The Engineer’s Art of Time Management

The Wandering Engineer
13 min readSep 21, 2023

Time is your most valuable resource. The average lifetime of 80 years can go by in a flash.

Other things such as money, relationships, and possessions can be broken, lost, and gained, but your time can never be returned.

Time management is a learned skill. I wasn’t the most organized person growing up, often losing items or losing track of time and deadlines.

Having gone through a strict Asian upbringing, a rigorous engineering undergrad, working multiple jobs at once, and also doing a full-time job and graduate studies, I’ve developed a system over the years that allows me to manage my time and maintain productivity. It allows me to not only fulfill my professional, academic, and familial expectations, but also maintain good mental and physical health, be an interesting person, and have lots of meaningful interpersonal relationships.

No, you don’t have to wake up at 5 a.m., run a marathon each day, and work 100 hours a week. I actually don’t recommend that as it will just burn you out quickly and make you hate your life (unless you’re Elon Musk or David Goggins). You can quite literally do the opposite of that and still make the best use of your time.

I do believe if you want to improve yourself as a person and achieve your full potential, being able to manage your time is a foundation. If you can’t even manage yourself and be productive, how do you expect to improve?

So what does my typical day look like?

On a typical workday, I wake up just before 9 a.m. I believe it’s important to have a morning routine to get you in the right mindset to be productive. So I go through my routine, which consists of skin care, meditation, prayer, some calisthenic exercises, and planning.

I then walk to my home office, open my work computer, check emails and messages, go through morning meetings, and begin a deep work session that lasts until lunchtime. During the work session, I try to focus on the tasks on hand and keep my phone away, only interrupted by water breaks and washroom breaks.

I don’t eat breakfast as I practice intermittent fasting, eating only two meals per day. I believe some fasting helps keep your mind crisp and clear and keeps you in shape if you’re not exercising much. I also don’t drink any caffeine (coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, etc.) as I don’t want my body to rely on it as a source of energy.

I whip up a quick lunch and eat while browsing some world news and social media. I know social media and news can be toxic sometimes, but I believe it’s important to stay in touch with reality and the latest happenings. You don’t want to be an alien.

In the afternoon, I go through another deep work session of at least 3 hours. For dinner, I sit together with my family, away from electronic devices, as this is the only quality time I get to spend with them daily. I believe dedicating some family time is key.

After dinner, I spend time reading and working on my other tasks, whether it be schoolwork, research work, learning, writing my blog, updating my websites, or some hobby work. I also dedicate some time each day to keep up with the latest trends and research in my area (AI), through reading online forums and watching YouTube videos.

Furthermore, I try to stay in touch with my friends online through voice chat. Oftentimes, I perform some casual work while I’m voice chatting.

Before bed, I would go to the gym (in my basement), shower, pray, journal, and practice gratitude. I try to get 8 hours of quality sleep each day as it keeps me sane. Getting enough sleep is non-negotiable.

On weekends, I generally perform housework (lawn mowing, laundry, grocery shopping, meal prep, etc.) and go out to play outdoor sports (e.g., basketball). I try to at least hangout and socialize with my friends once a week in person (it’s hard once you’re out of university, people are busy with their jobs and relationships).

I generally stay away from social media and video games since they take up too much of my productive time. I’d rather spend this time reading and learning, socializing in person, pursuing hobbies, practicing self-care and mindfulness, and being physically active.

As for food, I try to keep things to a minimum — No breakfast (except for fruits and yogurt), simple but nutritious and energy-dense meals that are prepared ahead of time, and generally no snacks or sweet drinks. When you’re as busy as I am, preparing and eating food takes too much time, and eating healthy is essential.

How do I do this?

I don’t really follow a lot of the common time management advice out there. I think there is a lot more to time management than just planning and setting a good routine.

You essentially want to make your life efficient. You want to make it easy to perform your tasks and focus your mental energy on what is important.

Minimize your distractions. Automate certain tasks if necessary. Sometimes you have to trade your money for time — your time is more valuable! You also want to manage your priorities and expectations — don’t sink too much time into one thing to try to perfect it, it’s pointless in the long run. Let’s dive into the details.

Priorities, priorities, priorities

Well before we even talk about time management, you need to have an idea of why you’re doing this. What do you want to achieve in the short term and long term? Is it self-improvement, growing your career, meeting new people, making more money, or starting a family?

Many people try to do too many things at once. They say yes to everything, try to meet everyone’s expectations, and wonder why they aren’t getting anywhere in anything or getting burned out quickly. They lack a priority or a focus. They don’t have boundaries.

There are only so many priorities in human life — your health (mental and physical), family/relationships, and resources (time, money, food, shelter, people, etc.). Everything else is merely a distraction. Think about all the things you really care about. If they don’t fall under one of these categories, they should not be a top priority. You can’t have it all.

