Time management is something most of us struggle with. In a world that certainly has no shortage of distractions, it becomes all too easy to waste hours or even days on activities that are neither useful nor really all that enjoyable. The good news is, you can learn time management strategies. And you’ll gain the most benefits as long as you understand why you’re doing something and then practice the good time management techniques until they become a habit.
Consider this: Do you proactively engage in your day or simply “fall into activity”? In many ways, time is always of the essence, isn’t it? So it’s up to you to effectively manage your time amidst a sea of competing interests. The thing is, we have far more control than we give ourselves credit for.
If you would like to get more value out of the hours you have in the day, check out these time management strategies.
1. Begin with the end in mind.
Before starting your week, identify the most important tasks you need to accomplish, and the specific results that you seek. Limit your list to no more than three to five items and schedule them based on rigor. Be careful not to assign equally taxing items on the same day. Allocate a specific period of time to accomplish each, approaching them with a sense of urgency. When a competing interest arises, ask: Is this activity appropriate given what I need to accomplish today? Every once in a while, a dilemma may arise and take precedence. Though that happens less frequently than you might think.
“I always end my day by planning the following day, and I always end the week by planning the following week,” says Andrew Kucheriavy, CEO of Intechnic. “This allows me to focus on top priorities as soon as I start my day without having to remember what’s important or worrying about anything derailing me.”
2. Visualize your daily goals.
When you wake up each morning, use the time management strategy of deciding then and there what you want to do with that day. What tasks do you want to accomplish? What activities do you want to enjoy? (It’s important to note that daily goals don’t necessarily have to be work related. Perhaps your goal that day is to spend time with your family or enjoy a day on the golf course.) Then take a few minutes to visualize these tasks as already completed. How would you feel if they were already done? This sense of fulfillment will renew your drive to complete your tasks that day and not put them off any longer.
3. Learn time management strategies from the experts.
Success leaves tracks. A wise man, who had studied success for more than 50 years, once concluded that the greatest success principle of all was, learn from the experts. If you want to be a big success in any area, find out what other successful people in that area are doing. Then do the same things until you get the same results. Study the interviews, speeches, biographies and autobiographies of successful men and women. You’ll find that they all had one quality in common: They were all described as being “extremely well organized.”
Becoming extremely knowledgeable and experienced in using time management techniques will be of great value to you—perhaps more than any other skill you can learn. So read the books and articles, listen to the audio and take the courses. Then, practice, practice, practice every day until you master those time management strategies.
4. Set priorities and deadlines.
Successful people are both effective and efficient. They do the right things, and they do them in the right way. They are constantly looking for ways to improve the quality and quantity of their output. Since there is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done, you must continually use the time management strategy of setting priorities on your activities. Perhaps the best question you can memorize and repeat is, What is the most valuable use of my time right now?
Some tasks will inherently come with a deadline. But for tasks that don’t, you stand to benefit a lot by setting one of your own. Deadlines have a way of breaking procrastination and can motivate you even when you have no desire to complete the task. It’s important, though, when you set deadlines for yourself that you actually stick to them. If you start ignoring the deadlines you set, soon they will have little value to your time management efforts.
5. Use the time management strategy of focusing on one task.
Start with your top tasks. The natural tendency is to major in minors and clear up small things first. After all, small things are easier and they are often more fun than the big, important things that represent the most valuable use of your time. However, the self-discipline of organizing your work and focusing on your highest-value tasks is the starting point of getting your time under control and lowering your stress levels.
“The phrase ‘eat that frog’ was made popular by author Brian Tracy. It’s basically a time management technique that says you should tackle the most difficult and most important task on your to-do list first thing in the morning. Crossing off the hardest and highest priority thing before doing anything else has made me more productive throughout the day,” says John Turner, co-founder of SeedProd LLC.
6. Make a to-do list.
One of the best time management strategies you can use is a to-do list. Something about writing out the tasks you have to complete on a piece of paper makes them feel more doable. It provides you with a visible, tangible way to see how much you still have to do and keep track of the things that you’ve already done. As an added bonus, marking an item off your to-do list is a feel-good reward in and of itself.
