I’m a pretty busy guy. At any given time, I tend to have a lot of different projects going, many of which might qualify as a full-time job. For example, right now I’m writing a book, building a house (or at least working with the builder), and helping manage several different companies in radically different industries, while carving out free time to mentor entrepreneurs and spend time with my family and friends. Every single week brings various crises, triumphs, and enough emotional highs and lows to last a nervous person a lifetime.

Yet while there are times when I feel the strain of being busy, on the whole, I live a fairly happy and healthy life, including regular exercise and even playing basketball a couple of times per week.

“How does he find the time?” someone might ask. That’s just it. I don’t find the time; I allocate it.

Reframing “Wasted Time”

Here’s what I mean. Many people who want to be more productive focus on eliminating things that “waste” their time. I guess their working theory is that the more time you find, the more things you’ll be able to accomplish. Yet if you were to really carefully observe 100 people who were trying to eliminate “wasted time,” my guess is that they spend more time trying to avoid waste than they actually save!

You’ll get much farther much faster if you allocate time to organization and preparation. Tweet This Quote

When I took driver’s ed, the instructor explained it to me this way: When you’re driving your car, don’t focus your eyes on the side of the road and think, “Got to stay away from the side of the road!” It’s much easier to look at where you’re trying to go – you’ll practically steer automatically.

I believe the same principle applies to managing my time. The most helpful thing I can do (and sadly, I don’t always do it) is to write down a short list of the most important/high-leverage things I can spend my time on each day, and then deliberately allocate my time to them. Sometimes, I even take it a step further by breaking up an important task into two stages – preparation and execution.

Sharpening the Saw

Both allocating time to the most important things, and taking the time to do the preparation before the execution, fall into the category of what Stephen Covey called “sharpening the saw.” If you need to cut down a forest of trees, one of the most important things you can do is to sharpen your saw before you start, and take the time to regularly re-sharpen it as it wears down. Sure, it “saves” time to start sawing away immediately, but you’ll get much farther much faster if you allocate time to organization and preparation.

For example, I spent part of this week writing a new introduction to my latest book. First, I spent a solid couple of hours gathering materials and putting them into an overall outline. Then, and only then, did I start the writing process. It might have been tempting for some to just start writing, but I knew I’d end up at my desired end state faster by taking the slower, more methodical, but much more productive path.

Productivity tools aren’t productive if they drain your energy and result in your avoiding work. Tweet This Quote

The Freedom of Conscious Choice

There’s also an incredible sense of freedom that comes with allocating your time. At least for me, when I rely on a standard to-do list, it just starts to depress me because it keeps getting longer and longer, and I never finish. Productivity tools aren’t productive if they drain your energy and result in you avoiding work. Instead, each time I choose to do something, I feel good about making a deliberate choice.

For example, I wrote this essay on the plane ride back from one of my volunteer mentoring trips. I have to admit, it was a tiring day. I flew cross-country the night before, woke up that morning at 6:30 a.m. Eastern time (3:30 a.m. based on my home time zone), then spent the day giving lectures and running workshops before making the trek back to the airport, through security, and onto the flight home.

Given my lack of sleep and lower energy level (if I were home, I’d do a cardio workout to re-energize myself, but airports have a distinct lack of gym facilities, and people look at you funny if you do jumping jacks in the middle of the terminal), my plan was to focus on less important, but relatively mindless activities – like filing old email.

There’s an incredible sense of freedom that comes with allocating your time. Tweet This Quote

Lo and behold, in my inbox, I found an email asking me if I had time to write an essay for Unreasonable.is, suggesting that I share some of my secrets to how I do so many things. I made a conscious choice to allocate my time to writing this essay, and as a result, I feel good about myself – and maybe even a little re-energized – despite sitting in the middle seat on long cross-country flight. I didn’t try to “find the time” to work on this essay, I just allocated the time and did it.

Allocating your time isn’t a panacea. I’m sure I still waste plenty of time, and both my to-do list and my inbox are way too long. But making conscious choices about my time, asserting control over my situation, and focusing on things I’ve explicitly decided are important, all help me do more. And perhaps just as important, I feel good about doing it.

About the author

Chris Yeh

Chris Yeh

Chris is the VP Marketing for PBworks, partner at Wasabi Ventures, and an avid startup investor and advisor. He is also a co-author of The Alliance and serial tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.

  • Michael Cramer

    “Preparation and execution”- I liked that line a lot because I feel that it is important to plan things out before doing them in order to operate in the most efficient and productive manner. Your article really spoke to me because I often times feel that it is hard to free up time to do many of the things that I would like to do. College takes up a lot of my time, and many times despite having the drive and desire to pursue other interests, I fail to make time for much else besides classes and studying. I think you offered a unique perspective, and the analogy that related a driving instructor’s words of wisdom definitely hit close to home. It doesn’t matter how many wasteful, time-consuming things I cut down on if I don’t allocate time to do the things that I actually want to do.
    I kind of wish that you had gone into detail about what it means to “waste time” because in my opinion, the phrase to “waste time” is completely subjective. I probably spend at least an hour or so on Facebook each day, scrolling through and commenting on political posts, animal videos, news stories, and other random snippets of information. A lot of people may look at this as “wasted time” and they may be correct, but personally I value the time that I spend on Facebook. Sometimes I feel that I spend more time than I should scrolling through my News Feed, but at the end of the day it is a wonderful source of entertainment and world news.
    Ultimately, I really try to spend my days in the most fulfilling and productive ways possible, but it is impossible to always be focusing on big picture tasks. We must mix leisure and relaxation in with the work that we do, and only you can say whether or not the time you spend relaxing is a waste of time or not. I work very hard, and although I would like to always be able to focus on my goals and ambitions in my free time, it is sometimes necessary to tune out from the world at large and simply exist.
    I appreciate your post and hope that others can seek some sort of enlightenment from the wisdom you passed on in your post. I realize now that, like the driving instructor said, it is better to focus on the road directly in front of you than to look to the side and think about how not to fall of the side of the road. It isn’t about freeing up more time from pointless tasks; it’s about jumping into the activities you care about when the opportunity comes about. If you are always making a conscious effort to do the things that you care about in your free time, then you won’t have the time of day to waste on pointless, wasteful activities.

  • Ben Sage

    I agree that time allocation vs avoiding wasting time really makes a huge difference in the efficiency of time usage. Why focus on the things that you want to avoid doing when you can focus on the more important things that you should be focusing on. The driving metaphor described this perfectly, if you’re watching the sidewalk, you’re gonna crash. Time management has been something that I haven’t always been the greatest at, when I should be writing an important paper, I’m playing on my phone. I will definitely apply the concepts of this article in the future, by asking myself what’s more important to apply my time to? I also found the sharpening the saw metaphor to be very intriguing and accurate. This idea of how important preparation can be would be helpful to tons of people I’m sure. When writing an essay, it might seem like it would be quicker to just jump into it, but in reality if you plan out where you wanna go with it and really think ahead, the essay is likely going to get done much quicker. One question I really had was is there really such a thing as “wasted time”? If I choose to sit on my computer watching Netflix for 8 hours a day, is that really a waste if I see it as how I wish to spend my time?

  • Drew Mahler

    This article was very interesting as not many people would think about writing an essay on time allocation. I found this article easy to connect with, as I know, I am very bad with managing my own time. Being a college student, it is already hard to manage my time with all my classes and homework. This article helps give insight to people like me on ways to allocate my time. I especially liked the part on sharpening the saw, because I know there have been numerous times that I have jumped into a project without preparing and it has been a disaster. To add on to the essay, it would have been great if you could have talked about how you allocate time or how you decide how much time gets allocated to the businesses you manage. Also, I wondered if there were any other effective ways to stop wasting time other than lists? Thank you!

  • Eric Miller

    Chris Yeh eloquently explains the multitude of factors that play into managing your time wisely and I took a lot of personal relation to what he said. A big difficulty of mine is managing my time wisely to efficiently allocate it to matters that are important. There are only so many hours in the day so the need and ability to allocate your time instead of find it is a great one indeed. Once an individual masters this art of allocating their time wisely, they can take matters into their own hands with their time instead of leaving it up to just chance. When done right, this skill can effectively empower an individual to be more productive with their work and enjoy leisure time when they choose to do so. An individual that has to “find” their time every so often doesn’t have that freedom to do so. I know this from previous experience as I stated before. When I am in situation like that, I don’t have control over time, time has control over me. Time has quite the grip when it works against you and it can be vastly detrimental to your productivity in work which can have drastic consequences. This applies to any aspect in life, whether that be in work, leisure time, etc. Simply finding time instead of allocating it to benefit yourself, completely diminishes an individuals free will. It takes away your decision to make critical decisions for yourself as you are working against time, not with it. Not allocating your time efficiently and effectively can have very detrimental effects and can in a sense, make you a “slave” to time.

  • Julia Severson

    I thought this article was great and very relatable. As a freshman in college studying to earn a dual degree with business and spanish with a global certificate, keeping a part time job, and being involved in various extracurriculars, I find myself pretty busy. My family and friends wonder how I still make the time to see them, go out, and binge watch Black Mirror. My secret of course, is doing exactly what Chris talks about. I do not consider any of my time as “wasted”. I wake up early in the morning despite not having class until around 11am, this gives me time to study and complete a fair portion of my school work. As lovely as it is to sleep in, if I don’t wake up at 8am I feel as though I’ve wasted my morning. I typically go to class from 11-3, and head home to get any remaining homework done. At 5pm I start work which goes until around 10pm, and then I go home to either go out with friends or watch some netflix. People feel like they don’t have space in their schedules because of their misallocation of the most valuable resource, time. For people looking to accomplish it all, I would highly recommend waking up early and going to bed on the later side. This opens up 3 hours at the beginning of the day to get done whatever is needed, and leaves time at night to relax and socialize.

  • Ryan Tagawa

    This is a really interesting article, I find myself agreeing with allocating time in this manner and think it is the best way to manage your time; but, more often than not, things change, and I have found it almost impossible to always plan out my time like this. I used to find myself in constant need of “more time,” when in actuality all I needed to do was allocate my time more wisely. During my first semester of college I found myself finding slits of time to sneak my homework in throughout the day to have the most leisure time at night. I have never heard of the idea of “sharpening the saw,” but it is also something I have learned to do in order to work more efficiently. When I do have to do something like write an essay for class, a lot of the brainstorming is already finished before I start writing. When I do write all I have to do is put my thoughts to words rather than risk taking too much time struggling to execute. That being said, how do you plan your preparation? Sometimes I find preparing, such as brainstorming for an essay, takes longer than writing the essay itself, and sometimes it only takes a couple of minutes, but I never know until I start. The way you described your time management in the article really makes it sound like you squeeze your day for as much time as you can, but what do you do when you have a task that you have no idea how long it will take? Also, what do you do when something takes a lot longer than you expected?
    As I become busier and busier throughout my life I find myself allocating my time as efficiently as I possibly can, but when I am unable to complete something in a timely manner I often see it push into my leisure time, or even my sleep. As a business person, do you find yourself valuing leisure differently than before, and is there a point where enough is enough and you simply drop everything to recover with leisure time? For example, in the article you decide to write an Unreasonable essay instead of filing emails, although both of these things may have been completed on your flight, do you find yourself prioritizing leisure, such as writing the essay to re-energize yourself, over less pressing tasks? And, say you took the entire flight to write the essay, would you have found yourself organizing emails during your leisure time?

  • Carlie Bugos

    Boundaries on how and when you invest time in work and in your personal life help to ensure that you have the proper investment in each category. This article reminds me a lot of how we, as college students, allocate our time between classes. Increased amount of time and a higher quality of work can lead to an exponential payoff, but you have to be able to balance everything accordingly. Realizing the importance of purposely deciding where I will invest more time and energy to produce better quality work has a bigger payoff and has a profound impact on my own approach to success. While it’s important to me to pay attention in all of my classes and do all of the work, some classes require more work than others, and I believe allocating time between classes relates well to this article.
    Being able to accomplish everything on a to-do list is a great feeling, but have you ever considered that in reality, no one has time for everything? No matter how efficient you become, I believe it is impossible to fit everything in unless you are producing lower quality products or work.
    I think you should always aim for A-level work, and when you’re trying to fit so many things in at once, I believe it’s very difficult to achieve. Time is a limited resource and I think sometimes it is necessary to cut out things in your life that aren’t as important and instead invest time into things that actually matter.

  • James Finch

    Ryan, I have thought about one of the questions you posed to the author, specifically: ” what do you do when you have a task that you have no idea how long it will take?” I think that in a situation where knowing the future is totally impossible, it is all the more reason to dive in head first to whatever the project may be. These are the paths where profound self discovery can happen simply because we have no idea about what will happen. It is not the amount of time that matters, rather that you can derive meaning in whatever you are devoting yourself towards.

  • Ian Pastorius

    As someone who has often struggled to allocate time efficiently, I completely understand this. When you are overworked it is hard to focus on the tasks at hand, which is why the idea of “sharpening the saw” speaks the loudest to me. It is better to take breaks in between working in order to regain focus. I have found that if you work on something for too long that you eventually go on autopilot, your mind wanders naturally and you enter a kind of “half-awake” state. While it might be more efficient to do things this way, it is without a doubt better to take breaks in between. It is a method that I started using when I came to college and I have found that it really works. While projects do take more time, I have seen improvement in my work when I take small breaks in between to jump start my mind. In the business world this is especially relevant because the quality of your work carries immense weight. While it may not be the most efficient method it does produce the highest standard of work. I believe that in the end it is better to cut out the things in your life that waste your time and focus on producing the best work that you can do. It is extremely difficult to fit everything you want to do into one day, so the “sharpening your saw” method is extremely viable in the sense that spacing out your projects not only allows for higher quality work but for better time management too.

  • Rachel Wilcox

    This article rings extremely true to me. In the past months as college student, I’ve struggled to manage my time efficiently. During my first semester, I was extremely stressed out because I wasn’t allocating time to do the things I wanted to do most: hang out with friends, workout, and even eat. Regardless, this semester has been different. I have made a conscious decision to work out every day, and allocate a couple hours a day to working out. This has improved my mental health immensely and has caused less stress due to school, as I’m allocating time for myself. I live for these workouts every day, as they help me re-coup my mind and focus. During high stress times, it’s nearly impossible to focus 100% of your efforts on whatever it is you’re doing; this is why we need to take time to ourselves and step away from our work so that we can focus. But, for someone who’s never realized the importance of allocating time to themselves, how do they even start? It’s hard to take time out of your day to do the things you want to do most when you have so much else going on, especially when you’ve had no exposure to letting yourself have fun. To begin, one must force themselves to allocate time to themselves if they’re not used to it. It starts with making time for yourself one day at a time, and eventually that person will realize the true benefits it’s causing. It causes a release of the mind coupled with lessened anxiety and stress levels. It all starts with the first day you decide to allocate time to yourself because then you start to realize that this is needed for happiness and focus. Although is it true that during this time you can’t get your work done, it’s necessary to give yourself a mental break. Powering through every assignment you have in one sitting often causes poor work performance because your mind is mentally exhausted and needs a break. I think people need to realize that in order to do your best work, you need to spend some time to yourself to re-coup your mind and focus 100% of your energies on your work. Without this release in the middle of the day, it causes feelings of extreme stress and hopelessness, which contributes to poor work performance.