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J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, through the character of Gandalf, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” If you want to know the secret to creating the world’s perfect time management system, then you need to listen to Gandalf.

My own personal road to the perfect time management system was a long one, and it is littered with the carcasses of past attempts. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, let’s just say I always started using each new system with very good intentions.

I’ve tried Gqueues Take Google Task Management And Scheduling To A Whole New Level With GQueues Take Google Task Management And Scheduling To A Whole New Level With GQueues Google Tasks doesn't work if you want to move beyond the time management of today into the visionary planning of tomorrow. This is where GQueues steps up to the plate. Read More , ToDoist How Much More Productive Is ToDoist Premium? Here Are 6 Good Reasons To Upgrade How Much More Productive Is ToDoist Premium? Here Are 6 Good Reasons To Upgrade I kept using ToDoist for free for a while. But kept coming up against things I wanted to do and couldn't. Email reminders. Adding notes to task. Things that would really add a whole lot... Read More , Google Tasks Transform Google Tasks Into a Task Management Suite With Google Tasks Offline [Chrome] Transform Google Tasks Into a Task Management Suite With Google Tasks Offline [Chrome] Using Google Tasks is like a love-hate relationship. The problem with using Google Tasks directly in say, Google Calendar or inside Google Mail is that the layout and the user interface is extremely simplified and... Read More and every life-management trick How To Use Microsoft Excel To Manage Your Life How To Use Microsoft Excel To Manage Your Life It's no secret that I'm a total Excel fanboy. Much of that comes from the fact that I enjoy writing VBA code, and Excel combined with VBA scripts open up a whole world of possibilities.... Read More in between. If you’re like me, you’ve probably done the same. It’s a constant search for more organization with less work. A way to create more time in your schedule, to accomplish everything you dream to accomplish, without losing out on sleep.

What Is The Perfect Time Management System?

If you’re like me, you probably feel like you have a system that’s nearly what you need, but not quite. There’s almost always something missing.

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The perfect time management system should have the following qualities.

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  • Allows you a “quiet place” to contemplate your life goals and dreams
  • Provides seamless integration of tasks related to your goals
  • Allows you to easily organize and plan your weekly and daily responsibilities
  • Helps you avoid forgetting important tasks
  • Is compact and simple, but efficient and all-inclusive

That last one is like asking for the moon, isn’t it? It’s the need for simplicity combined with the requirement for it to be all-inclusive that makes finding the perfect system so impossible.

Create A Time Management Assembly Line

The ideal time management system should operate like an efficient assembly line. You have incoming work (tasks), and those need to be organized and planned, and then integrated into your calendar. That process looks something like this:

flowchart

The problem with most attempts to use a single app like gTasks Use gTasks To Synchronize Your Tasks With Google [Android] Use gTasks To Synchronize Your Tasks With Google [Android] These days, there are a million and one great ways to manage a to-do list online and via mobile apps. That said, there's often still a few people who are not yet using one of... Read More or anything of the sort is that these apps are specialized to handle one or two parts of this process really well.

Time tracking tools 4 Excellent Free Time Tracking Tools [Android] 4 Excellent Free Time Tracking Tools [Android] No matter who you are, time is an incredibly important commodity. We’re all allotted the same amount of time - 86,400 seconds every day - and it’s up to us how we spend that time.... Read More  or using the Pomodoro technique Pomodoro Web App Tomato.es Is Time Management Made Simple Pomodoro Web App Tomato.es Is Time Management Made Simple Can't focus? Get to work, now. Tomato.es is a free Pomodoro timer you can use directly in your browser – and it's possibly the best such app I've ever used. The Pomodoro technique is simple:... Read More  make you procrastinate less Why Procrastination Can't Be Cured By Task Management Apps [Opinion] Why Procrastination Can't Be Cured By Task Management Apps [Opinion] For the longest time I’ve struggled with time management, and in some aspects I still do. One of my many methods in “overcoming” my lack of time management was to use task management applications. I... Read More by managing your weekly schedule, but don’t help you with organizing your tasks.

