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Time management skills are skills that help you better manage your time.
People have always looked for better and more efficient ways of doing things, but it wasn’t until the rise of factory labor at the turn of the 20th century that anyone looked at time management in a more scientific way. Frederick Winslow Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 and is often hailed as one of the pioneers in this field.
Since then, a lot has changed about how we see productivity and efficiency. Workplaces have become more autonomous, millions of people have turned to self-employment, and technology has meant that our work follows us wherever we go. Being able to manage your time is more important than ever, which is where time management skills come in.
Throughout this guide, we discuss the benefits of time management skills before delving into specific skills for better time management and how to hone these skills.
Time management skills can be beneficial for their own sake. They’re also seen as desirable qualities in potential hires, because it’s a sign of employees who can be productive and able to prioritize their time.
But acquiring effective time management skills also does more than just brighten up your résumé. These skills can contribute to a better work life balance, reduce stress, and get those all-important tasks ticked off the to do list. Below, we briefly go over how.
One of the best benefits of good time management skills comes in the form of a better work life balance. The ability to organize your time at work leads to more free time to do the things you enjoy. Using time management methods can help you switch off when you finish work, instead of constantly feeling like there’s more to do.
You can also use time management skills to get through important tasks at home, freeing up even more time for family, hobbies, and downtime.
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Those with excellent time management skills may also find a sense of calm, even when their to do list seems ever-growing. You may feel as though there’s a lot to get done, and you may have the same hours in a day—but knowing the right techniques and methods to get things done effectively can reduce stress and overwhelm.
If you ever find yourself procrastinating or getting distracted by social media or news websites, you’re not alone. Research shows that many workers are only productive for around several hours of their day. But the way we organize and schedule our time—a time management skill—can help increase those productive hours and ensure we focus on deep, meaningful work; getting more done in less time, without distraction.
So, what are the most important time management skills to learn? We’ll cover some techniques and methods a little later on, but these basic skills will all help you better manage your time.
When a space is well-organized, we mean that the space is neat and that there is a place for every item, and that this placement makes sense. To be organized in a time management sense means there is a time for every task, and that these tasks are ordered in a way that makes sense.
Organization is one of the fundamental skills to learn for better time management, and better productivity overall. While it may seem like some people are just born with this trait, organization is most definitely a skill that can be learned.
Being able to prioritize what tasks are the most important is the key to effective time management. As workloads grow and responsibilities pile up, it’s become almost impossible to get to everything you want to in a day.
Not having a clear idea of what is important, and being unable to put that first, can have you wasting time on unimportant tasks or even wasting time on indecision and analysis paralysis. Knowing what really needs to get done today, and what can be held off until tomorrow, is a vital skill to stop overwhelm from creeping in.
To do lists are like daily goals—they’re a guide for what needs to be done. You might come to work with a vague idea that you have some work to do, but that says nothing about the actual tasks you have to tackle at that moment. Or you might have big goals, like getting a promotion. But to achieve these bigger goals, you’ll need to know what work you need to put in.
Setting big goals helps you work toward something, while to do lists keep you on track for each project. These can then help you keep organized and prioritize, which are also important time management skills.
Communication skills are crucial in all modern workplaces, but how can effective communication improve your time management?
First, being able to communicate with managers and clients efficiently can help set expectations and priorities. If you’re rushing to complete something that a client doesn’t need for another week, then that’s not effective time management.
Second, good communication is key for delegating tasks—another important time management skill on this list.
Planning is a skill that requires understanding what the urgent tasks are, how these urgent tasks serve a larger purpose, and then building a schedule around these priorities based on how long these tasks will take. Planning is a time management-adjacent skill because no plan will work without taking time into account.
If you’re planning for a team, you also need to be able to plan quickly and communicate your plan to anyone involved. Just like setting goals and having a to do list, planning and scheduling can help you keep on top of your workload.
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Delegation is when you entrust another person with the task you have to do, thus freeing up that time for another task.
In a sense, delegating is a way of making up for a lack of time with an extra pair of hands. If you find yourself working on tasks that are time-consuming but could realistically be outsourced to someone else, then delegation is key. This will create more time for the urgent tasks that only you can handle.
It’s difficult to feel organized or productive when overwhelm begins to creep in. Knowing how to handle this stress and anxiety is crucial for good time management.
Sometimes unexpected things happen to interrupt your plan for the day or to eat up a good chunk of your valuable work time. You’ll be better at managing time if you can remain resilient and know how to bounce back with a new plan.
When your phone is low on battery, what do you do? Chances are you let it charge. The same needs to be done with your brain and body. Ensuring you get regular breaks will boost your energy levels and concentration, leading to better time management overall.
Resting seems like the easiest time management skill, but it’s also just as easy to skip your breaks if you have a lot to do or to try and make up for wasted work time with less sleep. This is a mistake. Resting has been scientifically shown to improve focus, and is as important to working as the actual time you put into work.
We’ve come a long way since Taylor’s 1911 book on time management. There are now countless time management techniques and methods designed to help boost your time management skills and productivity. Below, we’ll cover some of the most popular and well-known management techniques.
Named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that creator Francesco Cirillo used as a student, this is one of the most famous time management methods to date. Cirillo discovered that he was only able to concentrate for a certain period of time before getting distracted, so decided to split his days into “pomodoros.”
In this method, you set a timer for 25 minutes to concentrate solely on your tasks. When the timer is up, you get a five-minute break. You repeat this for four sets before taking a longer break. The concept is simple but highly effective, as you’re far more likely to focus when up against the timer. You’ve also built in important rest times into your day, to help reset and boost productivity.
