We’ve all had those days where we’ve found ourselves jumping between tasks at a whiplash-inducing speed or rushing from meeting to meeting. Then suddenly you realize the workday is almost over–and your to-do list hasn’t gotten any shorter.
There may be factors in your work environment or role that are keeping you busy, but if you regularly struggle to prioritize tasks and set realistic expectations for deadlines, you may be struggling with time management.
The good news is that there are things you can do to have more control over your time.
Knowing your priorities decreases stress and improves productivity and time management. It can also help with work-life balance by establishing stronger workday boundaries.
But how do you prioritize your tasks when everything seems important? How do you manage your time effectively?
In this article, we’ll cover the core definition of time management and some best practices you can use to take control of your time and increase your productivity.
What Is Time Management?
Time management is the process of planning and regulating how much time to spend on specific tasks and activities. For example, if you make a to-do list at the beginning of the workweek and estimate that you’ll need 20 hours to complete certain deliverables but only have 15 hours to dedicate to focused work time, a good time management practice would be to prioritize your tasks and determine what you could shift to the following week or delegate.
Effective time management helps you to stay focused and complete more tasks in shorter periods, lowers stress, and enables career success.
Are You Skilled at Time Management?
Wondering how your time management skills stack up?
You should ask yourself these three questions:
Do I know how to effectively prioritize my tasks based on importance and urgency?
If you stay busy throughout the day but at the close of work none of your important tasks are done, it’s a sign that you didn’t prioritize your activities effectively.
Do I know how much time I spend on each of my various tasks?
Knowing how much time a task or project takes helps you set realistic expectations and avoid wasting time. Do you measure how long each task takes you to execute so that the next time you’re working on something similar you can accurately budget your time?
Do I have to work beyond normal business hours to get tasks done?
There may be some situations where you put in extra hours to get a big project done, but if you find work bleeding over into your personal time on a regular basis, this could be a sign that you’re not managing your time efficiently–or that you’re not being realistic about the amount of work you have the bandwidth to take on.
Answering the three questions above should help you recognize some of the common traps of time management that you might be guilty of falling into.
Common Pitfalls of Time Management
No one knows it all, and there are some mistakes that most of us are guilty of making regarding time management.
Some of them are:
- Not making a to-do list. Starting the workday without making a to-do list is a common mistake that people make. Think of it like driving to a new place without a GPS app or map to guide you: if you don’t have a clear sense of the steps you need to take or the action items you need to complete, you’ll likely waste time taking wrong turns.
- Multi-tasking. As much as we’d all like to think we’re great at juggling multiple tasks at the same time, chances are, we’re not. One study found that only 2.5% of people are able to multitask effectively. And multiple studies have found that when we multitask, we become less efficient and are more likely to make errors.
- Not knowing how much time a task requires. It’s common to fall victim to the planning fallacy: the tendency to underestimate how long a task will really take. This can cause us to take on too much work, fall behind on projects, and miss deadlines.
You can avoid making these mistakes again by learning some of the best ways to manage your time for better productivity.
14 Time Management Techniques to Be More Productive
You want to finish your important tasks without having to extend the deadline. You want to be able to focus on your work activities without getting distracted. You want to be able to relax at the end of the day with the knowledge that you have no more work for the day.
Here are fourteen tips to help you improve your time management:
1. Tackle complex and creative tasks first
Mark Twain said it best: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.”
In other words, do your high-intensity tasks early in the day. Creativity and motivation are usually at their peak in the morning.
2. Make to-do lists (and stick to them)
Write down your activities for the day. Try to keep the lists short, concise, and easily accessible. (Project management apps like Trello and Asana can also be helpful for managing your to-do list.)
3. Choose a prioritization strategy
Think about the complexity of the tasks you added to your to-do list. You need to categorize them according to priority, and one way to do this is to divide your tasks into four groups:
- A: Tasks that are urgent and important. These should be at the top of your to-do list.
- B: Tasks that are important but not urgent. These should rank below the tasks that are both important and urgent, but you should still block off focused time on your calendar to complete these.
- C: Tasks that are urgent but not important. Delegate these tasks when possible.
- D: Tasks that are neither urgent nor important. Ask yourself whether these tasks really need to be on your to-do list or if you are better off removing them and spending your time elsewhere.
