Time management is one of a project manager’s three most important skills, and the “life blood” of any project, according to the Project Management Institute (PMI). Time is one of your most finite, and valuable, resources in any project, whether you’re utilizing an agile workflow to create a new app or planning a virtual retreat for your team.
This post will walk you through seven proven time management techniques the pros use to keep their projects on schedule and under-budget. We’ll cover topics like how to plan effectively, how to automate project management, tips for effective communication with team members and other stakeholders, and running efficient meetings.
But first, what is project time management?
Basically, time is one of many tools you need to complete a project. Let’s say your project is to bake cookies for Holly’s birthday party (chocolate chip cookies are her favorite). To complete the project, you need to buy or source ingredients, prepare and mix the batter, bake the cookies, take the cookies to the party, etc. But you also need time. If you wait until 15 minutes before the party to start baking, you will fail to complete your project. Managing time is just as important to a project manager as managing all other resources.
Here are seven tips successful project managers use to wring the most value out of the time they have.
1. Start with a plan
One of the best ways to effectively manage your time is to create a detailed and specific plan at the outset. Start with the project baseline: Your project scope, cost, and schedule. Next, break it down even further. Who is doing what, when, where, why and how? Addressing these questions is part of the project management process, particularly in the project initiation and planning phases. Next we’ll go into how to answer these questions.
2. Break the plan down into manageable chunks
In the planning stage you’ll work with stakeholders to determine, write down, and commit to the major elements of your project plan. Your project should likely include a project kickoff meeting where you’ll answer questions including, but not limited to:
List all applicable project stakeholders. Who will buy the ingredients? Who will make the cookies? Who will eat the cookies? Pay special attention to the people you are managing or those who are specifically reporting to you. Their time management is also your time management.
Creating your work breakdown structure (wbs) will go a long way to defining the “what” of your project. The wbs is a complete list of items that make up the project (not to be confused with a backlog which doesn’t need to be complete right from the get-go). Once you break the wbs into work packages (collections of items that are related to each other), you can assign these to the appropriate person.
This is where you establish the project’s end date. You need to define what “done” looks like and determine when the project must meet that criteria. Next, you’ll write down the scheduled dates of completion for each element of the process. By doing this you’ll also decide how you’ll sequence activities. This also necessitates estimating activity durations and using those estimates to allocate activity resources.
If you’re working with a remote or distributed team, keeping time zones in mind can be very helpful with schedule management. Many project teams are distributed or virtual, especially in this day and age of hybrid work. If you’re working with a distributed team, invest in productivity tools that can make the most of different work schedules. Team members can communicate through apps like Slack to stay connected and informed, and sync their calendars with a calendar assistant like Clockwise.
Hopefully the “why” of the project is covered in the project charter. However, it never hurts to remember the core issue, pain point, or vision that the project was created to address. It can be easy to get lost in the details, especially under deadline stress or conflicting demands from different stakeholders. Recasting the vision for the project for your team can be an effective strategy for staying on track when things get messy.
3. Leverage project management tools for time management
The right project management software helps you more effectively coordinate with teammates and other stakeholders. In addition, project management software can help you automate efficient time management through features such as time tracking, project scheduling, and visualization. Here’s how.
Many project management tools offer the option to record the amount of time a task takes. Time tracking helps you gauge how long tasks are actually taking versus the time estimated at the beginning of the project. This helps you get better at estimating over time. It also makes it easier to see whether team members are hitting their goals on-time so you can problem-solve or assign to a different person.
If you’re trying to schedule multiple people and multiple tasks at once, a calendar assistant can be invaluable. Clockwise makes coordinating easy by suggesting times to meet that respect everyone’s calendar preferences and helps preserve the most Focus Time for you and your team. Clockwise also integrates with Asana to help automate time blocking, where you designate blocks of time on your calendar for important tasks.
Visualization helps you see the entire flow of project activities at a glance, with the option to zoom into the smallest work package. Sure, you can build a Gantt chart in Excel. But tools like Asana and Monday integrate your chart with scheduling tools. Project management software also facilitates a network diagram, to help you visualize relationships between tasks. Visualizing the critical path, task dependencies, and sequencing will help you easily grasp the project timeline at a glance. It will also help you anticipate potential bottlenecks so you can take preventative measures and/or schedule some cushion time.
4. Streamline communication with team members and stakeholders
“Nothing is more important to the success of a project than effective communication,” according to the PMI. To communicate well, tailor your communication to your audience. There may be some team members or outside stakeholders who communicate better face-to-face (physically or virtually) than through email or over the phone.
Talk to the people on your team about the project and how they are managing their time and important tasks. Keep an open line of dialogue so that people can come to you with potential issues that could impact the timeline for completing the project. Breakdowns in communication within the team can cause serious delays.
Networking and building relationships is another soft skill that project managers can actively work to develop as part of their communication strategy. It may not be covered on the PMP certification test or in the PMBOK, but getting to know stakeholders and maintaining those relationships over time can be a huge advantage in the field. Hopefully your stakeholders want to hear from you — but whatever the case, keep your communication brief, pleasant, and to the point.
However you reach out, make sure to schedule communication at regular intervals to maintain those relationships and keep your project on schedule and on everyone’s radar.
5. Eliminate time wasters and unnecessary meetings
Avoidable meetings are the bane of a project manager’s existence (unless there are free bagels, in which case all is forgiven). Here’s how to thwart meetings that could (and should) have been emails (or updates in project management software).
Well-run meetings can actually save time and move the project forward. Plus, some problems require getting everyone in a room. If you’re scheduling a meeting, these tips will help ensure it’s time well-spent:
Write an agenda.
Clearly define what you need to accomplish in the meeting. Make sure each person knows why they are there.
Stay on track.
Keep the meeting on track and bring the discussion back to the point when it goes off track. Put any agreements or established plans of action in writing.
Follow up with action items.
After each meeting, send a summary to all attendees. Include next steps for each person and department.
6. Manage project stakeholder expectations and communicate progress strategically
A big part of effective time management for any project is managing project stakeholders’ expectations. These are normally set during the initiation and planning phases, but sometimes you have to make sure everyone is still on the same page. It’s good to periodically remind stakeholders of the agreed-upon project schedule and deliverables.
This is part of defending the project scope like your life depends on it. Your goal is to deliver results on-time, on-budget, and within scope. Everything else is negligible. Remember, you didn’t set out to make peanut butter cookies and chocolate chip cookies. Don’t let other people’s agendas take over your primary objective. If the nature of your work requires flexibility (such as in software development), an Agile methodology can give you a great balance between structure and adaptability to change.
Be a change manager and have a protocol in place for any change requests and make sure that stakeholders know what to expect and when. It’s easier said than done, but sticking to the plan even under pressure will pay off in the long run and keep you on schedule.
7. Revisit and tweak the plan as needed
Finally, be flexible and responsive to any new information that you learn or challenges that arise during the execution and monitoring and controlling phases. Sometimes you think you have all the ingredients to make cookies but you are out of vanilla extract, so you adapt and substitute maple syrup. It’s extremely hard to plan for every possible contingency, but having a big picture plan that you can look at in a glance will help you make rapid decisions in the face of change.
There’s no questioning the importance of time management in project management
It’s no easy task to stay on task, but effective time management is crucial to your success. These tips should help you manage your time more effectively.