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Notes on Time Management from a Dying Professor

In 2007, just after his cancer diagnosis, Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch gave a well received lecture on Time Management. These are my notes (slides here, transcript here).

Side note - he is better known for his Last Lecture on Achieving Your Childhood Dreams - ironically given before this Time Management talk.

Money vs Time

  • We are very good at dealing with money, but very bad at dealing with time. Having an idea of how much your time costs helps you start making tradeoffs better.
  • We have to manage our time better than we manage our money. We have money budgets, what about time budgets?
  • We are in a "Time Famine" - nobody says they have "too much time". Yet The typical office worker wastes almost 2 hrs a day at work, and 28 hours a week on TV. This isn't just a one-off problem - you can't solve it one week and then go back to normal - it's systemic and requries change in fundamental processes to address this once and for all.
  • The goal is to have fun, be happier, lead a more meaningful life. If you're not going to have fun, why do it?
  • Being successful doesn't make you manage your time well. Managing your time well does make you successful.
  • Turn money into time - Hire someone to do chores. Esp if you have kids.

Goals, Priorities, Planning

  • Always ask: Why am I doing this, What is the goal? Why will I succeed? What will happen if I don't do it?
  • It's more important to do the right things, rather than do things right.
  • Pareto Principle, 80/20 rule. Focus on the high value/impact things.
  • People asked Walt how he built Disneyland in 366 days. His reply: "We used every one of them."
  • Planning is impt. Failing to plan = planning to fail. Have a plan for day/week/quarter.
  • You can still be fluid - plans can change.
  • Todos - Break things down into small steps. "Get tenure" is not a todo. Eat your frog - do the ugliest thing first.
  • Prioritization (MOST IMPORTANT) Covey/Eisenhower Matrix
    • urgent + important
    • not urgent + important
    • urgent + unimportant
    • not urgent + unimportant
    • the trick is to not do unimportant things, and to tackle important things before they become urgent.

Alt Text

  • Keep your desk clear - have 1 thing on your desk
  • Touch each piece of paper, email once. Inbox is not your todo list. File the email away and put it on your todo list.
  • A filing system is absolutely essential. Have one place in the house where any piece of paper goes. (Ditto in the cloud/computer)
  • Have at least two, maybe three monitors. Using just one "is like eating off the airplane tray."
  • Productivity Stack:
    • Todolist
    • Inbox
    • Calendar. Dont use your brain to remember your appointments.
  • Standing during phone calls - will be much faster. Don't get comfortable. "I'd love to keep talking with you but I have students waiting."
  • Exercise on bike - can be spent on phone if you have a headset
  • Write a Thank You note. Tangible way of telling someone you appreciated something. It makes you rare, they remember you well.
  • The dog - reminds you you have better things to do
  • Chair - make your office comfortable for you, optionally comfortable for others (eg folding chair).
  • You do not find time to do something, you make time. And you make time by electing not to do something else.
  • Learn to say no. Opportunity cost is real. "Gentle no" = "I'll be your backup". "If you need an 8th person I'll be there."
  • Find your creative time and defend it ruthlessly. It varies for people - could be 10pm-Midnight.
  • Find your dead time and do stuff where you don't need to be at your best.
  • Interruption takes 6-9mins, but recovery takes 4-5mins. Got to find ways to reduce frequency of interruptions. Turn phone calls into emails. Batch interactions with other people.
  • Giving hints to cut meetings short: Get up, walk to the door, thank them, shake their hand. Walk them out of the room.
  • Time journals - monitor and update thru the day. Fred Brooks had actual time clocks.
  • Look at open blocks where you know you are going to be wasting time, as gaps between blocks - make up a fake class.
  • Delegate.
  • "How am I wasting other people's time?"
  • You become more efficient at work so you can leave on time and spend it with the people you love. Once you have kids the stakes are real.


  • Sometimes you get lucky - if you wait long enough you may not have to do it
  • Sometimes you want to avoid Parkinson's Law - Work expands to fill the time available for it.
  • But key realization - doing things at the last minute is very expensive. If you push things up to the deadline that's where all the stress comes from
  • Make a fake deadline and pretend it is real.
  • Identify why you're procrastinating - afraid you are going to fail? scared to ask somebody for something? Sometimes you just have to ask.


