Skip to main content

Eight (Free) Time Management Systems to Try in 2020

Y’all want an inspirational quote?

Of course you do—bitches love an inspirational quote. I quote this one all the time and honestly strive to live by it.

“I’m not going to entertain drama, chaos, confusion, and madness.”

Alyssa Edwards

These perfect words, uttered by drag superstar Alyssa Edwards, are a universally applicable mantra for most situations. But I think of them often when I’m sitting down to make my own to-do list.

Drama, chaos, confusion, and madness intrude on my life every single day.

  • Coworker A wants 30 minutes on my calendar to “talk about a project” when what she actually wants is to vent about Coworker B. DRAMA!
  • My foster dog breaks her potty-training streak by squatting down and loosing her bladder all over the kitchen floor. CHAOS!
  • There’s a $35 fee from our bank because I meant to transfer money into an account but accidentally transferred out of it. CONFUSION!
  • Our podcast is late because I spent all of Thursday morning convinced it was Wednesday morning, even though I wrote “Thursday” at the top of my to-do list: MADNESS!

This is why I must be like Alyssa. I cannot entertain these distractions.

The pursuit of productivity for productivity’s sake is a symptom of toxic capitalism, which we do not wish to propagate. You are not obliged to systemize, optimize, or monetize all your precious moments upon this planet.

But our modern lives are full of endless, annoying actions to take and tasks to manage. Procrastination and disorganization invite a lot of unnecessary stress into your life. So today we’re talking about time management techniques. If you struggle with drama, chaos, confusion, and madness, try one out and see if it helps you!

Today’s post was brought to you by our Patreon donors, who voted for this topic in our monthly content poll. If you want to vote on the topics we cover next, head over to Patreon!

1. The Pomodoro Technique

How it works

The essence of this technique is to work in short, fixed bursts. Set a timer to twenty-five minutes, and work until the timer goes off. When it does, reward yourself with a five-minute break. Repeat the process, and after four successful cycles, you can throw in a longer break.

Learn more about it by borrowing The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo from your local library. Or read Piggy’s breakdown here!

Who it works for

  • Slow and steady workers.
  • People who can switch gears easily when prompted.
  • People whose bodies are prone to repetitive stress injuries, such as eye strain, tendonitis, or back pain from too much sitting.

Free apps to help you try it

  • Tomato Timer, a clean, minimalist Pomodoro timer. (iOS)
  • Focus To-Do, a more robust Pomodoro timer and task manager with to-do lists, details reporting, and data synchronization. (iOS, Android, browser)
  • Low tech option: use your phone’s timer, or any old kitchen timer.

2. The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

How it works

Write down all of your tasks, and ask yourself two questions for each one: “is it urgent, and is it important?” Based on that, you can now put everything into four categories: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but unimportant, and neither urgent nor important. Tackle them in that order, getting rid of as many from the last category as you can.

Also sometimes called “the four Ds:” do, decide, delegate, and delete.

Learn more by borrowing First Things First or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, both by Stephen Covey et al., from your local library.

Who it works for

  • Firefighters, meaning the people who always find themselves sucked into addressing emergencies.
  • People who have more tasks than time to complete them.
  • People who want to make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time.

Free apps to help you try it

  • Ike is a friendly, colorful priority matrix manager for Google devices. (Android)
  • Tasks is a clean, minimal matrix manager for Apple and Android devices. (iOS, Android)
  • Low tech option: all you really need is a sheet of paper with a 2×2 grid.

3. Eating the Frog

How it works

This is based on a quote from Nicholas Chamfort. (Often misattributed to Mark Twain, which drives me up a tree. He and Marilyn Monroe can’t catch a break with that shit.) Anyway, it goes like this: “Swallow a toad in the morning if you want to encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day.”

The basic idea is that you can get more done if you start each day by doing the task you dread most. If you start with the easy stuff, you may lose energy knowing that something bigger and more difficult awaits you. Conversely, you gain momentum by eliminating your sources of stress.

Learn more by borrowing Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy from your local library.

