Time management

Drew Carey is an award-winning comedian and host of game show The Price Is Right. He’s also an actor, author, soccer club owner, professional photographer, and philanthropist.

Even with a personal assistant, Carey couldn’t keep up with e-mails, phone calls, and meetings. His desk was overflowing with unpaid bills, unanswered letters, and unfinished tasks.

In desperation, Carey called productivity expert David Allen. First, they processed all of his accumulated stuff. Everything was categorized into 4 buckets: Drop it, Delegate it, Do it, or Defer it. Second, Carey defined a specific next step for each action. Finally, everything was organized into folders.

Since that day, Carey has kept close to zero. His time management system removes stress and frees his mind to be creative.

The day I got to zero…no phone messages, no e-mails, nothing, not a piece of paper—when I got to that point, I felt like the world got lifted off my shoulders. I felt like I had just come out of meditating in the desert, not a care in the world. I just felt euphoric.

-Drew Carey

Importance of conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is a personality trait. It’s defined as being organized, responsible, and hardworking. And it’s related to self-control and grit.

Thousands of studies have shown that conscientiousness improves your life:

  • School achievement

  • Job performance

  • Wealth

  • Health and long life

  • Social relationships

  • Happiness

80% of success is showing up.

-Woody Allen

Time management system

Become more conscientious. Implement a time management system with 3 parts:

  • Triage

  • Execute

  • Organize

Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing. You could tolerate that dissonance and that stress if it only happened once a month, the way it did in the past. Now people are just going numb and stupid, or getting too crazy and busy to deal with the anxiety.

-David Allen


In medicine, new patients are constantly walking into the Emergency Department. Triage is assessing urgency of an illness and deciding who gets seen first. For example, a heart attack is treated immediately and a runny nose is sent home.

Triage all actions as they come in by applying the 4 Ds:

  • Drop it

  • Delegate it

  • Do it

  • Defer it

Be selective about accepting actions. According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of results come from 20% of actions. This means 20% of actions are worth your time, and 80% should be dropped or delegated.

When things are going wrong, when multiple problems are occurring all at once, when things get overwhelming, you have to prioritize and execute. Take a step back. Detach from the mayhem. Look at the situation and assess the multitude of problems, tasks, or issues. Choose the one that is going to have the biggest impact and execute on that…Get it taken care of. Once you have done that, you can move on to the next problem or issue, then the one after that. Continue doing that until you have stabilized the situation. Prioritize and execute.

-Jocko Willink

If you delegate, provide specific instructions. For example, please book this restaurant for 2 people for Friday at 8 p.m. and send confirmation by end of day.

If an action will take less than 2 minutes, do it now. For example, paying a bill online.

Finally, defer actions that can’t be done right away, but decide on a specific next step. For example, book a doctor’s appointment tomorrow by calling (123) 456-7890. Keep a master to-do list of deferred actions and next steps. This could be a note file on your desktop or smartphone.

Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined.

-David Allen


When you execute next steps, focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking decreases performance because it takes mental effort to switch attention.

Avoid interruptions by turning off alerts and notifications for your smartphone and computer. To block ambient noise, wear earphones and listen to the same song on repeat. Alternatively, search YouTube for 432 Hertz music to repeat. Studies have shown this frequency is relaxing and lowers stress.

The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later…just as their designers intended.

-Nir Eyal

Refresh your brain by taking breaks. A computer-tracking study found that the most productive people worked for 52 minutes, then took a break for 17 minutes.

For complex projects, consider creating a Gantt chart with milestones and deadlines. Input them into your calendar.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

-Mark Twain


Here are 4 essential tools for staying organized:

  • Calendar

  • Master to-do list

  • Folders for documents

  • Master document with accounts and passwords

Ideally, use an online calendar that’s synced to your smartphone. Update your calendar immediately with new meetings, appointments, and special dates. For example, medical appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, bill payments, and renewal dates.

First thing in the morning, check your calendar for the day’s meetings. In your smartphone, set alarms for 5 minutes or more before each meeting. This provides time to get to the meeting or prepare for it. Lastly, review your master to-do list and decide which next steps to do today.

I decided I would sell myself the best hour of the day to improving my own mind, and the world could buy the rest of the time. It sounds selfish, but it worked.

-Charlie Munger

Create folders on your computer for all documents. For example, a finance folder with sub-folders for bank statements, invoices, and tax documents. Give each document a name and date for easy reference. When you get a new document, store it immediately in the appropriate folder. Back up folders in the cloud or on a removable drive.

Finally, maintain a password-protected master document with accounts and passwords. No more scraps of paper that get lost.

Time is the substance of life. When anyone asks you to give your time, they’re really asking for a chunk of your life.

