Now that we have determined the proper definition and meaning of time management, let’s do something with that knowledge and actually improve our skills. Here is a list of some of the best and most useful time management activities out there. We will continually add more ideas to this list as we think or find them.
Note that different time management systems and products will have their own philosophies about how best to manage your time. In a later chapter we will recommend and review some of the more popular time management programs and courses out there, but for now we’re just going to give general tips that can apply to any system. In addition, these time management tips should apply to almost anyone in any situation. They should be universal enough that, when properly applied, they should work for anybody who is looking to be more efficient and productive.
Of course, the usual caveat is in order – read the other chapters of this webbook for more information and tips regarding killing procrastination, increasing productivity, and so on. While many of those tips may be repeated here, each chapter will have its unique perspective!
How to Improve Time Management Skills
- Get used to writing down your tasks, goals, and progress. One of the critical time management ideas is this: we spend too much of our time letting things happen by chance. We don’t plan our goals enough, we don’t write down our tasks, and we don’t monitor our progress closely. We just kind of wing it. This won’t fly if you want to improve your time management abilities. Get used to keeping some kind of journal or log – it doesn’t matter if it’s a notebook, binder, spreadsheet, word document, blog, or whatever, as long as you’re keeping track of three things. These three things are:
- Goals. Make sure you have them, both long and short term. If you don’t know what you’re working for, then how can you do any kind of meaningful work? Sometimes the goals will be set out for you by someone else (finish this project, do this job) and other times your goals will be self-directed (clean the house, learn a language). Whatever the goals, you’ll need to get in the habit of writing them down. Then you need to…
- Translate these goals into tasks. The problem with some time management techniques is that they don’t focus enough on the individual tasks, or “action steps,” that you need to do to actually complete the goal. Procrastination occurs because we see the task “clean the house,” and have no way of getting ourselves motivated to take on that Herculean task. It would be much more doable to, say, “clean the bedroom,” and make that part of a series of tasks that can help us reach some kind of goal.
- Finally, we need to monitor progress. You need to know where your time is going, and how effective you are being. Many people claim, “oh I worked for 12 hours today!” Sounds great. But if you actually could go back in time and observe them, you may find that they would be using the majority of that time for pointless activities that don’t help them move towards the goal at all! That’s why self-monitoring yourself is so key. Again, you can keep track of your progress in any kind of log or journal that you want, but you need something that you can audit at a later date so that you can truly say to yourself, “I’m this productive.” Without the written trace, you’ll be lost like everyone else who doesn’t dedicate him or herself to time management training.
- A good temporary time management technique is to keep a detailed log of your daily activities, maybe for as long as a week. After the week, analyze your study to see where your big time sinks are and where you can clean up some inefficiencies. You may be surprised about what you find!
- One of the simplest ways to budget your time is to make lists. The to-do list is a great way to sort and organize your tasks for the day – as long as you use it the right way. What consists of the “right way” depends on your tastes and situation; some people only like putting their AAA priority tasks on the list, while others put almost everything they have to do on the list. There is no one “right” way – there is only the way that is right for you, a way that you can only discover through trial and error.
- You may also want to use a time management chart. Time management charts allow you to “block” your time over a certain period, usually a week. The one main weakness about these is that they are a bit too rigid; if something changes or something else comes up, you may find it difficult to handle the changes that will reverberate through the rest of the week. However, if you like more structure, these charts work better for you.
- One of the best way to learn time management methods is to continuously practice. Like all habits, breaking old ones (your time wasting activities) and learning new ones (the ideas mentioned in this chapter) will take time and repetition. In addition, you will also need feedback of some kind to let you know that you are making progress (or stagnating, as the case may be). Otherwise, you will be floating around in the ether with no bearing, and you will not make progress towards your time management goals. Training time management isn’t something that happens in one day or one week – in fact, it really doesn’t even happen in one lifetime! This is something we’ll work on and improve forever; this shouldn’t be depressing, but in fact exciting, as we can always get better at what we do.
- Of course, your time management strategies will have to be tailored to your personal situation. If you have a bunch of free time and need to make sure you spend it wisely, this is a different problem than if you have a hectic, busy schedule with lots of other commitments and things to do for others, so many things that you need help winnowing the field. In addition, your strategies will depend on your tasks, your job, your goals, and so on. Thus, we can’t exactly tailor this advice for you in particular; you’ll have to do that job yourself over time. Don’t be afraid to adapt the system or your approach to the situation as it calls for it. You don’t “have” to do anything here if it doesn’t make sense for you.
- A huge difference between someone who has better time management over someone who doesn’t is how well they use their “down time.” By this I don’t mean time for recreation, as you need to budget in time to enjoy life and recuperate. (This is sometimes called the Unschedule.) What I mean by down time is the time in between other appointments, or the time spent waiting for something else. This is essentially wasted time, mostly because we don’t really try to get work done during the transition. We think of it as time that’s part of other activities. The person who is better at managing themselves will actually use these precious minutes, whether they are 5 or 25, to get small pieces of work done. If you are commuting, for instance, you can get some reading or other paperwork done. If you are waiting for 10 minutes between a meeting, start doing some other work that is productive. With the rise of smart phones, it’s easy to just burn those minutes away in pointless surfing and chatting. Resist that urge.
