How to Improve Time Management
There are only 1,440 minutes in a day. Regardless of what fills those minutes, everyone only has a set amount of time in which to get things done. Managing time is not about finding or creating more time during your day. It’s about accomplishing the most important tasks in the most efficient amount of time, so you can spend more time doing the things you enjoy.
- Chapter 1 – The Problem of Time Management
- Chapter 2 – Techniques to Transform the Way You Work
- Chapter 3 – Building a Productive Work Environment
- Chapter 4 – Leveraging Technology
- Chapter 5 – Four Time Wasting Behaviors You Need to Stop
- Chapter 6 – Additional Time Management Tips and Resources
How to Become More Productive: The Problem of Time Management
When it comes to problems in managing time, most fall into one of two equally fallacious trains of thought: “I have so much to do, but I have so little time in which to do it,” or “I have so much time, I can do it later.” No matter which of these traps applies to you, you face the same ultimate problem: the idea that time can change. The first chapter will focus on helpful theories on time management and how to become more productive; these theories will provide a solid foundation upon which later chapters can build.
The problems associated with poor time management skills can’t all be solved with simple tips. The challenge for most people is developing a clear understanding of what time is and how it gets used. The things you believe about time will guide your understanding of how to use it, and in turn, how you ultimately spend time each day.
Thankfully, some modern theories will help you gain a better understanding of time and how to effectively manage it. There are three theories about time and time management that stand out from all of the rest, helping people develop stronger skills and prioritize more effectively. The three theories covered here are Pickle Jar Theory, the Pareto principle, and Parkinson’s Law. These theories each encourage thinking about the time you spend in a different way, rather than as a generic resource that counts down.
Pickle Jar Theory – The Cost of Small Time Consuming Tasks
The Pickle Jar Theory illustrates how relatively unimportant tasks or commitments can easily take up much of a person’s time. Filling one’s day with small trivial tasks that are not important prevents one from using that time to complete larger or more important tasks and projects.
The theory uses a pickle jar and its contents to represent time management. The inside of the pickle jar represents a person’s time, and all the different tasks and commitments that take up that time are represented by rocks, pebbles, sand and water that are placed into the jar.
- Rocks are the important things that require immediate, significant attention, and produce a huge benefit when they are accomplished.
- Pebbles produce a benefit, but they are not as important as the tasks represented by the larger rocks.
- Grains of sand signify small, time-consuming tasks that are relatively easy to do but are of little importance, filling in the leftover space. Things like text messages, constant email checking, and idle chit-chat all take time, but generate little benefit.
- The final component, water, fills in what little space remains, and represents the tasks and idle moments that fill all the remaining space.
The key to using the Pickle Jar Theory is to be aware of which tasks are “rocks,” providing large benefits and requiring immediate attention. Once you know which tasks are “rocks,” you can turn your attention to the “sand,” paring it away to make room for more rocks. Various techniques can be used to diminish the number of grains of sand in the jar.
This resource discusses a technique known as batching. Batching is a way to combine many small tasks into one block of time, such as reviewing one’s email inbox only once or twice each day instead of four times an hour, leading to less time wasted on “sand.” Techniques like batching, however, rely on an understanding of the Pickle Jar Theory. Being able to determine which tasks are unnecessary “sand” will allow you to focus your attention on the “rocks” and “pebbles.”
Pareto’s Principle: The 80/20 Rule – Focus on the Tasks with the Greatest Benefit
The 80/20 Rule is similar to the Pickle Jar Theory, in that it suggests people can work smarter by concentrating on the important things from which they derive the most benefit. Activities that reap the greatest benefit, represented by the rocks in the pickle jar, are the 20% of the activities that should consume 80% of your time in the 80/20 rule.
Economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80 percent of the wealth in his native Italy was held by 20 percent of the population. You might conclude that a theory regarding wealth distribution in a single country has nothing to do with time management, but the relationship between 80% and 20% holds true in several other areas as well, including time management.
The 80/20 rule, in its broader form, says that a small number of causes is responsible for a large percentage of the effect, in a ratio of about 20:80. In time management, you will often find that 20% of your tasks generate 80% of the results, or that 20% of tasks absorb 80% of available time. By finding the ideal 20% of your tasks to spend 80% of your energy on, you can avoid wasting time or effort.
