You could need to optimize the spending of your time for professional or personal activities. I am going to explain what means for me the time, and how you can manage it. I have been inspired by my knowledge, experiences, readings, and listenings, but it is my personal version of the time management between math, physics, management, philosophy, and operational research. Without giving a lot of details, the time management is also linked to the agile methodologies that is one implementation, like Scrum, Kanban or Pomodoro.

The time management is the science of the usage of time, a possible definition could be the process of planning and exercising conscious control of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity.

Time Management
Time Management

The way whose you can use your time depends on a lot of things, among others there are your:

  • context:
    • which resources you have (knowledge, time, energy, money …)
    • what are your features (skills, experiences, character traits …)
    • what are your constraints (costs, exigencies, …)
  • projection:
    • what you want to do (ambitions, preferences, choices …)
    • what are your goals (objectives, key results, tasks, sub-tasks, projects, missions …)
  • strategy:
    • how you organize your activities (priorities, hierarchies, dependencies, sizing, partitioning …)
  • analysis:
    • how you know yourself (strong points, weak points, personal will and effort …)
    • how you have a projection & strategy coherent of yourself (clairvoyance, honesty, realism …)
    • how you receive a critical opinion positive or negative on yourself (feedbacks, auto-introspections, questionings, doubts…)

How to define the time?

With the meta-physique considerations, the time has wondering features: universal, continuous, unlimited, non-renewable, solid (incompressible/no expansible), perpetually self-generated, no accumulative. Focus us on the timescale of our human life. These features are immutable, or more precisely their changes are negligible. But we can interpret the time differently.

Here I am going to interpret the time like a quantizable object with an arbitrary windows in the past, present or future. The present moment is seen like a progressive cursor representing a dynamic instant on the timeline. This present instant plays the role of irreversible transformer altering the future into past. The duration of an event is the length of a windows time delimited by 2 instants where the event began and finished. For the following, when I speak about time, I refer to this sliding windows.

Time vs Duration
Time vs Duration
The time :clock2: is one of our most valuable resources, for me more important than the knowledge, the money or the energy, because all ones depend on time.

It is important to distinguish the absolute time, and the subjective time. The quantity of elapsed time to carry out an activity can be viewed and interpreted subjectively. The same quantity of time measured objectively in seconds could be lived differently by 2 different people esteemed like short or long. Take into account this subjectivity, because the time management is more relevant if it is applied individually with your sensibility.

For example, a sharp mind on a particular situation will have the feeling to life in accelerated time by interacting with a less sharp mind, because he compares his thinking speed to that of his interlocutor, and this one is faster, and reciprocally. Another example is when you are doing a passionate activity. The time seems to go faster, because you forget the feeling of elapsed time, and inversely with the boredom.

The absolute time allows to compare the duration between 2 activities objectively, but when you want to organize or optimize your time, you need to adjust your efforts with your personal consideration of an elapsed time for a given activity. The elapsed time can be interpreted as a sum of done activities. The unit measure of an activity is subjective, and could be called weight, where are mixed the quantities of used resources to do the activity (for example the quantities of time, energy or money). Here more the activity has a light color, more the activity has a light weight:

Time usage
Time usage

The time could be considered as a quantity of spent resources during a duration (itself in another meaning) to do activities now. So the quantity of available time at your disposition does not respect the time features mentioned previously, it is:

  • personal: you have a personal context and subjective time
  • discrete: you have a minimum time of reactivity your frequency sample to measure the elapsed time
  • limited: you have a life length and resources which are finite
  • renewable: you can renew some activities in the future
  • compressible/expansible: you feel of elapsed time differently for a given activity in function of time
  • occasionally generated by you: you make your choices, and your organization to free of time
  • cumulative: we interpret the time with a quantity now, no only an instant

But the quantity of time is always available immediately.

The concepts of the time management

We defined several ways to conceptualize the time, here I can define more precisely the other concepts of time management like the effort and the optimization.

