Randy Pausch Lecture on Time Management (Transcript)

 Randy Pausch, the late Carnegie Mellon Professor, gave the following lecture on Time Management at the University of Virginia in November 2007. Below is the full transcript of the talk…


Randy Pausch

Thank you. That’s very kind but never tip the waiter before the meal arrives. Thank you Gabe and Jim. I couldn’t imagine being more grateful for an introduction. These are two people that I’ve known a long long time. I taught here at University Virginia, I love the school. It’s just an incredible place filled with tradition and history and respect, the kind of qualities that I really admire that I want to see preserved in American society. And this is one of the places that I just love for preserving that. I think the Honor Code alone at the University of Virginia just is something that every university administrator should study and look at and say you know why can’t we do that too. So I think there are lot of things about this place to love.

I’m going to talk today on the topic of time management. The circumstances are as you probably know a little bit unusual. I think at this point I’m an authority to talk about what to do with limited time. My battle with pancreatic cancer started about a year and a half ago, fought, did all the right things but it’s, you know, as my oncologist said if you could pick off a list that’s not the one you’d want to pick. So on August 15th, these were my CAT scans, you can see that if you scroll through all of them there, there were about a dozen tumors in my liver. And the doctors at that time said you are likely to have three – I love the way they say — you have three to six months of good health left. Optimism and positive phrasing, it’s for like when you’re in Disney, what time does the park close? The park is open until 8. So I have three to six months of good health.

Well let’s do the math. Today is three months and 12 days. So what I had on my day timer for today was not necessarily being at the University of Virginia. I’m pleased to say that we do treat with palliative chemo. They’re going to buy me a little bit of time on the order of a few months if it continues to work. I’m still in perfectly good health. With Gaffe in the audience I’m not going to do push ups because I’m not going to be shown up. Gabe is purely in good shape. But I continue to be in relatively good health. I had chemotherapy yesterday, you should all try it, it’s great.

But it does sort of beg the question I have finite time. Some people had said, why are you going and giving a talk. Well, there are lot of reasons I’m coming here and giving a talk. One of them is that I said I would. That’s a pretty simple reason and I’m physically able to.

Another one is that going to the University of Virginia is not like going to some foreign place. People say aren’t you spending all your time with family and by coming back here for a day, I’m spending my time with family both metaphorically and literally because it turns out that many of you have probably seen this picture rom talk that I gave. These are my niece and nephew Chris and Laura and my niece Laura is actually a senior – a 4th year here at Mr Jefferson’s University. So Laura, could you stand up so they see what you’ve gotten taller. There we are. And I couldn’t be happier to have her here at this university and the other person — so that’s Laura– the other person in this picture is Chris. And Chris, if you could stand up so they see you’ve got much taller? And they have grown in so many ways, not just in height and it’s been wonderful to see that and be an uncle to them.

Is there anybody here on the faculty or PhD students of the history department. Anybody here is from history, find Chris right after the talk, because he’s currently in his sophomore year at William and Mary and he’s interested in going into a PhD program in history down the road. And there aren’t many better PhD programs in history than this one. So I’m pimping for my nephew here. Let’s be clear.

So what are we going to talk about today?

We’re going to talk about — this is not like the lecture that you may have seen me give before. This is a very pragmatic lecture and one of the reasons that I had agreed to come back and give this is because Gabe had told me that and many other faculty members had told me that they had gotten so much tangible value about how to get more done and I truly do believe that time is the only commodity that matters. So this is a very pragmatic talk and it is inspirational in the sense that will inspire you by giving you some concrete things you might do to be able to get more time — more things done in your finite time.

So I am going to talk specifically about how to set goals, how to avoid wasting time, how to deal with the boss. Originally this talk was how to deal with your advisor, but I have tried to broaden it, so it’s not quite so academically focused, and how to delegate to people, some specific skills and tools that I might recommend to help you get more out of the day and to deal with the real problems and like which are stress and procrastination. And if you can lick that last one, you’re probably in good shape.

