The world of productivity and time hacking has patterns and frameworks mere mortals like yours truly love and obsess over. We especially obsess over trying to master time management.
Here comes my open confession, dear reader: I love a good acronym. The world of productivity is full of acronyms and rules.
As the good experimenting guinea pig I am, in this piece, I am going to explore yet a brand new system to optimize time management.
This is not just a mere exercise, however. The truth is, I believe in understanding how different systems can work for a variety of people. Most likely, what may work for me would not be working for you specifically. Yet you will never know how to optimize time management for yourself until you find a way to build a habit that can work within your ideal day.
Time management is the process of organizing and planning how to divide your time between specific activities.
As someone who hosts a variety of workshops and training programs, I slowly realized that what works for both community members and students in my workshops is giving them a system they can use without exhausting their willpower and creating a habit out of time management.
As someone who’s advocating reclaiming time off, I am a firm believer in quality over quantity. Oh, that is not just me saying that. Finns work under an average of 6.5 hours per day, and a typical Dane ends their workday at 4 pm.
The endless quest of crunching time and optimizing your working day is also one of the biggest productivity myths. I love my work and love doing it — so working a 4-hour workweek is not my ultimate goal. When it comes to time management I want to feel fulfilled at the end of each working day.
Question time: how do you know you have had a successful day at work? What metrics do you use to assess that? How do you want to feel?
In this piece, I am shedding light on yet another acronym, the so-called ALPEN method, outlining some pros and cons. More so, I’ll see if it can help you master your time management skills.
At first, ALPEN may sound like an Apres ski drink of choice. However, this time management method demands you work with carefully drafted to-do lists, buffer time, and scheduled breaks to plan your day in a productive way – in sort, it will take effort to master.
This method is very different from looser time management systems, such as my no to-do day experiment, or the three-things productivity framework.
Yet, in its more rigorous structure, it caught my attention.
The ALPEN method is the brainchild of German time management expert and economist, Professor Lothar J. Seiwert.
The acronym outlines the process of drafting and actioning your to-do list as follows:
- A: Writing down tasks, appointments, and planned activities (Aufgaben)
- L: Estimating length (Länge schätzen)
- P: Planning buffer time (Pufferzeiten einplanen)
- E: Making decisions (Entscheidungen treffen)
- N: Following-up (Nachkontrolle)
So far, so good.
The method introduces a few not-so-new concepts for productivity aficionados, including task planning, time blocking, buffer time, and evaluation.
How to try the ALPEN method for yourself
I tried ALPEN for about a week — I find that committing to five days helps me spotting patterns more easily.
The prep work stems from the idea of preparing a timed to-do list. This includes only selected tasks that should take priority. The planning element of this method is almost as important as the execution itself, which does not come as a surprise.
A recent study by professors Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University showed that, while tasks we haven’t done distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from this anxiety.
The pair observed that people underperform on a task when they are unable to finish a warm-up activity that would usually precede it.
However, when participants were allowed to make and note down concrete plans to finish the warm-up activity, performance on the next task substantially improved.
The method recommends keeping the list of appointments and tasks to 3/5.
Pro tip: What I love (and currently do) is to add to my to-dos any appointment, workshop, client, or masterclass I am running on the day. Since these appointments take time out of your schedule, you should count them as part of your list of to-dos.
As well as prioritizing, ALPEN also encourages to estimate a length for each task (L). This is something explored in the Pomodoro technique (advocating 25min of work and scheduled breaks of 5 minutes). As a principle, being able to simply putting tasks in a list doesn’t render them doable.
Instead, allotting time to each task gives a fair idea of what you can realistically accomplish in a day.
The real game-changer, and something I advocate to all of my clients, is the introduction of buffer time.
Buffer time is introduced with the premise that we are not necessarily always the best at guessing and estimating. More often than not, we aren’t making the right guess at how long each task will take because of planning fallacy, which means we tend to underestimate the time it takes to do something.
Unforeseen calamities like an urgent meeting can disturb our schedule completely.
“(Buffer time) adds in extra time to prevent task or appointment overflows from affecting your other plans. Which means less stressing and rushing when life doesn’t go exactly as you planned it.” — Micah McGuire shares in The Startup.
Making decisions is another pivotal step in this method — and it comes before you even get started with your day. The ALPEN method is ruthless. suggesting you cut anything that isn’t a priority for yourself out of your list. Other ways to make decisions and prioritize could be as simple as ranking your tasks or categorizing them efficiently.
Pro tip: use a ranking system like A to E or even traffic lights (green for non-urgent, up to red for urgent) to order your tasks to prioritize your tasks and efforts.
If you use a system like Monday, Trello or Asana, you can easily move tasks between your boards based on their urgency, so you’ve got a trimmed list ready for action.
Another refreshing difference that can be found in the ALPEN method is that it stresses a lot of emphasis on note-taking and evaluation. I do this every week, instead of daily (as it’s suggested in the method).
As James Clear wrote, ”Without reflection, we can make excuses, create rationalizations, and lie to ourselves.”
A few questions to ask yourself at the end of each day: did you need more buffer time? Does a routine task take more space than what you’ve allocated in your schedule?
Make notes and tweak your plan accordingly.
Final thoughts: pros and cons
Overall, I have enjoyed experimenting with the ALPEN method. I won’t lie; I cannot see myself following such a rigid structure each day, including daily reviews.
However, I have put a lot more attention into my weekly task review and planning, which I did not take as seriously before.
One of the pros is that this system encouraged me to create their to-do list for the following day before wrapping up the workday. This way, I could have a structured day waiting for me and can dive into their high-priority tasks first thing in the morning. This will go a long way in helping me master time management.
As the main con, this method leaves little room for life to happen. As we all know, life is unpredictable, and often no buffer time can save us from that inevitability.
Overall, the ALPEN method can genuinely help you understand where your time goes (and why that matters) so that you can make lasting changes to the way you manage your time.