UPDATED: January 3, 2024
PUBLISHED: October 24, 2023
Young Black business woman learning how to improve time management skills at work

There are 1,440 minutes in a day. That’s all you’re going to have. Nobody gets more than that; time isn’t a renewable resource. So you need to find ways to improve your time management and make the most of what you have. What you do—and don’t do—determines your level of success.

As Chinese author and philosopher Lin Yutang said, “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.”

Your ability to think strategically about your day will make an enormous difference in your productivity and profitability. Highly successful people are experts at managing their time and priorities.

The good news is you don’t need to go to school or take online courses to improve your time management. You just have to use some of these techniques.

1. Plan each day before it starts to improve time management. 

“Never begin the day until it is finished on paper,” Jim Rohn said. “Either you run the day or the day runs you.”

Every minute you spend in planning can save you as much as 10 minutes in execution. It only takes a few moments to diligently plan your day, but this small investment will save you hours in wasted time and effort.

Decide what’s important to you and in what order. Make sure your values don’t conflict with work. Energy spent worrying diminishes your abilities. Ask yourself the following questions to help identify what’s important:

  • What is the highest value-added action I can do?
  • What can I, and only I, do that I’ve done well before to make a difference?
  • (If you work at a company) Why am I on the payroll?

Remember: Lists of goals, tasks and objectives are of no help unless you write them down Putting your plans on paper makes a seemingly elusive goal more concrete. There’s a connection that takes place between the brain and the hand. When you don’t write it down, it’s fuzzy, but as you write it and revise it, it becomes clear.

2. Schedule your top priorities first 

All items on your to-do list do not hold equal weight in value or importance. Most people schedule their days with a mix of high- and low-value activities. Don’t let the low-value ones hijack time and mental energy. Improve your time management by identifying your top priorities. Then put them in your calendar before anything else. 

3. Realize that “urgent” doesn’t mean “important” 

Lots of people—family, friends, customers, partners—will tell you that something must be done right now. An unexpected phone call or a drop-in visitor may be urgent, but the consequences of dealing with either may not be important in the long run. 

Before you jump at someone else’s “emergency,” pause to evaluate whether the task really should take priority over important income-producing activities. Urgent tasks are other oriented. Important things are self-directed and have the greatest value for you. Using a time management matrix can help you evaluate between urgent and important.

4. Improve your time management by just saying “no” 

Everything you do is something you have chosen to do, whether you are conscious of it or not. Some people have a difficult time accepting this truth, but your life is what you are making of it.

If you are frustrated, exhausted or overwhelmed, there is a good chance that you have not said no often enough. It may feel uncomfortable to say it and set those boundaries, but every time you do, you make room for a yes that really matters.

5. Expect the unexpected 

Even when you have a plan and schedule your top priorities first and say no regularly, your efforts to improve your time management can still get derailed. Do you receive phone calls that divide your focus? Has anyone ever stopped by to say a “quick hello” that lasted forever? Has a crisis caused you to drop everything? I’m sure you’ve answered yes, yes, yes. Even with the best intentions, you can find yourself subject to someone else’s agenda.

Don’t let the unexpected get you off track. If possible, carve out blocks of time when you can’t be interrupted. Work to create margins in your life so that when the unexpected happens, you are able to deal with it.

6. Schedule breaks to improve your time management 

If you’re easily distracted, force yourself to be disciplined by allotting eight to 10 minutes per hour to use as you wish for personal calls, food runs and the like. This tactic works because you’re less likely to interrupt your work outside the prescribed times if you know the break is coming.

7. Apply the 80/20 rule to everything 

One of the most helpful concepts for managing a schedule is the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. Named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the axiom says that 20% of your activities will give you 80% of your results. This means 20% of your customers will account for 80% of your sales, 20% of your products will account for 80% of your profits and 20% of your team members will account for 80% of the group’s success.

In turn, you should spend 80% of your time on the vital 20% of everything you do. If you have a 10-item to-do list, tackle the top two with the majority of your might. If you have 20 staff members, spend 80% of your time with the top four. Do these things, and your productivity and time management will improve dramatically.

8. Pick up the phone 

Making a call can often generate a quicker—and more accurate—response than a time-consuming email exchange. If you need to know something immediately, voice-to-voice contact can beat cyberspace.

9. Batch your tasks 

Think of repetitive chores that eat tons of time daily and block out time to do them weekly or monthly. Angela Lee Diaz, founder of Omaha, Nebraska-based accessories company SHOLDIT, spent hours each week thinking up content for blog posts. “It was my biggest clock-sucker, and I quickly realized I still couldn’t get it all done,” she says. Lee’s solution: She sets aside three hours each month with a creative writer to churn out all content and schedule it in advance for distribution.

10. Reflect on how the day went to improve your time management for tomorrow

If you’re not sure whether these new habits are paying off, then spend a few minutes each evening reflecting on the day. Consider what you learned, how you used your 1,440 minutes, and what you could have done differently. By analyzing what went well and what did not, you can identify productive and unproductive patterns in your behavior.

In the end, it isn’t what you think about, talk about or intend to do that shapes the life you lead. It is what you actually do each day that determines your future. How you spend your time is how you use your life. As psychotherapist Charles Spezzano wrote in What to Do Between Birth and Death, “You don’t really pay for things with money. You pay for them with time.”

Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

Photo by Rido/Shutterstock.com

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for SUCCESS.com. A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.

Tory Johnson is CEO and founder of Spark & Hustle, a weekly contributor on ABC's Good Morning America and a contributing editor of SUCCESS magazine.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.