Time management. So elusive and marketable a skill that an entire industry has been built around selling it to every businessperson worth their salt.
It is, in effect, the art of mastering your waking – and sometimes even your unconscious hours – to make you as productive, bright-eyed, and at the top of your game as it is physically possible to be without the help of stimulants, time travel, or a miracle. Managing your time may seem like an easy concept, but who ever has enough hours in the day to get everything done you want to get done? Not many people, that’s for sure.
So, if you think you might be lagging behind when it comes to mastering your day-to-day, then check out this guide of useful tips of how to conquer the time-sucks of modern life and become the efficient, productive human being you known you can be…
1. Get A Solid Seven to Eight Hours of Sleep Every Night
This one is a simple, yet endlessly brilliant way of improving your time management skills: get more sleep. Simple, really. Studies have found that people who get an average of seven to nine hours sleep are more productive, happier,and work at a higher quality, than those who get less than seven hours sleep a night.
Getting plenty of sleep also ensures that you’ll be in a much more positive mood in the morning, meaning the chances of you getting more work done are increased. Making the most of your twenty four hours might not seem conducive to getting a full eight hours, but many famous prolific achievers such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Thomas Mann all had full and healthy sleep, suggesting that time management is something best conquered on a good night’s sleep.
2. Rise Early In The Morning To Conquer The Day
One of the most effective ways to improve your time management is to start early in the morning. Rising early has numerous benefits, the most obvious of which is that getting up early allows you much more time to actually get stuff done. Making most of your twenty four hours works much better when you’re up earlier; studies have found that early risers are more productive and feel more accomplished at day’s end.
Working as the sun rises gives you a head start on people still in bed, as well as ensuring that your brain – which according to research is best functionally two and a half hours after we wake up – gets the treatment it does. There’s a reason the adage, ‘the early bird catches the worm’ has survived to this day.
3. Never Multitask
Multitasking is a word used the world over when it comes to productivity and time management. Everyone and their high-achieving mother believes that multitasking is the way forward.if you want to be a super-productive member of society, thanks to numerous articles and books on the subject. However, in recent years, multitasking has been increasingly disregarded as a method of productivity due to neurological research suggesting that multitasking itself is impossible
Studies have shown that breaking from one task to another and then back again in a short space of time – i.e. multitasking – actually shortens attention span and affects the quality of the work. Instead, work on one task at a time and engage in the ‘flow’, a state of consciousness wherein you are totally absorbed and engaged in one activity. It’ll have the awesome side effect of improving your attention span and allowing you to get much more done and in a quicker time frame in your precious twenty four hours, vastly improving your time management.
4. Take A Twenty Minute Power Nap Regularly
One of the most enjoyable ways to boost your time management skills is to take a nap. Research has found that a ‘power nap’ taken after lunch, during one of the human body’s natural rhythms can help boost productivity, creativity, and even episodic memory. Studies have found that a short nap, one that falls within the first stage of sleep, and avoids the REM stage of sleep, can help ‘refresh’ the brain.
The other good way to nap is to take a full nap in the 90-minute sleep cycle that dictates circadian rhythms, rather than waking up in the middle of REM sleep which is sure to make you groggy and irritable. Taking a short afternoon nap helps improve your work ethic and your productivity, ensuring that you do more and better work in the time you have, making it a time management essential.
5. Bunch Tasks Together Throughout the Day To Stay In The ‘Flow’
Bunching tasks together can be an extremely useful task when it comes to working on and improving your daily time management. Scheduling your day together so that groups of tasks are bunched together allows for your brain to stay entrenched in the same comfort zone for a longer period of time, rather than flitting from one disparate task to another.
Doing this encourages being in the ‘Flow’, a state of joyful productivity that encourages great work being done with an inherent sense of bliss and happiness, something that is easily desired and hard-won. Fortunately it is easier than ever to try and induce this ‘flow’ state, and bunching tasks together makes it easier to manage your day and to get everything you need to do done in those twenty four hours.