“For me, time management is all about lists. Every day, I have a list of items to accomplish. Some are personal. Some are professional. Some take priority (exercise, investor relations), some get pushed to tomorrow (compliance), some get pushed to next week (blogging),” says Grant Feek, managing director of Private Seller Exchange for Cox Automotive Inc. “Interestingly, I find that the more ‘non-work’ stuff I take on, the more organized and efficient I become overall.”
“I set daily to-do lists and work on the highest priority and most time-sensitive items each day,” adds Adam Mendler, CEO of The Veloz Group. “While not everything will get done, a lot will, and my time will largely be spent productively.”
7. Stop multitasking—it’s the simplest time management strategy.
There are people who like to think they are really good at multitasking, but very few of us actually are. Studies have shown that we are almost always less productive when we are trying to accomplish multiple tasks at once. By learning how to prioritize, you’ll be able to get much more done than if you were multitasking. In fact, not only are we less productive when we multitask, it can also increase your chances of burnout, as it is both more difficult and more stressful than focusing your efforts on a single task. Instead of trying to get everything done at once, start checking things off your to-do list one task at a time. Focus all of your attention on that single task until it is complete.
8. Confront and eliminate distractions.
It may seem difficult to avoid the lure of people, technology and other attractive nuisances when compared to “work,” but remember that you’re responsible for the choices you make. What’s the best choice when it comes to time management techniques? Confront distractions. You already know your vices—where you’re likely to fall down. Why not take away the enticement in advance? Recognize distractions for what they are. By mindlessly engaging with them, you lose precious time—time that could be better spent doing the things that matter the most.
One of the best time management strategies for confronting distractions? Do a self-audit on where all of your time is going. Watch James Whittaker, host of Win the Day podcast, author and speaker share his best tip below:
“The fewer times you are interrupted, the more productive you will be. Pay attention to those things that disrupt you—maybe you need to put your smartphone away or close out your email while you work on important tasks,” adds Blair Thomas, co-founder of eMerchantBroker. “Broken flow can really impede progress. By recognizing what breaks your concentration, you can increase your productivity.”
Another time management technique to try? Limit how often you check and answer emails. “Not everyone is capable of doing this, but I’ve seen it work wonders for those who are a little too frequently on the trigger of their email. It’s pretty simple. You set aside two different times during the day to answer email: once at the start, the second at the end. Anything in between gets avoided unless it’s an emergency—but at that point, someone should be calling you,” suggests Nicole Munoz, founder of Nicole Munoz Consulting.
9. Categorize projects and tackle related tasks together.
“Switching between types of tasks is mentally draining. Instead, bundle related projects together and tackle them all at once,” says Firas Kittaneh, co-founder of Amerisleep. “For instance, start your day addressing customer service challenges. Then, move onto marketing campaigns. Afterwards, review new product opportunities. This will make it easier to finalize tasks when you don’t have to mentally toggle back and forth dozens of times each day.”
10. Use apps to support your time management strategies.
There’s an app for just about anything, including tracking your time and productivity. Consider utilizing the tech, like Serenity Gibbons, principal consultant for Diversity and Purpose Consultants, and Stephanie Wells, co-founder and CTO of Formidable Forms.
“Tracking time is like a budget for money. It makes me see what I was doing mindlessly in terms of not using time in the best way, and where I can make immediate improvements,” Gibbons says. “I use a time tracker app, which helps me determine what I do every minute of the workday.”
“With so many awesome productivity apps on the market, it’s completely changed how I manage my time for the better,” Wells adds. “You no longer have to sit down and plan out your calendar for the week because productivity apps make it easy to set reminders, stay on track and get things done. Plus, with many of them, you can look back and see all that you’ve accomplished, which boosts motivation even more.”
11. Protect your time.
You won’t complete any tasks, no matter what time management strategy you use, if things keep interrupting you. “People in general can be distracting. If someone says they want two minutes of your time, it’s almost never two minutes! If I don’t have time to meet with someone for 10-15 minutes right on the spot, I usually have them schedule a time with me. It’s best to manage your day with enough wiggle room so that you can accomplish at least one to two things that you set out to do,” recommends Jennifer A. Barnes, CEO of Optima Office, LLC.