And really you don’t need to take any notes, or I will presume if I see any laptops open, you’re actually just doing IM or mail or something, if you’re listening to music, please at least wear headphones I’d say. But all of this will be posted on my website and just to make it really easy, if you want to know when to look up — any slides that have a red star on are the points that I think you should really make sure that you got that one.

And 1conversely if it doesn’t have a red star, well…

So the first thing I want to say is that Americans are very very bad at dealing with time as a commodity. We’re really good at dealing with money as a commodity. We are, as a culture, very interested in money, how much somebody earns is a status thing and so on and so forth, but we don’t really have time elevated to that. People waste their time and it always fascinates me.

And one of the things that I’ve noticed is that very few people equate time and money and they are very, very equatable. So the first thing I started doing when I was a teacher was asking my graduate students: “Well, how much is your time worth an hour?” Or if you work at a company: “How much is your time worth to the company?” What most people don’t realize is that if you have a salary, let’s say you make $50,000 a year, you probably cost that company twice that in order to have you as an employee because there’s heating and lighting and other staff members and so forth, so if you get paid 50,000 a year, you are costing that company – they have to raise $100,000 in revenue! And if you divide that by your hourly rate, you begin to get some sense of what you are worth an hour. When you have to make trade-offs of “Should I do something like write software or should I just buy it or should I outsource this?”, having in your head what you cost your organization an hour is really a staggering thing to change your behavior. Because you start realizing that, wow, if I free up three hours of my time and I’m thinking in that in terms of dollars, that’s a big savings!

So start thinking about your time and your money almost as if they are the same thing. Of course Ben Franklin knew that a long time ago. So you’ve got to manage it and you’ve got to manage it just like you manage your money. Now I realize not all Americans manage their money, that’s what makes the credit card industry possible. And apparently, mortgages too.

But most people do at least understand – they don’t look at you funny if you say: “Can I see your monetary budget for your household?” In fact, if I say “your household budget”, you presume that I’m talking about money when in fact the household budget I really want to talk about is probably your household time budget.

At the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, students would come in during the orientation, I would say: “This is a master’s program, everybody is paying full tuition.” It was roughly $30,000 a year, and the first thing I would say is: “If you’re going to come into my office and say: “I don’t think this is worth $60,000 a year”, I will throw you out of the office. I’m not even going to have this discussion.” Of course they would say: “Oh god, this Pausch guy is a real jerk.” And then they were right!

But what I then followed on with was: Because the money is not important. You can go and earn more money later. What you’ll never do is get the two years of your life back. So if you want to come into my office and talk about the money, I’ll throw you out, but if you want to come into my office and say: “I’m not sure this is a good place for me to spend two years”, I will talk to you all day and all night because that means we’re talking about the right thing, which is your time, because you can’t ever get it back.”

A lot of the advice I’m going to give you particularly for undergraduates – how many people in this room are undergraduates, by show of hands? Okay, good! Still young! A lot of this – put it to Hans and Franz of Saturday Night Life if you’re old enough: “Hear me now, but believe me later!” A lot of this is going to make sense later, and one of the nicest things is that Gabe has volunteered to put this up on the web. I understand that people can actually watch videos on the web now. So a lot of this will make sense later, and when I talk about your boss if you’re a student, think about that as your academic advisor, if you’re a Ph.D. student, think about it as your Ph.D. advisor, and if you’re watching this and you are a young child, think of this as your parent because that is the person who is in some sense your boss.

The talk goes very fast and as I said I’m very big on specific techniques. I’m not really big on platitudes. Platitudes are nice, but they don’t really help me get something done tomorrow.

The other thing is that one good thief is worth ten good scholars. And in fact, you can replace the word “scholars” in that sentence with almost anything. Almost everything in this talk is to some degree inspired, which is a fancy way of saying lifted, from these two books [Cathy Collins: Time Management for Teachers, 1987; Career Track Seminar: Taking control of Your Work Day, 1990], and I found those books very useful but it’s much better to get them into a distilled form. What I’ve basically done is I’ve collected the nuggets for your bath.