6. Schedule the Heck Out of Your Days
This one is a bit of a no-brainer, but properly scheduling your days is a must-have tool for top-quality time management. Proper scheduling can be a pain in the butt to go through but actually knowing exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing can help make the most out of your time. Scheduling is in effect forward thinking to a fine art – anticipating everything you need to get done in that day and making sure you have enough time to do it.
Planning your day ahead with a big diary or work planner can be extremely useful in terms of time management, as can ensuring that you check timetables of public transport, weather, every piece of potential information you need to take with you to work or to meetings. It might be associated with an extreme level of perfectionism, but the goal here is not perfection, but rather to give you the structure and time you need to deal with your day in the best way possible.
7. Figure Out Exactly Where You Spend Your Time and Work On Improving It
We’re all guilty of wasting time. That isn’t a crime, per se, but it is an unfortunate area and habit to block if you want to be the most productive you can be, and embrace time management at its fullest. However, that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t relax or unwind throughout your work day – we’re not supercharged, no-stop-taking machines, after all. So, as a compromise between your actual physical needs and your best psychological self, you need to figure out exactly where you spend your time on an average day and work on improving that.
For example, work on cutting out your commute time if possible, or utilizing that time to better effect, such as brainstorming ideas; work on fitting your physical workout time to a small amount every day instead of a marathon-long session at the end of a week that sucks up time. Streamlining your time makes you more efficient and easier to do everything you need to do and want to do in your day – that’s a key component of successful time management.
8. Use Your ‘Dead Time’ To Your Advantage
‘Dead time’ is a concept touted by books such as Tony Schwartz’s ‘Be Excellent At Anything’, is a way of making time management work to your purposes. ‘Dead time’ is the time spent when we’re just waiting or doing nothing without a real purpose; and that dead time can be useful in helping us to do little bits and pieces of big projects. If you need to review an album, take it on your mp3 player and listen to songs at a time when you’re stuck in the dentist’s office or at a quiet coffee break. Jot down ideas for your next big project when you’re waiting at the cinema to watch a movie.
The point of utilizing dead time is to use those random, useless moments to your advantage – that isn’t to say that free time itself is the enemy. Far from it; using your dead time will allow to engage fully in your well-deserved relaxation time, without fear of feeling guilty or ashamed, as if there is something more you should be working on. Make sure to make the most of your dead time, and you’ll have your time management skills on a whole new level.
9. Make Sure Never To Neglect Your Self Care and Your Mental Health.
Self-care is one of the most undervalued and yet important and central tenements of successful time management. It’s an expectation in the modern working world to always be working and be available – whether through work or through the many avenues of social media – but one of the most important things you can do every day, is to take care of your self and make sure you have a chunk of time carved out for you and you alone.
Relaxation and self-indulgence alike both have restorative properties – meditation has proven to reduce stress levels, and a short ten-minute meditation session allows for greater productivity and overall happiness. Taking time out for yourself allows your body to rejuvenate and restore itself to the kind of mental, physical, and emotional state that allows for the best productivity and effective time management. In short, don’t feel guilty for taking time out to relax in the park with a book. You’re being your best self.
10. Learn How to Say ‘No’.
One of the most important and yet terrifying things you can ever do is say ‘no’. No to a project, no to a commitment, no to someone’s request.
It’s so easy to consider saying ‘no’ selfish – there’s always another demand, another request, another assignment or project you could pick up to your already overloaded plate. However, ‘burnout’ is a significant and terrifying psychological problem in which people become so overwrought with stress that they end up hating their work and even experience physical symptoms such as physical exhaustion. Burnout is a growing problem across the global workplace, and it has to be stopped.
Just say no. No one who actually cares will mind if you politely turn down their request, citing a too-busy schedule. Taking care of your mental health is top priority, so even if it feels awkward the first time, learn to say ‘no’ to the projects you don’t want to have in your life, and learn the art of keeping your work life simple. That’s the key to time management.
As humans, we typically operate on cognitive autopilot. We rarely stop and reflect on how we interpret information and create mental models which replicate our perception of reality.
