“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” — Miles Davis
So there you are. It’s Tuesday, it's 8 pm, and you’re hunched over a glowing laptop at your kitchen counter, attempting to get caught up on this week’s work already. Even the most organized of us have been there.
Time management skills are not a destination, but rather a constant work in progress. As you and your responsibilities evolve, your time management tools must evolve too.
How do we get to a more comfortable place with time management when we feel the strain of project creep or an always-growing to-do list? The answer isn’t always so simple, but adding a few foolproof techniques to your toolbox can help.
There are so many resources to improve time management — books, podcasts, apps — but the most helpful techniques often come from knowing how you work and what helps you keep up the productivity. What worked for you last year might not work for you this year, but being open to reworking your strategies or trying something new will carry you through the busiest of seasons.
Here are a few time management tools and strategies you can continue on your journey to super productive, rewarding days.
1. Keep a diligently focused schedule
Always end the day by reflecting on the day and planning for tomorrow. No matter how worn out you are at the end of the day, this simple practice can really change how effective you are every single day. It may seem like a no-brainer to think in advance about what’s on your agenda for tomorrow, but we all know how easy it is to resist extra work at the end of the day.
However, by being diligent about reviewing your schedule for even just 3-5 minutes at the end of the day, you can:
- Be aware of deadlines (for the next day and the next following days since timelines can change so frequently) so you're not caught off guard
- Make a list of emails/phone calls you need to make and schedule them in advance. This helps you put the day on your timeline, rather than being reactive and trying to accommodate others last-minute. Add as many details as you can to your notes in advance to help keep you on track.
- Build in your non-work commitments, like errands to run, a workout, or dinner date. Your day isn't just your workday, so make sure you are leaving time and energy for the other important things in your life.
Reviewing your next day can, at the very least, make you feel a little more prepared, which is exactly the mindset you need to up your time management game. And at the very best, this reflection and preparation process can make you smarter and more energized every single day, by helping you be your very best self.
2. Delegate everything you can
Raise your hand if your entire work ethic has been built on the saying “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” Guilty!
We must let go of that notion if we want to be more successful.
Delegation is not always easy, but it’s so important! There are only so many hours in the day and there’s no way we always have the capacity to take everything on. Even the most superhuman among us will let things slip through the cracks if we have too much on our plate.
An even better way to look at delegation is understanding that some people are better suited for certain tasks. If you work in a group setting, you know this to be true. You may be great at writing reports while your colleague is a great copy-editor. Acknowledging that your peers have strengths that you don't have is not a sign of weakness; in fact, it is the only way to truly level up.
Let go of those tasks that can (and probably should) be somebody else’s responsibility to allow you to do even more, even better. Let other people shine so that you can shine too.
You don't have to be a manager to successfully delegate. There are so many ways to split tasks with peers and teammates that allow you both to spend time doing the things that you are best at. Delegating isn't about assigning out grunt work or saying "I'm better than you" -- it is the opposite. It is about using everyone's time effectively and letting people do their best work.
Remember, you don’t have to do it all to get it all done. It's not a sign of strength; if you want to grow, you cannot hold onto the things you used to do. Practicing delegation will really help you prioritize and spend time on important tasks.
3. Be clear about your priorities
Prioritizing is probably the best way to stay on top of time management, but definitely not the easiest. With texts, emails, and notifications pinging all day long, everything can feel urgent.
Using an Eisenhower Matrix can be a great place to start. This is how it works: The matrix is broken up into four quadrants: urgent/important; not urgent/important; urgent/not important; and not urgent/not important. At the start of each day, go through your to-do list and appropriately categorize your responsibilities.
By doing this you may realize that some of the things on your to-do list can either be put off, removed entirely, or delegated. The matrix will also help you determine the most important places you should be spending your time, thus a perfect tool for time management.
It’s quite easy to pour all of our time into tasks like email when really that is one of the least meaningful places to devote our attention. When you see your priorities laid out clearly in front of you, it makes it easier to put the phone on airplane mode and focus.
If you're not interested in the visual layout of the matrix, you could use an abbreviated version of this in your planner, ranking tasks from 1 to 4, with 1 being the most important and 4 being the least. It’s a simple visual reminder that certain tasks will be a much better use of your time than others.
4. Don't fear the "no"
Saying “no” or turning down a job, assignment, or task is not easy to do, especially when you feel like in order to reach your goal you have to take everything on. In reality, taking on too much can be a huge hindrance to our goal.
Practice saying “no” to things that easily get you sidetracked or throw your day off course, like stopping to talk through an assignment with a coworker or feeling the need to reply to every single email.
You don't have to be harsh when you say no. There are lots of ways to gently let someone know that you can't take on their request right now. For example, instead of saying an outright no, you can let someone know that you're not available right now but you'd be happy to help later. Or for something you know you're not going to want to take on, offer to set them up with someone else who could help.
5. Do a time management audit
When all else fails, figure out what’s not working. Grab your planner and analyze how you’re scheduling your day. Are you being thorough enough? Are you being pragmatic?
We often tend to either overestimate our time or severely underestimate it. That’s why we either find ourselves feeling aimless in between assignments or rapidly finishing projects at the very end of the day. None of us want to be posted up at the kitchen counter at 8 pm on Tuesday night, but life happens, and unexpected responsibilities pop up. That’s why being measured about the parts we know we can control is important.
If you’re doing a time management audit, ask yourself a few questions:
- Where do I spend most of my time?
- Where would I like to spend more time?
- Which tasks do I usually leave for later? Why?
- Do my priorities match up with my ultimate goal?
- Do the things I spend most time on match up with my ultimate goal?
- Which tasks can I delegate?
- Which tasks can I spend less time on?
Sometimes it can be hard to know where you spend your time all day. If you want to be really sure you're auditing your time effectively, set timers to check in every 20-30 minutes for a full day, starting from when you get up.
You might be surprised that you spend an hour on Facebook (when you thought it was only 10 minutes) before getting down to work. Or you might realize you're making more progress in one area than you've been giving yourself credit for; what could you learn from that success and apply to another area?
No matter what you find, be thoughtful of how you use your time. It’s not the main thing, after all. It’s the only thing.