Illustration: Hanna Lee Joshi
Do you ever wonder how some people manage to get so much work done, while the rest of us barely make it halfway through our to-do list?
If you identify more with the latter, you’re not alone. According to The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List, 41% of to-do list tasks never get crossed off.
For those of you at the back, we’ll say it louder: Four out of ten tasks go uncompleted. That’s a lot of uncompleted tasks.
So how is it that certain individuals are more productive than others, despite putting in the same number of hours? What’s their secret? Or is it a superpower?
Well, it’s no secret–and it’s no superpower, either. It all comes down to effective time management. It’s the single most valuable skill anyone can learn.
As a finite resource, time is precious. Time is money. And time is irreplaceable. So, if we’re going to make the most of it, we need to work smarter.
That’s why we’ve put together this neat little guide, so you can make every minute count–and become the productive powerhouse you know you can be.
What is time management?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines time management thus:
The ability to use one’s time effectively or productively, especially at work.
Why is time management so important?
Whether at work or in our personal lives, we should never downplay the importance of effective time management.
Think about it for a second.
How many times have you said to yourself (or someone else): “I want to do this, but I simply don’t have the time.”
Now ask yourself: Could I achieve these things if I made better use of my time? Because that’s exactly what time management is all about.
It’s about making better use of our time.
There are many time management strategies at our disposal. But first, it’s important that we understand the tangible benefits of time management, so we don’t slip back into old habits.
Being mindful of your capacity
Needless to say, time is a limited resource. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
There are 24 hours in a day. But nobody (not even Superman) works the full 24 hours. It’s just not possible.
We all operate at different capacities, but the majority of us work for roughly seven hours–either in or around the conventional 9-5 window.
So, finding ways to maximize our output in every single one of those seven hours is crucial if we want to be at the top of our game.
Working smarter, not harder
When you’re in control, you can make time work for you–not against you. Finding your flow is easier, and tasks become effortless when you settle into a routine.
There are many ways to work smarter. Little things such as finding time-saving hacks or automating trivial tasks are a good place to start. Sometimes, it’s the little changes that make a big difference.
Making better decisions
Good time management not only helps us achieve more–it also helps us make better, more informed decisions.
When we’re pushed for time, we tend to make poor and impulsive decisions. This often comes to the detriment of our work.
Having more time on our hands allows us to contemplate things, meaning we can take a measured approach to decision-making.
It also allows us to have the foresight to think ahead and create contingency plans. After all, it’s better to be proactive than reactive, right?
Reaching your potential
Let’s face it–if we’re operating at anything short of our full capacity, it’s unlikely that we’re going to reach our full potential. But if we are operating at our full capacity, we’re far more likely to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.
As you make strides in your professional and personal life, people will take notice–and they will look to you for advice.
When we work efficiently, we can dedicate more time to our own learning and self-improvement.
There’s more time to read books, attend seminars, learn new skills, or brush up on our existing skills.
The more we improve ourselves, the more valuable we are in a professional setting, and the more money we can command in our negotiations. Because let’s be real–who doesn’t want more money?
At the same time, self-improvement can be rewarding for its own sake, too.
Think about a time when you had a looming deadline that you weren’t prepared for. How did you feel? Anxious? Nervous? Irritable?
When time isn’t on our side, that’s exactly how most of us feel. This is when the stress kicks in–and our mental health suffers as a result.
But once you learn how to manage your time effectively, life becomes harmonious, workloads become easier, and deadlines become manageable.
Your mental wellbeing improves–and in turn, your quality of work does too.
The 4 Ds of time management
At work, many of us have to make snap decisions for the sake of progress. But how do we know if we’re making the right calls?
The 4 Ds of time management, otherwise known as the 4 Ds of productivity, is a decision-making framework to help you make those calls. The 4 Ds stand for Do, Defer, Delegate and Delete.
As a tool to prioritize your workflow, the 4 Ds allow you make quick decisions on whether you should complete a task yourself or delegate it to someone else, what to act on in the future, and what to drop from your to-do list.
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How to apply the 4 Ds of time management
At the beginning of each workday, take a look at your to-do list and ask yourself the following questions:
What are the tasks that I can do right now? What are the tasks that are better suited to someone else? What tasks aren’t time critical and can therefore be delayed? Are there any tasks that I can drop altogether?
After you’ve put your to-do list through the 4 Ds, you’ll have eased the burden by breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks.
Skills required for time management
Effective time management begins and ends with a set of skills. The following skills encompass everything from planning your projects to prioritizing your workflow, and will help you become more effective at managing time.
Before you do anything, take a moment to reflect on the way you currently do things. What’s your general approach? Are you as organized as you could be? Are you using the tools that are available to help you work smarter?
As we’ve already touched on with the 4 Ds of time management, prioritizing your workflow is not just something that’s nice to have–it’s a must-have. This will help you when you need to focus on the things that matter and to put off the things that don’t.
Goal-setting is crucial in any project. Put your stated goals through the SMART framework. Ask yourself: are my goals Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound? If they’re not, consider rethinking them. It’s better to overthink than to underdeliver.
It’s often said that failing to plan is planning to fail–and in most cases, this is true. When you’re working from a solid plan, you’re thinking ahead, preparing for any number of eventualities, and creating contingency plans. You’re less likely to be caught off guard, and better equipped to cope with potential hiccups.
At times our workload can be so heavy that it’s not humanly possible to do it all by ourselves. In such testing times, we can share the burden by delegating tasks that are less important, or better suited to others. Don’t be afraid to ask a coworker to help you out. Just make sure you return the favor!
When the heat is on, it’s easy to get caught up and let your emotions get the better of you. Try not to let this happen. Take time to do nothing. Unwind. Your brain is like a sponge. It can only hold so much information at any given time. If you try to do too much, you’ll burn out. Everyone needs time off to stay on top of their game.
Procrastination and time management
Procrastination is everyone’s worst enemy. And often, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. It’s those fleeting moments where we’re idle–or worse, distracted by side quests that have little or nothing to do with the task in hand. Even if it’s just five minutes here and ten minutes there, these things eat into our precious time. And they all add up.
People procrastinate for different reasons. It could be that you’re putting off the task at hand because you’re unsure of a small detail. It could be because you have too much on your plate. Sometimes it’s because you don’t know how to prioritize your workflow. Other times you simply don’t want to do the work.
It’s also worth mentioning that a major cause of procrastination comes down to poor time management. Failing to plan for upcoming tasks and deadlines often leads to procrastination. Needless to say, this is a roadblock to productivity.
If any of this sounds familiar, the next bit might be especially important and helpful. Because there are many ways to counteract your habits of procrastination.
Visualize your task list
One way to counter your urge to procrastinate is to visualize your task list. Write down all the tasks and projects that you’re working on. Separate them into daily, weekly, biweekly, monthly, and annual tasks. Sync these tasks with your calendar, and set reminders if needed.
Get rid of distractions
Another method of procrastination prevention is to get rid of all the distractions that stop you from doing whatever it is you have to do. Think social media, mobile phones, and unnecessary tabs. Banish anything that steals your attention.
Designate idle time
If you’re one of those people who find it hard to concentrate for an extended period of time, you could benefit with designated idle time. Set a timer. Do thirty minutes of work. Then rest for ten minutes. Repeat the process until you find the right balance of work and rest.
Take advantage of energy patterns
Throughout the day, our brain goes through periods of high energy and periods of low energy. Don’t waste the periods of high energy. Make sure you tackle the tough tasks when your brain is brimming with ideas. Then, during the periods of low energy, you can focus on the tasks that are less mentally taxing.
Regulate your energy levels
You can also help regulate your own energy levels by eating the right food at the right time and drinking plenty of water throughout the day. This is crucial if you want to stay alert and productive. Too many people make the mistake of not eating at a set time–or eating the wrong thing. That’s how we end up in an afternoon slump.
How to improve your time management skills
Track your time
One of the easiest ways to improve your time management skills is to track how you currently spend your time. Once you understand where your time is going, you can work out what’s pushing you forward and what’s holding you back. Then you can make the necessary changes to boost your productivity.
Plan your weekly schedule
Planning a weekly schedule is crucial if you’re going to manage your time effectively. Designating days and time slots for specific tasks will help you make decent progress–especially if you’re juggling multiple projects at once.
Set up deadlines
Alongside the deadlines that are given to you, set your own. If a project is due on Wednesday, try and get it done by Tuesday. That way, you’ll have more time to refine the work you’ve done and check for mistakes.
When we multitask, we’re giving a select and limited amount of attention to each task. Our focus is transient–and the quality of our work suffers as a result. Giving our undivided attention to one task is more likely to produce a better outcome.
Take regular breaks
Even the most focused individuals have a limited brain capacity. During periods of high energy, we can power through each task with relative ease. But when you feel yourself starting to slow down or get distracted, it probably means you need to take a break.
Learn to say no
Learning to say no is one of the most basic, yet underrated methods of time management. If you’re already managing multiple projects at once, or have a to-do list as long as your arm, don’t take on more. You’re at capacity already. You may want to help your co-worker, but you also need to help yourself.
Tips and strategies for better time management
At Toggl, we’re time management aficionados. Our purpose is (and always will be) to help you better manage your time, and part of that means finding better ways of working through tried and tested techniques of time management.
If you’re interested in learning more different time management strategies, take a look at our ultimate guide. Or if you’re just looking for some general pointers, check out our article on tips for time management.
It’s time to be better with your time! Over to you.