But when our mental models fail to match reality, we simply ignore reality and operate throughout the day on implicit assumptions. These are not conscious choices. Our mental models allow us a simple way to cope with reality, yet we fail to confront reality when it is different than our mental model. Essentially, we have unknowingly created a ready-made default mechanism. 
So, what can we do?
We must first take time to reflect on our critical thinking skills. By simply understanding how you interpret and perceive information differently than everyone else is a great first step. To truly upgrade your critical thinking skills, you must examine how thoughts arise in your mind and how they got there.
Critical thinking is about asking yourself how you make choices. We can choose to believe something we hear or see; however, why do we choose to believe something we hear or see?
As a Red Team Member in the U.S. Army, I will explain how I upgrade my critical thinking skills using Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop as a framework for critical thinking. I will then demonstrate practical ways to upgrade your critical thinking skills for a sharper mind using tools and techniques from the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) Center for Applied Critical Thinking (also known as the Red Team school) and The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook (also known as The Red Team Handbook).
Critical thinking can be explained in a number of ways. Let’s quickly examine a few definitions:
“Critical thinking is a process, the goal of which is to make reasonable decisions about what to believe and what to do.” – Robert Enis
“Critical thinking means developing an ever better worldview and using it well in all aspects of your life. The essence of critical thinking is questioning and arguing logically.” – Gary Jason
“Critical thinking is searching for hidden assumptions, noticing various facets, unraveling different strands, and evaluating what is most significant. It implies conscious, deliberate inquiry, and especially it implies adopting a skeptical state of mind.” – Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau
To me, critical thinking is as follows:
“Critical thinking is observing the world with an open and skeptical mindset with the goal of exploring all alternatives objectively (as much as possible). It is our ability to orient our mental models to view reality through an emotionless lens seeking the truth by questioning our own assumptions and deconstructing arguments logically. It is our ability to identify gaps and uncover what is missing to improve our quality of decisions. Finally, it is our ability to unravel different strands of significant information through a continuous stream of feedback so that we continuously destroy and create new mental models allowing us to act closer to reality.” – Dr. Jamie Schwandt
Critical Thinking Framework: OODA Loop
I use John Boyd’s OODA Loop as a framework for critical thinking. It is similar to Swarm Intelligence, where we use simple rules to allow the collective intelligence to emerge. The simple rules are Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.
The OODA Loop is a high-speed decision making and feedback process in four stages: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The OODA Loop is a continuous feedback loop where the objective is to go through the loop faster than your opponent.
I use simple rules provided within the OODA Loop to assist me in speeding up my critical and creative thinking abilities. However, do not confuse the word “simple” with “simplistic” as the OODA Loop uses simple rules within a complex system (which is exactly what the OODA Loop is).
The key to the loop is feedback. The OODA Loop is similar to Double-Loop Learning, where the goal is to modify decision-making in light of new experience.
Double-Loop Learning is the first loop uses goals or decision making rules, the second loop enables their modification… hence, double-loop.
Chris Argyris writes about Double-Loop Learning in Teaching Smart People How To Learn,
“A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degree is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask why am I set to 68 degree? and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaged in double-loop learning.
The overarching guide for my use of the OODA Loop is as follows:
I will talk about this more in the How-To Guide: Tools to Apply the Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop section below.
It’s about seeking truth. Here we should seek to follow a concept introduced by Immanuel Kant as a way of evaluating motivations for actions – called the Categorical Imperative. Kant defines a categorical imperative as an absolute or an unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself. For example, “Act only according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” For more information, visit the Categorical Imperative.
This is essentially solving problems by working backwards. A simple example of this method is working backwards to solve a math problem.
For example, solve the following problem: “I think of a number and add three to it, multiply the result by 2, subtract 4 and divide by 7. The number I end up with is 2. What was the number I first thought of?” To solve, read the problem backwards. You start with: 2 x 7 = 14. Then take 14 + 4 = 18. From there take 18 / 2 = 9. Then take 9 – 3 = 6. Finally, the number you first thought of was 6.