It wasn’t until Justin showed me his technique with using LEGOS as a time management method How To Use LEGOs To Manage Your Time Better How To Use LEGOs To Manage Your Time Better I think I've found the ultimate productivity tool: LEGOs. Don't leave! Let me explain. Read More  that I started getting an inkling of something that might work better for me. This led to what I thought would become my best and last time management system of all time, using Trello Trello - A Unique, Simple & Powerful Project Management System From A Good Home Trello - A Unique, Simple & Powerful Project Management System From A Good Home Does the name Joel Spolsky mean anything to you? If so, you’re going to want to read this post, because it showcases Spolsky’s latest and greatest project. And if not, you should know this is... Read More .

Putting The Pieces Together

However, Trello still wasn’t an easy place to plan out life goals, and managing tasks from one step of the schedule to the next was very clumsy.

For these reasons, I finally decided to take all of the lessons I’ve learned from past systems that I’ve tested, and combine everything into a single, automated time management system that does it all.

1st – Create Your Master Time Management Sheet

The workflow that I stole from Justin and used in the Trello system works well.  Basically, you start on one side with all of your incoming new tasks that you need to somehow fit into your schedule. Then, to the left of that, you have a list of all the tasks you want to complete this month. To the left of that, this week.

This system worked for me for about four or five months. I started forgetting things that were on some of the lists. They didn’t get moved to “today” and then just got buried. The system started to fail me.

So here’s what I did. You first need to create a Google Spreadsheet, and create four sheets.

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In this case, you start on the left and create an Incoming sheet. This will list all of the incoming tasks from your various other systems.

To the right of this, you create a Monthly Demands sheet. To the right of that create a Weekly Demands sheet. To the right of that create your Weekly Schedule sheet.

We’ll get to formatting those individual sheets in a moment. But first, create a weekly calendar in the Weekly Schedule sheet by creating one row of days of the week and a column of every half hour for a whole day.

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Now that you’ve got your weekly schedule ready for use, it’s time to start inputting tasks into your new time management system!

On the Incoming sheet, create headers for Task, Project, Date Added, Label, Priority, Link, Scheduled, and Done.

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These fields will all make sense in a moment when we start feeding your “Incoming” sheet with automated feeds.

2nd – Create And Automate Your Life Goals

The first of those feeds will be your life goals.

The one most important lesson I learned is that when it comes to the big goals, you need a space that is clean and intended only for one purpose — contemplating on the things that are most important to you.

Of all of the time management apps I’ve ever tried, this is one purpose for which ToDoist is perfect.

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It’s clean and simple. You create those big life goals on the left, and then on the right side, you break down those really big goals into the sub-goals that you’ll be working toward throughout your life.

For example, one of my life goals is to have a happy family. Some sub-goals of this would be “Provide a positive childhood” for my kids, or to “Be a Devoted & Caring Husband”. Under those sub-goals, are where more specifics go. For example, building a bedroom for my daughter would certainly give her a more positive childhood experience.

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Now, this is an actionable task. What you want to do is set up labels for these actionable tasks, so that ToDoist automatically sends these to your master Time Management System.

You will need to use ToDoist Premium to have access to labels (it’s cheap and well worth it!)

In ToDoist, just click on labels in the left navigation bar and then click the Add Label button.

add-labels
In the example above, for the building a bedroom task, after creating a happy_family label, I added “@happy_family” to the task itself, to label it.

Why do these labels help you? Because now you can use IFTTT to spot those labeled tasks, and insert the tasks into your brand new Incoming sheet in Google Sheets.

In IFTTT, just choose the ToDoist trigger, and select New task created with label.
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Next, you can choose from a dropdown list of the labels you created, as well as the Project where you used the label.

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Finally, set the Action to Google Drive, select Add row to spreadsheet, and type in the correct name of your Google Spreadsheet where you created the “Incoming” sheet.

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Notice the fields in that output? Those are the same fields you just created in the spreadsheet.

So now, any time you create a Life Goal-related task in ToDoist and apply one of the labels that you’ve created IFTTT triggers for, that task will automatically get loaded into the Incoming spreadsheet.