There are various apps and timers designed to help you with the Pomodoro Technique, and you can play around to find the best pomodoro length for you.
The Getting Things Done approach was first introduced by productivity consultant David Allen, who rose to fame with his bestselling book, Getting Things Done. In it, Allen details a productivity method that he insists is less about managing our time and more about bringing order to chaos. Over two million people have since adopted the GTD method to organize both their work and home lives.
The five fundamentals of GTD are as follows:
Capture everything. This includes not just to dos, but also any thoughts, paperwork, ideas, emails; anything that is taking up your attention.
Clarify and process. What do these things mean, and what on your collection list is actionable? How will you act on those things? Anything else can be put on hold, trashed or saved somewhere for reference.
Organize—categorize and prioritize. Allen presents different methods to categorize all of your things.
Reflect, and review all of the contents of your GTD system regularly, to ensure you stay focused and in control.
Finally, engage. Use the GTD system you’ve created to make decisions and take action on your important tasks with confidence.
The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Important-Urgent Matrix, is an excellent time management technique that tackles uncertainty and indecision. First used by Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, which gives the method its name, the Eisenhower Matrix was made famous by Stephen Covey in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
To use this time management method, you simply need to prioritize your tasks into four quadrants by their importance and urgency—two different qualities—then take action as follows.
These are both your important tasks and your urgent tasks. Focus on these first to tick them off your list.
These are important tasks that aren’t urgent. Schedule these effectively to ensure the first quadrant runs more smoothly.
These are the urgent tasks that are less important. Make sure you use your time management skills to delegate these.
Finally, this is the type of task that is neither urgent nor important. Don’t spend any time on these.
This time management method was introduced by James Martin in his book, Rapid Application Development, for use in agile software development. However, since then, timeboxing has risen in popularity outside of the software development world.
Timeboxing hinges on Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available. What this means is that if you give yourself a deadline of three weeks, chances are that task will take you three weeks to do—even if you could have otherwise finished it a lot faster.
With timeboxing, you find the tasks you have no motivation to do or ones you’d usually spend too much time on. You then define what your goals are with these tasks and set the time you want to work on them. For example, you might say, “I’ll work on answering emails for a 30-minute period at 1 p.m.” You work on that scheduled task until the time period is over.
Using a time tracking app and a calendar to timebox can ensure you stay on top of your goals and know what you’re doing each day.
Time blocking is similar to timeboxing, but the emphasis is different. Time blocking focuses on reserving a part of your day to complete a task, whether you set aside 30 minutes or two hours.
Timeboxing, on the other hand, is more about limiting the time you spend on a certain task. Instead of setting aside two hours to answer emails because you think it will take you two hours, you give yourself just 30 minutes and challenge yourself to finish within that time frame.
Computer scientist and productivity writer Cal Newport started his Study Hacks blog back in 2007 with the aim of sharing his tips and advice on staying productive in an “increasingly distracted digital age.” However, it was his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World that catapulted him to time management fame.
Deep work, according to Newport, is when you’re intensely focused on a demanding task without allowing yourself to get distracted. Deep work is not about saving time, but using time more meaningfully by focusing your attention. It isn’t easy, especially for beginners, but it’s something you can practice. Throughout the book, Newport lists various techniques that can help you engage in deep work.
For those who are more visual in their learning and planning, a kanban board may be the perfect time management technique. Kanban means signboard in Japanese. Signboards, or kanban cards, are what this method is based on.
All projects, tasks and anything you want to achieve can be laid out on a kanban board so you can view it all in one glance. Columns are set along the workflow, usually from things you have to do through to things you have done, with columns representing the steps in between. Kanban is especially effective for large projects or within a team, as everyone can see what work is in progress and where various delivery points are.
You can create a kanban board with sticky notes on a whiteboard or wall or use an app like Trello or Notion for a digital kanban board.
While this is perhaps one of the more bizarrely named time management techniques out there, it comes from an internationally bestselling book by Brian Tracy, and has become one of the most popular time management methods to date.
Eat That Frog is easy to understand and put into practice: All you need to do is complete the hardest task first. This is what Tracy means by “eating the frog.” Eating the frog is designed to help us deal with our urge to procrastinate on dull or difficult tasks by encouraging us to get these dull or difficult tasks out of the way first.
This particular time management method may not be for everyone, however, as the dull and difficult tasks might not be important or urgent tasks. Those who struggle with prioritizing or decision-making are probably better off with the Eisenhower Matrix. The strength of this method is in helping us combat our urge to put things off.
Keeping the following principles in mind can be helpful for improving your time management skills.
First, everyone is different. What is important is that we find the methods that work for us. Some people will love the systems in Getting Things Done, whereas others want something simple and quick to implement, such as the Pomodoro Technique or eating that frog.
For many, finding a combination of the different methods and techniques can be helpful. For example, using timeboxing alongside the Eisenhower Matrix can help us focus on the most important tasks and prioritize.
Second, it’s important to remember that time management is not easy, and that time management skills take time to hone. If you have an off day, you can try to get straight back to your schedule the next day. If you feel distractions taking over it might be your mind asking for a rest.
Third, you have to know yourself—but time management can also help you to know yourself better. Having the self-awareness to know when to focus and when to move onto something else is an essential part of time management.
As you improve these skills, you might find that it becomes easier to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s a virtuous cycle.
But the bottom line is that it’s all worth it. When you find the method or combination that works for you, it can often feel like a huge weight has been lifted from your shoulders. You will enjoy better work life balance, may feel less stress, and generally feel more productive, too. These benefits alone make it worth investing a little bit of time into learning good time management skills.
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