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A Comprehensive Guide to Time Management
time management

A Comprehensive Guide to Time Management

Learning to manage time effectively is important, and can help you in your personal life, at work, and many other areas of your life. But what is it exactly, and how can you incorporate effective time management practices into your life? Let’s start with the basics.

Time Management 101

Time management is the process of organizing and planning the way you go about accomplishing multiple tasks during your day.

time management tools
(PeopleImages / Getty)

Good time management enables you to gain a clearer understanding of what you set out to achieve and why it’s important, so you can stay focused and motivated, working smarter, not harder.  

Most people either have good, mediocre, or poor time management skills. 

Managing Time Effectively: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good time management leads to a happier and more productive day, allowing you to focus on the specific tasks that are more important, and avoid time wasters, missed deadlines, ultimately resulting in less stress. 

Because time management is an important aspect of project management, it is especially useful at work, and can help burnish your professional reputation over time. When used at home, it can help you streamline your day, and carve out the ever-important “me time,” allowing you to relax and enjoy time with your family. 

Having mediocre time management skills means that you may feel like you’re always racing from between tasks, without a moment of pause. You may feel stressed about how much you have to do and how little time you have to do it, and may indicate that you are misjudging a task’s importance, perhaps trying to complete tasks on your task list that are relatively unimportant, instead of checking off the items on your list that bring the most value to your daily life. 

time management skills
(Peter Cade / Getty)

Having poor time management skills means you may be known as the friend or family member that is always running late, or someone that can’t plan ahead. You may not use to do lists, and likely have trouble taking control of complex situations. Those around you may feel you should never be trusted to deliver work on time, or be in charge of a big project at work or important tasks at home.  

You may show up late to work because the morning got away from you or you may not be able to work efficiently enough to hold some fast-paced jobs. If this is you, there is room for change! Time management skills can help turn the tables for you.

Benefits of Time Management Skills

If you’re not so good at managing your time, don’t worry, it’s not time to panic. These skills can be learned and practiced, and even perfected! There are many time management tips that can help you save time and complete even the smaller tasks on your list.

However, before getting into the “how” of managing time, you should know what you’re working for, and how putting on the project manager hat can help you eliminate much of the wasted time currently in your schedule. Putting a little effort into developing better time management skills can help you in the following ways:

Increased Productivity 

You get more accomplished when you’re not switching randomly between tasks. When you know clearly what you’re doing in the near future and what’s expected of you, you can really get into a workflow and knock off some tasks from your list. 

You might even find what is called the “flow state”, that beautiful feeling when creativity and output reach their maximum potential, and you just work without second guessing. You type without back-spacing, you read without stuttering, you get through a book chapter in one-setting and remember its entire contents. Flow is the best state for working and it can only happen when time is managed effectively. 

Stress Reduction & Prevention

Time management helps you work smarter, lowers stress levels, and creates the opportunity to use your most valuable nonrenewable resource (time) more wisely. This is stress-relieving on so many levels! Not only are you not wasting time but you’re also making the most of what you have! 

Plus, time management means prioritizing the most important tasks first, and avoid the feeling of things getting out of control or being chaotic. Being able to visualize your tasks and accomplishments and manage your time helps you avoid feeling stressed about missing something, forgetting something, or not working hard enough. 

Meet Deadlines and Make Dreams a Reality

People who struggle with managing their time effectively are quite obviously more prone to missing deadlines, which can set them back on their personal and professional goals. 

When you want to meet a goal and manage your time effectively, you often need to break larger tasks into smaller components. It helps keep yourself focused and motivated. If you can’t meet small goals, you can’t move forward to building a reality from your dreams. It’s just that simple. 

How to Manage Time Like a Pro

Isn’t time just something that ticks away, and we have no control over it? Yes and no. 

It’s true that time is something that ticks away whether we want it to or not, and that part of life we have no control over. But it’s wrong to assume we’re passive bystanders in this process. Remember that this is your life and your time. Ultimately you do get to decide how you spend your 24 hours. 

what is time management
(izusek / Getty)

And this is where we begin. Learning how to manage time requires some self-inventory of where you’re currently spending it. In this way, it is helpful for some to think about time like money with one small exception because you can always make more money. Once time is gone, though, it’s gone forever. 

Tracking your own time management

Seeing where your time is currently being spent is necessary in the process of figuring out how to manage time more effectively.

If you have a sleep tracker, exercise tracker, or other behavioral tracking device, now’s the time to pull up its data. Even without it, you can make estimates based on where you spend most of your time and what your top priorities are. 

Jot down time spent doing the following in hours or minutes. 

There are 24 hours in a day which equals 1440 minutes.