  • Grant Authority + Responsibility
  • Delegate but always do the ugliest job yourself, so it is very clear you are willing to do what you ask
  • Treat your people well, esp staff/secretaries
  • Don't be vague:
    • Give specific thing to do
    • Specific date/time
    • Specific penalty/reward
  • Challenge people: delegate until they complain
  • Communication has to be CLEAR - and written
  • Don't tell them HOW to do it - tell them what you need done, let them come up with solutions. This is how to work with people smarter than you.
  • Offer relative importance - so people know what order to do them in
  • Beware upward delegation - step back.
  • Carrots > Sticks. Reinforce behavior you like. "Thank you I really appreciate you did a good job."


  • Take everybody's phones in a meeting. Be present.
  • A scribe should take One minute minutes at the end. What decisions got made, and who is responsible for what.


  • "Computers are faster, they just take longer."
  • Technology has to make your life better, end to end. eg. if it changes workflow. "Just a little bit faster" is not good enough.


  • don't delete email
  • If you want something done, don't send it to 5 people. Send it to ONE person. use alf weaver specificity rules.
  • If person has not responded in 48 hours, nag them, bc their response rate will be zero
  • It's not a vacation if you're reading email

Reporting Up

  • Ask when is next meeting, what you want by then, who to turn to for help

Life Advice

  • Kill your television. Average American spends 28 hrs/wk on TV.
  • Eat, sleep, exercise.
  • Never break a promise, but re-negotiate them if need be.
  • If you haven’t got time to do it right, you don’t have time to do it wrong.
  • Recognize that most things are pass/fail. Good Enough is good enough.
  • Feedback loops: ask in confidence.

Call to Action

  • Put your TODO list in priority order
  • Do a time journal or count hours of TV you watch
  • Make a note to revisit this in 30 days and ask "What Have I Changed?"

Style Notes

  • He often uses humor - noting the optimistic side of his very grim situation, giving some relief to his audience while also reminding them of the importance of his message.
  • He is also extremely respectful - being humble to specific members of the audience ("Gabe is REALLY in good shape", "I am NOT smarter than Jim Calhoun", "Am I giving a talk with Alf Weaver in the audience?"), as well as the venue/general audience itself ("there aren't many better PhD programs in history than this one").
  • He brings in personal stories and examples, often involving his wife, and they are usually relatable and funny. His slides use photos from his own life living the things he talks about.
  • The anecdotes also inject some variety - 40 minutes in he breaks for a tangent about his dog and a tiny debate he had with his wife.
  • Vocal variation - 53 minutes in he screams "PUT THE CIGARETTE OUT MOM" and that is a nice spike in decibels.
  • Ending is really good: He ends with actionable things to do, and a nice reminder of why this is important:

"If I haven't changed anything, then we still had a pleasant hour together. If you have changed things, then you'll probably have a lot more time to spend with the ones you love. And that's important, time is all we have. And you may find one day, you have less than you think."

Top comments (25)

michaelphipps profile image

You sir, have epic note taking skills.

maxpou profile image
Maxence Poutord

Great post @swyx 👏
You convinced me to watch this talk. I just need to find time for it ;)

Have at least two, maybe three monitors. Using just one "is like eating off the airplane tray."

Mhhh it could be true years ago.. but now, I believe, operating systems manage workspaces in a very efficient way. Apart from adding noise/favoring distractions (because a screen is dedicated to Slack/Mail), I don't get the value of multiscreening.

kletkeman profile image
Kim Letkeman

There is no substitute for real estate. Virtual is not the same thing. I used four monitors for years with one just for quick searching etc. I dropped down to three when I got the 1440p 32" monitor, and I use two now, but plan on going back to 3 when I can. Everyone is different. I like to see everything at once.

maxpou profile image
Maxence Poutord

3 monitors (including one 32")?! Looks like a proper battlestation!! I guess you don't have neck problems ;)

