Time Management for the Neurodiverse

We all get the same 24 hours in a day and yet some people seem to get so much more done. None of us can control time: it marches on of its own accord and we can not speed it up or slow it down. We can, however, change what we do with our time – this is what time management is all about.

Many neurodiverse people struggle with time management. At the extreme, some experience a condition called tachipsychia where time is perceived as speeded up or slowed down. Some may even enter into the zen-like state of flow where they are intensely engaged and fully immersed in an activity.

More commonly the neurodiverse my suffer from an ineffective and or inefficient use of time. The nature of the disability means we may be naturally less efficient at some tasks. This can be compounded by pursuing a task long past the product of the labour has met the required standard. Or we might execute a task in what is for us a challenging mode (like writing a report when the information could be conveyed more efficiently verbally).

Ineffective time management is, in short, doing the wrong things at the wrong time. Have you ever found yourself 2 hours into the search for the perfect image for a slide when the content for the presentation has not been structured? Has a quick google search resulted in hours on the web for what was supposed to be a simple footnote in a report?

The cherry on the cake is many neurodiverse people are also prone to work-related stress. When combined with other likely deficits (for example poor written work) this can escalate in a spiral with poor estimation leaving no time for rework and poor time management leading to multiple competing priorities.

It’s no surprise the questions I get asked most often when coaching are all about time management and personal productivity.

The Basics of Time Management

Since we can not control time we can not manage it. However, we can manage our priorities. If at any point in time you are working on the most important task you are a long way towards more effective time management.

To excel at time management and personal productivity there are a few more aspects to consider. Productivity is maximised when priority management is coupled with workflow management. estimation and focus management.

Priority management

If you don’t know what is important you can’t know if you are working on the right things. I present some strategies for working out priorities in my post on managing workload and priorities with a journal. This includes how to balance what is important right now and what is valuable in the longer term. I’ve also blogged a more detailed consideration of the difference between urgent tasks and important tasks.

If the challenge is you don’t know how to turn your goals into a set of activities you can priorities have a read of how to achieve your goals.

priorities on a post it note for time management

Workflow management

To be productive you need to have a structured workflow that works for you. You may want to try a lightweight structure like a Bullet Journal or get more structured with personal kanban. There is a multitude of approaches to workflow and the best will depend on the type of work you do.

If a workflow feels like too much to start with then start simple. Schedule time in your calendar to work on your priorities. Ideally, this should be first thing in the morning (or the times at which you focus best) and in chunks that match your attention span (for me no longer than 50 minutes). If you take this approach also schedule buffer time around important pieces of work so if they take longer than expected there is the chance to recover. This approach can grow nicely into a more structured time-boxed workflow.

When you are working on something execute efficiently and effectively. Break down any big tasks and identify if there are early iterations that can be used to track progress or confirm you are on the right lines. For a presentation, this might be a slide deck with just slide titles and no content for your manager to agree it is covering the right areas. For a report, this might be a mind map or table of contents covering the sections.

There are some tasks, like email, that are not important but do need to get done. For admin tasks efficiency is key. Batch these up and allocate time for them. Unless you work in a time sensitive role (in which case email is unlikely to be the workflow tool) you can do email just 3 times a day.

Estimating how long tasks will take

Having an appreciation for how long tasks take is important. Estimating allows you to flag up if you have tasks that can’t be completed on time. Sharing information about tasks at risk opens the opportunity of getting help. Most people tend to overestimate what they can achieve in a day and underestimate what they can achieve in a month.

Many neurodiverse people struggle to estimate how long a task will take. This is often because big tasks are inherently difficult to estimate. One approach is to break the task down into smaller components that can be estimated. Another is to use time boxing and find out by experimentation how long recurrent tasks take.

The other challenge with estimating how long a task will take is the fact a long task will often be victim to a lack of maintained focus. Which leads nicely on…

Focus management

Focus management is a massive topic for those of us who are easily distracted. I’ve blogged about how to bring focus so I’ll just recap on the highlights here.

Multitasking is a myth you can’t to work on one thing at a time and give it all your attention. Work on your most important task for up to your attention span period or until you have got to the next iteration then reward yourself with a walk (sitting down for hours on end is not good for you).

You will also need to combat distractions which will steal your focus. Start by turning off email notifications. Then have a read of my post on focus for more tips.

Help: It’s not working

If all this fails then it is time to delve deeper. At this point, it is worth investing the time to do a Drucker Time Analysis to see where your time is going. You can do this as a really rough analysis – what do you think you have spent your time on over the past few weeks. Does it match your priorities? Alternatively, over the next few weeks track your time (perhaps in a Bullet Journal hourly log) and see if you are investing your most precious resource on the things that matter most to you.

Peter Drucker was a management legend and is often referred to as the father of modern management.  He wrote his is book Effective Executive  “Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes.”

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