Moreover, Reasoning Backwards can be viewed through the lens of deduction. I prefer deduction over induction and here is why:
An example of Inductive Reasoning is: this raven is black, that raven is black, all ravens are black.
Deductive Reasoning is: All ravens are black, that raven is black, therefore it is black.
We make deductions from laws to see what should happen and then experiment to see if our prediction was right. Think about it this way… to test whether a burner is hot, we must touch the burner first using Inductive Reasoning; however, if we were to use Deductive Reasoning, we would first predict the burner to be hot and would realize there is not need to touch it.
One last benefit of Reasoning Backwards is that it forces our linear and logical mind to catch things we wouldn’t normally catch. For example, read the following sentence:
After reading this sentence, you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize a second ‘the’.
Now read the sentence again, this time read it backwards. Did you notice that you missed the second ‘the’?
The UFMCS uses this as the single most important idea to enable critical thinking. For example, prior to taking on an issue, we should first think independently and reflectively, then write down our thoughts (which assists us in shaping and refining them), then share them in a disciplined manner. This takes us from divergence to convergence.
Boyd described a thought experiment in a presentation called Strategic Game of ? and ?. Through the process of Destructive Deduction (analyze and pull apart mental concepts into discrete parts) and Creative Induction (using these elements to form new mental concepts) we can create a new mental model that more closely aligns with reality.
Part 1 of his question:
“Imagine that you are on a ski slope with other skiers…that you are in Florida riding in an outboard motorboat, maybe even towing water-skiers. Imagine that you are riding a bicycle on a nice spring day. Imagine that you are a parent taking your son to a department store and that you notice he is fascinated by the toy tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads.”
“Now imagine that you pull the skis off but you are still on the ski slope. Imagine also that you remove the outboard motor from the motorboat, and you are no longer in Florida. And from the bicycle you remove the handle-bar and discard the rest of the bike. Finally, you take off the rubber treads from the toy tractor or tanks. This leaves only the following separate pieces: skis, outboard motor, handlebars and rubber treads.”
What do you imagine could be created using the remaining parts? A Snowmobile
Let’s now turn our attention to the four simple rules within the OODA Loop.
The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop: Simple Rules to Guide You
Think of how we use sensors and gather information. In an ant colony, this is where ants shoot pheromones to signal others when they have found food.
Here we are detecting events within our environment and identifying change (or lack thereof). This could also be identified as Locate or Perceive (think swarming tactics or artificial intelligence).
Find out what is really there.
Observe first and gather data.
Identify the uncommon and common things. As Sherlock Holmes famously said, “What is out of common is a guide.” A great video on this point is The most unlikely threat from the hit movie Men in Black – watch the following video:
Begin with a blank and open mind.
Remember that there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
Key questions to ask:
What are we being asked?
What do we know?
Key tools to use:
6 Words. This is simply writing a short and precise phrase summarizing your thinking into a set number of words.
Key assumptions check. We all start with assumptions and it is extremely important to be aware of our own. Understanding this will allow us to explain the logic of an argument and expose faulty logic. It will also help us simulate thinking about a problem and uncover hidden links between factors. Let’s examine some key questions to ask here: 1) How much confidence do you have with this assumption?; 2) What explains your confidence with this assumption?; 3) What must exist for this assumption to be valid?; and 4) If this assumption proves wrong, will this change your line of thinking about the issue?
Analysis + Synthesis. By breaking a concept or problem apart (analysis) we develop knowledge; yet, it’s when we piece the parts back together (synthesis) and create something new that we develop understanding or wisdom.
Onion Model. Hofstede’s Onion Model is a great tool to find values at the core. It is a great way to prompt better questions, look at something or someone or some group from multiple perspectives, and expose ignorance.
neXt – Innovative Framework. Professor Ramesh Raskar, head of MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Research Group, created an easy-to-use framework for inventing the future – right now. Watch the following video:
Think of a hypothesis like you would when putting a puzzle together, where you are making predictions then testing those predictions.
Devils Advocacy. Here you are trying to prove the opposite and disprove the hypothesis. Essentially, you are trying to prove the limitations.