The effort to do an activity is like the way of consummation of a quantity of resources. Your resources are renewed perpetually and has a potential, the activity has also a potential. You need to create a resources flow, called the intensity of the effort, to do the activity. The awareness to practice an extreme effort in quantity (too much or too few) or quality (too easy or to difficult) slows down the feeling of elapsed time, and extends the time. This reduces your endurance on this activity. But the practice and the training allow you to reduce the feeling of effort, you consume less and/or have more of resources.

It is important to observe that the optimization of the time usage is in fact the optimization of future projection of the productivity of an activity on a time range. This optimization is under constraints and depends on objectives, called also goals. To achieve these goals one of the available resources to use and save is the time.

I use several concepts above without defining them, here a summary:

  • Goal: definition of result(s) that you want to get, called also objective.
  • Task: definition of action(s) that you want to mean to achieve at least one goal.
  • Activity: execution at least one task over time.
  • Productivity: measure of your performance that is a combination of effectiveness and efficiency.

A model of optimisation

The time management can be seen the modeling of an objective function to optimize. The model of this objective function is fixed by the definition of your goals (split into tasks) and of the execution plan. Then its optimization is determined by the duality between the minimization of the cost of executions and the maximization of quality of got results for a set of tasks.

In mathematics terms, that is to say optimize the objective function $g \circ f$ on a set of tasks $\bigcup x \subset X$ where:

\[f: X \rightarrow \mathbb{R}^+ \times \mathbb{R}^+ \quad x \mapsto f(x) = (c(x), q(x))\] \[g: Img(f) = \{\,f(x)\,|\,x \in X \} \subset \mathbb{R}^+ \times \mathbb{R}^+ \rightarrow \mathbb{R}^+ \quad y \mapsto g(y) = g(f(x)) = g(c(x), q(x))\]
  • $c$ is the cost function of executions
  • $q$ is the quality function of got results
  • $f$ is the productivity function in terms of efficiency and effectiveness
  • $g$ is a trade-off function between the minimization of the cost $c$ and maximization of the quality $q$ on subset of $X$
Objective function is a trade-off: cost vs quality of
a set of tasks
Objective function is a trade-off: cost vs quality of a set of tasks
But the stability, the evolution of the objective function depends on your regularity, your implication and your progress.

The functions $c$ and $q$ are often linked, and it influences generally each one negatively for the optimization: reducing the cost reduces the quality, and increasing the quality increases the cost. While our optimization consists in reducing the cost, be efficient, and in increasing the quality, be effective. It is often more performant to be firstly effective, then efficient for a given task. Learning to do correctly a task before doing it faster. But it is clear, that be effective and efficient (at the same time and in good proportion) is the final goal for each task.

You can do an analogy with the machine learning algorithm. The execution plan is your model owning hyper-parameters, the tasks are rows of your dataset (training, validation, test) and the maximization of the objection function is the step of learning. With experience on an execution plan, you can predict the speed of execution and the quality of results.

A methodology of usage

After having modelled and defined the concepts of the time management, I am interested here by applying it in practice through a methodology. Firstly, even if you can model the time management, in my point of view it is an empirical science. That is to say, you need a methodology to test it, and your knowledge about this science will be provided by your experiences and your observations.

Here the main considered resource is the time, but in practice the methodology could be more complex you could consider other inter-dependent resources to spend like the money or the energy.

Define your personal context

You need to list and put into perspective your resources, your skills, and your constraints.

Define your projection

After you need to define what you want to do, and build your goals each one with a dateline. Do a first pass of the following section strategy applied to your goals (replace activities with goals). Once your goals are partitioned, hierarchized, sized, prioritize, sequenced. Your destructed goals should now fill in a coherent structure. Then split each goal in tasks. You can repeat this operation to split each tasks into smaller activities to pass from a macro timescale to a micro timescale.

Define your strategy

The strategies are the fact to structure your activities to reach out.

  • Partition your activities

Partition your activities which has same type in independent class between them the more possible. Of course, the content of each partition is subjective for some activities, you can classify your activities into these partitions differently in function of your sensitivities and interests. You can already give an important weight to each partition.

