9 April, 2018

Personal Time Management for Project Managers

By Mike Clayton

9 April, 2018

Could do list, OATS Principle, personal effectiveness, personal time management, Today list

One of the questions project managers most often ask me in training room is about personal time management. They want to know:

‘How can I manage my time, in the busy context of a project?’

For most project managers, we have learned all sorts of tools for managing the project schedule. But, when it comes to personal time management, all we have is a ‘To Do List’. This is a great too. But, on its own, it’s toxic.

So, in this article, I’ll explain when to use a To Do list, how to use it properly and, most important, I’ll introduce you to the most powerful technique for personal time management I know.

Finally, why is this so important? Because how can you expect to lead and manage others, if you can’t manage yourself?

PMI Talent Triangle - Leadership

A Project Management Approach to Personal Time Management

Personal Time Management for Project Managers

I am so glad the PMI changed the name of its Knowledge Area from ‘Project Time Management’ to ‘Project Schedule Management. For me, it introduced an unnecessary ambiguity. It was too easy to confuse it with Personal Time Management. The term ‘time management’ always seemed ambiguous, whereas ‘schedule‘… that’s clear.

For me, personal time management, how you use your own time to be effective and productive in your work. But that doesn’t mean that it is entirely divorced from project time and schedule management.

Over thousands of years, humans have honed a set of techniques to get big things done to a deadline. We’ve codified the process, and we call it project management. So, if this can get big things done, then the method must work on smaller things too.

So for personal time management, let’s combine what we know about psychology with the basic principles of project management. When I did this, I developed a simple, powerful approach to personal time management. And it works.

I call this approach ‘The OATS Principle’. I’ve presented it to thousands of people at conferences and live seminars throughout the UK. And it forms the core of my best-selling book, ‘How to Manage Your Time’ (US|UK). This is the second edition of ‘Brilliant Time Management’.How to Manage Your Time by Mike Clayton

It also features in my recent ‘Time Management Pocketbook’ (US|UK).The Time Management Pocketbook by Mike Clayton

Introducing the OATS Principle for Personal Time Management

Any project manager will recognize the OATS principle. Because basically, it the project process, adapted to individual productivity.

So let’s review the basic project process that you’re familiar with:

  • Step 1: Define your project
    What do you want? What does success look like?
  • Step 2: Set out your scope of work
    Create your activity list – usually using a work breakdown structure.
  • Step 3: Estimate the time and resource requirements for each activity
    How much effort and how long will each task take?
  • Step 4: Schedule your activities into a logical sequence
    And don’t forget to include contingency to increase your confidence
  • Step 5: Implement your plan
    Monitoring and control your work as you go.

I know there’s more after this. And I know there’s more detail.But this isn’t an article about the project management process.

But I hope you’ll recognize it, and find it comfortingly familiar. So, what if we translate this into personal time management?

That’s exactly what I’ve done… and it’s not hard.

From Project Management to Personal Time Management

An OATS plan covers steps 1 to 4. It’s an approach to planning your day, your week, your fortnight, your month, or even a quarter.

I’m not sure it will scale beyond that, though. I don’t recommend you use it for a whole year; there are other tools.

So, let’s translate our four project planning steps into the language of personal time management. I will illustrate the OATS Process, by assuming you will start with making  daily OATS plan.

  • Step 1: Outcome
    What is the outcome you need to achieve tomorrow?
    Outcomes are changes… and they should be worthwhile changes.
    Under time pressure, you’ll need to prioritize what outcomes you work towards.
  • Step 2: Activities
    Next, list the activities you’ll need to carry out tomorrow, to meet the outcomes you set yourself.
    Note, this is NOT a To Do list. If you recall, they can be toxic.
    Don’t worry… I’ll explain everything, later.
  • Step 3: Timing
    Now, make a time estimate for each of your Activities.
    How long do you expect it to take?
    And of course, make sure you put enough contingency into your estimate.
  • Step 4: Schedule
    This is the secret sauce of the OATS process.
    As a Project Manager, you do this as a matter of course. But, too often, in personal time management, this is the step you drop.
    So, put every activity into your daily schedule, agenda, or diary.