ALSO READ:   Lecture - 12 Data Modeling - ER Diagrams, Mapping -Transcript

I like to talk about “The Time Famine“. I think it’s a nice phrase. Does anybody here feel like they have too much time? Okay, nobody, excellent. I like the word “famine”, because it’s a little bit like thinking about Africa. You can airlift all the food you want in to solve the crisis this week but the problem is systemic, and you really need systemic solutions.

So a time management solution that says, “I’m going to fix things for you in the next 24 hours” is laughable, just like saying: “I’m going to cure hunger in Africa in the next year.” You need to think long-term and you need to change fundamental underlying processes because the problem is systemic, we just have too many things to do and not enough time to do them.

The other thing to remember is that it’s not just about time management. That sounds like a kind of a lukewarm, a talk about time management, that’s kind of milk-toast. But how about if the talk is: How about not having ulcers? That catches my attention! So a lot of this is life advice. This is, how to change the way you’re doing a lot of the things and how you allocate your time so that you will lead a happier, more wonderful life, and I loved in the introduction that you talked about fun! Because if I’ve brought fun to academia, well, it’s about damn time! If you’re not going to have fun, why do it? That’s what I want to know. Life really is too short, if you’re not going to enjoy it… People who say: “Well, I’ve got a job and I don’t really like it”, I’m like: “Well, you could change?!” “But that’ll be a lot of work!” – “You’re right, you should keep going to work every day doing a job you don’t like. Thank you, good night.”

So the overall goal is fun. My middle child Logan is my favorite example. I don’t think he knows how to not have fun. No, grant, the lot of the things he does are not fun for his mother and me. But he’s loving every second of it. He doesn’t know to do anything that isn’t ballistic and full of life. He’s going to keep that quality, I think he’s my little Tigger, and I always remember Logan when I think about the goal is to make sure that you lead your life – I want to maximize use of time, but that’s the means, not the end. The end is maximizing fun.

People who do intense studies and log people on videotape and so on say that the typical office worker wastes almost two hours a day. Their desk is messy, they can’t find things, they miss appointments, are unprepared for meetings, they can’t concentrate. Does anybody in here by show of hands ever have any sense that one of these things is part of their life? Okay, I think we’ve got everybody! So these are a universal thing and you shouldn’t feel guilty if some of these things are plagueing you because they plague all of us, they plague me for sure.

The other thing I want to tell you is that it sounds a little clichéd and tried, but being successful does not make you manage your time well. Managing your time well makes you successful. If I’ve been successful in my career, I assure you it’s not because I’m smarter than all the other faculty. I mean, I’m looking around, and I’m looking at some of my former colleagues, and I see Jim Cohoon up there: I’m not smarter than Jim Cohoon. I constantly look around at the faculty at places like the University of Virginia or Carnegie Mellon, and I go: “Damn, these are smart people!” And I snuck in!

But what I like to think I’m good at is the meta-skills, because if you’re going to have to run with people who are faster than you have to find the right ways to optimize what skills you do have.

Goals, Priorities and Planning

So let’s talk first about goals, priorities and planning. Anytime anything crosses your life, you’ve got to ask: “This thing I’m thinking about doing, why am I doing it? Almost no one that I know starts with the core principle of, there’s this thing on my To Do list, why is it there? Because if you’re start asking like, why am I… my kids are great at this. That is, all I’ve ever heard at home is: Why? Why? Sooner or later they’re going to stop saying “Why”, they’re just going to say: “Okay, I’ll do it.”

So ask, why am I doing this, what is the goal, why will I succeed at doing it, and here’s my favorite: What will happen if I don’t do it? The best thing in the world is when I have something on my To Do list and I just go: Hmm, no. No one has ever come and taken me to jail. I talked my way out of a speeding ticket last week, that was really cool. It’s like the closest I’ve ever going to be attractive and blonde. I told the guy why we had just moved and so on and so forth, and he looked at me and said: “Well, for a guy who’s only got a couple of months to live, you sure look good!” I just pulled up my shirt to show the scar and I said, “Yeah, I look good on the outside but the tumors are on the inside.” He just ran back to his cruiser and… ! So that’s one positive law enforcement experience for me.

The police have never come because I crossed something off my To Do list. That’s a very powerful thing because you’ve got all that time back.