You thus want to spend most of your time on these priorities. Your day-to-day activities should reflect that and you should dedicate most of your time to achieving these goals. Don’t say yes to every request — Set boundaries. Start by looking at your priorities, and planning your activities to achieve that. Drop any activities that are not important to your main goals. Cut unimportant and toxic people out of your life if you have to. Your time is valuable.

However, some things are non-negotiable. For example, you must be eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep, and socializing with real people (remember, humans are social animals and we need to be social in order to stay healthy!). These are fundamental to your mental and physical health. If you’re not healthy or if your life is on the line, everything else matters less.

Manage your expectations

Another thing that people often get caught up on is they spend too much time on certain things to try to perfect them. They have high expectations. I sometimes do that too as I have perfectionistic tendencies. However, there is a rule in life called diminishing returns. It takes a lot more effort to get something from 80% to 100% compared to getting it from 60% to 80%.

I believe in a good balance in life. It is better to be 70% or 80% at many things than to be 100% at one thing and 0% at everything else. A lot of people who are the best in the world at certain things often lived very miserable lives (think certain artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs). The happiest people are often the most balanced (especially work-life balance).

In essence, manage your expectations. Don’t expect to be perfect, just put in enough effort. That 100% you had on a school project, the 4.0 GPA you had in college, the video game in which you maxed out all the levels, or the 500 lb squat you did at the gym will be irrelevant in a few years.

Spending a lot of time trying to perfect one thing won’t matter much in the long run, and you waste time and resources that could be better spent doing more important things and becoming more well-rounded as an individual.

Keep your space clean

Wait, isn’t this post supposed to be about time management? But keep in mind, we’re talking about making your life efficient. Keeping your space clean and organized makes it effortless for you to find things and perform tasks without distractions. Also, being in a nice and organized space calms your mind. I know some people say they thrive in chaos, but as a Buddhist, I believe mental calmness is what leads to wisdom.

I strive to be a minimalist. I generally don’t keep too many material processions around, or at least keep them hidden from plain sight when not needed. I only put out the essential items that I use frequently.

Having a cluttered and unorganized space is not only visually distracting, but often leads to decision paralysis — which is a waste of time and mental capacity. Also, I believe possessions can be easily lost or broken, thus they are not worth keeping around (or bought in the first place).

I clean up my space daily (put things back to where they belong) and perform a more substantial cleaning every week. Also, I try to keep my basic items simple, for instance, clothing, food, and tools, so I don’t need to spend time choosing what to wear, deciding what to eat, or which tool to use — Again, minimizing decision paralysis.

I also try to keep my essential activities close by so I don’t have to invest extra time and effort into them. I invested in a home gym, as well as a highly ergonomic home office setup.

Remove distractions

Another aspect of organizing your space is to remove distractions. There are more distractions now than ever, from electronics to social media, video games, and junk food. It’s easy to doom scroll on social media or binge-watch YouTube videos for hours at a time. Think about how much time each day you waste on these things that you could’ve been productive otherwise.

Obviously, it’s hard to cut out these distractions completely, but you can organize your space such that it becomes very inconvenient to access these distractions. Turn your smartphone or electronic devices off when you are not using them, and put them away. Use website blockers and focus mode on your electronic devices.

Taking it further, don’t buy distracting things that you’re incentivized to use, whether it’s a new video game, a new gaming console / PC, or the latest smartphone. Again, minimalism.

Finally, put yourself in an environment where you are peer pressured to be productive. Humans are easily influenced by our social environments after all. Whether that’s going to an office to get work done, going to a public gym to exercise, or going to a library to read and study. You will have a much easier time doing such things in these environments because people around you are doing so.

Routine

Now we can finally get to routine. It is the foundation of time management. No, I don’t mean doing everything at the exact same time each day like a robot going through the motions. Rather, I have a list of items to do in my daily and weekly routines and perform them in no particular order, just like a checklist.

I have a list of things to do after I wake up each morning and before I go to bed every night. No matter how early or late I wake up or go to bed, I try to leave myself ample time for these activities and complete this checklist. This ensures that even if I have an unproductive day, I can still be somewhat productive.

Make sure your routine list consists of items that you can consistently do each day. Don’t make it too long, otherwise, it would be hard to stick to. But like I said before, I think some things are non-negotiable and are critical to your well-being — sleep, exercise, eating healthy, and socializing.

Planning

To stay organized when you’re busy, you must have a plan. It is very easy to get caught up in deadlines and meetings and forget what is important.

I know some people like to say they perform better when they are spontaneous, “go with the flow”, or do things last minute. However, I believe that is futile and you cannot give your best effort when you’re constantly being pressed for time. You want to be a master of your time, not a slave to your deadlines. If you want to be in charge, you have to plan well.