Who it works for

  • Band-aid rippers.
  • Anxious procrastinators.
  • People who tend to run out of spoons early in the day.

Free apps to help you try it

  • Any.Do is a nice, free to-do app that always orders your most urgent tasks to the top of the list. It integrates across several different platforms as well. (iOS, Android, browser)
  • Pocket Lists is a good option for folks who like stimulating visuals. You can add emoji-like tags to each item, from a benign green exclamation point to a skull-and-crossbones set on fire. Yes, literally! (iOS)
  • Low tech option: write a simple to-do list like you normally would, and order it from the task you most dread to the task you most enjoy.

4. The Kanban Method

How it works

The kanban system came out of the Japanese “lean method” for managing systems and processes. It’s favored by software engineers, who are extremely bad at describing their ideas in pithy, easy-to-understand terms. But they’re actually wicked easy.

Basically a kanban board is a big sheet of paper with three vertical columns: to-do, doing, and done. Individual tasks are written on sticky notes, which move from one column to the next as you make progress on them. You can add more columns if you want to break things down into more steps.

The value it provides is twofold: visualizing your progress, and taming the total number of projects you have on your back burner.

To learn more, read Kanban and Agile Saved Our House and Home Kanban for Domestic Bliss.

Who it works for

  • Serial Pinteresters.
  • People who are overwhelmed by all the things they want to do “someday.”
  • Couples, families, and small groups who share a long-term set of goals.

Free apps to help you try it

  • Trello is a popular project management tool that uses classic kanban visualization. (iOS, Android, browser)
  • Sortd adds a sort of skin over your Gmail that allows you to organize them in kanban-style columns. Makes inbox zero so much easier to reach! (browser)
  • If you’re already using Evernote, you can connect Kanbanote to it to see your notes laid out in kanban columns. (browser)
  • Low tech option: divide a piece of paper into three columns, and write your tasks on some sticky notes you can move through the columns.

5. The Pareto Principle

How it works

Also known as the 80/20 rule, the Pareto Principal states that in most situations, 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes. Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto described these as “the trivial many” and “the vital few.”

In time management, this means 80% of the value comes from 20% of the work. If you have ten tasks to complete in a given day, this philosophy assumes that two of them will be as important (or more important) than the other eight put together, because they’re the most vital and impactful.

To learn more, check out this Forbes article or this Better Explained article on the subject.

Who it works for

  • Natural born rebels and corner-cutters.
  • People who want to be really careful about how much time they invest.
  • Non-perfectionists looking for “good enough” results quickly.

Free apps to help you try it

  • Completo for iOS is a to-do list that only allows ten or fewer priorities at a time. If you want to buckle-down and focus on just a few of them, you can temporarily hide the others. (iOS)
  • Prioritize Me! for Android users is a simple to-do list app. Whenever you have more than one item due in a day, it’ll ask you to choose which one is more important. (Android)
  • Low tech option: Keep a normal to-do list. If it gets too long, move some things into a “to-don’t” column. Tell yourself you won’t try to work on them right now, because they’re less vital, and will distract you from what really matters.

6. Time Blocking

How it works

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Time blocking is a system designed to work with that problem, instead of against it.

When you time block, you set aside time on your schedule or calendar to complete a task. Many people who use time blocking consciously set aside time for checking email, social media, and other potentially huge time-wasters. After thirty or sixty minutes you close the browser and move on to the next task.

Time blocking works best when you have a somewhat structured lifestyle. You need to be able to accurately estimate how long a task will take. If emergencies arise, you must choose items to reschedule. But it’s empowering to choose how long you plan to work on something.

To learn more, borrow The Time Chunking Method by Damon Zahariades from your local library.

Who it works for

  • People who like routines and planning ahead.
  • People who can accurately estimate task completion time.
  • Detail-oriented people who need to be pulled out of a task when it’s “good enough.”

Free apps to help you try it

  • You can start time blocking with any calendar app.
  • Low tech option: any old paper calendar or day planner will do.