Parkinson’s Law – Reduce the Time Assigned to Each Task
Parkinson’s Law is simple and straightforward: the time required to complete a particular task will expand according to the amount of time it is allotted. Giving yourself less time to do something will lead to faster completion. Slowly reduce the time allotted for any given task, and eventually you’ll find the sweet spot in which it gets completed without feeling rushed. Like the other theories, this changes the way you approach using your time, illustrating that less time can lead to better, more effective work.
Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British author who once observed this phenomenon firsthand. Assigning two hours to complete a task that could be completed in less than one hour will result the two hours being consumed anyway, but with the excess hour spent on planning, worrying, and agonizing. People will almost always fill all assigned time, but what they fill it with changes if they have too much excess.
Interested in testing the theory? Try allocating half as much time each morning to a mundane task like checking your email. If necessary, set a timer. You will likely find yourself dealing with each item in your email account’s inbox a little faster. At the end of the time, look at how much you accomplished in the time you set. The odds are good that you’ll exceed your own expectations.
Before you go too far congratulating yourself for a job well done, try cutting the time again the following day. As you continue to allow yourself less time, you will likely begin prioritizing only those emails that actually matter, skimming subject lines and dumping spam, advertisements, or other meaningless messages. Your attention will zero in on the most important emails that must be addressed immediately.
This exercise helps people pare away unnecessary worrying, planning, and frivolousness, finding the tasks that truly need to be completed. Parkinson’s Law should help you maintain awareness of the truly necessary time to complete any task or project. Try allowing yourself a little less time than you think you need; the odds are good that you’ll only need the time you set aside.
Additional Resources on Time Management Theory:
- Oakland.edu – Time Management: The Pickle Jar Theory
- Princeton.edu – Pareto Principle
- Yale.edu – Managing Time
Productive Techniques to Transform the Way You Work
A Google search will yield more than 42 million results for time management tips, so simply finding a system or a helpful tool is easy. Before you download the latest program or application that promises to turn your computer, smartphone, or tablet into an instant time management tool, though, look at the way in which you work and make time management decisions. Consider what changes really need to be made to become more productive.
Ultimately, your goal is to make better decisions about the way in which you use your time. Transforming the way in which you work takes a commitment from you, but the biggest impact you’ll make comes not from the system you choose, but from a few simple steps you take that don’t involve any system at all. These techniques are the 20% of your adjustments that will get you 80% of the results you want to be more productive.
Clear Your Head – Getting Rid of Those Annoying Reminders
Clearing your head provides some structure for all the tasks you need to do, and makes everything else that much easier. The first step in the head-clearing process is to create an “inbox,” allowing you to collect and sort all the things bouncing around in your mind. Sorting tasks does not require the task to be completed; rather, you start by putting the items currently locked in your psyche into an inbox to unclutter your mind. Once freed of the clutter, your mind is clear when you start completing important tasks.
Most people have many tasks bouncing around in their head all at once, with no sense of priority or gravity. These tasks range from getting the car washed to sending out multi-million dollar contracts to take your company to the next level. If you do not have a system in place that you trust to remind you when things need to be done, your mind will essentially create one on its own, reminding you of the importance of varying tasks from moment to moment.
Unfortunately, the system your mind creates on its own is completely arbitrary. These reminders do not always come at appropriate times, leading to increased stress and feelings of helplessness. Your mind may helpfully remind you of your need for a car wash, in the above example, while you sit at your desk at work making important phone calls regarding those contracts. The car wash, of course, is an impossibility at that moment, and thinking about the car wash doesn’t get your car any more washed. Instead, these thoughts divert your attention from the phone call, leaving you without important details or repeatedly asking for clarification.
Clearing your head of the “stuff,” as author David Allen refers to anything that requires your attention, is the first step in an effective time management method called “Getting Things Done.” According to Allen, the stuff taking up space in your mind is just like the data that piles up in the RAM of your computer. Eventually, the RAM can’t cope and it starts slowing down; your mind, without a system for organizing the “stuff,” will do the same.