When you Schedule your tasks, you become more resilient to interruptions.

One of the challenges you have as a Project Manager is a constant stream of small, frustrating interruptions. Frankly, these often have little importance, and you’d love to just say ‘no’. And now, you can.

Because, when you schedule all of your planned activities, you can say, with integrity:

‘I’m sorry, I can’t do that now. I have something scheduled.’

Using Your OATS Plan for Personal Time Management

The easiest way to start doing OATS planning is on a daily basis. Only when you have the habit does it start to make sense to plan on longer timescales of a week or a month. What pattern you’ll settle on will depend on the nature of your work, and your own personal preferences.

For example, I now do is a quarterly outline OATS plan. At the end of each month, I then use it as the basis for a monthly plan. And on Friday afternoons, I produce a weekly plan. I work from this throughout the week, only changing it when something unexpected hits me. This suits how I work, but may not suit you. We’ll look at the different time spans below.

The problem of reacting to changed events affects everyone in professional and managerial roles. But it particularly affects project managers, because your job is to handle fast-changing, complex and dynamic environments. We’ll see later how my concept of ‘meerkating’ helps you deal with this.

When to Create Your Daily OATS Plan

If you are going to do an OATS plan, should you do it first thing in the morning, while you are fresh. Or should you do it in the evening, so it’s ready to go, on the next morning?

I’d strongly recommend you create you OATS plan at the end of each day. And if you are doing a weekly or monthly plan, do it at the end of each week or month. There are two good reasons for this.

  1. For daily OATS planning, doing it before you leave work the evening before will flush out of your head all the things you need to do. By putting it on paper (or onto a device), you relieve your brain of the duty to remember. This really can really help you relax in the evening, and get to sleep. If you have unfinished stuff buzzing around in your head, it’s a sure-fire route to laying awake, when you want to turn off.
  2. It also means that you start a new day or the new week afresh. You knowing what you need do, and can get started straight away. For most people, your best, most productive time is first thing in the morning. So don’t spend that valuable time on a job that needs little concentration or intellectual horsepower. Now, you can use this high-capacity time for demanding work.


Of course, for plenty of project managers, you work on a global 24-hour-a-day project. That means things can change overnight. I am not a fan of starting the day checking your emails. It can be a big distraction and another waste of that valuable and productive first hour. But in this circumstance, you must create a way to find out if anything has happened that will mean you do need to change priorities and review your plan.

How to Plan Your Time with the OATS Principle

To recap, personal time management needs four steps to plan what you will do: Outcome, Activities, Time, and Schedule. Let’s look at each of these in some more detail.

Outcomes: How to Decide on Your Priorities

Outcomes are worthwhile changes that you will see by the end of the day, week, or month. If you aren’t planning something worthwhile, why would you do it?

Without a big juicy ‘because’, we aren’t motivated. This means the OATS process is motivating, because it starts with worthwhile results.

When you want to decide on the outcomes to pursue, you’ll have four sources for ideas:

  1. What’s in your diary – stuff you already have scheduled
    Start by reviewing each item and asking: ‘is this still a good use of my time?’
    If not, cancel it. Otherwise, it’s a fixed constraint.
  2. Your project plan
    You are a project manager, so this is another constraint on your OATS planning process.
  3. Your list of things to do
    Yes, it’s a ‘To Do’ list. I promised I’ll say more abut this later, and I will.
  4. Things that have come up in the last 24 hours
    This doesn’t mea they are automatically a priority.
    But it does mean you need to evaluate them.

So, now it’s time to choose priorities. First of, ask yourself how much time you are likely to have in the coming day, to deliver your outcomes. Pre-scheduled events from 1 and 2 above will mean you won’t have a full day to yourself. This is where many people go wrong with their personal time management. They think: ‘I work 8 hours, so I’ll plan 8 hours’ work’. They forget, that they won’t have 8 hours to work on things!