-Antoinette Bosco

How to start today

  • Schedule time to process all of your accumulated stuff according to the 4 Ds

  • Input everything into a calendar, master to-do list, and master document with accounts and passwords

  • Create folders and file all documents

  • Finally, follow the time management system every day until it becomes a habit

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it…if you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perceptions of our lives.

-Joshua Foer


Drew Carey. (2021, March 2). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drew_Carey

Baumeister RF, Tierney J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. Penguin Press.

  • David Allen helped Drew Carey implement a time management system

Allen D. (2003). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin Books.

Aeon B, Faber A, Panaccio A. (2021). Does time management work? A meta-analysis. PLoS One. 16(1): e0245066.

  • A meta-analysis of 158 studies found that time management improved well-being (effect size = 0.31), job performance (effect size = 0.26), and academic achievement (effect size = 0.26)

Importance of conscientiousness

Jackson JJ et al. (2010). What do conscientious people do? Development and validation of the Behavioral Indicators of Conscientiousness (BIC). J Res Pers. 44(4): 501–511.

  • Conscientious people are more likely to do the following behaviors: label drawers in my office, use a planner to schedule the days’ events, cross off items from my to do list, make an itinerary, file papers in a desk drawer, make lists, use a calendar or date book to plan my activities, file financial documents, organize work files and materials in a systematic manner, use a file system for important papers, write in a date book, set a timeline for getting a project done, persist at tasks after meeting setbacks or failures, work extra hard on a project to make sure that it is done right, complete the projects I start, get to appointments on time, allow extra time for getting lost when going to new places, complete assignments on time, show up for work more than 5 minutes early, get to work on time, return phone calls and emails in a timely fashion, keep up with required work, fulfill an obligation to someone, double-check my work, proofread my writing, pay bills on time

Credé M, Tynan MC, Harms, PD. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. J Pers Soc Psychol. 113(3): 492–511.

  • A meta-analysis of 73 studies with 66,807 participants found that grit was correlated with conscientiousness (effect size = 0.84), self-control (effect size = 0.72), mental toughness (effect size = 0.46), positive affect (effect size = 0.46), and self-efficacy (effect size = 0.43)

  • Conscientiousness was correlated with perseverance (effect size = 0.83) and consistency (effect size = 0.61)

  • Perseverance was a better predictor of performance than consistency or grit

  • Grit added little incremental value for prediction of performance above conscientiousness, which suggested it was redundant with conscientiousness

Poropat AE. (2009). A meta-analysis of the five-factor model of personality and academic performance. Psychol Bull. 135(2): 322–338.

  • A meta-analysis of 138 studies with 70,926 participants in primary, secondary, and tertiary education found that conscientiousness increased academic performance (effect size = 0.46)

  • Correlations between conscientiousness and academic performance were largely independent of intelligence

  • After controlling for secondary academic performance, conscientiousness added as much to prediction of tertiary performance as intelligence

Vedel A. (2014). The Big Five and tertiary academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Personality Individual Differences. 71: 66–76.

  • A meta-analysis of 20 studies with 17,717 participants found that conscientiousness increased tertiary academic performance (effect size = 0.26)

Wilmot MP, Ones DS. (2019). A century of research on conscientiousness at work. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 116(46): 23004–23010.

  • A meta-meta-analysis of 92 meta-analyses with >1.1 million participants across >2,500 studies found that conscientiousness was associated with job performance (effect size = 0.20)

  • Conscientiousness was also associated with attitudes (effect size = 0.23), motivation (effect size = 0.22), and performance (effect size = 0.17)

  • Conscientiousness had stronger effects for low- to moderate-complexity jobs (effect size = 0.21) vs. high-complexity jobs (effect size = 0.12)

Duckworth AL et al. (2012). Who does well in life? Conscientious adults excel in both objective and subjective success. Front Psychol. 3: 356.

  • A 14-year study of 9,646 participants found that conscientiousness was associated with life satisfaction (effect size = 0.20), positive affect (effect size = 0.17), more savings (effect size = 0.16), and earning more money (effect size = 0.13)

Bogg T, Roberts BW. (2004). Conscientiousness and health-related behaviors: a meta-analysis of the leading behavioral contributors to mortality. Psychol Bull. 130(6): 887–919.

  • A meta-analysis of 194 studies with 184,995 participants found that conscientiousness reduced drug use (effect size = 0.28), excessive alcohol use (effect size = 0.25), risky driving (effect size = 0.25), violence (effect size = 0.25), tobacco use (effect size = 0.14), unhealthy eating (effect size = 0.13), risky sex (effect size = 0.13), and suicide (effect size = 0.12)

Kern ML, Friedman HS. (2008). Do conscientious individuals live longer? A quantitative review. Health Psychol. 27(5): 505–512.