Getting rid of the clutter starts by creating an inbox into which you may transfer it. An inbox can be an expandable folder, a loose leaf notebook, a program on your computer, or an application on your smartphone or tablet. Any format you choose for your inbox will work as long as it is one that you will use and which you are confident will remind you of tasks that need to be done when they need to be done. Your mind no longer needs to keep the car wash in “active memory,” as you are certain you’ll be reminded of anything important the next time you open your notebook.
Remember that the purpose of the inbox is to get the clutter out of your mind. It has to be a place you know you will use on a daily basis for it to be effective in changing how you store tasks.
Batching the Inbox – Systematically Handling and Organizing the Inbox
The key to David Allen’s GTD approach to time management and productivity at work is to transfer the stuff in your mind to a safe place. A safe place is nothing more than a spot in an organized system in which you have confidence that you will be reminded when a task or commitment requires your attention.
Processing the items that you place into your inbox begins with identifying an item as being actionable. If an item is actionable, there are three things you can do with it:
- The two-minute rule: If it will take less than two minutes to complete, then it should be done right away while you are processing the inbox. Handling these small, quick tasks gets them out of the way and prevents them from getting in the way of more important things.
- Delegate the action: Some tasks can be delegated to other people for completion. Actions that are delegated make their way to a list composed of items waiting for something in in order for them to be completed. For example, if you have delegated the writing of a report to another employee who needs additional information in order to complete it, the item goes on your waiting list.
- Defer the action: Tasks that cannot be completed within two minutes go to your calendar or to a tickler file while you finish emptying your inbox. This allows them to be tracked in a reliable manner. If the item is one that you will be getting to in the near future, then it can go on an action items list.
Emptying your inbox at regular intervals means tasks and commitments are stored in places within your system that will keep track of them and alert you when they require attention. Freed of the stuff that had overtaken your mind, you are free to relax and focus on the tasks at hand.
Bite Size – Break Projects Down to Improve Completion
A frequently encountered challenge that can make time management for students and business professionals difficult is the big project. Assume that your professor just gave the class an assignment to write a 15-page report on five battles of the American Civil War. The thought of writing 15 pages about anything might be enough to convince you to put the report aside in favor of updating your Facebook page, but let’s take a closer look at the assignment.
Projects should be broken down into smaller, manageable pieces. Instead of thinking about the task as one requiring you to write 15 pages, break it down into five reports of three pages on each of the five battles. Set up a schedule for completion of each section of the report, and before long you will have 15 pages to submit to your professor.
The problem with most tasks is that they are intimidating and drive people toward smaller, less intimidating ones. Those distracting, but easily completed tasks usually are less important than the task that is being avoided. Dissecting the big task into smaller pieces makes it more likely to get done. One of the more effective time management techniques is to reduce the task into segments that can each be completed in about the same amount of time as the distraction.
Size, when it comes to tasks, is relative, so this approach applies to tasks of any size. You might decide to push aside a task that will take 15 minutes in favor of one that you can complete in two minutes, but a 15 minute task might be a tempting diversion if you have a project to complete that you know will take at least a couple of hours.
Review and Planning
Setting time aside each day to review what you have accomplished and what remains to be done is one of the most important time management skills that you can implement into your routine. Review time allows you to reflect on how well your time management system is working for you. You can then develop and implement changes to make the system work better for you.
Developing time management skills begins with a review of the tasks that require your attention and proceed to planning the most efficient way to accomplish them. The large project that you broke down into smaller, more manageable chunks must be looked at to determine the best way to take on each segment of the project in order to meet the larger goal of completing the entire project.
Reviewing the best order in which to address each segment so each completed task transitions smoothly into the next one allows you to prepare for each stage. It also helps you to avoid beginning one stage of a project only to discover that its completion depends upon completion of another stage that is not scheduled to begin until later.
Weekly Tracking of Tasks
Placing all of the segments of a project onto a weekly tracking sheet or a weekly calendar allows you to view your project’s progress. Monthly planning probably works better for projects or tasks that involve multiple steps performed over more than a seven-day period. Monthly planning gives you the big picture, but weekly planning gives you more control over the segments of time allotted for each portion of the project.