  • Sleeping (including getting ready for bed)
  • Eating 
  • Grooming AKA getting ready (brushing teeth, bathing, hairdoing)
  • Cleaning 
  • Caregiving AKA care work (children and family or friends)
  • Working for the labor market

If you are someone with regular habits and hobbies, you will want to jot down any time spent on these as well. For example, if you smoke or vape, take notice of how long you’re actually spending (this can especially help when you’re working on quitting). All you do is time yourself each session from start to finish. 

It can be difficult to take that level of accountability because most of the time when we have unhealthy habits, we don’t want to know how much time is being spent since we intuitively know it's a lot. There’s no shame in a starting point, though. That’s why it’s called that!

There is power in knowing the real numbers, though. And in all honesty, you can’t make a successful budget with false information. Imagine budgeting your monthly income each month and not taking into account the financial cost of your habits. You’re not going to get very far ahead that way.

Succeeding requires being honest with yourself.

Jotting down how much time you’re spending on certain habits (this can include other things like online gaming, gambling, watching adult videos, drinking alcohol, etc.) is an act of holding yourself accountable so you can actually develop good time management skills in the very near future. 

How Does Your Time Management Compare to Others?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data from over 32,000 respondents (15 years and older) from 2014-2016. Participants categorized and recorded every activity during a 24-period. 

Here’s what they found about how much people worked and how much free time people had each day (ie., their time management).

“Work” in the study is considered the essential activities like:

  • Paid work in the labor market
  • Home-based work: Taking care of children and family, cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc.
  •  Essential self-care: Eating, sleeping, grooming

“Free time” in the study is considered everything outside of the “have to do” tasks we all have to accomplish whether we like it or not. 

Free time examples include:

  • Socializing (including social media)
  • Entertainment
  • Sports and recreation (including exercise)
  • Volunteering
  • Religious activities
  • Education for personal interest
  • Traveling for leisure

Here’s what they found out about the average person’s daily tasks and time management. 

Non-Leisure or “Work” Time

  • Women: 18 hours and 42 minutes
  • Men: 18 hours and 4 minutes

Leisure Time

  • Women: 5 hours and 18 minutes
  • Men: 5 hours and 56 minutes

You May Have More Time Than You Realize 

Five hours? Who has five hours? You probably do! The results of the analysis include that no subgroup in the study reported having less than 4.5 hours of free time. 

That’s 270 minutes a day on average of “free time” per person. Those with highschool education and those living far below the federal poverty line (185%) demonstrated more free time (spent on television, movies, screen time).

Even if you don’t have five hours (which you’ll only know after doing the time budgeting  exercise above), everyone can take back 30 minutes in their day. Look for minutes you can take back every time you touch your phone (especially when in restrooms) and whenever you find yourself watching television, overthinking, and doing household tasks. 

what is time management
(courtneyk / Getty)

Still think you can’t afford it? 

Consider the famous quote by philosopher Seneca:

“No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tightfisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.

If philosophy isn’t your thing, consider that the average expected American lifespan in 2016 was about 79 years (which is actually several years higher than a baby born in 1980, with the exact difference depending on state location). 

That’s 28,835 (unguaranteed) extra days.

You want to make sure you’re doing everything in your power to use that time effectively so you have more time to do the things you love. 

What Does Good Time Management Look Like?

When you practice good time management skills, life is much less of a juggling act and much more of a smooth ride. Starting to think about time management in terms of days, weeks, months, and years will help you break things down into more manageable pieces. 

Daily time management looks like:

  • Setting daily goals
  • Having an up-to-date daily to do list 
  • Sectioning off activities (single-tasking)
  • Scheduling short breaks
  • Reviewing your day’s progress
  • Making time management strategy adjustments as needed

Weekly time management looks like:

  • Setting realistic weekly goals (goals that may take longer than single day to achieve but no longer than a week to reach)
  • Doing a mid-week check-in and making goal adjustments as needed (staying flexible but focused)
  • Planning for the week ahead so you’re prepared well in advance
  • Saying no to upcoming tasks that don’t fit the schedule
  • Looking at your time scheduled versus time spent 

Monthly time management looks like:

  • Setting larger goals that require bit more time (e.g. seeing a change in measures of health like blood pressure, cholesterol, or stress)
  • Doing frequent check-ins but not counting progress until the end of the month 
  • Setting “weekend” recharging sessions where you touch base with your weekly progress and how you’re doing, if you need any more support or resources to help you succeed, etc.
  • Doing a monthly reflection which includes asking yourself where the majority of your time was spent during the past month and how much was spent on your monthly goals?

Yearly time management looks like:

  • Comparing month-to-month preset goals and actual accomplishments
  • Removing any time saving tools that aren’t actually improving your time management 
  • Cutting down on or cutting out any major time “sucks” you noticed from month-to-month (ie., how much time did you spend watching TV or scrolling on social media)?

Time Management Tips To Complete Your To Do List

Ready to transform your relationship to time and get rid of unimportant tasks clogging up your day? You can get started literally right now with nothing more than a pen and a paper. If you want to take notes on your phone instead, that’s cool, too. 