The other thing to keep in mind when you’re doing goal setting is, a lot of people focus on doing things right. I think it’s very dangerous to focus on doing things right. I think it’s much more important to do the right things. If you do the right things adequately, that’s much more important than doing the wrong things beautifully. Doesn’t matter how well you polish the underside of the banister. Keep that in mind.

Lou Holtz had a great list: Lou Holtz’s 100 things to do in his life. He would once a week look at it and say: If I’m not working on those 100 things, why was I working on the others? I think that’s an incredible way to frame things.

There’s something called the 80/20 rule. Sometimes you’ll hear about the 90/10 rule, but the key thing to understand is that a very small number of things in your life or on your To-Do-list are going to contribute the vast majority of the value. If you’re a salesperson, 80 percent of the revenue is going to come from 20 percent of your clients. And you better figure out who those 20 percent are and spend all your time sucking up to them. Because that’s where the revenue comes.

You’ve got to be willing to say, this stuff is what’s going to be the value and this other stuff isn’t and you’ve got to have the courage of your convictions to say, therefore I’m going to shove the other stuff off of the boat. The other thing to remember is that experience comes with time and it’s really, really valuable, and there are no shortcuts to getting it. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So if things aren’t going well, that probably means you’re learning a lot and will go better later. This is, by the way, why we pay so much in American society for people who are typically older but have done lots of things in their past because we’re paying for their experience because we know that experience is one of the things you can’t fake.

And do not lose sight of the power of inspiration. Randy’s in an hour long talk and we’ve already hit our first Disney reference. Walt Disney has many great quotes. One that I love is: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” A lot of my cynical friends say, ya-di-ya-di-ya… to which I say: Shut up. Inspiration is important and I tell you this much, I don’t know if Walt was right but I tell you this much: If you refuse to allow yourself to dream it, I know you won’t do it. So the power of dreams are that they give us a way to take the first step towards an accomplishment.

Walt was also not just a dreamer. Walt worked really hard. Disneyland – this amazes me because I know a little bit about how hard it is to put theme park attractions together, and they did the whole original Disneyland park in 366 days. That’s from the first shovel full of dirt to the first paid admission. Think about how long it takes to do something, say, at a state university. By comparison! It’s fascinating. When someone once asked Walt Disney, “How did you get it done in 366 days?”, he just deadpanned: “We used every one of them.”

So again, there are no shortcuts, there’s a lot of hard work in anything you want to accomplish.

Planning is very important, one of the time management clichés is: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Planning has to be done at multiple levels. I have a plan every morning when I wake up and I say, what do I need to get done today, what do I need to get done this week, what do I need to get done each semester, that’s sort of the time quanta because I’m an academic. That doesn’t mean you’re locked into it! People say: “Yeah, but things are so fluid! I’m going to have to change the plan!” And I’m like, “Yes! You are going to have to change the plan. But you can’t change it, unless you have it!” And the excuse of, I’m not going to make a plan because things might change is just this paralysis of: I don’t have any marching orders. So have a plan, acknowledge that you’re going to change it but have it so you have the basis to start with.


To Do lists. How many people here right now, if I said, can you produce it, could show me their To Do list? – Okay, not bad. The key thing with To Do lists is you have to break things down into small steps. I literally once on my To Do list, when I was a junior faculty member at the University of Virginia, I put: “Get tenure.” That was naive! I looked at that for a while and I said: Oh, that’s really hard. I don’t think I can do that.

My children, Dylan and Logan and Chloe, particularly Dylan, is at the age where he can clean his own room, thank you very much. But he doesn’t like to, and Chris is smiling because I used to do this story on him but now I’ve got my own kids to pick on. Dylan will come to me and say: “I can’t pick up my room, it’s too much stuff!” He’s not even a teenager and he’s already got that move! And I say: “Well, can you make your bed?” – “Yeah, I can do that.” “Okay, can you put all the clothes in the hamper?” – “Yeah, I can do that.” And you do three or four things, and then it’s like: “Well, Dylan, you just cleaned your room!” – “I cleaned my room!” He feels good! He is empowered!