Through weekly planning, you learn an important lesson in time management strategies: Things do not always work out the way in which they were planned. If you find that the time you allocated for a given task is far less than the amount of time actually needed to complete it, you can correct the time allotted to similar tasks in the future. One reason for such a time discrepancy is a natural tendency on the part of most people to overestimate the amount of future time available to them and underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a given task.
One of the many tips on time management is the recommendation that you get into a daily routine of reviewing your time management plan. Daily review of your plan allows you to make corrections before minor issues become major problems and will help you be more productive.
Begin each morning with a review of the tasks from your weekly or monthly schedule that you want to accomplish during the day. Schedule each task in 15 minute segments with the most important tasks slotted for completion early in the day when you are most alert. During the course of the day, take a break each hour to take a minute to review what you have accomplished up to that point in the day. If you do not believe that you have been productive, then review the balance of the day’s schedule and make adjustments as needed to improve upon your productivity.
Before quitting for the day, take a few minutes to review all that you have accomplished during the day. Determine what adjustments, if any, to your weekly plan will allow you to be as or more productive tomorrow.
Additional Resources on Time Management Techniques:
- NYU.edu – Time Management Tips
- Harvard.edu – Managing Time
- HBR.org – Plan for Managing
- MindTools.com – Time Management
- StudyGs.net – Time Management Series
- BusinessBalls.com – Mamanagement Tips
Building a Productive Work Environment
You can follow all of the tips on time management mentioned up to this point in this guide and still not experience an increase in productivity if your work environment is holding you back. A cluttered workspace, noisy coworker, or poor-quality chair can have an effect on your productivity.
Studies have shown that interruptions from phone calls, friends or coworkers stopping by to talk, or even the buzzing of your cell phone alerting you of a call are enough of a distraction to affect your ability to perform tasks. Distracted students were affected enough on tests they took as part of one study to drop from a passing grade to a failing one.
People who are interrupted do not immediately resume the task on which they were working. Instead, most interruptions result in tasks being added to a to-do list, so time is lost not only to the interruption itself, but also to the ensuing tasks. Developing a set of time management tools should include ways to avoid some of the common sources of distractions.
Streamlining Your Workspace
Clutter is the enemy of productivity. The time spent looking through a pile of papers and other miscellaneous items on your desktop for a pen to write down a telephone number cannot be recovered. Clear your workspace by labelling four boxes as “trash,” “filing,” “return,” and “keep.” Items you no longer need, use or want go into the trash box to be thrown away or recycled. Papers making their way into the filing box should be filed away where they belong. The return box is for items that you got from someone or someplace else and never returned. Now is the time to return them. This will leave you with only the things that are essential to your work.
A workspace free of clutter offers fewer distractions. It also makes it easier to get access to the items you need to do your work.
The Effects of Ergonomics and Aesthetics
Few people associate the furniture, wall color, or lighting in their workspace with the question, “What is time management?” Studies have shown, though, that your productivity can be affected by the surroundings in which you work.
Artificial light, such as that given off by fluorescent bulbs, has been linked to a disruption in the nighttime sleep patterns of workers. Workers exposed to natural light proved to be more rested and more productive. Similar findings regarding productivity were found in workers exposed to certain colors. Offices painted in yellow proved to generate more productivity than those painted in neutral gray tones.
Some simple adjustments that you can easily make within your workspace can make a big difference in how well you perform. For example, a desk chair that is too high or too low can cause unnecessary strain on your neck, back or wrists if you are working on a computer. A computer monitor set too close to you might promote eyestrain and limit the amount of time you spend working.
If you do not feel comfortable sitting at your workspace, try placing a couple of books under your feet to slightly elevate them. This will cause a slight change in your posture to lessen back and neck pain and fatigue.
Interruptions – How to Stop People from Talking to You
The people in your life can be a distraction, especially if your workspace encourages regular visits. Keeping them at bay can be difficult, but there are a few steps you can take to gently let them know that you are busy.
Wearing Headphones – Listening to music through headphones or earbuds can serve two purposes: Music helps some people to focus on their work, and co-workers, relatives or friends tend to avoid striking up a conversation with someone who they think is engrossed in listening to music. If music is a distraction for you, put on the headphones anyway. Even without music, a good pair of headphones can block at least some of the ambient noise, and will discourage people from lingering in your workspace.
Turning Off Notifications – Notifications are a distraction even if you do not stop to check your email, text message, Twitter, or instant messages. Putting your cell phone on vibrate might not avoid the distraction of a vibrating phone rattling on your desk. If your phone has a do not disturb feature that allows the phone to remain on, but it eliminates sounds or vibration notifications until you turn the feature off, consider using that instead. Messages will still be there when your task is completed.
Handling Friends and Co-Workers – If you must work in close proximity to other people, interruptions are inevitable, but there are ways to minimize them. When someone approaches your desk or workspace to talk to you, rise from your chair and remain standing to discourage the other person from sitting down. Telling the person that you are in the middle of working on a task that must be completed is not being rude if done in a polite manner, especially if it is accompanied with the assurance that you will get back to the person as soon as you are done.
Additional Resources on Eliminating Distractions:
- HBR.org – Workers Put Headphones on
- NYTimes.com – A Focus on Distraction
- LifeHacker.com – Organize and Streamline Your Workspace
Technology and Time Management
Whether technology allows users to save time or waste time is hotly debated, and as new technologies emerge, the debate always returns. It was not that long ago that people waited days or weeks for a written response to a letter to arrive by mail. Today, people get upset if they have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a response to a text message or an email.
New technology often adds new tasks or commitments to your already busy daily routine. You can take steps to make technology a part of your time management strategies, and use it to further develop your productivity skills. Here are a few examples of applications or programs that you and your team can use to manage tasks:
- Producteev by Jive – Task Management for Teams: This smartphone application provides a simple way for you to share information about and manage tasks associated with multiple projects.
- Flow – Team Tasks: Users of this application can manage projects and track, delegate, discuss and store tasks associated with them from a smartphone, tablet, or computer.
- Any.do: An easy to use mobile manager for your to-do lists that syncs between devices and platforms through cloud storage.
- Remember the Milk: A catchy name for an app that allows you to take your to-do lists with you on your favorite mobile devices. You can manage your lists, get reminders when things are due, and search your lists.
- Wunderlist: This easy to use to-do list application for your smartphone or tablet lets you create, manage, share, and sync lists across different platforms.
- Google Tasks: Create and track task lists from Google Mail and Google Calendar from your computer or mobile device. Add something to your to-do list with a keyboard shortcut in Google Mail, and keep track of it with Google Calendar.
- Apple Reminders: Lifehacker shows you how to turn Apple’s Reminders app found on iOS and OS X into a powerful GTD time management tool with an inbox, list sharing, repeat tasks, next action, and more.
- Outlook Tasks: Techradar shows you how to get the most out of Microsoft Outlook by managing your email use and tasks.
Many other applications, such as Evernote and TickTock, can also help you manage your tasks and projects. No matter which application you use, however, it must dovetail with your overall strategies for better time management. A complex task management application or program might have many valuable features, but if you do not feel comfortable working with it, consider using one of the myriad other programs available instead. Remember, the purpose of a task manager is to help make your life less complicated, so find something that reduces the complexity in your life rather than adding to it.
The distractions and interruptions that you encounter throughout the day can go unnoticed, leaving you wondering where your time went by the end of the day. It can be even worse if you are in charge of a team, as you will need to track the productivity of team members as well as your own. Fortunately, these programs and applications will allow you to track time-usage, improving your ability to manage your resources.
- Time Doctor: This application keeps track of the websites and applications you use and visit each day. It can also be used to keep track of how other members of your team are using their time during the day. Its online and email reporting feature provides managers with information they can use to help members of their team make better use of the time spent working at the computer.
- RescueTime: This program runs in the background on your computer or mobile device to track the time you spend on websites and applications throughout the day. It offers you a detailed report of how your time is spent, so you can adjust your work habits to use your time more efficiently.
- Toggl: This app does a lot, but it is simple to use. You can create a task, break it down into segments, track your time, and much more from a computer or mobile device with the convenience of cloud storage.
- Pomodoro Technique: A app that breaks your work sessions into 25-minute segments with built-in breaks. The timer feature alerts you when it is time for a break. A planning feature gives you a place to record tasks in a to-do list.
- SelfControl: Offered through VisitSteve.com, the website of designer Steve Lambert, SelfControl allows users to block emails, Facebook, or Twitter without interfering with access to other websites. A great way to avoid the temptation to check your Facebook status in the middle of completing an important task.