7. The Getting Things Done Method

How it works

This system was developed by productivity expert David Allen. There are five steps:

  • capture everything you want to do,
  • clarify the tasks by breaking them down into actionable steps,
  • organize the tasks by priority, due date, and urgency,
  • reflect on your list, and
  • engage with your list by getting these things done.

There are unique suggested workflows for each of the steps, which you can read more about by borrowing Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen from your local library. And make sure it’s the revised edition, which accounts for fifteen years of technology evolution. (Lifehacker also has a pretty comprehensive rundown here.)

Who it works for

  • People who already have a to-do list system they use and like, but want to make sure it’s really capturing their goals.

Free apps to help you try it

  • Any to-do list app can work with the GTD system. Nirvana and Evernote are popular among their adherents, but there are many!
  • Low tech option: Keep a normal to-do list, and set aside a little time each week to validate it.

8. The Seinfeld Method

How it works

This advice comes from comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who realized he needed to work every day to become better at his job. He put an X on his calendar for every day he practiced his craft.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain. Don’t break the chain.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secrets

Personal productivity is a bit like dieting—you can get results, but the results will fade unless you find a way to make the changes into habits. Luckily there are a lot of resources to help you stick with a routine.

Who it works for

  • Marathon runners (rather than sprinters).
  • People who want to build long-lasting habits.
  • People with goals that require daily sustained time and effort.

Free apps to help you try it

  • Streaks for iOS is a pretty, highly customizable app. (iOS)
  • Habitica is a creative option that gamifies habit formation. Sustaining habits gives you experience points to level up your avatar, fight monsters, and complete missions with friends. (iOS, Android)
  • Low tech option: Do exactly as Jerry describes. Put an x on your calendar or to-do list. Don’t break the chain!

Your mileage may vary

Piggy likes the Pomodoro Technique. I’ve tried it and… I hated it!

It’s easy to understand why if you know I have ADHD, which is a double-edged sword when it comes to productivity. One of its symptoms (especially in women) is extreme hyper-focus. If I’m into what I’m working on, I can do it for hours at a blazing pace, foregoing rest, food, and even bathroom breaks. So a method that relies on frequent starting and stopping works against that natural dis/advantage… doesn’t work for me.

What works really well for one person may not work for you. So keep sampling and synthesizing methods. You’ll find a nice rhythm that works for you, eventually.

Everyone is different! Who knew! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Bitch Nation, what are your favorite tools and techniques for staying on task and getting shit done? Is there an app you use to track yourself that didn’t make this list? If so, tell us about it in the comments below!

And thanks again to our donors for sponsoring the podcast and suggesting this topic.

Liked it? Support us on Patreon!

11 thoughts to “Eight (Free) Time Management Systems to Try in 2020”

  1. My favorite app for keeping my stuff organized is Notion! It’s like Trello on steroids, so you can do the Kanban boards, but there are tons of different templates too, so I use it to keep track of my to-do’s, my goals, my travel plans, movies I want to watch…it’s super versatile.

  2. I use Focusmate, which pairs me with a work buddy via video for 50-minute sessions. I guess it’s like timeblocking but with more accountability and company. The free version has a limited number of sessions per month (I think ten? I could be wrong there), the paid version is unlimited. For me it has been something of a game-changer.

    (The link is still missing in the Pareto Principle section, by the way…)

  3. The 1 Thing (Gary Keller/Jay Papasan) is the most effective way I’ve found to organize my personal and professional life – especially with a partner. In some ways it’s a combination of 80/20 and Time Blocking. It belongs on your list, you cat pigs!

  4. Forest: Stay Focused is an app that was invaluable to me in high school. You set the timer for a certain amount of time and it grows a tree during that time. If you exit out of the app the tree dies. I used it for the pomodoro technique

  5. If you’re into the Kanban method (which is the most useful one I’ve tried so far to keep my distractable brain from never completing a single task [sidenote: would love a post on managing ADD/ADHD]), then the website KanbanFlow.com is excellent.

