An Interview with the Time Management Ninja

Craig Jarrow shares his best productivity tips about email, motivation, procrastination, and much more.

Todoist interview with Craig Jarrow

Back in September, we published a compilation of the 30 Organization and Productivity Gurus That You Should Follow on Twitter. Occupying the fifth spot on the list is the Time Management Ninja himself, Craig Jarrow (@TMNinja). Craig is an undoubtedly essential addition to the list of productivity and organizations gurus, thanks to his outstanding blog and his experience working with both people and companies to better manage their time. He’s also the author of the book 31 Days, 31 Ways: Daily Tips for Time Management Mastery.

Today we’re thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview with Craig. He shares his most insightful productivity tips about email, motivation, how to avoid time-draining meetings, and more!

One of your “10 Productivity Questions That You Should Ask Yourself Every Single Day” is: “what do you need to bring with you?” In your opinion, what are the best gadgets/apps/services to help manage time?

I don’t leave home without my iPhone. It is my personal communicator and main organization device. I use it to maintain my task list, contacts, calendar, and all of my notes. Yet, a smartphone may not be the best choice for everyone. My advice is that you should always “choose tools you’ll use.” You will be more likely to utilize and stick with tools you enjoy using and are proficient with.

For some, that may be an iPhone, for others it may be a paper-based planner. Some of my favorite apps that help me be productive are Evernote, Trello, and Slack. Evernote has finally replaced my Moleskine for note-taking. As well, all my information and reference material is available, no matter where I am. Trello is where I maintain projects for my TMN business. And Slack is my favorite communication app. It has all but replaced email for my TMN team.

It’s hard to be productive and efficient 100 percent of the day. How do you suggest both combatting and powering-through a productivity slump?

No one can be “on” 100 percent of the time. When you are in a slump, due to lack of energy or motivation, there are a few ways to push forward. One approach is to have a low-energy task list that you can do when you are in a down period. These can be simple and repetitive tasks that you can perform even when you aren’t fully engaged—such as filing, scanning documents, and catching up on reading. However, it does require the discipline to go to your list rather than open Facebook or Instagram for the 25th time today. Other times, you need a break. Embrace the need to recharge and take a true break. Take a walk. Take a nap, even. Even a short rest period can get you re-energized and back in the game.

There are several to-do list methods, including: “eat the frog” or batching together similar tasks. Which do you think is most optimal?

My best to-do list tactic is to every day create what I call your “today list.” Many people get overwhelmed by the number of to-dos on their list. The today list lets you focus on just your most important tasks. As well, it keeps those lower priority tasks out of sight, so you’ll be less likely to get diverted by low impact work. Your today list is a sub-set of your to-do list.

It is important that you first order the tasks on your list by priority, and then you can designate the sub-set of tasks that you will complete today—no matter what. Your today list contains the most important tasks that you have and allows you to focus on these top few items.

Most to-do apps will easily let you designate your today items from the rest of your list. If you are using a paper list, you might use a highlighter or simply draw a dividing line between your today and to-do lists.

You believe that the early bird gets the worm. What’s the ideal morning routine for a productive start to the day?

morning sunrise

The main thing for me is getting up early. I get up at 4 a.m. each day and get my most important work done before the rest of the world is up. For me, this is my TMN writing and projects. Additionally, I am a big believer in starting the day at the gym. I get my workout done before life even has the chance to interrupt the day. I hear the excuse from people that they “aren’t a morning person.” You can get up early if you put your priorities first. Do you need to stay up late watching TV, or do you need to get up early and work on your business? Or hit the gym? Or study for your degree? If you do your most important tasks first, the rest of your day’s effort will be downhill from there.

Meetings can be one of the biggest time drainers, even though many people are obligated to attend. How do you suggest dealing with time lost due to meetings?

Meetings are the biggest time waster in most companies. Here are a few of my suggestions to keep meetings in check:

  • Cut meeting times in half: Meetings expand to fill the time allowed, and most meetings can be conducted in half of the time. Cut your default meeting time from 1 hour to 30 minutes.
  • Ban repeating meetings: Except for specific project cadence meetings, do not allow repeating meetings to fill your calendar. Repeat meetings encourage communication laziness and fill up everyone’s calendar.
  • Cancel unneeded meetings: It always amazes me that people are afraid to cancel meetings once they are on the calendar. If the topic has been resolved, then by all means, cancel the meeting.
  • Go talk to someone: Too many meetings should be an individual conversation or phone call instead of dragging people into a meeting room at a fixed time. Before you schedule a meeting, ask “Could this be addressed in a conversation instead?”

Like meetings, email can be a necessary evil. What are your best tips for streamlining email to be more time efficient?

My biggest tip for making email more efficient is to remember that email is not your job. Unless you work a customer service desk, working your inbox is probably not the best use of your time. Here are my email efficiency tips:

  • Get out of your inbox: You can’t be productive if you are surfing in your inbox all day long. Get in, deal with your email, and get out. Move actions items from your inbox to your to-do list. If you live your life in your inbox, you probably aren’t getting to your priorities.
  • Only check it two to three times a day: Check your email only periodically. I recommend two to three times a day. Maybe in the morning, after lunch, and before you leave for the day. Close your email client when you aren’t checking it.
  • Turn off notifications: Don’t let your email interrupt your day. Turn off the chimes, phone notifications, and on-screen pop-ups. You do not need to know the moment every single email arrives. Use VIP lists if you are worried about missing an important email. But, for the most part, email should not be used as an instantaneous communication method.
  • Try other tools: Like the fax machine, email is probably never totally going away. However, there are newer, more efficient communication tools. My team has switched all of our internal communication to Slack. Slack takes a hybrid approach between chat and messaging and has been a game changer for many companies.

What’s your favorite tip to beat procrastination?

The best trick to beat procrastination is start right now. Getting started is the hardest part of most tasks, whether a simple to-do or a large project. It doesn’t have to be a big step, it can be a tiny one. For example, researching how you are going to approach a to-do can get you in the mindset needed to move it forward. Or try assembling all of the needed information, materials, and tools. Even tinkering can lead to forward momentum that will help you overcome your procrastination. Remember, “You can’t finish if you never start.”

run the race

To learn more of Craig’s time management and productivity tips, check out his blog. If you have any additional questions for Craig, please feel free to post them here!