  • A meta-analysis of 19 studies with 8,942 participants found that conscientiousness was associated with longevity (effect size = 0.11)

Buecker S et al. (2020). Loneliness and the Big Five personality traits: A meta-analysis. European Journal Personality. 34(1): 8–28.

  • A meta-analysis of 113 studies with 93,668 participants found that conscientiousness reduced risk of loneliness (effect size = 0.20)

Anglim J et al. (2020). Predicting psychological and subjective well-being from personality: A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 146(4): 279–323.

  • A meta-analysis of 462 studies with 334,567 participants found that conscientiousness was associated with environmental mastery (effect size = 0.51), purpose in life (effect size = 0.50), self-acceptance (effect size = 0.44), positive affect (effect size = 0.35), positive relations with others (effect size = 0.32), personal growth (effect size = 0.32), autonomy (effect size = 0.30), and life satisfaction (effect size = 0.27)

Time management system

Masicampo EJ, Baumeister RF. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. J Pers Soc Psychol. 101(4): 667–683.

  • A series of 5 studies with 618 participants found that unfinished goals caused intrusive thoughts that impaired performance on other tasks, but making specific plans to finish goals eliminated intrusive thoughts

Gartrell JL. (2019). The effect size of multitasking on individual task performance: A meta-analysis (unpublished doctoral dissertation). Grand Canyon University.

  • A meta-analysis of 40 studies found that multitasking impaired task performance (effect size = 0.62)

  • Performance was particularly impaired for complex tasks (effect size = 3.63)

Jeong S, Hwang Y. (2016). Media multitasking effects on cognitive vs. attitudinal outcomes: A meta‐analysis. Human Communication Research. 42(4): 599–618.

  • A meta-analysis of 49 studies found that media multitasking impaired cognitive outcomes (effect size = 0.71), but improved attitudinal outcomes (effect size = 0.37)

Leroy S, Glomb TM. (2018). Tasks interrupted: How anticipating time pressure on resumption of an interrupted task causes attention residue and low performance on interrupting tasks and how a “ready-to-resume” plan mitigates the effects. Organization Science. 29(3): 380–397.

  • A study with 48 participants found that interrupting a high-time-pressure task worsened cognitive reaction times by 12%, and reduced accuracy by 21% on the interrupting task

  • A follow-up study with 63 participants found that creating a ready-to-resume plan before starting the interrupting task eliminated negative effects of interruption

Szalma JL, Hancock PA. (2011). Noise effects on human performance: a meta-analytic synthesis. Psychol Bull. 137(4): 682–707.

  • A meta-analysis of 242 studies found that noise impaired performance for tasks that were communicative (effect size = 0.53), cognitive (effect size = 0.43), and motor (effect size = 0.43), but not perceptual (effect size = 0.06)

  • Different types of noise were disruptive: speech (effect size = 0.84), intermittent (effect size = 0.39), continuous (effect size = 0.26), and nonspeech (effect size = 0.20)

  • A meta-analysis of 6 studies found that music had neutral to positive effects (effect size = 0.09–0.71)

Kämpfe J, Sedlmeier P, Renkewitz F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis. Psychology Music. 39(4): 424–448.

  • A meta-analysis of 66 studies with 4,501 participants found that background music vs. no music had minimal effects on cognitive judgment (effect size = 0.09) and cognitive achievement (effect size = -0.02)

Aravena PC, Almonacid C, Mancilla MI. (2020). Effect of music at 432 Hz and 440 Hz on dental anxiety and salivary cortisol levels in patients undergoing tooth extraction: a randomized clinical trial. J Appl Oral Sci. 28: e20190601.

  • 42 patients undergoing tooth extraction were randomized to 15 minutes of 432 Hz music; 440 Hz music; or no music

  • 432 Hz music resulted in 49% lower anxiety levels and 85% lower stress cortisol levels

Gifford J. (2018, May 14). The secret of the 10% most productive people? Breaking! DeskTime. https://desktime.com/blog/17-52-ratio-most-productive-people/

  • A computer-usage study found that the top 10% most productive employees worked for 52 minutes, then took a break for 17 minutes

Wendsche J, Lohmann-Haislah A, Wegge J. (2016). The impact of supplementary short rest breaks on task performance – A meta-analysis. Sozialpolitik.ch. 2: 1–24.

  • A meta-analysis of 11 studies with 705 participants found that frequent, short rest breaks increased task performance quality (effect size = 0.23) and quantity (effect size = 0.12)

  • Average reduction of working time due to rest breaks was 9.3%

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