ALSO READ:   How I'm Working for Change Inside My Church by Chelsea Shields (Transcript)

And everybody is happy. Of course, I’ve had to spend twice as much time managing him as I could have done it by myself but that’s okay, that’s what being a boss is about, is you’re growing your people no matter how small or large they might be at the time.

The last thing about To Do lists or getting yourself going is, if you’ve got a bunch of things to do, do the ugliest thing first. There’s an old saying: “If you have to eat a frog, don’t spend a lot of time looking at it first, and if you have to eat three of them, don’t start with the small one.”

This is the most important slide in the entire talk. If you want to leave after this slide, I will not be offended, because it’s all downhill from here. This is blatantly stolen, this is Steven Covey’s great contribution to the world, he talks about it in the Seven Habits book. Imagine your To Do list – most people sort their To Do list either “the order that I’ve got it”, throw it at the bottom, or they sort it in due-date list, which is more sophisticated and more helpful but still very, very wrong.

Looking at the four- quadrant To Do list, if you’ve got a quadrant where things are “Important and Due Soon”, “Important and Not Due Soon”, “Not Important and Due Soon” and “Not Important and Not Due Soon”, which of these four quadrants do you think, upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right, which one do you think you should work on immediately? Upper left! You are such a great crowd. Okay.

And which one do you think you should probably do last? Lower right. And that’s easy. That’s obviously number one, that’s obviously number four. But this is where everybody in my experience gets it wrong. What we do now is we say: “I do the number ones, and I move on to the stuff that’s “Due Soon and Not Important”. When you write it in this quadrant list, it’s really stunning, because I’ve actually seen people do this and they say: “Okay, this is due soon and I know it’s not important so I’m going to get right to work on it.”

The most crucial thing I can teach you about time management is, when you’re done picking off the “Important and Due Soon”, that’s when you go here. You go to “Not Due Soon and Important”, and there will be a moment in your life where you say, “Hey, this thing that’s due soon and not important: I won’t do it! Because it’s not important! It says so right here on the chart!”

And magically, you have time to work on the thing that is not due soon but is important so that next week it never got a chance to get here because you killed it in the crib. My wife won’t like that metaphor! But you solve the problem of something that’s due next week when you’re not under time stress because it’s not due tomorrow. And suddenly you become one of these Zen-like people who would just always seem like they have all the time in the world because they figured this out.

Paperwork. The first thing that you need to know is that having cluttered paperwork leads to thrashing. You end up with all these things on your desk, and you can’t find anything, and the moment you turn to your desk your desk is saying to you: “I own you! I have more things than you can do! And they are many colors and laid out!” So what I find is that it’s really crucial to keep your desk clear, and we’ll talk about where all the paper goes in a second, and you have one thing on your desk because then it’s like: “Haha! Now it’s thunderdome! Me and the ONE piece of paper.” I usually win that one.

One of the mantras of time management is, touch each piece of paper once. You get the piece of paper, you look at it, you work at it, and I think that’s extremely true for email. How many people here – I’m going to take it for granted that everybody here has an email inbox. – How many people here have more than 20 items in their email inbox? – Oooh! I’m in the right room. Your inbox is not your To Do list. My wife has learned that I need to get my inbox clear. Sometimes this means just filing things away and putting something on my To Do list. Remember, the To Do list is sorted by importance but does anybody here have an email program where you can press this “Sort By Importance” button? It’s amazing how people who build software that really is a huge part of our life and getting work done haven’t a clue. And that’s not a slam on any particular company. I think they all have missed the boat. I just find it fascinating. Because most people I know have this inbox – oh, I’ve got to ask. How many people have more than 100 things in their inbox? – Oh, I’m just not going to keep going, this is too depressing! You really want to get the thing in your inbox, look at it and say: “I’m either going to read it right now or I’m going to file it and put an entry in my To Do list.” That’s a crucial thing because otherwise everytime you go to read your email, you’re just swamped and it’s just as bad as the cluttered paper.