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Think about it. Now, you can sit back, clear your mind, and just plan out your life goals. No worries about how to plan out what you need to do to achieve them — just brainstorm and label tasks that you’ll need to accomplish to get there. Let the automation take care of the rest.

3rd – Automate Your Urgent Demands

Of course, your life is more than just your life goals. Let’s face it, daily demands, phone calls, and emails all bombard you constantly with new demands and new tasks. You need a way to deal with those demands as well.

The answer for this is also automating an “Incoming” feed from your email account. Don’t worry, this is really easy. Just create an IFTTT trigger for every time you star an email in your inbox.

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Then create the same action as you did before – Add row to spreadsheet. Make sure to type in the same spreadsheet name correctly. You’ll also need to customize the Formatted row so that it outputs the required fields for the Incoming table you created.

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The important thing is just to make sure the subject of the email lines up with the “Task” field in your spreadsheet.

Now, every time you star an email in your inbox, that email subject line gets added to your spreadsheet as another incoming task.

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The beauty of this is that as you’re scanning emails and you spot an email that requires your time, it needs to become a task scheduled into your workflow. Don’t waste your time trying to accomplish the task immediately. Just star it and move on.

Now that you’ve got your life goals and your daily emails all automated to fill up the incoming tasks queue of your new time management system, it’s time to get down to organizing the workflow of that system.

4th – Organize Your Time Management Workflow

Now comes the fun part. If you’ve used ToDoist to plan out your long-term goals, and you’ve been starring important things in your emails, you’ll see a bunch of new tasks have arrived in the sheet!

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Remember the Scheduled and Done fields you created? Well, those were extras that won’t get filled in by the automation. This is because as you select each task name and move them over to the This Month or This Week sheets, you’ll need to make a note that you’ve scheduled that task. When you complete the task, you can mark it as done using the Done field.

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Once a task is scheduled, it exists in the Month or Week sheet. The idea is that on a monthly basis, you should move all incoming tasks that you think you can accomplish this month into the This Month sheet.

The This Month and This Week sheets should have the following fields: Task, Who For?, Frequency, Repeat and Life Goal.

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As you move a task name from Incoming to This Month, take the time to fill out those fields. Who (what client or person) is the task for? Is it a task that you need to repeat every month? Is it from one of your Life Goals?

Most importantly, define when the task needs to be completed by. Sorting by this field will help you prioritize which tasks to accomplish when you’re planning out your week.

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Remember, do this every month. Also, take time at the beginning of the week to move tasks from the This Month sheet to the identical This Week sheet. Or, in the cases where the task repeats monthly, you might just add the task directly to your weekly calendar and update the “Next Due” field.

This is the beauty of this system. It can help you manage everything — tasks related to those important life goals, mundane daily tasks that come out of emails, monthly and weekly duties that you need to perform no matter what, and then the important tasks that you add to the Incoming sheet yourself.

As the tasks get processed and flow from tab to tab, they get dated and prioritized, and then you will finally add it to your schedule for the coming week. This is the schedule on the very last tab, which you created at the start of this article. This uses the time blocking strategy Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Are you looking for a more efficient way to organise your work-days? Try Time Blocking. This time management tactic can help keep you on track while keeping distractions, procrastination, and unproductive multitasking at bay. Read More that Rob recently wrote about — which works quite well.

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You might consider color coding those tasks as you add them to your schedule for the week. Maybe, create a color-code for each different client or use different colors to signify different projects or priorities.

The key with this system is that it is capable of handling everything, from your life-planning and goal-setting 5 Critical Mistakes To Avoid When Setting Goals 5 Critical Mistakes To Avoid When Setting Goals Goal setting is a great way to cut down on procrastination and boost productivity. If you don’t have goals, you don’t have direction. Without direction, it’s easy for you to feel lost and confused. Fortunately,... Read More , to the projects that you’re working on right now.

They are then slated to be accomplished on the second and third tabs, and finally scheduled and accomplished on the last tab. So long as you are disciplined enough to sit down and use this system to plan out your upcoming month and week, it’ll increase your productivity many times over.

Have you found your perfect time management system yet? Does this look like it might work for you? Share your own time management experiences and tips in the comments section below!

