have a goal. The goal may be as simple as a plan to get through a tough week or a demanding semester. The goal may be more long term, such as finishing school or completing a building project. The goal may be short term, such as preparing for a recital in a few weeks, or it may be sort of in the middle, such as learning all the pieces in a Suzuki volume. Whatever the goal may be, it is something specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, or "SMART" as we call it.

They have a plan. They have broken down their goal into smaller, more manageable steps. They have a blueprint of the steps to take along the road in order to reach their goal.

They take action. The goal setting or the plan of actionable steps is not the end of the exercise, but the beginning. The most important attribute of successful people is that they take action on their plan. They move. There is a time for thinking and planning, and then it is time to get going.

They spend a few moments daily updating their plan or thinking about it. They know that to use a few moments of the daily 24 hours will generate huge returns in the end. They use these few moments to consider the overall plan and to decide what steps to take action on that day which will bring them closer to achieving their plan.

They set milestones or guideposts along the way. Part of the fun or the challenge in following a goal plan is to note when progress occurs. How can we tell if we are getting somewhere? Successful people set milestones or guideposts along the way to help them measure their progress toward achieving their goals or to help them determine what course corrections they need. Milestones can include time period benchmarks, such as a weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly review, or they can represent certain amounts of things accomplished (5 pounds, 5K run).

They have focus. Setting goals provides a focus structure. It encourages attention to the goal and the goal plan. This attention to the goal helps to guard against distractions that take away from the goal path. Without this focus, we may drift off course or in general, which then makes us subject to the whims and goals of others rather than our own.

They have a support system. Successful people can achieve success without others, but it is so much easier when there is a support system in place to help. Support systems may include family members, close friends, a personal coach, accountability partner, or a support group. Knowing that we will answer to our support system may encourage us to keep on striving to achieve our goal. Our support system can provide a safety net in the event that we slip or fall on our goal path. Best of all, our support system can cheer us on when we are in most need of encouragement and motivation.


Here are my particular time management or time flowing tools. and the Morning Pages. I still use these tools even after the many years since I completed Julia Cameron's Artist Way, although now I find it easier on my hands to use the computer keyboard rather than actual pen and paper. The 750 words website helps me to fulfill this purpose. I have worked through many a puzzling problem through these morning pages, and I find that my days begin with an uncluttered focus if I have taken 20 minutes for myself to "clear the air" of any unresolved issues floating around in my brain. While I am whittling away at my daily 750 words, I keep many of the following tools close at hand to capture any stray thoughts that would pertain to any of the items normally handled by the following tools.

Calendars. I use a phone calendar all the time. I put every appointment on this calendar. However, there are things that do not seem to belong on a calendar because they clutter up the calendar and make it harder for me to see the important appointments already listed there. I prefer another place for these things, as I will discuss later.

While the phone calendar is most useful to me on a day-to-day basis, I do find it helpful to see a week at a time, and on occasion to note more than one week. So, I also maintain a beautiful journal from the Smithsonian that my father gifts to me each Christmas. In it I briefly outline my schedule for the week in grand scoping gestures. I do not list each individual lesson, as I would on my phone calendar. Instead I list time blocks spent in various locations. My husband finds this journal calendar very useful to know where I am at all times. I leave this calendar at home on the dining room table, and I refer to it once in the morning and evening. Its most helpful purpose, however, is to show me the week at a glance. I also use it to make general notes of particular projects or items that I need to take care of in a week. Time to pay bills? I make a note at the top of the first page of the week in the margin, along with other items that I know I need to address.

Reminders. I use a phone system for these because I find it helpful to use my iPhone's personal assistant Siri feature. If I need to remember to do something, I tell Siri to create a reminder. I try to consistently give these reminders a date, time, or location in which to alert me (Siri, please remind me to take the check out of my violin case when I get home). With this easy system, I know that all of my reminding type ideas are captured somewhere. I do have other systems that I use on occasion, but the phone's reminder system is what I choose to use most often.

Daily to do list. I have two very useful daily tools for keeping track of my daily activities. One is my daily to do list, and the other is my daily schedule outline. On my daily to do list, I include everything that I want to accomplish in a day. Following the rule suggested by Mary Kay Ashe, I may only complete 6 things on the list and feel that it was a good day, but often my list is a bit longer than 6 things. I try to keep the list to one side of the page, but things do spill over onto page two, and sometimes page two is my catch-all for things that occur during the day or for things that I would like to do if the right circumstances present themselves. I use a small notebook page from a product by Mead called "notes on-the-go":

