Time Management for Firefighters

This post is going to be the core article of the time management series in this blog. I named it “for firefighters” because if you can’t manage your time properly, soon you will need to extinguish fires in your life. I mean, there is going to be a lot of urgent and important tasks you will have to deal with.

time management

What is time management? Definition of “Time Management”

Let’s get back to basics for a moment. What is time management? The essence of time management is the following:

  1. Decide what to do
  2. Do it

These appear to be very simple steps at first glance. Even a child can do them. However, when we look at them through the lens of optimization, they become much more complicated. In order to optimize these steps, we must concern ourselves with identifying the “right” or the “best” way to complete each step. We can easily see that some decision-action combinations produce better results than others. So our question becomes, “What is the best action to take right now, and what is the best way to do it?”

Answering this question should be the main purpose behind any time management system. Yes, there are side benefits like getting organized, becoming more clear-headed, and reducing stress. But ultimately these benefits all contribute to the decision-action process. What will you do, and how will you do it?

time management skills

When I first studied time management, I found that most of the existing literature was focused on step 2. There was a lot of emphasis on how to get things done. This is a fine model for employees whose tasks are given to them, but that’s an industrial age model, and it doesn’t suit knowledge workers today who have a lot more freedom in choosing their tasks and even their careers. If step 1 is done incorrectly, then it doesn’t matter how well you do step 2. If you decide to do the wrong thing, it makes no difference how well you do it.

Importance of time management

Deciding what to do

Step 1 is a lot more difficult than step 2, which is probably why I’ve found so little adequate coverage of it. One of the most popular systems that attempts to tackle step 1 intelligently is the Franklin-Covey system, which concerns itself with the high level subjects of mission, roles, and goals more than the lower level of projects and actions. However, I don’t think Franklin-Covey goes nearly high-level enough. Many of the mission statements I’ve seen produced by this system are nothing but vapid drivel, especially those produced by corporations.

The next level up from roles, goals, and mission is the level of context. Think of this as your current understanding of reality as well as your role within it. If you change your context, then everything else changes as well. For example, if you change your spiritual beliefs, then you may experience changes in your relationships and career as well.

Before you continue reading, you can watch this great lecture given by Randy Pauch in Carnegie Mellon University. I think that it is not a waste of time 🙂

Accuracy is paramount

The most important aspect of context is accuracy. Either your context accurately models reality, or it doesn’t. This includes your most sacred spiritual beliefs, and it also includes the possibility that your beliefs may even alter your external reality. If inaccurate beliefs guide your actions, then your actions may very well be pointless. A person whose high-level beliefs are inaccurate simply cannot be productive in any meaningful sense. S/he might as well be digging a hole and then filling it.

I began learning of time management at the level of projects and actions, but I’ve since been approaching it from a top-down perspective. Now I’m far more concerned with doing the right thing than with doing things right. I spend a considerable amount of time reviewing my beliefs, looking for incongruencies between my beliefs and my experience of reality, and exploring other potential beliefs that may be more accurate. While working on the projects and actions level can yield minor productivity boosts, working on the high level of context and purpose can produce major breakthroughs. This is the process that led me to retire from computer game development and to start working in the field of personal development. When my context changed, everything else changed as well, including my mission, goals, projects, and actions.

I believe the most important thing I can do to manage my time is to strive to understand reality as accurately as possible. Above all, this means I cannot ignore data. Everything I’ve experienced — everything I think I know — must somehow be integrated into my approach to time management. There can be no incongruencies. My beliefs, thoughts, and actions must all be in alignment with reality itself.

Time Management Systemstime management clock

Time management systems have become exceedingly popular in recent years… and with good reason. The ultimate potential benefit of such systems is the ability to optimize how you spend your time in order to extract the best possible results in the shortest period of time. Such systems do come with a price, however, and that price is the time you must spend first learning and then maintaining the system. Generally speaking, the more complex the system, the more costly it is to use. The more time you spend managing your system, the less time you’ll spend reaping the rewards of increased productivity.

Since the early 2000s, I’ve studied time management extensively, both by devouring existing knowledge on the subject and through first-hand trial and error. I’ve read a shelf full of books on time management, listened to hundreds of hours of time management audio learning, and read dozens of articles on the subject. I’ve used a variety of time management systems including Franklin-Covey, David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and Anthony Robbins’ Rapid Planning Method (formerly called OPA for Outcome-Purpose-Action). I’ve used PC software like Microsoft Outlook, Palm computers, and paper-based planners. If there were such a thing as a Ph.D in time management, I’ve gone through the curriculum many times over.

Studying time management has been an extremely worthwhile endeavor. While the claims made by people selling products in this field are often exaggerated and overhyped, I did realize some genuine productivity benefits from applying the best ideas. I think some who studies time management as much as I do could achieve amazing results in his/her life. The sad truth is that most people are so incredibly bad at managing their time that rock-bottom personal productivity is simply accepted as normal. So anyone who can consistently invest 80% of their time each day in intelligent, productive activities is going to look like an overachiever by comparison. The average college student in particular is probably operating at only 20-30% of their capacity, and I’m referring to their social life in addition to academics. Most people are completely unaware of just how poor they are at time management until some “overachiever” enters their lives and makes them look bad by comparison.

It’s tempting to say that excellent time management is a result of having a great time management system. But I have not found this to be the case. I think the general mindset of time management is far more important than any system. And the mindset of time management is simply that you value your time. It’s really a self-esteem issue. If you see your life as valuable and meaningful, then you will value your time as well. If you find yourself wasting a lot of time, you probably don’t have a strong enough reason to manage your time well. No system you use will make much difference until you address the underlying issue of self-respect. If your life has no meaningful purpose, then you don’t have a compelling enough reason to improve your time management skills. You might get motivated every once in a while, but your motivation to improve just won’t last.

managing your timeTime management systems are seductive. They lure you in with the promise of greater productivity, more free time, faster income generation, and higher self-esteem. And some of those benefits may indeed be realized. However, another possibility is that your system becomes a distraction that prevents you from achieving real gains. You find yourself investing more and more time in meta-activities like getting organized, prioritizing objectives, and learning the latest productivity software. Actually doing the tasks that your system is designed to manage becomes almost an afterthought… perhaps even an annoyance. Instead of helping you increase productivity, your system becomes a means to disguise low productivity. This is a common problem for people who haven’t yet identified a purpose for their lives. The system provides the illusion of productivity, but when you strip it down to its bare essence, you find it’s a house of straw. There’s nothing there. When you sum up all the tasks, they amount to nothing but busywork and trivialities. Whether or not they actually get done is of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. In the long run, no one will care anyway. If you find yourself in this situation, you’ve simply lost sight of the real purpose of time management.


The real gains in time management are realized at the top, not the bottom.  If your high-level strategic decisions are based on an inaccurate understanding of reality, then your mission, goals, projects, and actions will be virtually meaningless in the grand scheme of things.  All of your accomplishments will be little more than busywork.  This article and the following ones in this category presents ways to resolve this situation and to know whether or not you’re setting the right goals to begin with.

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