Image Credits: Time management Via Shutterstock

  1. Ana
    December 2, 2016 at 10:18 am

    Thanks a lot for this article .I know one programme ,which has an integration with most of those programmes.We are using this programme on my work and it's pretty comfortable.You can control your time there and also ur budget.It's really important.So if you are interested in this app,check in Google,It's call TimeCamp.

  2. Danny
    May 19, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Ii sure is complex and sounds like a plan. The problem is not everybody could be so organized and follow such a plan.

    My system is to use time tracking solution such as AdaptRM and to track how much time I spend on different tasks and try to improve.

  3. Helena Snow
    March 9, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Hi, Ryan. I'm valiently trying to follow your instructions, but there's one piece where there's just not enough information and I can't seem to work it out.

    Can you give me more information on how to complete the box in IFTTT for the Drive folder path (Step 6 of creating a recipe, "Complete Action Fields")?

    I created my Google spreadsheet, named it Master Time Management Sheet, and saved it to My Drive. As far as I can tell, the file path would be My Drive/AA Professional/Planning docs (the latter being the sub-folder where the spreadheet I created is saved). But when I fill that in as the Drive Folder path, nothing gets added to my spreadsheet. And when I follow what the IFTTT-supplied boxes are, I get a new spreadsheet for every project label.

    Can you help get me sorted?

    Thanks so much!!!

  4. Elena
    January 27, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    I know you've said in the comments that it isn't complex, but it looks just that. Very cumbersome and time consuming It seems like a lot of work that can be done in half the time by pulling out a notebook and pen. Important items get a red *, deadline items get a date next to it. I don't have to log into my phone or desktop to update/revise my tasks. Just add or check off in my notebook that I don't have to swipe, ,tap, tap, tap, text, etc.

    Maybe this might work for someone who needs this kind of structure, but to me productivity is about doing in the most in the least amount of time and this looks like it takes a LOT of time based upon what I just read.

    • Ryan Dube
      January 27, 2015 at 6:23 pm

      Hi Elena - I think you're right. At least as far as it does require up-front effort to set it all up - from the automations to the multi-tabbed spreadsheet layout. Once you have it all sorted and you've got the workflow going though, it really isn't too bad. Looks more complicated than it is, mostly because it is an attempt to do everything - long-term goals, short-term goals, daily, weekly and monthly demands/tasks, etc... I do know a lot of people feel like you do though - I'm sure you're not the only one who feels like going back to the good-old days of the minimalist notepad may very well be the best way to go!

  5. Garfield
    January 27, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    I like the concept and there is something about your methodology that seems really intutive. I just don't see anything accounting for viewing the calendar in an anytime, anywhere way. Makes me wonder about what it would take to push this to Google Calendar.

    • Ryan Dube
      January 27, 2015 at 6:24 pm

      It may only be a matter of some creative Googlescript coding. Based on all of the reader input here, I think I might explore that further and see if maybe Googlescript coding might help to cut down on the work or complexity to manage this system.

  6. mark
    January 27, 2015 at 1:56 am

    Not going to happen! But I'm amazed you had the patience to put it together. Good job and good luck!

  7. Saikat
    January 26, 2015 at 7:23 am

    I am not one, but I think VBA junkies can have real fun with this. Program you own stuff and take Excel to new heights of automation.

  8. Angela Alcorn
    January 26, 2015 at 6:22 am

    God I love your mind, Ryan. I think I would do it slightly differently, by making sure all the information is in the incoming sheet (as in "this month" / "this week" etc) according to where it came from. Then I'd use the FILTER function to bring the right tasks into the "This Month" and This Week" sheets. Certainly a fascinating idea. Not sure if it would just add work for me though.

  9. Pedro Costa
    January 25, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    very interesting. I use a system similar to that proposed but with Trello. which is the proposed procedure when tasks are not performed?

  10. Anonymous
    January 25, 2015 at 5:18 am

    I prefer not to use any... I'm a software developer for 25 years. Failing to plan isn't planning to fail imho...

