On an episode of the television series “Shameless,” Lip Gallagher works in a kitchen restaurant while going to school. He asks his boss if he can leave early to study for his literature exam, but he denies his request. In a moment of tough love, Lip’s boss tells him that he sees other students struggling to balance their priorities all the time, and they get there with the help of three words — time management skills. He then says that he took a webinar on productivity that changed his life. Lip responds by saying he doesn’t need a webinar; he needs an extra 30-minutes to study.
We can all relate to Lip. It’s easy to feel like an extra 30-minutes would help us resolve our productivity issues. And while more time might sound like a solution, it’s impossible to add more time to the day. Instead, we need to make better use of our time.
While we don’t have a magical productivity webinar that will change your life, we have seven solid time management tips. Give these tips a try for a boost in your productivity at work.
1. Prioritizing your time like a pro.
To-do lists are nothing more than a never-ending list of tasks we need to accomplish. And while writing out your to-dos is helpful, no two tasks are the same, nor are tasks of equal importance and urgency. The order in which we approach our tasks matters. That’s why it’s essential to organize your to-do list and prioritize your efforts.
Effectively prioritizing your tasks involves determining what work matters most and when deliverables are due. Many of us can decide how important a task is by understanding where it fits within our job duties. Similarly, we can arrange our schedule and complete tasks in order of how they’re due based upon the deadlines we set for ourselves or managers help set for us. But if you’re unsure where a task fits in the grand scheme of the bigger picture, be sure to ask for clarity from your peers or leaders.
We love Stephen Covey’s Eisenhower Matrix for categorizing to-do lists. In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey dives into the four quadrants of time. He suggests that we spend our time on activities depending on two factors: importance and urgency. Important tasks help us achieve our goals and desired outcomes. Urgent tasks require our immediate attention.
The four quadrants of the 2x2 are as follows:
- (Q1) Urgent and important. Bump these tasks to the top of your list. They’re time-sensitive and will help you move the needle.
- (Q2) Important but not urgent. Keep these tasks top of mind, but they do not require immediate action. They’ll help you achieve your goals, so you need to decide how and when to fit them into your schedule.
- (Q3) Urgent but not important. If there’s someone who can help you accomplish these actions, pull them in for support. These tasks are time-sensitive but not important in relation to your goals.
- (Q4) Not urgent and not important. Ask yourself if these items deserve a place on your task list at all. If you must keep them, save them for later.
Lean into this categorization process on a cadence that makes sense to you. Consider creating a weekly or daily 2x2 to make the most of your time.
Pro-tip: Use this Priority Matrix template in Miro.
2. Setting time limits for your tasks.
To master your time, you need to understand how much time it takes you to complete tasks; otherwise, you may create unreasonable to-do lists every day. Beyond unachievable to-do lists, setting time constraints helps us stay focused. Once time is up, it’s time to move on to the next task, so there’s no time to waste!
Unless you use a time-tracking system or pay keen attention to how long tasks take you regularly, you might not know where to begin when setting time limits for your to-do items. If you don’t already know how long tasks take you to complete, you’ll have to start with your best guess. As it turns out — we aren’t always great at estimating how much time it will take us to do certain things because of the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy suggests that we underestimate how much time a task will take. We can attribute underestimations to failing to understand how long it took us to complete similar tasks previously and assuming that we won’t run into any hiccups along the way.
When setting time limits for your tasks, consider the following to avoid underestimations in your schedule:
- Take historical data into consideration. Let your past experiences be the guide that leads you forward. Maybe a task took you 30-minutes to complete in one instance and 60-minutes to finish at another point in time. Take the average of your past experiences as a starting point and adjust as needed from there.
- Plan for the unexpected. No matter how much we try to plan ahead on a task or project, unexpected challenges almost always find a way to sneak into the mix. Build-in some time to address the unexpected if it does arise. And if for some reason it doesn’t and things run smooth like butter, you’ll finish ahead of schedule!
- Break down your tasks to make better estimates. Instead of assuming an entire project will take 32-hours to complete from start to finish, consider breaking the project down into smaller milestones. Smaller tasks are more manageable and easier to plan for.
Evaluate your task lists each week and keep an eye out for tasks that consistently require more time than what you allotted so you can adjust for the future accordingly
Pro-tip: Use a tool like Toggl to keep track of how long it takes to complete your tasks.
3. Saying no to multitasking.
Multitasking doesn’t work for most people. One study found that only 2.5% of people are “supertaskers,” or people who can multitask effectively. A study of college students found that students who multitask while doing homework spent more time studying. Additionally, the data revealed that students who multitask in class regularly held lower GPAs than those who didn’t. And if you still aren’t convinced that multitasking is counterproductive to making the most of your time, psychology research indicates that shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.