- Learn to prioritize. This comes into play when we discussed “working smarter, not harder,” and it comes into play again with respect to time management. Spending your time “working” is great, but if you’re working on something that’s low priority, it suddenly doesn’t look very good. That’s because there are opportunity costs at play here – the more time you spend doing one activity, the less time you can spend doing a (potentially) more valuable one. Learn to distinguish between urgent and important tasks. (You may recall seeing the ‘urgent-important’ time management quadrant in other sources). Are the urgent things in your life truly important? Some may be, but a lot won’t. Focus instead on the long term projects and goals that will lead you to the promised land of success and satisfaction.
- Delegate and learn how to work with other people to increase overall productivity and save more time. This is probably one of the most effective time management strategies, simply because you can get more done with more people in a way that’s more than simply the sum of the parts. This is because people can synergize and strategize – who can do what activity the best and fastest? What is the best use of the collective time. Of course, if you are more of an individualist, you don’t have to go out and find partners. But do think about delegating some tasks to assistants or colleagues, if possible. Time is money, so sometimes it will “pay” to pay someone else to do a rote task for you.
- Learn to “block” your time and focus on one task as you go. Multitasking is the bane of many peoples’ existence, especially with the increased speed of technology and communication these days. Despite what it seems like, you are actually less productive and effective when you are multitasking than when you are focused on one task until you crush it. Of all the time management tips and tricks laid out here, I truly think it is this one that has changed my life for the better. I’ve banished the multitasking demon, largely by switching off my computer when possible, and I’ve seen great increases in my productivity.
- Kill procrastination. This is one of the more desired time management goals out there, which is why we dedicated multiple chapters to the topic.
- Don’t forget to reward yourself for a job well done. Improving time management is not just about deprivation and struggle. The ability to control your impulses and discipline yourself is a rare skill, one that should be rewarded when it works out for you. If you have a productive day, make sure to reward yourself with some quality time with friends, family, or yourself. Enjoy hobbies and general relaxation. Don’t become a workaholic. We have much more to say about work ethic and working hard in other chapters of this webbook.
- Get a time management system. These systems (products, books, software, videos, etc.) can give you a more integrated and developed perspective on time management. Everyone has their own different take on the issue, and we’ve given you a good general grounding here, but it may also be useful for you to get one of the great products or time management tools out there to aid you in your quest. We’ll have more information on this (reviews and recommendations) in the next chapter.
- Be careful about these personal time management tools, though. Sometimes they can be cumbersome and unwieldy in themselves. If your software and tools are themselves taking up too much time, what’s the point? Sometimes simpler is better, indeed!
- Kill distractions. This is something I had a problem with – the Internet, especially – and it takes some effort to remove their tentacles from your life. Identify your problem areas and work really hard to remove or limit them. For instance, if you are in a social environment, you may burn up a lot of time simply by getting interrupted by visitors. Try to avoid this as much as possible by putting up signs, lowering your availability, etc. Do whatever you have to do to get your blocks of time finished.
- Phone calls, e-mails, and social network status updates (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc.) are huge distractions and time burners. Good time management skills include managing these constant distractions. Turn off notifications, let calls go to voicemail when possible, and limit your checking of these things to just a few times a day.
- Watch out for the huge time burners – those activities that you do that are utterly pointless and, in the worst case, counterproductive and destructive. These are deadly sins because you are burning up time that you can never get back. It is worse than burning money.
- Sometimes the best time management strategy is the simplest: eat right, exercise, and get sleep. Be positive and don’t dwell too much on the negative. Take care of yourself and that will often take care of time.
- Don’t rush through tasks to get them done. We want to get things done right; don’t let your time management training activities make you obsessed with meeting some arbitrary “time limit” or “deadline.” Make sure the job is done right so that you don’t have to go back and redo your work.
- Teach time management to others. Teaching time management forces you to understand the concepts and know how to communicate them to yourself and others. You will internalize them to a degree you won’t believe when you can explain them to a newbie.
- Be rigorous with your system, but avoid burnout. All the time management help in the world will be useless if you can’t fathom picking up a pen or doing an ounce of work simply because you’ve burned yourself out on the notion. Take your time, don’t rush, limit your stress, and take breaks! You don’t have to be a marathon man; as Tony Schwartz recommends, life your live like a sprinter – periods of focused energy followed by periods of rest.
- Finally, this is not the most pertinent of the tips on time management discussed here, as it doesn’t deal with the present, but don’t forget the deep future – what do you want to be doing or have accomplished five, ten, or even twenty years from now? Your activities today should reflect these long term goals in some way. You may want to dedicate some of your weekly or monthly time to thinking these questions through so that you are always oriented towards a brighter future of your own design.