    Reasons are:
    -Free
    -Multiple lists (I separate personal and work)
    -Customizable categories
    -Color coding
    -Areas for description and subtasks
    -More things that I don’t really use but seem cool (time tracking, sharing, etc.)

  6. I quite like the Planner Pad – there’s an app or a paper diary. I like seeing a week at a glance. It starts with ten slots for ongoing projects where you can write down your to dos in each project. Then in the timed area at the bottom you can block out time where you’re doing other stuff, like meetings or travel or activities. Then between your to do list and your blocked off time; you can slot in your tasks from your various projects. I like being able to allocate tasks across the week, and balance between projects/domains. Like if I’m really smashed at work, I can see that there’s no sense in trying to fit in an ambitious home project that week. Or if the kids have got a ton of stuff on or big school things; I can plan on pulling back a little at work or not doing work travel that week. The website here has more details: https://plannerpads.com/why-it-works

  7. I like the pomodoro method, but I hate being interrupted when I get into the groove of work. I usually need to keep that momentum going some days. My solution was to buy a cheap 30 minute hour glass and use that instead of a timer. This way if i’m in the groove I’m not interrupted by noise and can keep working until I’m ready to stop, but, if i’m struggling to focus, I can still glance at it and take me 5 minute break when the sand runs out.

    The only danger is that on the days where I really dgaf I would sometimes just stare at the glass and zone out. It was super relaxing, so there’s a perk I guess? I used that method for 3 years, until my cat knocked it off my desk one day and it shattered.

    Pro-Tip, buy a plastic one, or something in those fancy wooden support things.

  8. I have several methods I like to use depending on the days and my spoon level. If it’s a good day, I like to use my paper day planner, and occasionally the Hatch app, which is like Pomodoro and Forest, but free and you hatch cute aliens if you stay focused. I also need to figure out that web blocking software for when I need to concentrate on a few websites and not Tumblr. And then if all that doesn’t work, I take a quick break, try to journal about what isn’t working to find a solution somehow. And I needed to read about these other methods, because my time management has been terrible lately.

  9. Oh God, eating the frog is the only way I get anything done on some days. But also I do a variant of The Eisenhower Decision Matrix at work, a lot. Only my categories are: “on fire”, “not on fire”, “you WAIT asshole” and “oh hell no”.

    (I’m an office manager for an office of around 30. “You WAIT asshole” is a very important category reserved for people who need to finally learn how to take care of their own work environment, especially for the shared spaces.)

  10. non English speaker here… but…
    Short term: Pareto Principle + Ivy Lee Method + adaptation of 1-3-5 Rule + Pomodoro Technique + gratitude notebook or meditate

    The professional day is (or should be):
    1. big – Ivy Lee 1 / Pareto (more return in the medium and long term)
    2. big – Ivy Lee 2 / Pareto (more return in the medium and long term)
    3. medium – Ivy Lee 3
    4. medium – Ivy Lee 4
    5. medium – Ivy Lee 5
    6. small – Ivy Lee 6
    7. small – block: Activities “can wait / smaller / boring”
    8. small – block: Activities “can wait / smaller / boring”… because these things keep multiplying
    (…)
    in the end of the day. Prioritize the 4 Ivy Lee of tomorrow
    in the end of the day. Gratitude notebook (I follow this quis: “BBC – How a daily 10-minute exercise could boost your happiness”. Meditating stresses me – deeply)

    Challenges: life happens. Taking the Pomodoro’s breaks. But when I do, they really work for the sleep and health. Trying to establish a post-lunch break (“Greater Good Magazine – Why Your Brain Needs to Dream”. Although this article in Portuguese is better “Our life is shortened by not taking a nap – https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/10/31/ciencia/1572550463_423460.html) + contact with nature (“NYT – How Much Nature Is Enough? 120 Minutes a Week, Doctors Say”) in the routine, for physical health.

    Long term: (I still struggle with it): Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule + SMART, with blocks of 4 months each goal
    Challenges: life happens. Abusive and narcissistic people happens. Personal branding and networking are evil inventions (passive networking it’s the viable).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *