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The Ultimate Guide To Time Management Strategies

Illustration: Raúl Soria

As I started to pull this piece together, I racked my brain for witty anecdotes and scoured the web for statistics. I was looking for something that would make for a gripping introduction to the topic of time management strategies.

But, then I realized something: Perhaps the most powerful introduction of all wouldn’t be flashy or highly-researched. Maybe the best thing I could do is provide a dose of brutal honesty that would make pretty much every working professional nod their head and say, “Yep, I’ve been there way more times than I can count.”

So, here goes nothing. While I write these very paragraphs that you’re reading, I feel stressed and strapped for time. My to-do list is longer than my arm, I have several deadlines looming, and it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day (heck, there aren’t even enough hours in the week) for me to get it all accomplished.

Can you relate to that emotion? The feeling that you have way too much to do, but not nearly enough time?

I’m sure you can—because it’s a common plight. It seems like nearly everyone today feels spread thin, and that means most of us are eager to find ways to stretch our hours and cram all of our obligations in (ideally, with a little time leftover).

So, how do you make it happen? Well, there’s no easy answer, but some effective time management strategies can definitely help. 

That’s exactly what we’re digging into in this comprehensive guide. From surprising statistics to the details on some tried and true productivity systems that you can use to show your to-do list (and the clock!) who’s boss, we’re sinking our teeth into all things time management. 

Let’s stop wasting time and get to it. 

Have time management problems? You aren’t alone

When you wrap up your workday and realize that half of your to-do list remains unchecked, it’s easy to beat yourself up. Why weren’t you able to get more accomplished during your working hours? What’s wrong with you? 

Take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone in this struggle. In fact, you’re in pretty good company.

According to research from Gallup, a whopping 48% of Americans say they don’t have enough time to do what they want to do. And, constantly feeling like we’re racing the clock is leading to increased stress levels for all of us.

A report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that 75% of employees feel people have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago, and the American Psychological Association’s 2019 Stress in America survey found that work is the most commonly-cited personal stressor among respondents. 

All of that? It can quickly lead to burnout, which the World Health Organization categorized as an “occupational phenomenon” in a recent revision of the International Classification of Diseases.

But here’s the thing: Days haven’t gotten noticeably shorter. They still consist of 24 hours, just like they did generations ago. So, why are we all suddenly under such a time crunch? 

There are likely a number of factors at play for our pervasive stress and time management problems, but a good chunk of the blame can be placed on technology. For as much as it can streamline our processes and save us precious time, it also makes it seemingly impossible to switch out of work mode. We’re constantly connected to the demands of our professions and the pressures of our to-do lists. 

Research from the American Psychological Association states that 53% of employed adults check work messages at least once a day over the weekend, 52% check messages before or after work during the week, and 54% check in even when they’re home sick. Even scarier? 44% of people report popping into their work inboxes while they’re on vacation. 

Yep, the urge to stay tied to our work lives is so strong that France went so far as to pass a law that requires companies with over 50 employees to establish hours when emails are off limits. 

There are plenty more alarming statistics out there. But, if you currently have sweaty palms and a dry mouth just from reading these, you’re probably wondering this: What can you do? Are you totally powerless here? Will you spend the rest of your days feeling like a servant to your ever-growing to-do list?

You don’t have to. While time management strategies certainly won’t be a fix-all (hey, sometimes there’s no competing with a totally unrealistic workload or unfair expectations), they can help you take some power back and make the most of the hours you have available—even if they feel like they’ll never be enough. 

What it actually means to manage your time (because it’s not just about working quicker)

Before we dig into the actual strategies that you can use, we want to take a moment to talk about what time management actually is.

Many people explain time management in the context of working at a quicker pace. If you become a whiz at managing your time, that means you should be able to get more done in less hours, right?

Not quite. Time management isn’t necessarily about kicking yourself into high gear and working at a breakneck pace (as that will likely only add to your stress and burnout). It’s about knowing how to maximize whatever time you have available to you, because that limit isn’t going to change. That means effective time management should help you:

  • Prioritize your tasks to focus on the right things
  • Allot your energy for maximum impact
  • Create an environment where you can truly focus
  • Streamline your processes and cut out waste

Nowhere on that list do you see promises that time management will create more time for you. Sorry, but in most cases, what you have is what you get. When you boil it down, it’s less about managing your actual hours and more about managing your energy and priorities. 

15 time management strategies to take control of your workday

We get it—with that little disclaimer out of the way, you’re eager to get to the good stuff. You want to roll up your sleeves and identify some methods you can use to end your workday feeling fulfilled rather than frazzled.

Rest assured that there are plenty of time management strategies out there. In fact, the average person uses an impressive 13 different methods to control their time.

Curious to try some out and figure out which ones work best for you? Here are the nitty gritty details on 15 popular time management methods. 

1. The Pomodoro Technique

The gist: Break your workday into 25-minute chunks, with short breaks in between. 

Who it’s for: People who struggle to focus on their work for an extended period of time. 

Why it works: The workday can feel long, so you’ve probably fallen into the trap of feeling like you have an endless amount of time to get things accomplished. 

There isn’t always an innate sense of urgency, which means you don’t approach your task list with a lot of vigor. You grab another cup of coffee, check in on your social media accounts, and chat with a coworker—before realizing that the morning is almost over, and you’ve checked almost nothing off your list.

That’s where the Pomodoro Technique comes in. It splits your workday into smaller, more manageable chunks with shorter breaks in between. 

You’ll set a timer (yes, physically set a timer) for 25 minutes and stay focused on your work for that amount of time. When the timer goes off, allow yourself a five-minute break. Repeat that four times. After you’ve completed four full pomodoros, you give yourself a longer break of 20 to 30 minutes. 

It makes the day feel a lot more doable, because you can do almost anything (even a task you despise) for 25 minutes. Plus, the built-in breaks will actually help you maintain your motivation and focus for your entire workday. 

2. The Rule of Three

The gist: Choose only three meaningful outcomes to focus on for the day. 

Who it’s for: People who create to-do lists that are far too long and overwhelming. 

Why it works: Are you someone who starts your day by creating a to-do list that’s as long as your arm? Your ambition is admirable, but you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. In fact, a whopping 41% of to-do list items reportedly never get completed. 

Having a to-do list that’s way too lengthy is not only overwhelming to look at, but it also hinders your productivity. With so many items to choose from, you waste time just trying to figure out where you should get started.

Instead, subscribe to the rule of three—which states that your to-do list should have no more than three items on it. Yep, you read that right. Only three things.

But here’s the important thing to remember: The rule of three is about focusing on outcomes, rather than tasks. This will keep you zoned in on the most important things you want to accomplish in a day, rather than getting sidetracked by other fires and unexpected demands.

At the start of your workday, identify three results you should achieve before you clock out. For example, you should end the day with the following things in your hand (or, you know, on your computer):

  1. Finished expense report
  2. Updated presentation on this month’s sales numbers
  3. Completed research for your new CRM

Sure, other little things are bound to come up that you need to take care of. But, starting your day by setting three big intentions will serve as a constant reminder of what you really need to be focusing on. 

3. Eating the Frog

The gist: Tackle your most dreaded or hated task first thing. 

Who it’s for: People who have the tendency to procrastinate. 

Why it works: Mark Twain is credited with saying, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.” And, while we certainly hope that ingesting amphibians isn’t one of your core job responsibilities, this concept really carries some weight when it comes to managing your time and your tasks. 

That’s because it’s not literally about eating a frog. It’s used to encourage you to tackle your most dreaded to-do first—before you allow yourself to do anything else on your list. 

How does this help you? Well, for one, it can nip your tendency to procrastinate in the bud. When you absolutely hate a task, you’re more inclined to keep pushing it to the bottom of your to-do list (or to tomorrow…or even the next day). Do it first, get it out of the way, and stop having it hang over your head.

Another benefit of starting with something that you hate is that it means your day can really only go up from there. With that task accomplished, everything else on your to-do list will seem like a walk in the park. Talk about a solid boost to your motivation. 

4. Time Blocking

The gist: Plan out every single moment of your workday on your calendar. 

Who it’s for: People who struggle to set clear boundaries on their time. 

Why it works: Do you ever feel like everybody else controls your calendar? You have plenty of things you’d like to fit into your own workday, but before long your schedule is filled with meetings and other commitments.

Time blocking requires that you schedule out your entire workday—even time to answer emails or grab lunch. You’ll block off different chunks of time that you’ll dedicate to certain tasks. Maybe you’ll respond to emails from 8AM to 9AM and then do client work from 9AM to 11AM. 

Of course, you might want to leave some time blocks available so that you’re able to attend meetings or address last-minute requests. However, putting these blocks on your calendar will give you back some control and help you get to the things that you actually want to accomplish. 

5. Timeboxing

The gist: Set a time limit for a specific task and stick to it. 

Who it’s for: People who keep pushing a large project off. 

Why it works: While the name sounds similar to time blocking, the concept itself is quite different. Timeboxing is another way to instill a sense of urgency, stop procrastinating, and actually make some progress on your tasks.

You’ll start by choosing a set window of time (called a timebox) that you’ll use to work on a chosen to-do. For example, maybe you’ll say that you’re going to spend the next 15 minutes cleaning your desk. 

When time is up? You call the task finished. Your desk is as clean as it’s going to get for now, so you move on to something else. 

While it can feel a little counterintuitive to the way you might be used to working, it’s great for boosting your focus and making large projects feel a little less daunting—because you’re measuring based on a time commitment, rather than a result. 

6. Task Batching

The gist: Group all of your similar tasks together and tackle them in one swoop. 

Who it’s for: People who waste time by hopping from random task to random task. 

Why it works: If you’re someone who bounces around your to-do list like a wayward ping-pong ball, you’re probably wasting a lot of time and mental energy by constantly switching gears. 

Task batching is a time management strategy to group similar tasks together and address them all at once. So, you’ll answer all of your emails before moving on to creating all of those pending graphics in your queue. 

Essentially, you’re categorizing your tasks and addressing them by their theme. Doing so gives you a strategy to follow, and also saves you some precious time (because you’ll only need to pull up resources or access accounts once—rather than several different times when you keep returning to random tasks). 

7. The Eisenhower Matrix

The gist: Prioritize your to-dos by their urgency and importance. 

Who it’s for: People who can’t figure out what task they should get started on first. 

Why it works: You have a lot you need to get done…but, where should you start? When everything seems equally important, it’s challenging to prioritize.

The Eisenhower Matrix gives you a simple system to use to figure out what needs immediate attention, what can be delegated, and what can be put on hold indefinitely. Simply draw a square and divide it into four even quadrants.

Along the top, label one box as “Urgent” and the other as “Not Urgent.” Along the left side, label one box as “Important” and the other as “Not Important.”

Now, return to your to-do list and begin placing those tasks in the appropriate squares. Maybe your expense report is urgent and not important, but that client sales proposal is important but not urgent.

Find the right home for all of the tasks that are currently on your plate. After that, use this criteria to determine where you should start:

  • Urgent and Important: Address these first.
  • Urgent and Not Important: Delegate these if you can. If not, tackle them next.
  • Not Urgent and Important: Schedule time in the coming days and weeks to make progress on these tasks.
  • Not Urgent and Not Important: Go ahead and put these on the backburner for now.

See? All it takes is four simple squares to provide a much-needed, strategic starting point—rather than just picking a task by throwing a dart at a board. 

8. Golden Hours

The gist: Find your most productive hours and plan your work accordingly. 

Who it’s for: People who have distinct peaks and valleys in their energy levels. 

Why it works: Are you an early bird who does your best work in the morning? Or, are you somebody who transforms into a productivity whiz right after your lunch break? Maybe you feel like you reach your peak in the evening hours.

Everybody has different “golden hours” so to speak, which are the times of day when they’re at their most focused and productive. And, finding yours is a great way to manage your energy and allocate tasks accordingly.

Try keeping a simple journal for a week or two. Record what you get done during a certain time of day, as well as how you were feeling. Did you get into a great flow and crank through that task? Or did it feel more like trudging through concrete? Documenting this can help you spot themes and identify times of day when you’re at your best.

Time tracking apps can also be a big help here. By keeping a watchful eye on your time, you’ll quickly see those periods of your workday when you’re getting the most tasks accomplished. 

What do you do once you’ve found your golden hours? Use those for your more mentally-demanding and creative work, and save your menial tasks (like responding to emails and doing data entry) for those times when you feel drained.  

9. To-Do List Codes

The gist: Notate your to-do list to identify quick wins and larger projects. 

Who it’s for: People who want to be more strategic with the order they tackle their tasks. 

Why it works: There are certain things on your to-do list that you know are low-hanging fruit. They’re the straightforward tasks that don’t demand a ton of energy or attention—the quick wins that are easy to check off. 

But then there are the other ones that are far more involved. Maybe they take a lot more time or way more attention (or both). 

Those are two very different types of tasks, and it can be helpful to distinguish between them on your to-do list. Doing so means you can pick the items that are most aligned with your current state of mind.

The good news is that this is super simple to do, using something that I like to refer to as “to-do list codes.” Basically, pick a notation system that works for you to note easy tasks versus difficult tasks.

Maybe you’ll use an up arrow for to-dos that are more complex, and a down arrow for the things that you could practically do in your sleep. Or, perhaps you’ll opt for a frown face and a smiley face. The sky’s the limit, provided it makes sense to you.

Next? Use that coding system to categorize your to-do list. If you have two hours of dedicated time when you can be heads down in your work, that’s probably a time when you’ll want to look at those up arrows. But, if you only have a couple of minutes between meetings, it’s probably better to check off a few of those tasks that are marked with the down arrow. 

10. Don’t Break the Chain

The gist: Put an “x” on the days of your calendar you accomplish your goal, and keep that streak going. 

Who it’s for: People who are trying to make a positive habit stick. 

Why it works: Forming new healthy habits is hard. In fact, it takes over two months of consistent performance for a new behavior to become automatic. So, before something becomes second nature or part of your routine, you need to invest a lot of conscious energy into making it happen.

Don’t Break the Chain (often called The Seinfeld Method and attributed to the comedian, Jerry Seinfeld) is a visual method that can help you stick to the changes you want to make.

It’s easy: When you stick to your intended behavior for the day—whether it’s staying off social media during your working hours or drinking eight glasses of water—you put an “x” over that date on the calendar. You keep that going, and you’ll see a chain of x’s start to build.

Your goal? Keep that chain continuous without any breaks. It’s deceptively simple, but surprisingly effective. It’s human nature that you’ll want to keep that streak going.  

11. Getting Things Done

The gist: Create a series of lists to organize everything that’s on your mind. 

Who it’s for: People who want to clear the clutter from their brains and improve their focus. 

Why it works: If you’ve researched productivity and time management strategies before, then you’ve probably come across Getting Things Done (GTD) a time or two. It was created by productivity consultant, David Allen, and has a lot of loyal devotees around the world.

Using this method, you’ll follow a framework of five steps to categorize and then track your tasks. These steps are:

  • Capture: Write down everything that’s currently on your mind—from emails to pending to-dos.

  • Clarify: Make a decision about each of those items. If it’s actionable, identify the next step you’ll need to take. Or is that item trash? Something for future reference? Categorize accordingly.

  • Organize: Put items where they belong. Actionable items should be on your to-do list, reference items should be filed away for safekeeping, and trash can go…well, in the trash.

  • Reflect: Review the lists you’ve created on a frequent basis, to avoid letting things pile up.

  • Engage: With a helpful system in place, tackle the items that need doing.

Those are the steps in their simplest form, but there’s a lot more to Allen’s tried and true productivity strategy. This guide walks you through everything you need to know. 

12. Must, Should, Want

The gist: Start your day by identifying one thing you have to do, one thing you should do, and one thing you want to do. 

Who it’s for: People who feel like all of their time demands are created by other people. 

Why it works:  Remember when we talked about the rule of three? This time management strategy sort of builds on that concept. Using Must, Should, Want, you’re identifying three items that you want to accomplish for the day using this specific criteria:

  1. I must [pressing task you absolutely need to complete today]
  2. I should [task that will push you closer to your long-term goals]
  3. I want [something you’re eager to do, whether it’s urgent or not]

These simple prompts will help you take a more well-rounded and balanced approach to your workday, rather than only focusing on the “musts” day after day.  

13. Time Pockets

The gist: Make the most of those small blips of time in your workday. 

Who it’s for: People who waste a surprising amount of time between meetings and commitments. 

Why it works: Alright, maybe this isn’t a commonly-cited productivity method, but it’s certainly something that works well for me. 

Sometimes it feels like your day is just blips of time. You have those 15 minutes before your next meeting starts, or five minutes between a phone call and your lunch appointment. Your workday seems fragmented, which leaves you feeling like you never have any time to get your real work done.

That’s why it’s smart to make the most of what I call time pockets. These are those small gaps of time when you’d normally just wait around or do a time-wasting activity, and you can really use them to your advantage.

Remember when we talked about using to-do list codes to categorize your list? These small time pockets are a great opportunity to tackle some of those quick or low-energy tasks that are taking up space on your list and in your brain.

It’s a way better use of those five minutes than just scrolling through Instagram…again. 

14. Beat Distractions

The gist: Take the necessary steps to limit your self-imposed distractions. 

Who it’s for: People who constantly get sidetracked by pings and notifications. 

Why it works: This one isn’t so much a productivity system or hack, as it is a lifestyle. 

You’ve heard all of the advice that you should turn off your digital notifications to reduce your self-imposed distractions and increase your attention span. But, if you haven’t done it yet, what are you waiting for? 

Research shows that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus after a distraction. When you’re constantly ripping your attention away from the task at hand to check every new email or respond to your instant message pings, you’re self-sabotaging your own productivity.

So, close your email tab and turn off your notifications. You’ll give yourself some distraction-free time to get into some deep work. 

15. One Thing at a Time

The gist: Stop doing too many things at once and focus on a single task. 

Who it’s for: People who fall into the trap of multitasking. 

Why it works: Are you one of those people who insists that you’re skilled at multitasking? I have news for you: You probably aren’t. Science says that the vast majority of us are quite literally wired to be mono-taskers, with the exception of autonomous tasks (like breathing, for example).

While you might think that you’re doing more than one thing at once, what you’re really doing is rapidly switching between tasks. And, those consistent distractions can wreak havoc on your ability to manage your time and get things done.

Challenge yourself to do just one thing at a time. You might just be surprised by how much more you’re able to get done (even though it feels like you’re doing less). 

Find time management strategies and take your time back

There isn’t one quick fix for all of your time management problems (sorry, we wish there was!). But, the above systems can certainly help you take control of your to-do list and make your time feel like a resource—rather than your enemy. 

When it comes to implementing a new productivity system, remember to keep a few key things in mind:

  • Start with a specific need: Rather than trying to roll out all of these at once, pinpoint a time management pitfall you’re trying to address. Do you need to stop procrastinating? Limit distractions? Chip away at a big project? Point to a problem that needs addressing, and wade through the different productivity strategies from there. You’ll introduce the most impactful systems, rather than approaches that don’t really serve a purpose for you. 
  • Be willing to experiment: It might take some time to land on what works for you, so try other methods or make any necessary tweaks or customizations to suit your preferences and workflows. 
  • Understand that real change takes time: It’s not as simple as implementing one of these time management strategies and watching in amazement as you crank through your to-do list with ease. Improved time management isn’t an overnight success story. It might be a while before you notice significant changes, so be patient. Good things take time. 

With those caveats in your brain, go ahead and give some of the above time management strategies a try. Your to-do list (and the clock) won’t know what hit it.

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March 17, 2020

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