You could also use the ABCDE method, which involves going through your to-do list and assigning each task a letter based on priority. After assigning letters, go through the list again and assign a number to all tasks with the letter A to indicate the order in which you’ll complete these high-priority tasks. Repeat this for the next four letters to fully prioritize your list.
4. Complete quick tasks right away
Not all tasks are created equal. Many actions can be completed in a matter of minutes, whereas some projects will take days, weeks, or even months.
If a to-do comes your way and you know it will take less than 15 minutes, complete it immediately. Those little tasks build up, so knocking them out as they come will clear space in your mind to focus on larger tasks at hand.
5. Commit to deep work free from distraction
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a mentally demanding task.
It’s effective because it helps you eliminate disruptions and strengthens learning pathways in your brain, enabling you to get better work done in less time.
There are lots of strategies for improving your deep work time, but a couple of easy places to start are eliminating digital distractions (e.g. storing your phone out of sight during focused work time) and creating rituals (e.g. having a dedicated space for focused work) to help you concentrate.
6. Practice stress management
Stress in the workplace often occurs when we accept more work than we can reasonably manage (or more work than we think we can reasonably manage). And stress can take both a physical and mental toll: you may feel tired and struggle to stay motivated, causing your productivity to suffer.
It’s important to actively manage stress in and out of the workplace. If regular exercise isn’t already a part of your routine, try to incorporate it for better stress management. Choose an activity you enjoy and know you will be able to keep up, whether that’s yoga, running, participating in a recreational sports league, or anything in between. And consider taking a few breaks throughout your workday to go for a short walk outside.
7. Set goals for yourself
One of the most important time management skills you can develop is the ability to use your work hours to best serve your objectives.
When you set clear goals for yourself, you are more likely to work towards them. Give yourself a rewarding endgame and watch yourself stay focused on spending time more wisely.
8. Evaluate workflows for areas of improvement
Start by writing down all the steps of one of your frequent workflows and mapping out the tools, resources, and stakeholders involved in each step. Look for frequent blockers or chokepoints and come up with a plan to improve these parts of the process. This may involve collaborating with team members or advocating for resources that will help you eliminate inefficiencies.
9. Learn when to delegate or automate
When you analyze your to-do list, you may see repeated, easy-to-do tasks that are not urgent. Consider delegating these tasks–or look for ways to automate them. For example, if you’re a knowledge manager and you have a monthly task that involves manually combing through content in your knowledge management system to see what’s out of date, it might be time to invest in a new knowledge management platform that lets you automatically schedule time-sensitive content to unpublish when it becomes outdated.
10. Get comfortable saying “no”
If you are a people pleaser, you might not want to let anyone down. You might think saying “no” could lead to workplace communication problems or make people think you’re difficult to work with. But while people might be disappointed at first, most of the time they will respect you for recognizing what you can reasonably take on and knowing when to set boundaries.
11. Consider time blocking
This is as simple as it sounds. Whenever you have a task that you need to do, block out a definite amount of time on your calendar for it. This can help you prevent meetings from being scheduled during your focused work time and hold you accountable for completing tasks during their designated time blocks.
12. Apply the Pareto Principle
This is the 80/20 rule, or the idea that 80% of meaningful results come from 20% of the effort put in. This can help you prioritize your most impactful activities and allocate your time and resources to the critical 20%.
13. Identify trends in your life impacting productivity
This is also known as energy management. Try to figure out what time of the day you have high energy and schedule your most challenging or collaborative tasks for that time. This way, when you are low on energy, you can tackle smaller tasks that require less effort.
Does a task take longer on a certain day or time of the day? Did you realize that you are more productive at night when everyone is asleep than in the mornings? Take note of these trends, and use them to improve your productivity.
14. Know your limits.
There are only so many hours in the day, and when you have a lengthy to-do list, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over the tasks you didn’t get to. Choose to be satisfied with what you have accomplished for the day. Instead of asking why you can’t keep going, acknowledge and embrace the fact that you have reached your limit. Stop trying to squeeze in “just one more thing.”
It’s human nature to get stressed and procrastinate. But if you actively work toward improving your time management skills in the workplace, you’ll find your mind is freer to enjoy your time outside of the workplace.
This blog was updated and expanded in May 2022.