Know your priorities

What are your top 3-5 priorities in life? If you’re not sure, that’s okay. Take a look at some examples of other people’s top priorities to get a sense of what you may say.

  • Being a good person
  • Leaving the world a better place 
  • Being respected at work 
  • Raising kind and caring humans
  • Adopting or fostering animals from rescues 

These priorities are your guiding light, your raison d’etre, or your purpose on this planet, if you will. Write them down.

Make SMARTer Goals

SMART goals are goals that are designed to help you succeed, and are an important aspect of self-discipline

They are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

To follow the formula and make your own goal, here’s the basic idea:

  • Write the goal you have in mind
  • What do you want to accomplish? Who needs to be included? When do you want to do this? Why is this a goal?
  • How can you measure progress and know if you’ve successfully met your goal?
  • Do you have the skills required to achieve the goal? If not, can you obtain them?
  • What is the motivation for this goal? Is the amount of effort required on par with what the goal will achieve?
  • Why am I setting this goal now? Is it aligned with overall objectives?
  • What’s the deadline and is it realistic?
  • Review what you have written, and craft a new goal statement based on what the answers to the questions above have revealed

Remove or reduce non-essential tasks and distractions 

Clear your focused work space and clear your mind of unnecessary clutter. Don’t worry about what you’re doing with your time outside of whatever task you have in front of you. 

time management skills
(CasarsaGuru / Getty)

Some people find it helpful to free their environment of visual and auditory distractions to help them stay focused and on task.

Examples include:

  • Removing distracting or eye-catching and attention-demanding art from walls
  • Turning your phone on silent and flipping it over or leaving it in another room
  • Wearing earplugs or noise cancelling headphones

While doing these things may seem like minor changes, consider the fact that every time you take your mind’s focus away from what you’re doing, you lose your flow and spend time switching attention between tasks. 

In other words, our attention is singular, and we really can’t respond to email and drive while drinking coffee. And if we can, we may as well be on autopilot because our attention is null and void at this point. You can see why this isn’t an effective strategy for time management.

Use Time Management Tools 

It can be revealing even to the most self-aware people to see the data on what they’re really doing all day long when they’re so busy! You can get some insight by using a free time tracking tool or your phone’s timer to keep track of where your time is really being spent. Most people spend WAY more time on social media sites than they realize. 

Time trackers can also help improve time management by providing a structured and simple way of keeping you on task. For example, you can try the Pomodoro Method of increasing concentration and productivity. 

Here’s how to do it: Set a work timer for 25 minutes and a break timer for 5 minutes and continue to cycle between to optimize time efficiency. You can even use the Pomodoro Online Timer to simplify the process further. 

Make Planning a Priority - Just don’t Take Too Much Time Doing It

It’s exciting getting to plan out your life based on your top priorities! You’ll quickly notice that after you ask and answer the questions about where you want to be spending your time, you will start shifting your mindset there. 

To keep the momentum going, take a little time each night for the next day or first thing in the day to make a plan of action. Not only does this give you a formula for success (you can see what you need to do that day to reach your overall goals), but it also saves stress in trying to figure out when to fit things that need to get done.

A Word of Advice: Eat the Frog First

what is time management
(David A. Northcott / Getty)

The origin story on who really came up with the idea and from whose quote is still up for debate, but here’s what eating the frog is in a nutshell. 

Eating the frog is all about tackling your hardest, most important task for the day (yes, just one!) 

It’s a popular productivity method that was born from one or both of these quotes (the internet isn’t decided): 

  • “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”
  • ​​Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

If picking a frog for the day seems impossible, you’re not alone! We all have a family of “frogs” to attend to each day and they all seem very important and very timely. The main thing here is that there can only be one biggest, mightiest frog. 

Benefits of eating the frog first

  • Less likely to procrastinate again
  • More likely to check it off the to do list
  • You don’t waste time worrying or stressing about the frog throughout the day when you should be focusing on other related tasks
  • You can feel a major sense of accomplishment first thing in the morning (imagine the boost!) 
  • If you literally do nothing else that day, at least you ate the frog

Your proverbial frog can be something someone else may not blink an eye at - doesn’t matter! 

Common examples include:

  • Retaking a test
  • Making a phone call
  • Going to the doctor, dentist, or therapist (book early appointments)
  • Giving a testimony or presentation

Time Management Is in Your Power

Ultimately, the answer lies in recognizing your main priorities, setting realistic goals, and following-through with using time-tracking tools and your newfound time management skills to your advantage. As time goes on, you won’t even need the timers!

time management tools
(Prostock-Studio / Getty)

You’ll also be much more efficient and speedy at setting daily, weekly, monthly, and longer term goals. Most significant, you’ll get to finally have that time you never thought you did - and that’s the best part of it all. 

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