[He shows a picture of him and his wife on the wedding day.] You’re all trying to figure out how that heading goes with that picture. A filing system is absolutely essential. I know this because I’m married to the most wonderful woman in the world but she’s not a good filer. But she is now! Because after we got married and we moved in together and we resolved all the other typical couple things, I said: “We have to have a place where our papers go and it’s in alphabetical order.” And she said: “That sounds a little compulsive…” And I said: “Okay, honey…” I went out to IKEA and I got this big, nice, way too expensive wooden fake mahogany thing with big drawers so she liked it because it looked kind of nice, and having a place in our house where any piece of paper went and was in alphabetical order did wonderful things for our marriage! Because there was never any of this, “Honey, where did you put blahblahblah?” And there was never being mad at somebody because they had put something in some unexpected place, there was an expected place for it. When you’re looking for important receipts or whatever it is, this is actually important and we have found that this has been a wonderful thing for us.

I think file systems among groups of people, whether it’s a marriage or an office are crucial, but even if it’s just you, having a place where you know you put something really beats all hell out of running around for an hour, going: “Where is it? I know it’s blue… and I was eating something when I read it.” I mean… This is not a filing system! This is madness!

A lot of people ask me: “So, Randy, what does your desk look like?” As my wife would say, “This is what Randy’s desk looks like when he’s photographing it for a talk.” The important thing is that I’m a computer geek so I have the desk off to the right, and then I have the computer station off to the left. I like to have my desk in front of a window whenever I can do that. This is an old photograph, these have now been replaced by LCD monitors but I left the old picture because the crucial thing is, it doesn’t matter if they’re fancy high-tech, the key thing is screen space. Lots of people have studied this. How many people here have more than one monitor on their computer desktop? Okay, not bad! So we’re getting there, it’s starting to happen.

What I found is that I could go back from three to two but I just can’t go back to one. There’s just too many things and as somebody said, it’s the difference between working on a desk like at home and trying to get work done on the little tray on an airplane. In principle the little tray on the airplane is big enough for everything you need to do. It’s just that in practice it’s pretty small. So multiple monitors are very important and I’ll show you in a second what I have on each one of those. I believe in this multiple monitor thing, we believed in it for a long time, that’s my research group [shows a picture], our laboratory a long time ago in Carnegie Mellon, that’s Caitlin Kelleher, who’s now Doctor Kelleher, thank you, and she’s at Washington University in St. Louis doing wonderful things. But we had everybody with three monitors and the cost on this is absolutely trivial.

If you figure the cost of adding a second monitor to an employee’s yearly cost to the company, it’s not even one percent anymore. So why would you not do it? One of my walkaways for all of you is, you should all go to your boss and say: “I need a second monitor. I just can’t work without it, Randy told me to tell you that.” Because it will increase your productivity and the computers can all drive two monitors, so why not?


What do I have on my three monitors? On the left is my To Do list, all sorts of stuff in there. We’re all idiosyncratic, my system is that I just put a number of 0 through 9 and I use an editor that can quickly sort on that number in the first column, but the key thing is that it’s sorted by priority. In the middle is my mail program. Note the empty inbox! I try very hard, I sleep better if I go to sleep with the inbox empty. When my inbox does creep up, I get really testy, so my wife will actually say to me: “I think you need to clear the inbox.”

On the third one is a calendar. This is from a number of years ago but that’s like my days would be, I used to be very heavily booked. I don’t care which software you use, I don’t care which calendars, I don’t care if it’s paper or computer, whatever works for you, but you should have some system whereby you know where you’re supposed to be next Tuesday at two o’clock. Because even if you can live your life without that, you’re using up a lot of your brain to remember all that. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have enough brain to spare to use it on things I can have paper or computers do for me.

Back to the overview. On the desk itself, let’s zoom in a little bit, look, I have the one and one thing I’m working on at the time, I have a speaker phone – this is crucial. How many people here have a speaker phone on their desks? Okay, not bad, but a lot more people don’t. Speaker phones are essentially free, and I spend a lot of time on hold, and that’s because I live in the American society where I get to listen to messages of the form: “Your call is extremely important to us. Watch, while my actions are cognitively dissonant from my words.” It’s like the worst abusive relationship in the world.

Leave a Reply