  11. Evan Mitchell Stark PhD
    January 25, 2015 at 12:16 am

    I'm no Luddite. And I'm pathological enough to collect apps and self-built apps as a hobby. One thing that obtains from years of this is that I've found, without a doubt, that a paper-and-pencil list in a Moleskin is the best task manager I've ever used. All other task managers have you spending more time configuring them or inputting ot them than just writing something down.

    • Ryan Dube
      January 25, 2015 at 12:38 am

      Hey Evan!

      My dad used to carry around a little to-do list notepad in his shirt pocket. I think he still does today! :-)

    • Evan Mitchell Stark PhD
      January 26, 2015 at 7:35 pm

      Warren Buffett uses a non-smart phone and his first American Express card, the green one. Granted, he's an eccentric billionaire, but it's quasi-proof that you can get by without primo tech. It's just primo tech is more fun and better for procrastination.

    • Evan Mitchell Stark PhD
      January 26, 2015 at 7:38 pm

      Ryan—and I'm serious—if you have the skills or know someone willing, why don't you integrate all that functionality into a single app?

  12. Hutch
    January 24, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    How do you move items from one sheet to another...Cut and paste?
    If so, how do you get items on the sheet to move up when you cut a line out?

    • Ryan Dube
      January 25, 2015 at 12:37 am

      Hey Hutch - In the final setup when you're done here it'll be a matter of cutting and posting, yes. You can delete the original row.

      For anyone skilled in Google Script though - this sheet can be automated even further, but that's beyond the scope of this article. Thinking about writing a follow-up with some Google Scripting tough...there seems to be interest!

  13. Anonymous
    January 24, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Seriously this is the dumbest thing I've seen in a while. Well intentioned but reversing the progress we've made away from spreadsheets. IFTTT Is cool but what a waste of time this page is presenting. OP must be an old man just trying to hold on to archaic processes.

    • Ryan Dube
      January 24, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      Please read my first comment above.

  14. Rob
    January 24, 2015 at 11:51 am

    Looks complex, but with some promise! Any chance of a video to show it in action?

  15. Francois
    January 24, 2015 at 11:14 am

    Looks like an awful lot of work. I always advise people to spend more time on their tasks than on their task management.

    • Ryan Dube
      January 24, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      It isn't - the great thing is you don't have to worry about forgetting anything because whether it's from goal-planning or within your inbox, you just quickly click-and-forget. Those tasks go to your "inbox" to be sorted when you have the time.

      Then, you simply manage those tasks once a month (which you should be doing anyway - an automated system isn't going to decide for you how your priorities have changed, or what you "want" to work on this month or this week. What it does do is ensure you never forget a task, and that you continue focusing on those life-goals, not only your daily tasks.

  16. John-Paul Dimmers
    January 24, 2015 at 9:47 am

    I first used Lotus Organizer when it came free with an IBM notebook I purchased. Been using it ever since. It has everything you talk about in the article... but it's all integrated. I could not run my business without it. The only things I have changed is to backup OR5 file to Google Drive account. Checked on ebay... $5.00 will get you your own licenced copy. Then, like me. you can spend couple of hours every year unsuccessfully looking for a replacement.

    • Ryan Dube
      January 24, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      Thanks John-Paul - interesting! Does it follow the same Month-Week-Schedule scheduling workflow? If so, I'd be very interested to check it out.

  17. Cucuy
    January 24, 2015 at 2:25 am

    Look so complex, I felt like you and now I use Omnifocus. Is to easy have all your task (life, work, dreams) in one place. The perspective view can help you to track all your projects.

    • Ryan Dube
      January 24, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      It's not complex once you start using it. The key is once tasks start automatically arriving into your "Inbox" tab, you make the conscious effort to "decide" what you want to work on in the coming month, and load up your month tab. Then, every week, you consciously decide what you want to work on this week, and move those to the "week" tab. Finally, you arrange them in your schedule using the tabular approach (as Rob has written about - his article was linked).

      Automation is FANTASTIC, and useful to bring all of the tasks you need to work on into one place where you can focus on, but automation is not going to do everything for you. After all of these years and the many to-do "systems" I've tried, it's this final semi-auto tabular approach (using the month-week-schedule workflow) that has finally led to the highest efficiency and zero tasks dropping through the cracks.

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