I do encourage you to plan out your days and weeks. Plan out all your important tasks. Use a calendar app to keep track of your events and deadlines. Write a checklist of your tasks. However, I want to take it a step further — set your internal deadlines. When you have a bunch of deadlines coming up, you cannot do everything together at the last minute.

I suggest you get over with the smaller, trivial tasks early on, and work your way towards larger, more challenging tasks. This way, you can focus on the challenging tasks without being distracted by smaller tasks.

However, a lot of people get into this planning mindset and start over-planning things. Try to avoid that. Keep your plans simple. Planning takes away time that you could actually be productive.

Also, you want to have a degree of flexibility in your plans in case of unexpected events. This is why financial budgets are never made to 100%. Always leave some emergency funds (in this case, time) — I say at least 20% of your total budget (i.e. only plan to fill 80% of your time). You cannot be productive 100% of the time, and leave some room for the unexpected.

Trade money for time

A lot of people, especially Asian immigrants, no matter how wealthy they are, think it’s a waste of money to hire personal cleaners, cooks, landscapers, etc., purchase or upgrade appliances (e.g. dishwashers, coffee makers, etc.), or avoid ordering food / eating out — Things that could save a lot of time.

However, I believe if you’re not pressed for money, these are essential steps that you can take to save yourself valuable time from doing these menial and repetitive tasks or stuck waiting for something. Remember, time is your most valuable resource. Money can always be made.

How do you justify these costs? Do some math and figure out how much your time is worth (e.g., your hourly wage). If outsourcing/automating an activity costs less than your value for the time savings, you should do it. Your quality of life is important. We don’t live in the 19th century anymore.

More importantly, many people are actively trading their time for money. People rather work overtime or work multiple jobs to make more money or put in all these extra hours to gain the next measly promotion/raise. I believe this is foolish. It’s the mindset of a slave — you are being a slave to money.

If you look at the truly wealthy people, they are not trading time for money. They all have time in the world to do things they enjoy. How do you achieve that? It’s a long story that I’ll talk about in future blogs, but in essence, you want to achieve financial freedom through passive income streams — either through investments, assets, or your own businesses.

Live for the experiences

Many people regret not spending more time doing the things they love or being with the people that make them happy. They don't regret working all the extra hours at a job or grinding for some pointless accomplishments. This is especially problematic in traditional Asian cultures — it is expected that you dedicate your life to work, family, and saving money.

At the end of the day, you only have one life (as most people like to believe anyway), and you want to make the most out of it. Live for the experiences. No matter how much money you make or save, how many things you own, and how many accomplishments you have, you’ll be dead eventually, and you’ll soon be forgotten in history.

So don’t get too hung up on chasing this and that. Enjoy the moments of your life and create different experiences. Build positive relationships. These are the things you’ll remember when you get older.

Finally, keep your dopamine levels in check.

This honestly needs to be much higher on the list. As I talked about in my countless other blog posts, many people today are addicted to easy dopamine. We have more distractions than ever that enable it — social media and the Internet, recreational drugs, easy access to porn and sex, junk food, etc. People’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.

When you can’t focus on things at all, how can you be productive? Many people have ADHD-like symptoms because their dopamine receptors are f***ed from years of abuse.

If you have trouble focusing, check out how to do a dopamine reset. You need to make it difficult to be distracted, either by changing your environment or putting distractions away from convenience. Pursue more challenging interests and goals. Do some introspection on why you are constantly bored or distracted. If you have trouble doing these, seek professional advice. I’m an engineer, not a therapist.

Time is your most valuable resource. As you continue your self-improvement journey, you learn to appreciate your time and make the best use of your time.

Having free time is a luxury. Many in this world are still enslaved, fighting for life and death, or working every minute of their time alive until they drop dead. It is sad to see that in such a technologically advanced world, many things still haven’t changed from centuries ago.

I wish people can experience what it feels like to have free time. However, most things in life require a sacrifice. There is always delayed gratification, and many people today don’t seem to understand.

The old Chinese saying goes — if you don’t work hard in your youth, you will suffer in old age. The same goes for time — you work hard now to put yourself in a position so you have time more free time down the road.

However, some people just keep working, saving money, and holding back until they either drop dead or are too old or unhealthy to enjoy the fruits of their labour. This is why at the end of the day, I advocate for balance — work hard, but also play hard. Be the best version of yourself, but live your best life.

There was a time when I was consistently working 80+ hour weeks across engineering school and multiple gigs, but I decided it wasn’t worth my health and wellbeing, so I reprioritized and came up with the time management system that I have now. It took a lot of discipline and I had to drop many nonessential commitments from my life.

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