Time Sorting: A Tool For Spending Time On What Matters Most

A quick, simple activity to make more time for what you care about by spending less time on what you don’t

Don’t be at the mercy of your calendar — have a plan for spending your time with purpose

Spend time doing what matters most to you; a simple, empowering guideline we all want to follow yet struggle to accomplish. Who hasn’t looked back at some point and thought “I should have spent more time doing X”?

Introducing Time Sorting, a simple yet powerful exercise that forces us to think about and plan how we can best be spending our time. It’s a tool I’ve developed over 5 years of mentoring and coaching talented people.

Time Sorting also provides effective stress reduction for circumstances when we’re overwhelmed by our schedules and life in general. I’ve realized a 100% success rate in reducing stress for those I’ve practiced the exercise with.

This article briefly explains the steps of Time Sorting and walks through an actual example of practicing the exercise.

How To Do Time Sorting

The actual activity is so simple, it feels a little weird writing an entire story about it…but hey, the most effective innovations are often the simplest!

NOTE: This entire process is most effective when done with someone else. Whether it’s a manager, career coach, coworker, spouse, or friend, the biggest benefit of Time Sorting is realized when involving another person.

Step 1: Write It All Down

Spend 10 minutes jotting down everything we regularly spend time on plus anything that we want to be spending time on and aren’t right now.

Step 2: Sort & Rank

Next, let’s take every single item from Step 1 and rank them from what we most want to be spending time on, to what we least want to be spending time on.

Step 3: Start Stopping

There may be tasks on our list that we want to spend less time doing and cannot simply be stopped without negative repercussions to ourselves or others. If anything at the bottom of the list falls in that category, add a new task to our list on how to reduce our time investment on the lower item. Prioritize any “stopping” plan items near the top of the list.

Step 4: Experiment & Adjust

Choose the top 3–5 things on the list and plan to focus only on those items for the week. After the week is over, look back to see how well we followed the list. Add any new tasks, remove any stopped ones, sort the list, and do it all again.

Why Is Time Sorting Effective?

The key principle Time Sorting encourages us to remember is that important tasks and problems are not necessarily urgent. Just because something is important doesn’t mean it has to happen right now at the expense of something else.

By writing down and prioritize everything we do, we can better appreciate just how many things we’re trying to accomplish as well as understand that not everything we do is of equal urgency or importance. This empowers us to be confident and intentional around what we do and what we don’t do in order to be more proactive than reactive.

…just because something is important doesn’t mean it has to happen right now at the expense of something else

Example — Workplace Time Management

Nothing beats an example for demonstrating the process, so let’s walk through a sample Time Sorting exercise.

NOTE 1: This is a highly condensed example. In real life, our lists may have many more than 10 items on it.

NOTE 2: Jennifer Yan provided the immaculate hand-written notes for this example (her hand-writing is incredible!)

It’s time to sort our time!

Step 1: Write It Down

I sit down for 10 minutes and write down everything I do. I pull up my calendar, look at the last 2 months to spot some recurring meetings and also remember that I spent time training the last new hire. Looking at the next month, I see another new hire will be starting and it will be my responsibility to train them as well.

Step 1: Write it all down, including what we want to start doing

Observations:

I’ve added 3 things to the list that I’ve wanted to start doing but have kept putting off for one reason or another. I’m going to have to change something about how I’m using my time if I want to do any of those 3 new things AND take on the next new hire.

Step 2: Sort & Rank

So here comes the hard part…putting everything in order. I must remember to rank everything by what I most want to be spending my time on, not by whether it’s important or not. Most of these tasks (if not all of them) are important or I wouldn’t be doing them in the first place.

Step 2: Sort the list!

Observations

Right off the bat, it’s easy for me to identify the top 2 and bottom 2 items; it’s the middle part that is especially difficult. It was a significant help to separate everything into 3 tiers so I could group similar items.

I feel great about intentionally focusing on eating lunch with my teammates. I don’t accomplish much over lunch anyway, and it’s been such a great team-bonding experience in the past that I don’t know why I ever stopped.

Since I’m going to make time for lunch and collecting feedback, now is clearly not the best time to start researching customer usage analytics. It’s best to just focus on other things for now, and come back to this when I’m ready to take on more things.

Step 3: Sometimes we can’t just stop things immediately — we need to plan ahead

Step 3: Start Stopping

Now that I’ve sorted everything, it’s clear that I would benefit from stopping things at the bottom of the list so I can focus on the things at the top of the list. There are two items, in particular, I want to reprioritize. The problem is, people are depending on me for both, so simply not doing them is a bad idea. I need to come up with a plan on how to spend less time on them.

With a bit of effort upfront, I may be able to reduce — or even eliminate — the amount of my time needed for the low-priority tasks to be completed. So, I first identify plans for reducing time spent on them, and then I prioritize those “stopping” tasks into my list.

Step 3A: Identify a plan around tasks that cannot simply be stopped
Step 3B: Prioritize the new “stopping” tasks near the top of the list

Observations

If publishing notes is as valuable as I believe it is, others on the team may be motivated to rotate the responsibility. Otherwise, it could be good to stop a while to test and see how much value it’s actually producing.

I like the idea of having the most recently onboarded employee help onboard the next new hire, so I’m going to make a proposal to leadership to see if they agree. This could both free up my time and establish a scalable way to handle future new hires as well!

It’s clear that freeing up time with either of these tasks will give me time to start collecting the performance feedback I want. It’s helpful to have that incentive and a plan on how to make it happen.

WARNING! Though this example is useful for illustrating Step 3 of Time Sorting, it also conflicts with the first of my 3 Rules For World-Changing Delegation: “Delegate the Good Stuff”. Please read that story for more helpful suggestions on how to be an effective delegator.

Step 4: Reflect and adjust our Time Sorting list

Step 4: Experiment & Adjust

I follow my plan for a week and reflect back upon how it all went. There were certainly some mixed results but overall there were some significant positive changes!

  • I ate lunch with my teammates 4 out of 5 days and we learned a lot about each other. Our communication has clearly improved and we’ve already been a lot more collaborative than before. We agreed to make Monday the day of the week we will regularly eat lunch together.
  • In fact, during one of the lunch conversations, I asked about how valuable my note-taking had been to the team. They responded positively and even offered to rotate who shares the notes so that it’s not only my responsibility moving forward. As a result, I was able to remove 2 items from my list which created time for other things!
  • I suggested the alternative to the onboarding process to the leadership group. They think it’s a great idea to try out with new hires after the next one; it’s a bit too late and risky to experiment with it for the new person coming in now.
  • I used the time I would have been using for sharing notes to start coming up with specific areas I want performance feedback on. I’ve now officially started the process, something I wouldn’t have done otherwise!

After reflecting, I can then adjust my Time Sorting list for the upcoming weeks:

  • Remove all note-taking items from the list entirely.
  • Move lunch with my teammates down on the list; we got a lot of value from this week and have agreed to do it at least once a week moving forward.
  • With the added time, I may be able to start looking into the customer usage data!

Find Someone To Help You!

The most effective means to do Time Sorting is to have someone else help you. Doing all of this in our head allows us to skip over difficult decisions and take shortcuts. Having someone we trust facilitate Time Sorting forces us to make explicit decisions on the priority of our time while providing an objective, external source to help increase our accountability to our time.

This exercise has been immensely helpful every time I’ve used it for myself and others. It’s both incredibly simple and surprisingly effective at reducing feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed. Give it a shot for yourself or others and let me know what you think!

Thanks again Jennifer Yan for the beautiful Time Sorting illustrations!

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