Let’s take an example…

Schedule: you may already have two hours of meetings scheduled.

Reactive: a typical Tuesday may bring you three hours of reactive work that you can’t avoid. You don’t know what it will be, but things will happen.

Conclusion: there is no point in scheduling 8 hours worth of outcomes into an 8 hour working day. That will lead to madness.

Alternative: you will have 8 – 2 – 3 = 3 hours at most. So, find the most valuable and important athree hours worth of outcomes. If you try to plan for more than that, you will be setting yourself up to fail from the start.

‘But, what if a meeting gets cancelled, or I find I don’t get caught up in as much reactive stuff as I expected?’ you ask.

Don’t worry. The OATS Principle has you covered. Soon, we’ll learn about Meerkating and an agile approach to the OATS Principle.

Activities: Why they are More than a To Do list

To do lists can be toxic.

If a To DO list is your only personal time management tool, then ask yourself: ‘what typically happens at the end of each day?’ There’s stuff left on your list.

So, you have two choices. And that’s a dilemma, so already you can see how that won’t be good!

Choice 1: Stay at work until you have cleared your To Do list.

This isn’t such a good idea. Pretty soon, you’ll be stressed and exhausted. You’ll resent your work and anyway. Clearing your To Do list today will rarely stop it growing out of hand tomorrow.

Choice 2: Say ‘S*d it’, and go home.

Nice idea. Prioritize your rest and recreation. But, when you get home, you’ll be worrying about all the things you need to do tomorrow, and how far behind you are. You won’t relax, your sleep will suffer, and you’ll get stressed. And tomorrow, you’ll start the day in catch-up mode, setting yourself up for the same dilemma again.

You can’t win with a To Do List

…until, that is, you recognize that To Do list is really a list of the things you could do. In fact, it would better if we called it a ‘Could Do’ list.

If you think of it as a list of things you ‘should’ do, then it will become a source of frustration and guilt. When you don’t finish your To Do list, you’ll feel like there’s something left to do, and that is never satisfying.

Activities are Not a To Do list

The activity list in your OATS Plan is not a To Do list. Nor is it a Could Do list. Instead, it is a ‘Today’ List.

It is a list of things you will do today, to achieve the outcomes you have chosen.

It is a closed list, which means that when you comlete it, you are done. You don’t add each new request, response, or idea to your Today list. No, you add it to your Could Do list. Your Today list won’t grow. So, at the end of each day, when your Today list is done, you can go home satisfied with a good day’s work.

So, what do you use your Could Do list (aka To Do list) for? To help you review candidate Outcomes for your OATS plan.

Time: The Hardest Part is Estimating How Long

Estimating is a big subject. And the Project Management literature is big and sometimes very complicated.

But, for personal time management, the solution is simple. The challenge is that it can take a long time to get good at it.

Here’s how to get good at estimating

Deliberately estimate how long everything you are about to do will take.

Next, deliberately notice how long everything you do actually takes you to do.

As a result, your brain will gradually start to integrate all this data. It will spot patterns and refine you unconscious mental models. These are called heuristics. So, over time, you will get better and better at estimating.

At some point, you’ll start noticing that your estimates are usually pretty good. And sometimes, they’ll be uncannily accurate.

Off course they will be way off sometimes, too. But this will usually be due to a big, unexpected external factor. Something you can’t plan for. All you can do is leave contingency time. That’s why you should always assume a complication or delay, and add tie to allow for it.

Contingency Time

If your plan doesn’t include contingency time, then a single event can put you permanently behind schedule. My solution is to put two to three hours of contingency time into my weekly OATS plan on Fridays.

This gives mea chance to catch up at the end of the week, if I hit a problem.

But, what if I don’t need the contingency time? That’s a bonus. I can either choose to:

  • Get ahead with next week’s work
  • Give myself some self-development time, for learning
  • Give my team members some extra time at the end of the week
  • Go home early and get some well deserved extra rest and recreation

A Quick Tip for Estimating

My top tip though, results from a major bias we all have. Everyone tends to under-estimate how long it will take them to do something. But luckily, we tend to be more realistic estimating how long a colleague would take… I guess we think no-one is as good at our work as we are. Hmmm.

So the tip is to never estimate how long a task will take you. Instead, estimate how long your colleague would take if you delegate it!

Schedule: When to Schedule Activities into Your Day

The primary principle…

for how to schedule your activities is to start with the biggest ones.

Block the big tasks into your schedule and then fit in the mid-sizd ones around them. Finally, use the smallest tasks to fill the gaps between activities or, between a big or medium task and lunch, or the end of the day.

The secondary principle…

is to put the most important, most complex, most demanding activity into the time of the day when you are at your mental and physical peak.

For most people, this is your first task of the day. Get a big slug of valuable work done before you start engaging with the trivia.

But is this what most people do? No. They waste the best part of their day on things like checking email or browsing social media. These make low mental demands, so you are better off saving them to after you’ve done some hard work, when you need some recovery time.

Weekly OATS Plans

Once you find your daily OATS planning working for you, try planning a week ahead, as your last task on a Friday afternoon. Here are the steps

  1. Divide your working week up into however many days you work, then mark off your main work sessions each day:
    • Two sessions: 9am-1pm and 2pm-6pm
    • Three sessions: 7am-10am, 10am-1pm, and 2pm-5pm.
    • Four sessions: 9am-11am, 11am-1pm, 2pm-4pm, and 4pm-6pm
  2. Next, draw out a grid: for five days with three sessions in each, 5 x 3.
  3. Then, look at your diary and project plans, and block out fixed commitments.
  4. Now, use your Could Do list to slot in major outcomes you want to achieve.

The same process works on a monthly basis, perhaps putting one or two outcomes into each day. I also create a quarterly plan, where I identify a theme for each day where I don’t have a dominant commitment that will occupy most of the day.

The Meerkat Principle: Agile Personal Time Management

Shift happens! That’s life as a Project Manager.

One thing happens and now your priorities have changed completely. So, if something urgent and important happens, you’ll need to respond straight away.

When you have dealt with it, you’ll need to review your OATS plan and change it if you need to. And sometimes you get an unexpected gap. Another chance to review.

The Meerkat Principle

Don’t just review your plan when you need to. Think about a family of meerkats. Every now and then, they all look up from what they are doing. They stand on tip toes and scan the horizon. They are looking for anything that means they’ll need to change their plan. If there’s nothing, they get on with what they planned to do (more eating, i guess). But if they spot something, the can quickly re-prioritize.

Too many time management ‘systems’ are flawed. They lock you into a plan, and fail to reflect the realities of real work. The OATS Principle encourages you to plan, and then constantly monitor and review. This is, of course, Step 5 in our Project Process.

Stay Agile

Like project management, the OATS Principle is NOT a system. Work to the principle of:

  • planning ahead,
  • monitoring your progress, and
  • adapting to events.

If you can be flexible and structured at the same time, you’ll stay in control of your personal workload.

Not only is that what personal time management is about; it is an inspiring example to set for the project team you lead.

What’s Your Approach to Personal Time Management?

We love hearing ideas and opinions from our readers. And we enjoy answering your questions. So we’ll respond to any comments you leave below.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
  • Being efficient at time management is not always easy, but what could help is using an app. I recommend kanbantool.com as it helps me a lot too.

    • I don’t find Kanban tools useful for personal time management but they are great for tracking workflow. My personal favorite has shifted from Trello – great but a one-trick pony – to Favro, which does loads more besides: https://favro.grsm.io/YT

  • I really like the way you see personal time management. The approach is flexible while giving us a way to get things done. It allows me to do exactly what you describe here.

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