There are two things I wish I had more of—time and money, in that order. Money used to come first, but then I found YNAB and, when I learned to give my dollars jobs, it changed everything.
The thing with time is that it’s finite. No matter how hard you work, there will only ever be 24 hours in a day. You’ll never get a raise in time. Nobody’s handing out extra hours when earnings are strong. You’re stuck with what you’ve got.
It’s like life didn’t get the memo. You have the same 24 hours you’ve always had, but responsibilities keep piling up—career, a house, a family, friends. They all demand for your time and, like with your dollars, it can feel like you’re running short. It’s like, pre-YNAB, when all of the bills were due and there wasn’t enough money in the bank account to cover them.
… but stress won’t save you, and neither will hiding. Somehow, you have to finish your project, get the kids to school and figure out how to put dinner on the table. I struggled with time management for years, which is embarrassing because it’s so simple! But then I read Getting Things Done, by David Allen, and it finally clicked.
Give Every Moment a Job
Let me put this in YNAB lingo: if you’re intentional with your time—if you give every moment a job—then you’ll win the time management game. (That’s Rule One.)
Can you tell me, without looking, how many dollars you have in each of your budget categories? You probably don’t have the exact amounts memorized, right? That’s your budget’s job. So, similarly, can you tell me everything that’s on your to-do list? Don’t feel bad if you can’t—there’s a lot to keep track of! More than our brains are wired to track, that’s for sure.
You trust your budget to organize all of your dollars into the right jobs so that you don’t have to. Well, you can do the same thing with all of the thoughts floating around in your head! Things you need from the store, phone calls to make, emails to reply to … it’s noise that, ultimately, doesn’t make you any more effective. So write it all down!
One Inbox to Rule Them All
Yep, get those distractions out of your head, and put them all in one place. Just like my budget categories remind me that I have priorities that need dollars, my inbox shows me where life needs some of my time.
Every day, I go through my inbox to allocate time to each of my to-dos. I sort through them to determine which require action (e.g., Call Bob) and which are for information only (e.g., File that under ‘insurance records’). And, remember …
Context Is the Cure for Chaos
I create a task for every actionable to-do and give each one context. This tells me when/where something needs to be done:
- If I’m at home, I look at my “Home” list. If I’m on my computer, I look at my “Computer” list. Maybe you need a different list for your car if you’re on the road a lot. Maybe you need a list for when you’re visiting your mom. Your working realms will vary based on your life circumstances.
- Other tasks are less specific to where you are, and they’re more contingent upon when you do them. Maybe you need to take medicine at a certain time or finish a project by a specific date. This is when it’s better to put the task on your calendar.
- And you’ll also discover that some tasks aren’t necessarily urgent. The deciding factor for this type of task is how you’re feeling. For example, I keep a “Read/Review” list at work for items that I can take care of when I’m too drained to do anything complex.
It doesn’t matter where you create your inbox. Use a digital solution, an old-fashioned file cabinet or even a notebook. The point is that everything’s in the same place.
But How Does This Actually Work?
If that all sounds good, but you’re scratching your head, no worries. Let’s look at some specifics. Imagine that it’s 8 a.m., and I’ve just started my workday. A colleague, let’s call her Eva, messages me saying, “Hey Jacob! Can you read over this thing I wrote, and give me feedback?”
I have a meeting at 8:15 a.m. (meetings, the universal interruption, am I right?), so I can’t help Eva, just yet. Do I add Eva’s request to my mental checklist? No way! It goes in my inbox, just like everything else.
My preferred to-do app is Things, so I pop it open and write “Review Eva’s document,” and I tag it with the context “Read/Review.” Then I’m off to my meeting.
After my meeting, I’m tired. I don’t have enough brain power for any heavy lifting, so it’s the perfect time to open up my “Read/Review” list. And, right at the top, I see my task about Eva’s document. That’s right! I needed to do that, and I was reminded at just the right time, with zero effort on my part. I didn’t have to remember a thing.
You Only Have to Remember One Thing
If you simply write down the endless list of ideas and tasks that float around in your head, you’ll never forget the important stuff. It sounds too easy to be true, but it’s not. It totally works! And you, too, can enjoy the mental peace and quiet that comes with organization, in four easy steps:
- When something (anything!) pops into your head, write it down.
- Store the things you write down in one, central place—your inbox.
- Review your inbox, daily, and give context to everything in it. (Ask yourself, “When/where will I do this? What mindset do I need to be in? How long, or how much energy, will it take?”)
- Use your context lists to remind you of everything you need to do!
The most difficult aspect of this method is defining your own contexts. It might take a little trial and error but, once you’ve done that, your life will be changed if you remember just one thing …
Write it down!