Daily schedule outline. The next time management tool is my daily schedule outline, and this is something that I created for myself on a computer. It is designed to take up half a page, so I have two outlines on each page, and I make copies of this and cut them in half. This daily outline starts with "wakeup" and lists each half hour thereafter beginning at 8 am until 5:30 pm with an evening slot at the bottom. I use this form to plan out my day and to anchor in my mind where I have slots to do things. I find that this tool helps me the most to avoid wasting the time I have in a day. Instead of gabbing in the hallway at the university or frittering my free moments with emails, I have a reminder before me that I had planned to do something else during that time slot. When I create the outline at the beginning of the day, I note where there are some open moments, and I fill in those moments with a few items that I can accomplish in that time. Do I need to spend more than 5 minutes answering my colleague's request for a schedule of rehearsals, prepare an exam for an upcoming class, or make a necessary phone call? These might be a few of the items that I include in that empty slot. Here is an example of how my day looks today:

The Master List. The next two tools I use interchangeably and for slightly different purposes. They are useful tools in that I have several possible systems to help me to remember any thoughts I have about things that I need to do or things that occur to me while I am in the middle of doing something else. These tools may not be for everyone, but they serve useful purposes for me.

I use a pad folio system for keeping a master list or at least capturing a list of items that I must include on my master list. I use a folio that is small enough to hold the smaller legal pads. I find that when I have such a tool handy, that I use it to capture stray ideas that surface during lessons, during meetings, or in general when I am out and about. It easily fits into my purse, so it is always handy. The trick, I find, is remembering to periodically look through it and deal with the items that I have written there. I put the items on the next tool and then deal with them.

Cloud Outliner or Mind Map. I currently use these two tools at different times to help me capture various types of thoughts, and I have both of these tools on my iPhone. If I am brainstorming ideas, I would use the Mind Map tool, where I would draw branches of ideas as they occur to me. Generally though, I am most comfortable with an outliner tool, and the Cloud Outliner app serves my needs very nicely. As projects or things I need to do occur to me, I write them on my outliner app. It is easy to list things and indent things. I used to use a paper master list, and I do carry around a pad folio to help me capture these things in meetings or while teaching, but as soon as I can, I transfer these things to my cloud outliner where I am able to break down these ideas into smaller action steps.

I maintain two master lists in my cloud outliner: backlog and active. I use a technique that I learned from the Quick and Dirty Tips Get it Done Guy [click here to read about it]. I cycle through the backlog list until I no longer find something that I want to work on. At that point I venture into the active list. When I do go back to the backlog list, I keep at it, maybe coming up with smaller steps. If I can reframe the item, then I put it on my active list. If not, I seriously think about eliminating the task or delegating it (with a followup step added to the active list). At some point my backlog list is eliminated. Then I rename my active list as the backlog and begin a new active list. This system really works to keep my focus on what I need to do and keeps me mindful about what is really a necessary thing to keep on my master to do list.

The Mind Map tool is not necessarily a time management tool, but I find it useful on occasion for brainstorming time management issues. Sometimes what holds me up from accomplishing things is some other problem that leads me to procrastinate. Perhaps my schedule is too busy, or perhaps I'm stuck trying to do something that is not quite ready for tackling. Maybe I need some baby steps. Maybe I need to explore the reasons why I am stuck. I find it helpful to use a mind mapping tool to puzzle through these issues. Because ultimately I can unstick myself after using this tool, I include it in my arsenal of time management tools.

When I use these tools on a consistent basis, I accomplish much. I am more mindful of how my time is spent, and I have a general outline and plan for accomplishing the things that are important to me. I did not find these tools overnight, and I have also tried many tools. I am still experimenting with various applications, planners, and forms, but after much trial and error, I find that these few tools are my most productive. I will still keep an open eye to whether there is something else out there that I missed, but in the meantime, I will continue to manage my time flow with these tools.

Everyone has their own particular systems. The best system is one that incorporates all of these basic time management items in some fashion that works for you. Please comment with some of your favorite tools and apps.


  1. I use google calendar and tasks, which also sync with my phone. My husband and I share our calendars with each other, which we joke saved our marriage about 10 years ago.

    In my tasks, I have several lists - one is active, one is a list of my violin students and keeps track of when they have paid their monthly bill, one is a list of someday projects, one is a list of charities I support or would like to (either financially or through volunteer efforts), one is a list of household repairs or items I would like, one is a packing list. I created it once and figured it would be worth keeping for the next trip. It has been really useful.

    I look at my calendar at night before bed so I know what is happening the next day. I work on my active list on a daily basis and try to break things down into "next step" action items, so I don't get stuck on any one project. I try to keep my brain clear, as David Allen suggests.

    1. Yes, David Allen has the right idea I think. I like to use many of his suggestions as well. It's all about having a system and then using the system.

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