“Work during your peak time, and protect that time from meetings or distractions,” adds Rachel Beider, CEO of PRESS Modern Massage. “You’ll get so much more done this way.”
And consider developing a code for when you’re busy, so you can kindly tell colleagues to leave you alone. It’s a time management technique many in your company are likely to employ. “We have all been in a situation where we want to get back to work but we can’t quite end conversations with our managers. So we internally developed a code that means, ‘Please don’t get offended, but I really need to tackle this task.’ This tactic has changed the way I manage my time because it means I can work on large projects without interruptions,” says Syed Balkhi, founder of WPBeginner.
12. Delegate more.
“I learned from my experience that the entrepreneur’s to-do list will never end. You can prioritize your tasks, focus on more important things or set off the time for something particular, but at the end of the day, things just have to be done,” says Solomon Thimothy, co-founder and CEO of OneIMS. “Unless you find a way to clone yourself, you need to develop trust for other people who can perform those tasks better, faster and cheaper than you.”
13. Try the Pomodoro Technique for time management.
Francesco Cirillo developed this time management strategy in the late 1980s. “I learned about the Pomodoro Technique a few years back when researching solutions to this exact problem, and I have been extremely impressed with the results,” says Bryce Welker, creator of Crush The CPA Exam. “The idea behind it is to allot 25-minute chunks of time in which you only focus on one task. After each time chunk [called a Pomodoro], take a short break before resuming. I’ve gotten more work done in four Pomodoros than some full work days!”
Frederik Bussler, director of writing at Howl Labs, shares the sentiments for this time management strategy, adding that breaking your day into Pomodoros “helps you stay focused and motivated.”
14. Avoid putting off tasks.
We as humans have this unfortunate tendency to spend more mental energy worrying about the tasks we have to do than we spend actually doing them. When you put off tasks, they’re always going to be in the back of your mind. It’s difficult to enjoy leisure time when you’re always either consciously or subconsciously thinking about the work you are putting off. To avoid wasting mental energy worrying about these unfinished to-do’s, always complete tasks as they come up.
15. Reward yourself when your time management strategies are successful.
When you complete a task, reward yourself! That doesn’t mean you have to throw a huge celebration every time you check something off your to-do list. For many people, the reward for finishing a task is something as simple as going outside for fresh air or having a snack. Just make sure that whatever rewards you give yourself are healthy and don’t take up too much of your time. For example, eating a box of donuts every time you finish a task probably isn’t a good idea, and neither is taking the next two hours off. When done right, though, small rewards can have a big effect.
16. Take time to relax.
If you’re like most people, no matter how much you do, there will always still be tasks that you could work on. Sometimes this feeling of never really being caught up can be overwhelming. You may find yourself trying to compensate by working even longer and harder. There may come a point, though, when you will burn out. From that point forward, no matter how hard you try, the work you do is not going to be the same quality as it was before. Plus, the time it takes you to do it is going to be increased. What’s worse, burning yourself out certainly isn’t healthy.
It’s important to know when to take a step back and relax. For example, work breaks into your daily goals and rewarding yourself with short periods of relaxation. However you integrate this time management technique, just know that taking that time for yourself is every bit as important as taking the time to complete your tasks.
17. Evaluate your time management strategies.
Evaluate your success by how many critical tasks remain outstanding by the week’s end. Decide what percentage of tasks completed makes for a successful day or week for you. Perhaps it’s 85% to 90%. Carry over any uncompleted tasks to the next week.
By taking a closer look at your performance, you can determine where you need to make adjustments in your time management techniques. Evaluation should occur at two critical benchmarks: daily and weekly. While everything is still fresh in your mind, do a quick assessment at the end of each day. Is there anything that sticks out? If so, consider the impact it’s having on your time and performance. Is it positive or negative? Abandon whatever time management strategy isn’t working and indulge whatever is.
At the end of the week, do a global assessment. Look for patterns and trends. Did you notice time periods that were easy to work within? How about repeated distractions? Whatever you find, go beyond observations. Use what you discover to help you successfully manage your time and maximize your results.
This article was originally published in December 2015 and has been updated. Photo by BongkarnGraphic/Shutterstock