Alternative Futures Analysis
Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) (see below)
The Value of Possible. Here is a logical system incorporating elements of language. In this method, we have three truth values: False, True, and Possible. Logical connective rules: True is p, Possible is q, and False has no value. This allows for something to be fuzzy (not clearly black or white… true or false) but could still be true.
Think of testing and retesting a hypothesis.
According to Boyd, actions should be rapid, surprising, ambiguous, and ever changing. This could be identified as Disperse or Learn.
Carry out your decision (or selected action) while the opponent is still observing the last action.
As Sherlock Holmes said, “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.”
Develop quick “fly-like” reactions.
Use simple rules to guide your actions or the actions of a group.
Find the desired path. For example, watch how routes on a college campus naturally form. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we allowed these to naturally form then simply pave those locations. For more on this idea, watch the following video Find and Pave the Desired Path:
Key questions to ask:
What did I learn?
What type of feedback did I receive?
What type of feedback am I still receiving (we are continuously receiving feedback)?
What can I do with this new information as my OODA Loop begins again?
The UFMCS provides a powerful framework for deconstructing an argument.
What is the argument? Here the argument = problem (or premise) + reasons + conclusion
Check to make sure the right problem is identified and examine the point of view of the other person.
Search for and ask for clarification of ambiguous words.
Look for value conflicts and check key assumptions. More specifically, look for prescriptive assumptions (statement made on the way things should be) and descriptive assumptions (statement made on the way things are).
Check the evidence provided. Does the person use personal experience, potentially deceptive statistics (use numbers without percentages – percentages without numbers), appeal to authorities, faulty analogies, intuition, etc.
Is there another plausible hypotheses which might explain the situation?
Are there any other conclusions you can draw from the argument?
What implications does accepting the argument pose?
2. The 4 Agreements
Another great way the U.S. Army Red Team community upgrades their critical thinking ability is through the following four agreements:
Don’t make assumptions.
Don’t take anything personal.
Be impeccable with your words.
Always do your best.
Finally, I recommend using the following mnemonic. I created this tool to assist me as I move through the Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop. Additionally, I recommend writing this down on a note-card and keeping a copy with you at all times.
Think like a Scout – the drive to see what’s really there.
In the following video Why you think you’re right-even if you’re wrong, Julia Galef examines the motivation between two mindsets (Scout mindset vs Soldier mindset) and how they shape the way we interpret information:
Galef explains that Scouts are curious and are more likely to feel pleasure when they learn new information. She says it’s like an itch to solve a puzzle. We should strive to develop a Scout Mindset. Let’s examine qualities Scout’s possess:
The Scout’s job is not to attack or defend, but to understand – to go out, map the terrain and identify potential obstacles.
Scout’s are intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations.
More likely to think it’s virtuous to test your own beliefs.
They do not say someone is weak for simply changing their mind.
They are grounded; meaning their self-worth isn’t tied to how right or wrong they are about an argument.
They are proud (and not ashamed) when they notice they might be wrong about something.
They are intrigued (and not defensive) when they encounter information that contradicts their beliefs.
They yearn not to defend their beliefs, but to see the world as clearly as they possibly can.
Above all, the Scout seeks to know what’s really there.
Find the Dog who isn’t barking.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, we are presented with a mystery of the disappearance of a famous racehorse the night prior to a race and the murder of the horse’s trainer. Mike Skotnicki describes the story about The Dog that Didn’t Bark:
“The dog that didn’t bark. What we can learn from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about using the absence of expected facts.” – Mike Skotnicki
Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery in part by recognizing that no one he spoke to in his investigation remarked that they had heard barking from the watchdog during the night.
Gregory (Scotland Yard detective), “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Sherlock Holmes, “That was the curious incident.”
The fact that the dog did not bark when we would have expected it to while the horse was stolen led Holmes to the conclusion that the criminal was not a stranger to the dog, but someone the dog recognized; thus, would not cause the dog to bark.
What would have to exist for something to be true?