But yeah I get your point, we all have different need. If we need something that can have an impact on our productivity, we should get it.

swyx profile image

fwiw i use window managers religiously, and after living on just 1 laptop screen during covid, i definitely see his point. went and order a monitor right away after.

maxpou profile image
Maxence Poutord

Interesting. I might be the only one who feel more productive with one screen only :)

Thread Thread
swyx profile image

Your feelings are valid, just not universal. but that's OK!

stereoplegic profile image
Mike Bybee

If it's a @swyx article, I can almost automatically mash all three buttons. Thank you for providing so much value consistently.

swyx profile image

Thanks for the support Mike! 🤗

swyx profile image

on second thought, whats with the "almost"??!?!?! 😂

jwankhalaf profile image
Jwan Khalaf

Why am I doing this, What is the goal? Why will I succeed? What will happen if I don't do it?

  1. I'm doing this to make money, my goal is to make money.
  2. I don't know! Maybe I won't succeed?
  3. If I do nothing, then I will definetly not succeed.

I feel like such questions have a deeper meaning, but rarely does someone go there, so I come up with such answers. Is anyone else the same?

swyx profile image

be more specific! what is "this"? envision your success, study how others did it. it's a long journey but that will keep you going.

bholmesdev profile image
Ben Holmes

Thanks for pointing out this talk! Took some handwritten notes myself but they definitely weren't this thorough 😆 Especially like that you included notes on his presentation style; making a note-to-self to reflect on that whenever I find a good talk 👍

swyx profile image

it's one way to get better at speaking!

karinesabatier profile image
Karine Sabatier • Edited

Hey Swyx! Thanks for sharing (great notes!!!)

Randy Pausch is a hero to me. If you liked this one, you are going to loooooooove "Achieving your childhood dreams" (prepare to cry) I think about this pretty much every day.

And about time management... you might want to check the great great Procrastinator Tim Urban (prepare to freak out at the end)
Peace :)

(oh and yes I'm obsessed by time)

swyx profile image

lol you just gave me more things to procrastinate over!! lol

i love that our common interests go beyond svelte!

dkabardinov profile image
Dmitrii Kabardinov • Edited

What's with all the hate for TV, jeez. What if this IS how I like to spend time with my loved ones. It's one of the options, anyway. People shouldn't feel guilty for doing things like gaming, watching TV, etc. These things help you unwind. Have you ever been in a state of mind when you are too tired to work productively, but at the same time too anxious to relax because you think you are "wasting" time if you are not working? Many of us have. So maybe we should dial down the shaming. This obsession with "success" is kind of scary really.
Great advices otherwise, thanks for sharing!

swyx profile image
swyx • Edited

maybe just not 28 hours a week

dkabardinov profile image
Dmitrii Kabardinov

Maybe. Yet it says "Kill your television" in the life advice section. I haven't watched the talk itself, so idk if the author actually said that, but it was this radical wording that put me off.

Thread Thread
swyx profile image

yes it's a verbatim quote. 🤷‍♂️ you don't have to take all of it as gospel

rowemore profile image
Rowe Morehouse

Nice one. I see you find inspiration and learning all from all different types of sources., including some that are kind of outside-the-box, like this one. How did come across this / dig it up? … it's from 2007, yah? Good notes.

swyx profile image


I have a YouTube watch list about 500 videos long. whenever I get time I just pop one off the queue. that's about it.

i first came across randy pausch during research for my book. his other talk, his "Last Lecture", is also extremely popular.

hammerfall1 profile image
hammerfall1 • Edited

Nice stuff, thanks a lot! Time management is a very interesting thing, there is a lot of material, in my last year at the university I wrote material on this topic and found a lot of useful information on the site where there are many examples of time management essay, and thanks to this, you can get much more different information about time management. I strongly advise every student to evaluate this project, I am sure that you will not regret it.

saramiteva profile image
Sara Miteva

Wow, this is a very useful article. Thank you!

zilti_500 profile image
Daniel Ziltener

Definitely a case for my reading list! :)