Learning to manage your time is a proven way to be more productive and successful.
They say time moves slowly when we're bored and quickly when we're having fun. It also seems that when we really need to be productive, time can feel almost beyond our control.
While everyone has the same number of hours in a day, productive people have learned key tips and techniques to manage their time more effectively. Here are 10 ways to build some great time management skills to help boost your productivity both inside and outside of your workspace.
What is time management?
Management guru Tony Robbins states that time management is being able to use your time effectively largely by “knowing the difference between being busy and being productive.” This means having a plan for everything you need to do so “you're able to get laser-focused on your goals.”
That said, here are some of the best weapons to have in your time management arsenal.
1. Set SMART goals
When setting goals for what you want to accomplish, make sure they are reasonable enough to be accomplished and not some lofty objectives that would be difficult or impossible for a person to reach in a normal situation.
One of the best methods for goal setting is the SMART technique. SMART stands for:
SPECIFIC – There's a saying that if you don't know what you want, it's usually harder to get it. That's why your goals should be as specific as possible so there's no confusion around what you need to do. For example:
Add next quarter's numbers to the budgeting spreadsheet.
Create an outline for the marketing plan.
Call 10 prospective leads.
MEASURABLE – For each of the examples above, there is a measurable result to gauge whether you reached all or some of the goals. Did you get all the numbers onto the spreadsheet? Is the outline complete? Were all 10 leads contacted?
ATTAINABLE – Can you actually reach the goal, or have you set the bar too high? Perhaps contacting five prospective leads versus ten is more attainable given the process involved and the other work on your plate. It's better to set a reasonable goal and reach it versus missing the mark and looking inept.
RELEVANT – Are these the goals you should be focusing on right now or are others more important for your success and that of your team/organization?
TIMELY – It's good to work ahead, but if the budgeting spreadsheet isn't due for a month, consider a goal that has a higher priority or a closer due date.
2. Prioritize tasks
This can and should be done daily, but it's also helpful to do it weekly, monthly, quarterly, and even annually if it makes sense for your position and your company's goals.
Tony Robbins describes this as “getting clear on what it is you really want, and then aligning your ultimate goals with the actions you need to take today.”
One method for prioritization is to think about the importance and urgency of your tasks.
If something is both urgent and important, do it immediately.
If it's important but not urgent, you have some bandwidth to decide when to do the task—being careful that it doesn't get overlooked in the future when it might become pressing.
Urgent but not important tasks can often be delegated to a team member or support staff to keep you available for more critical work.
Something not urgent and not important can be moved down your list to attack later. Again, be alert for a status change in any of these items.
The key is accurately assessing the priority of each task. Talk to your supervisor if you're unsure or have a conflict.
3. Add time estimates to your tasks
For each task on your to-do list include either the amount of time you can allot for it or an estimate of how much time you think it will take. This can help with prioritizing since you know how much time a task requires versus how much time you have available to focus on it.
Keeping a time diary can help in this process. Track everything you do and how long it takes you to do it. This includes bathroom breaks and chatting with co-workers as well as meetings and phone calls. It can be eye-opening to see either how much or how little time you actually have in a day. Once you know this, you can make more conscious decisions about how to use your time effectively.
4. Set time increments
Working for set increments of time, such as 20-minute blocks, can greatly improve efficiency.
When you begin a task, set a timer for 20 minutes and give your full concentration to the job, avoiding distractions if possible. When the timer goes off, stop and decide whether you want to finish that task or move on to something else.
If you choose to continue working, take a quick break, reset the timer for another twenty minutes, and begin again. Keep repeating this procedure until either the task is done, or you decide you need to stop.
Over time, this 20-minute process will become second nature for improved time management.
5. Kick perfectionism to the curb
Trying to do everything perfectly makes for bad time management because it increases the time needed to complete each task.
You should always give your best effort, but trying to be perfect actually slows you down. Better to have a task done as well as can be expected, including possible errors, versus not done at all.
6. Set up boundaries (and stick to them)
There is a popular saying that sums this up: “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”
To manage your time well, it's perfectly fine to let colleagues and staff know you're not available by putting a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door, working in a conference room, or saying, “I'm sorry, I can't do that right now.” (Saying it to your boss—politely—is also credible because then you can both determine which task should be your priority at that moment.)