While we all inherently fall into the act of multitasking sometimes, some actions can help us avoid or course-correct this behavior when it occurs:
- Only open the tabs you need for your task. If you’re embarrassed to admit how many tabs you have open right now, it’s time to close the ones you no longer need. Make a habit of opening tabs for a task, completing the task, and closing them out before you move on. Closing tabs prevents you from thinking about other work.
- Turn off notifications to eliminate distractions. Notifications are disruptive and will interrupt your train of thought in seconds. Enable Do Not Disturb mode in Slack, on your desktop, and your mobile device if possible.
- Utilize Focus Time. Clockwise can build more Focus Time into your schedule so you can cut back on constant distraction and interruption. Choose how many hours of Focus Time you want per week and let Clockwise handle the rest.
Pro-tip: Clockwise can automatically mute Slack notifications when you’re in Focus Time.
4. Planning ahead and using time blocking.
One of the best ways to make the most of your time is to know how you’re going to spend it before it comes. Set yourself up for success by planning your to-dos and using time blocking. One of the main benefits of time blocking is that it helps you spend less time deciding what to work on when. Instead, by planning and designating time blocks for various tasks, you can focus solely on getting the work done, and your schedule will support when you are going to do it.
The key to time blocking is to divide your days into blocks of time rather than squeezing tasks into your schedule in a disorderly manner. It eliminates the feeling of an entire day being chopped up into chaotic interruptions, reactions, and random tasks when executed correctly. Time blocking has a few relatives, or as Todoist calls them, “distinct cousins,” worth noting:
- Task batching: Grouping similar tasks together and completing them all at once, such as responding to emails in one sitting.
- Timeboxing: Limiting a specific task to a fixed yet reasonable timeline.
When planning, consider using time blocking, task batching, time boxing, or a combination of the techniques. Run your schedule — don’t let it run you.
5. Building breaks into your schedule.
You might think that the best way to get the most out of your time is to squeeze as much work as possible into your day, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Even if days were longer, or we extended our to-do lists to fit more in a shorter period, chances are we wouldn’t get more accomplished because we wouldn’t be able to maintain focus.
Some research suggests that humans might only be able to focus for four or five hours per day. But that doesn’t mean you should work for four or five hours straight either. An Inc. article recommends working in 90-minute intervals with breaks in between.
Breaks are as important as all of your to-dos, so consider adding breaks to your schedule the same way you do your tasks. Block time on your calendar and do your best to stick to it. You can even take a coffee nap or get outside to boost your productivity further.
Pro-tip: Clockwise can help you pre-schedule breaks, including time for lunch.
6. Saving time with organization and automation.
Have you ever wasted time searching for files, trying to get your software systems in order, or doing monotonous tasks that nearly put you to sleep? We’re all guilty of falling victim to time-wasting activities. Get organized and automate what you can to fend off these pesky tasks. Take advantage of app integrations and automate workflows to reduce monotony and cut back on busy work.
7.Leaning into time management techniques.
We’re all wired differently. The good news is there are many time management techniques out there to try. You can mix, combine, and adjust them as needed to make them work for you. Let’s walk through three popular techniques to experiment with if you aren’t sure where to start.
The Pomodoro technique
Many people, including productivity writer Kat Boogaard, experienced positive results using the Pomodoro technique. If you’re wondering what tomatoes have to do with time management, here’s the breakdown. Francesco Cirillo created the Pomodoro technique, and he used a tomato-shaped timer. This tried and true method goes like this:
- Create your to-do list.
- Set a time for 25-minutes to work on one or more of your tasks uninterrupted. (That’s one Pomodoro.)
- Enjoy a 5-minute break.
- Repeat the cycle and enjoy an extended break after 4-5 Pomodoros.
The 80/20 rule
Vilfredo Pareto discovered the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, in 1897. Pareto observed that 80% of outcomes result from 20% of inputs or causes. We’ve adapted and applied it to many facets of our lives, including time management.
You can use this technique to prioritize the activities that drive the most significant results toward your goals for better time management. If 20% of your efforts produce 80% of your results, you should move the activities within the 20% category to the top of your list and give them your full attention.
Eat that frog
Brian Tracy, a bestselling self-development author, introduced the eat that frog technique in his book Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. Eating the frog is straightforward. This technique requires identifying your one most important task for the day (the frog) and completing it first (eat the frog).
Make the most of your time
Developing your time management skills is a lifelong process. Like all good things, mastering your time requires practice, patience, and a willingness to experiment with tips and tricks. You will achieve more and confidently own your schedule by improving your time management.