  • Organize into a hierarchy your activities

Here the goal is to estimate roughly the weight of an activity to have its order of magnitude.

Each goal should be realist, reachable, measurable with success keys, and sized in difficulty and required time to achieve it. You can play on several scales for your future projections: very long term, long term, middle term, short term, and very short term.

  • Size your activities

Now you can size more precisely each task. You can measure absolutely, if it is complicated, you can also measure relatively the ones in relation to the other ones. You need to choose the unit of the * weight* of your activity.

  • Organize the interactions of activities

You need to build a dependency graph of each activity to see if an activity depends on other one(s).

Dependency graph
Dependency graph

Your dependency graph must be a set of acyclic graphs.

  • Prioritize your activities

After you need to rank your activities which ones are the most important ones:

  • Sequence your activities

It is you build your plan of execution by sequencing each activity by respecting the previous steps and your other constraints:


You can also optimize these sequencing.

Have an auto-analysis

Now you can execute your plan. But you need to monitor it, and have logs, metrics and traces, and have dashboards to visualize it. You need to do regularly retrospectives and plannings. Respectively to adjust your strategy in function of time, and continue to converge to the filling of your goals. Then to define new goals or delete goals in order to avoid the shortage of tasks, the overload, or the accumulation of deprecated goals. Then you need to measure with your KPI your productivity. You need to have a feedback loop to build your virtuous circle, and iterate on it.

For example for your lifetime

Are you a student, a worker or a retiree? Take the example of a worker, more precisely a professional software engineer full-time working exclusively for a unique company at the beginning of its career. By hoping, that it matches to your auto-introspection, else the following could help you to do the same thing for your personal context. I give you here only a partial overview of how it can be done, this example is not necessary my real usage of my personal time.

Timescale of the human life
Timescale of the human life

I analyze my resources, my constraints, and my features (hard skills and soft skills, …).

Above all, I define what I want to do and my ambitions: following conferences, coding an open-source project, having a side project, becoming a speaker, losing weight, finishing TV series, reading books, following trainings, giving courses … Each goal should be precise, measurable and reachable.

I split my activities into 3 partitions:

  1. Life activities: required vital, society or community activities
    for example: sleep, eat, wash, practice a physical activity, interact with your environment, do the housework, pay the taxes, see your friends …
  2. Work activities: required activities for your job
    for example: commute, work, do a brainstorm, code, participate in a meeting, take break …
  3. Personal activities: spare and free activities
    for example: practice its development personal, relaxation …

I focus me on the life activities that composes my lifetime. I let on the side the work and personal activities, it is the principle.

For example, for the different timescales, I take long: ~hour and short: ~minute. I try to evaluate the time of each life activity:

  • sleeping: 7 hours per day
  • washing yourself: 2 times 3 minutes per day for teeth and 15min per day for body
  • eating: 2 times 20 minutes per day for lunch and dinner with 10 minutes per day for the breakfast
  • seeing friends: at least one time per week for several hours
  • practicing sport: 3 hours per week
  • doing the other tasks: several hours per week (taking out the trash, preparing the meals, doing housework, shopping, do-it-yourself …)

These activities are not really dependent, and with the same priority for me. Now I sequence them for each period of a day and of a week.

I have a calendar where I can monitor each timescale and put my tasks, a weekly planning for my datelines, and a to-do list for daily tasks.

Now I redo the same things for my personal activities, and my work activities to finish the management of my time.

Go Further

This article is only an introduction of time management applied to oneself by onself. But the situation can be more complex. For example, if you think the time management for other people, if you are:

  • Tech lead for a team composed of a group of people
  • Manager for a departement composed of a group of teams
  • CTO for a R&D pole composed of departments
  • CEO for a company or a group of companies …

It requires delegating tasks, understanding the personal context of other people, and driving the time management for a group of people at different scales. These organizations can have different structures and different stakes. For it, you must re-define the time management to resolve your new needs for yourself and for another people.


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