Here we can use a UFMCS Red Team tool called What If? Analysis. This tool assumes an event has already happened with potential impact (positive or negative) and explains how it might play out. This is a powerful technique for challenging a closed mindset by shifting the focus from whether an event could occur to how it might happen.
Clearly state the conventional line assuming the event has happened, then step back and consider what alternative outcomes are too important to dismiss, even if unlikely.
Select triggering events that allowed the event to happen.
Develop a chain of argumentation.
Reason backwards from the event in concrete ways (specify what must occur at each stage).
Choose one or more plausible pathways.
Develop and monitor a list of indicators or observables for each scenario that would assist in detecting the beginning of the event.
Another technique you can use here is The Reductio ad Absurdum. This is a simple yet powerful tool.
Assume a statement to be true and see what conclusions you can discern from it. If you find you get a contradiction, you know the initial statement is false as contradictions are always false.
It allows you to determine if a statement is false by showing the contradiction.
Here we can use a combination of tools and techniques.
For example, if you have a team or group of people, you could use what’s called a Premortem and/or Postmortem Analysis. This is an application of mental stimulation and is a great tool for Group Think Mitigation. We could use the 5-Why technique after we have asked what happened. We could also use Algorithmic Thinking where we perform an If-And-Then series of questions.
Let’s combine the three and see how this can be used:
Assume an event has happened or after an event has happened – use 5-Why to identify causes as to why this event happened.
Generate a list of reasons for the event with the following simple rules: 1) The more ideas the better; 2) Build on other peoples ideas using them as prompts for your own; 3) Wacky ideas are fine (and sometimes preferred).
Ask a series of If-And-Then questions:
IF an Active Shooter is spotted AND appropriate signals are in place THEN we should be able to act/respond quicker.
This can also be used with Propositional Calculus. For example, “If you are a bird, then you have wings,” could be rephrased as, “You cannot be a bird and not have wings.” It is a proposition using one connective such as: IF-Then. It can then be transformed into an expression using the other connectives “and” and “not” without changing the validity of the statement.
Ask what evidence is not being seen, but would be expected for a hypothesis to be true.
Conduct an Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH). The objective is to identify alternative explanations (hypotheses) and evaluate the evidence that will disconfirm rather than confirm the hypotheses. This is how I reason backwards.
Brainstorm and list all possible hypotheses (no matter how improbable they may seem). List the hypotheses first then the evidence (think deductive reasoning). You can list the evidence first, then the hypotheses if you prefer (think inductive reasoning).
List all significant evidence and arguments relevant to each hypotheses.
Reason backwards by creating a divergent systems diagram with each hypotheses from right to left (to mimic backwards reasoning)
Start to converge by preparing a matrix listing the hypotheses across the top with each piece of evidence down the side.
Determine if each piece of evidence is consistent, inconsistent, or non applicable.
Refine the matrix by reconsidering each hypotheses. Here you can even add new information if applicable.
Focus on disproving each hypotheses rather than proving one. Tally your evidence that are inconsistent and consistent to see which hypotheses are the weakest and strongest (you can also identify this using your systems diagram… +/- for strong and weak connections).
Ask what evidence is not being seen, but would be expected for a given hypotheses to be true. Ask if denial and/or deception is a possibility.
Identify and monitor indicators that would be consistent and inconsistent with each hypotheses.
Where are the Pattern (or location) of bullet holes NOT located?
Statistician Abraham Wald was tasked with helping the Allies decide where to add armor to bombers during World War II. The Allies hoped extra protection would help minimize bomber losses due to enemy anti-aircraft fire. They thought the answer was obvious and the bombers returning from missions showed them where to put the extra armor. However, Wald disagreed. He explained the damage actually revealed the locations that needed the least additional armor. In essence, it’s where the bombers could be hit and still survive the flight home.
This is an example of selection or survivorship bias, where we typically only consider information that’s presented to us and ignore information that is absent, yet might just be significantly relevant. For example, the locations on the bombers without bullet holes might just be the location to reinforce.
Finally, we should be extremely carefully of what we remove from a system or process. We have to be aware of the second and third order effects.
I will leave you with one final video: How Wolves Change Rivers: