4 Steps to Personal Time Management


When it comes to personal productivity, people expect managers to be super-efficient work machines. And many of us are, I’m sure.

But what if you’re not? What if you haven’t got that easy efficiency and simple knack for personal time management? Well, don’t fear. I was once like you. All I had in my time management kit bag was the “long list.”

This was, as you’ve guessed, nothing more than a long list of “to do’s” that did little more than overwhelm me. But, as I took on bigger and bolder projects, things just got worse.

Discovering the OATS Principle

And then I had a simple realization. If project management gets big things done, then the method must work on smaller things too. By combining what I knew of psychology with the basic principles of project management, I developed a simple, powerful solution to personal time management.

And it works.

This approach has benefitted thousands of people through my live seminars in the UK, and through my book, How to Manage Your Time. It’s called the OATS Principle, which stands for Outcome, Activities, Timing, Schedule. If you’re a project manager, you will recognize it for what it is: the project process writ small.

The Project Process and the OATS Principle

So let’s review the basic project process.

Step 1: Define your project. What do you want? What does success look like?

Step 2: Set out your scope of work to create your activity list—usually using a work breakdown structure.

Step 3: Estimate the time and resource requirements for each activity.

Step 4: Schedule the activities into a logical sequence, applying contingency using an appropriate model.

Step 5: Implement the plan, monitoring and controlling your work as you go.

And so on. This isn’t a formal project process, but many of you will recognize it, I’m sure. So what if we translate this into personal time management? That’s exactly what I did…and it was not hard.

Introducing the OATS Principle

The OATS acronym itself offers an approach to the planning of your personal time. It covers steps 1 to 4, above. An OATS plan can cover a day, a week, a fortnight, a month or even a quarter. I haven’t tried, and don’t recommend, it for a whole year.

When people start putting greater focus on personal time management, I recommend they start OATS planning on a daily basis, and then do weekly plans, when they have daily OATS planning nailed.

Personally, what I now do is a quarterly OATS plan, with weekly reviews to produce a weekly plan, which I work off. This suits my current way of working, but may not suit yours. We’ll look at the different time spans below.

For my explanation of the OATS Process, I will assume a daily OATS plan.

Outcome: What is the outcome you need to achieve the next day? Outcomes are changes… and they should be worthwhile changes.

Activities: Now list the activities you need to carry out in the coming day, to achieve the outcomes you set yourself. Note, this is not a to-do list. I’ll explain why, later.

Timing: Put a time estimate against each of your Activities. How long do you expect it to take? Make sure your estimate has enough contingency. My top tip here is to recognize that we all underestimate how long it will take us to do something, but tend to be more realistic in estimating how long a colleague would take. Estimate how long someone else would take if you needed to delegate it!

Schedule: This is the magic sauce of the OATS process. We do this without blinking as managers, but in personal time management, we skip this easy, but vital step. Put each task into your daily schedule, agenda or diary. That way, you are far more resilient to small, low importance interruptions, because you can say, with integrity, I’m sorry, I can’t do that now. I have something scheduled.”

When to Create Your Daily OATS Plan

So, should you do your OATS planning first thing, while you are fresh, or last thing the night before? My preference is very much to plan at the end of the day, for tomorrow. That way, you flush all the things you need to do out of your head and onto paper (or device). This really aids relaxation and sleep.

It also means that you start a new day fresh and know what you can do. For most of us, our best, most productive time is first thing in the morning. So why spend that on a task that needs little concentration or intellectual horsepower. Use this high-capacity time for demanding work. Look at last night’s OATS Plan and dive into your first task.

How to Manage Your Time with the OATS Principle

Now you know the basic process, let’s look at each step in a little more detail.

How to set outcomes

Outcomes are worthwhile changes that you will see by the end of the day. This means the OATS Principle is inherently motivating, of course. Your sources for deciding which outcomes to prioritize will be:

  • What’s in your diary
  • Your list of things to do
  • Your plan
  • Things that have come up today

But before you decide which outcome most demands your attention, ask yourself how much time you are likely to have in the coming day, to attend to creating these outcomes.

If you already have two hours of meetings scheduled, and if a typical day brings you three hours of reactive work that you cannot avoid, then there is no point in scheduling eight hours worth of outcomes into an eight-hour working day. That way leads to madness.

Instead, since you will have 8 – 2 – 3 = 3 hours at most, find the most important and valuable three hours’ worth of outcomes. If you try to plan for more than that, you will be setting yourself up to fail from the start.

“But, what if a meeting gets canceled, or I find I don’t get caught up in as much reactive stuff as I expected?” you ask. Don’t worry. The OATS Principle has you covered. Four subsections down, we’ll talk about an agile approach to the OATS Principle.

Why your activities don’t form a to-do list

A to-do list is a long list of all the things you could do. It ought to be called a could-do list. If you think of them as a list of things you should do, then it just becomes a source of frustration and guilt. If you don’t finish your to-do list, there is a sense that you have something left to do, and that is never satisfying.

Your activity list in your OATS Plan is a to-day list: a list of things you will do today, to achieve the outcomes you decided upon. It is a closed list, and when you complete it you are done. We don’t add every new idea to our to-day list, we add it to our to-do list. That way, when you get to the end of the day, and your to-day list is done, you can be happy.

You can then use your to-do list to help you identify the Outcomes you want to work towards, tomorrow.

Tips for estimating time

Eeek. This is a big subject and the project management literature has a lot to contribute. But when it comes to personal time management, the solution is simple. But it will take a while to get good at it.

If you deliberately estimate how long everything you are about to do will take… And if you deliberately notice how long everything you do actually does take…then gradually, your brain will start to integrate all this data, spot any patterns and gently refine your unconscious mental models (called heuristics).

Slowly, over time, you will get better and better at estimating. At some point, you’ll start to notice that many of your estimates are uncannily accurate. When they are way off, it will usually be due to a big, unexpected external factor. And you can’t plan for those. You can just leave contingency time.

How to schedule activities into your day

And if your day or week doesn’t have a slug of contingency time in it, then a single event can put you permanently behind schedule. I put two to three hours of contingency time into my weekly OATS plan on Friday. That means I can usually catch up at the end of the week, even if there is a problem early on. It also means that, if I don’t need the contingency time, I can choose to either get ahead of next week or give myself some self-development time, for learning or speaking with people.

The basic principle you should use when scheduling tasks into your day or week is to start with the biggest ones. Block them into your schedule and then fit the mid-size tasks around them. Then fit the smallest tasks into the gaps between activities or, for me, between the last big/medium task and lunch, or end of the day.

The other tip is to put the most important, most complex, most demanding task into the time of the day when you are at your mental and physical peak. For most of us, this is the first task of the day. Yet what do many people do? They fritter away the best part of their day on low mental demand tasks like checking email or browsing social media. Get a big important thing done while you’re fresh, then turn off a little by clearing emails.

An Agile Approach to the OATS Principle

Shift happens! One thing happens and your day has changed completely. So when something happens, review your OATS plan. If it needs to change, re-plan. If you get an unexpected gap, review your OATS plan.

Time management systems are flawed if they lock you into a plan. The OATS Principle encourages you to plan, and then constantly monitor and review. This is, of course, Step 5 in our project process.

Daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly OATS plans

Once you get the hang of daily OATS planning, try planning a week ahead, the last thing on a Friday afternoon. I divide my working week up into five days by three work sessions a day: 5 am-9 am, 9 am-1 pm, and 2 pm-6 pm.

You may prefer two slots (10 am-1 pm and 2 pm-5 pm, say) or four (9 am-11 am, 11 am-1 pm, 2 pm-4 pm, and 4 pm-6 pm, say). Draw out a grid: mine is 5 x 3. Then look at your diary, lists and project plans, and slot outcomes into each slot.

You can so something similar on a monthly basis, perhaps putting one or two outcomes into each day. I do a quarterly plan, where I identify a theme for each day.

Adapting project management to the wider arena of personal effectiveness

The principles of project management work magnificently well in creating an approach to personal time management. But you can go further too. In my book, Powerhouse, for example, I have taken a full eight-step project process and applied it to personal effectiveness. But to avoid unsettling a wider audience of non-project managers, I don’t even mention that this is what I have done. As managers, we are privileged to have such a powerful resource.

Keep it Flexible

Like project management, the OATS Principle is not a system; it is a principle. Work to the principle of planning ahead, monitoring your progress, and adapting to events. If you remain flexible and structured at the same time, you will stay in control of your personal workload. And that is all that personal time management is about.

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