- Concentrate: This Mac-based program costs $29, but the price brings you a tool with which you can create activities and have the apps you need to complete them launch automatically at a pre-established time. It also allows you to set websites that you want to block while you are working.
- Futureproof Awareness: This program gives you a gentle reminder about how long you have been working at the computer with the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl. It’s a subtle hint that break time has arrived.
- Technet Magazine: Turn off the annoying security alerts that can be a distraction when you are trying to concentrate on a task. Technet explains how to configure Windows to eliminate the alerts and system messages.
- Anti-Social: The name says it all. This app lets you target and block distracting websites that might prevent you from concentrating on completing your tasks. Unlike other apps that perform the same function, Anti-Social works on a time that prevents you from turning it off during the programed work period. By preventing you from accessing the websites, the program forces you to remain focused on the tasks you need to accomplish.
- CNET: This online magazine offers tips for iOS users on how to control security and system alerts on your Apple device. Avoiding even the momentary break in concentration that these alerts create can make you more productive.
Time Wasting Behaviors You Need to Stop
Multitasking – You probably know someone who boasts of having the ability to do multiple tasks at the same time. You might even be one of those people. Researchers have concluded that what you perceive as multitasking is really task switching. Instead of doing two things simultaneously, your brain is actually switching between the tasks, but it does so at such a rapid pace that you do not realize it is happening.
In truth, multitasking is hurting your efforts at managing time. You work more efficiently, and spend less time on tasks, if you focus on a single task at a time rather than splitting your attention.
Working Without Breaks – What is time management? The answer might include forcing yourself to take breaks from working on your tasks. If that sounds odd, there is evidence to support the theory that working nonstop to complete an assignment reduces your concentration and increases fatigue. Breaks allow you to get away from your workspace and the task at hand to replenish your cognitive energies.
Breaks should be a part of your to-do list when planning your day. Don’t wait until you feel exhausted. A break that is built into your schedule makes it easier to restore your focus and concentration because you do not start the break with depleted levels of energy.
Do not use breaks as an excuse for avoiding work, though. Too many breaks are as bad, if not worse, than taking no breaks at all.
Failing to Stop and Think – Completing tasks and assignments is not all about doing. Planning, preparation and thinking are important parts of accomplishing everything on your to-do list. Getting your thoughts together before you begin to work, and stopping periodically to take a deep breath and reorganize those thoughts, improves the quality of the work and increases productivity.
Demanding Perfection – Managing time does not mean being sloppy or producing a finished product that you know is flawed. It is about completing a task efficiently and in accordance with the standards and goals set for it. A person striving for perfection wastes time. Perfectionists never get to the point where they can step away from a task by declaring it to be completed.
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There are many books and online resources to help you in manage time. No one resource will have all the answers for your time management challenges, so take your time to find the resources and the methods that work best for you.
Time Management Books
- Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity in which author and coach, David Allen, offers a method for time management that starts by having you clear your mind of the clutter preventing you from accomplishing tasks and commitments
- Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule–and Your Life” in which author Julie Morganstern leads readers through the development of a time management method customized to their own comfort levels
- The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play” is written by psychologist Neil Fiori who offers advice on avoiding procrastination and perfectionism to become more productive and efficient
- Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction by Leo Baubata is about how a lack of focus prevents us from accomplishing things. He details methods that will teach you how to focus more on essential things.
- The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less revisits the Pareto 80/20 Rule, but author Richard Koch applies it to principles of time management. Koch explains how only 20 percent of what you do actually accounts for much. The book demonstrates how focusing your attention on the 20 percent can lead to better productivity.
- Princeton.edu – offers time management for students through solutions compiled by the McGraw Center at Princeton University
- LifeHacker.com How I Work – is a series of articles written by people working in different industries explaining how they work and offering tips on working more efficiently and productively
- 43Folders.com – Was launched by Merlin Mann in 2004 to help people improve productivity. The articles offer tips for becoming more productive through better management of your time.
- Tim Ferriss – Articles on protecting time.
- Entrepreneur.com – Time Management Posts
- Kent.ac.uk – Resource on how to manage your time effectively.