This post was originally published on January 8, 2019, and updated most recently on March 20, 2021.
Along with phrases like ‘team player’ and ‘results-oriented,’ we throw ‘good time management’ around in the business world like confetti on New Year’s. We use it so often that it has begun to lose all meaning, and we say we have it without citing any time management strategies we actually use. But in reality, this hard-earned skill needs conscious and continuous nurturing.
The ability to manage your time more effectively not only sets you up for a calmer, more productive day. But, it also benefits your workplace image, making you look more reliable, trustworthy, and organized — all of which are much-prized traits of top performers.
Combine a few proven time management strategies with a ‘can-do attitude,’ and the sky’s your limit! Here are ten of our favorite strategies.
Start your day on the right foot
First thing’s first: Before you even think about opening your email, make sure you have a written-out to-do list. Prioritize your task list in order of importance, and stick to it like a mollusk to a rock. This five-minute investment can yield hours of reclaimed time otherwise spent mulling over what to do next.
Pro tip: Consider making this list at the end of each workday, so you’re ready to get started first thing the next morning.
Filter out the busywork
According to the Productivity Institute, 20% of the average workday is spent on “crucial” and “important” things. In comparison, 80% of the average workday is spent on things that have “little value” or “no value.”
Effective time management strategies should essentially filter out lower-priority tasks. So how do you work out what’s a high priority and what’s a low priority? And what do you do when everything is a top priority?
An excellent way to work out a task’s priority is to determine how it affects your overall project, balancing time against cost/ROI and urgency. Are your colleagues waiting for you before they can progress? If the answer’s yes, then focus on that. Those incoming emails and that sixth cup of tea can wait.
Another method of prioritizing your workload is to understand your own work patterns. Most people are more productive in the morning when their energy levels are high. If this is you, try to complete your most significant challenge first thing. If you’re more of an afternoon/evening person, schedule your most significant challenge for the time of day you feel best.
As Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Do the most daunting job first, and everything after that will be a breeze. Plus, you’ll have the added benefit of feeling invincible after overcoming the toughest challenge.
Measure your time
Track the amount of time you spend on specific tasks, then review and adjust your forecasts as you go. With this time management strategy, you can take a numbers-driven approach to inform your prioritization decisions.
We recommend using project management software that lets you track estimated and actual hours for each task. Tracking these right within your tasks will make it easier to optimize your processes later. Plus, it will free you up to focus on work rather than tracking spreadsheets and email trails.
Create a dynamic task list
We’ve all been there: happily working our way through our to-do list, crossing things off one by one (sometimes even writing things on there just so we can feel the satisfaction of crossing them off), and then — curveball! — a ‘this-is-so-urgent-the-deadline-is-yesterday’ job comes in. You panic, your to-do list crumbles, and you’re left putting out fires. Disaster!
The key to avoiding this situation is the dynamic task list (which is just another way of saying ‘flexible to-do list’).
When a new job comes in, take five minutes to assess its urgency, then add it to your list. Be flexible, and allow your list to be the same.
Change your plans (the right way)
It’s good to be flexible. But when you change your plans, there are a few things to keep in mind before you about-face.
- Make your schedule visible, so people can see exactly where they stand and what you’re working on. This will save them having to interrupt you with progress requests and reassure them that you haven’t forgotten about them.
- Understand how you impact the job. Can you delegate the work, or does it definitely need your attention? Do you need to supervise it as it develops, or can you trust others to manage the situation themselves?
- Be methodical in your approach. Consider using a real-time project management tool so you can color-code your tasks and archive them when they’re complete.
Learn to focus
That elusive thing we call ‘focus’ can be cultivated; it just requires a few conscious attitude adjustments. And — we’re sorry to say — one of those adjustments includes banishing your phone.
Remember: It can take up to 25 minutes to regain focus after an interruption. The fewer distractions you have, the more quickly you’ll be able to complete your task.
First, address the things that distract you the most. If you’re sensitive to clutter, give your desk a tidy. If you struggle to tune out background noises, grab the headphones, and listen to some ambient noise or music to help you focus. Or, if emails are your kryptonite, log out and turn off your notifications. And the same goes for your phone: Put it out of sight if you genuinely want it out of mind.
Multitasking is bad for your brain because your brain is only designed to do one thing at once. In fact, studies have shown multitasking lowers your job satisfaction, productivity, and creativity. It’s a terrible time management strategy and needs to be stopped.
So if you’re grappling with one item on your to-do list, give it your full attention, rather than trying to juggle two or more jobs at once. When you give 100% of your effort one task at a time, you will complete each more quickly and efficiently than if your energy is split between a handful of jobs.
Use the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro (or tomato) technique is a scientifically-backed time management strategy that breaks your work down into unbroken intervals, with short breaks in between. The goal is to boost focus and minimize distractions, helping you improve productivity and manage your time more effectively.
First, either set an egg timer to 25 minutes (or open Tomato Timer because who takes an egg timer to work?!) then work on the task while it ticks away. When the timer goes off, take a five-minute break, then reset the timer and go back to work for another 25 minutes. Once you’ve completed four 25-minute intervals, take a longer break (15-30 minutes), reset your timer, and go back to step one.
Just knowing you’re working toward a reward — 5 or 30 minutes of distraction time — should be enough to keep you on track. If you want to sweeten the deal, use those 5-30 minutes doing something you know you enjoy, like grabbing a coffee, going for a walk, or reading a book.
For more on this topic, check out 10 Proven ways to improve focus and reclaim a wandering mind.
Procrastinate with purpose
Procrastination gets a bad rep. It’s associated with laziness, but the truth is, procrastinators are rarely idle. They simply dedicate their time and energy to completing tasks that aren’t their highest priority.
Dr. John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford University, coined the term ‘structured procrastination.’ And he thinks procrastination can be a good thing. In fact, Dr. Perry’s 1995 essay, Structured Procrastination, was the result of putting off something else, and it went on to win the Ig Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011.
His key to productivity is to give yourself something important and truly daunting and use it as a way to complete less important tasks.
“Structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception because one is in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself.”
He continues: “One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines while making oneself feel that they are important and urgent. This is not a problem because virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills also. And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?”
In other words, trick your brain. Fight fire with fire, and assignment with assignment until you get something done. Positively harness your rebellious character flaw instead of trying to change it.
Don’t be a perfectionist
This may sound counterintuitive. Of course you always want to do your best work, especially when it comes to work that’s going to clients or that your team will need to continue to build on. But, oftentimes, the fear of not being able to complete something to perfection scares us from getting started in the first place. The task looks too daunting or we don’t know enough to fully complete it today.
One of the best things you can do to combat this is just to get started. The more you work on that task, the more you will come to understand and the more you will know what you don’t know. It’s always best to at least get the ball rolling. And, if you were right and you can’t finish your task perfectly right now, you’re that much closer to it being done later. Set it aside when you’ve done all you can and come back to it later. Then, you can do more of the work you weren’t ready for at the time. Think of this later visit as a polishing stop. That’s when you can finish it once you’ve already completed a rough draft.
Using time management strategies
Organization boils down to having a good set of time management strategies in place. This means taking a disciplined approach to your task list and saying ‘no’ when necessary. It also means being able to critically assess your focus, see the bigger picture, and take five or ten minutes to step back and adjust your priorities throughout the day.
It also means investing in the right project management tool to help you stay on track and keep your colleagues informed. Not only can technology help us enhance all of these strategies, but it can also help us share our skills with our bosses and colleagues, improving the company as a whole.