Before we get to any time management tips, it’s important to cover one basic fact: there’s no actual way to manage time. Time is abstract. It’s a measurement we created. And because it’s abstract, that means it’s forever beyond our control. You can’t add extra hours and minutes to the day, no matter how hard you try.
So why bother with time management? Because it’s not really about time. Effective time management involves identifying those parts of your life that you can control. That’s step number one.
What parts of your life, you ask? Here are the main ones:
Once you learn how to manage your schedule, focus on priorities, and jealously guard access to your schedule and focus, you’ll see the power of time management. That’s the second principle of time management: Deliberately decide how you’ll use your time. Don’t let it get decided for you.
You know who understood this? Ludwig von Beethoven. At age 30, he went completely deaf. For any composer, the loss of one’s hearing is a tragic blow. For a man like Beethoven with a fiery passion for music, it was devastating. He mourned the loss and nearly turned to suicide.
Later, in letters to his brother and childhood friends, Beethoven described a newly discovered sense of purpose. He wrote:
“I shall seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend nor crush me.”
He then went on to compose what many consider his pinnacle achievement, the 9th Symphony.
That’s what time management is about. Seize your fate by the throat. Deliberately fill your limited time with what you value and never let outside influences hijack your time.
Here are a few suggestions to help you guard your time:
This is a real problem for many people in the workplace. Until you master this simple step, you’ll never fully own your time.
Don’t get me wrong—there are definitely times to be flexible and help others out of a jam. But you should be the one to decide when that is. Don’t let others take advantage of you merely because they’re in the middle of a crisis. The only two people who should have any say on your work schedule should be you and your boss. Everyone else is welcome to make suggestions, but that’s it.
Make a list. On the one side, list those activities you consider time well spent. These should include those tasks that fill you with a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, and they shouldn’t be limited to work. They can also include quality time with family, exercise, meditation, personal studies hobbies, etc.
Next make another list, only these should be activities you’d classify as “time drains.” These are any pastimes you regret afterward, or time you wished you’d spent on something else. These can vary, but most people list time spent watching TV, gaming, and other entertainment.
Take a week—day by day, hour by hour, half hour by half hour—and track your activities. Write down how you spent your time. At the end of the week, use your two lists to see how much time you spent on worthwhile activities and how much on time drains. From this audit, you can begin drawing up plans on how to better manage your time.
You’ve seen the commercials that claim, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Well, you’re not you when you’re sleep deprived. Lack of sleep makes it harder for you to focus, to pay attention, and to sustain any effort or discipline. Sleep deprivation puts you in survival mode, where anything goes as long as it helps you get through the day. You won’t have the energy to avoid distractions and maintain consistent control of your time. So make sure you’re racking up those essential seven or eight hours of sleep every night.
Are there tasks you’re avoiding, either unconsciously or deliberately? Don’t let them slip to the bottom of your to-do list. Meet them head-on when you first arrive at work. Those initial hours, between 9am and 12pm, are usually when you’ll work the hardest during the day. You should devote them to dispatching those priorities giving you the most grief.
Schedule your projects out so you start on them early and work on them incrementally. You’ll feel less stress and more satisfaction with the end product when you give yourself the time to do it right. One recommendation is to plan it out so that you’re done a day before the project is actually due. This gives you a chance to fine-tune your efforts, ask for feedback, and make improvements to the project.
Look over your cumulative workload and see if any tasks are related or similar try to get them done in a batch. That way, you can get into a rhythm and avoid switching gears between different tasks.
Be fully present in any task you do or any meeting you’re in. Don’t divide your focus or you run the risk of having to rehash discussions you’ve already had or repeat work that’s already been done. Multitasking actually lowers your IQ by 10 points, which is twice the effect of smoking marijuana. To put it bluntly, that means put away your phone or tablet and give whatever you’re doing your undivided attention.
Attach a specific allotment of time for every task and do your best to maintain it. Don’t just expect that you’ll keep to the time frame, either. It’s easy to get swallowed up in a task and lose track of time. If necessary, put a timer or clock in front of you to stay on track. You can also find plenty of apps to help you focus and avoid distractions.
Human beings spend about five years of their lives standing in line. How depressing is that? Maybe you’re waiting to board a plane, see a doctor, travel on a bus, or check out at the store. Maybe you’re only standing there for a few minutes, but that’s time you could devote to activities from your “well-spent” list. If you have the right remote working tools, you could even spend that time making business calls, reviewing reports, or consulting with co-workers.
When you’re focusing on a project, cut yourself off from distractions. Don’t answer the phone when it rings, don’t respond to that email or instant message. Better yet, turn off the phone and don’t log into your email or chat at all. Don’t allow them to hijack your time. Don’t let them dictate your priorities. Set aside a specific time during the day that’s dedicated to responding to all interruptions. And be sure to let your co-workers know about your policy so they aren’t left waiting for your response.
Don’t schedule anything back to back if you can help it. Give yourself a few minutes to catch your breath, to shake off the last task and gear up for the next.
Guard your leisure time as fiercely as your work hours. Everyone needs downtime and vacations. But seek to make the most of that downtime. Find pursuits that leave you feeling satisfied with your personal life just like you would with your work time.
You’re never going to be more plugged in and aware of your workload than when you’re winding down for the day. It’s the ideal time to take a few minutes and jot down everything you need to get done tomorrow. If you wait until the next day to make your to-do list, you risk forgetting small but crucial tasks or details. It’s also a good mental exercise that helps you finish off your day. By putting everything on paper, it’s easier for you to let go of work during your personal time.
It’s true that you can’t add seconds and minutes to your day, but you can control where they go. Realize that it’s the little acts and decisions you make today that lay the groundwork for tomorrow. Each decision can equal seconds and minutes of lost time.
With these time management tips, you can hoard those lost minutes and turn them into hours of added productivity and happier living. Learn to effectively manage your time today and you can seize all your tomorrows by the throat.