Setting boundaries makes you very good at time management by staying focused on your urgent and important tasks.
Efficient workers know that it's simply not possible to get everything done by themselves. Being able to delegate tasks to trusted colleagues or team members has benefits for everyone.
For one, the tasks with your name on them are completed on time and are of high quality. What's more, you free yourself to take on newer, more challenging tasks.
Delegation even gives the person to whom you've assigned the task the chance to both demonstrate their time management skills and gain experience that enhances their skill set.
8. Take breaks
Doing this is not a waste of time; it's a vital part of efficiency. Working without a break can make it harder to stay focused and motivated, increasing the chance that your task will be late, done poorly, or both.
Set a time limit for your break and stick to it. Do something that will help to clear your head and refresh you to take up the task again. This can include taking a walk, meditating, chatting, or even taking a nap.
9. Use Planning Tools
There are a wide variety of planning tools that can improve your time management abilities.
These include planners, pocket diaries, wall charts, index cards, and even a notebook. There are also many productivity apps available for your phone and computer that make it easy to get and stay organized.
Your calendar can also be a great time management tool. You wouldn't miss a meeting or phone call scheduled on your calendar, so view your tasks in the same light by adding them to your calendar on a specific day for a specific block of time.
For example, booking yourself to begin outlining the new marketing plan on Tuesday from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. means you have a dedicated time blocked out for the task, and it's a priority. Don't schedule a meeting or any other activity for that time and keep your appointment with yourself as you would with anyone else.
This is a good way to carve out time for high-priority tasks, but some people also schedule daily tasks, such as checking email, on their calendars. If you know you'll be reviewing emails at 4:00 p.m. every day, you don't have to stop what you're doing every time you hear that notification. Better yet, turn the notification off so you're not distracted by it. If someone really needs you, they'll get to you.
Try different options to find the tool that works best for you. That way you'll use it consistently with great results.
10. Write it down
We can all keep a certain number of things in our heads. At some point, however, it becomes too difficult. As the list grows, we forget to do specific tasks, can't remember exactly what's needed, or don't recall a deadline.
Many people resist creating a to-do list, but it's truly one of the simplest and most effective time management tools. You just need to discover how to use it in a way that works best for you.
Creating the initial list takes the most time, but after that, it's just a matter of adding new items and removing completed tasks. A good rule of thumb is to review the list at the end of each day, re-prioritizing tasks as needed, and cross off completed work.
Whether you use paper or a computer, writing down tasks will free up your brain to get the tasks done versus having to remember them and all their associated details.
Additional benefits of good time management skills
Aside from the obvious benefit of increased productivity, there are other important takeaways of effective time management.
One of the best rewards is reduced stress. When you're getting things done and know how you'll handle new tasks, you feel in control. There's less worry and anxiety associated with your work life, and this can be a key part of staying physically and mentally healthy.
Another is the satisfaction of consistently achieving your goals and the recognition you receive for it. If upper management sees you as efficient and quality-focused, it's possible that more rewards and opportunities will come your way in the form of a salary increase or a promotion.
You might also be able to take on a new challenge or get some training to enhance your skill set which you can add to your resume.
Finally, there's the gift of simply having more time in both your work and personal life. You can regularly leave at the end of your scheduled day to enjoy hobbies or family time versus working late into the evening to finish a task.
Noting time management on your resume
Employers want to hire people who can schedule and prioritize their work to meet deadlines and produce quality results.
Listing this skill on your resume will make you stand out from other candidates, especially if you can show specific achievements that resulted from your excellent time management skills. For example:
Using effective time management methods, increased customer service responses by 20% in a six-month period.
In an interview, be prepared to give examples of how your time management abilities benefitted you, your team, or your organization. Use specific data whenever possible on your resume and during the interview.
There are a wide variety of time management strategies available from just a quick Internet search.
Whatever methods you choose, take time occasionally to evaluate how or whether they are working for you. If you find that you're missing due dates, feeling stressed, or spending more evenings at work, it's probably time to find other tactics that will better accommodate changed responsibilities or a shifting work environment.
The goal should always be that we learn to master time rather than letting it master us. That's the secret to living a balanced and fulfilled life at work and at home.