Time management is the antidote to feeling like you need more hours in the day. But the problem is not that there are not enough hours in the day, but that we don’t always use the hours that we have in the most efficient way. The real solution to our time problem? Learning proper time management. Time management tools are the devices and apps that can help you with all of that.
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The Cambridge dictionary defines time management as “the practice of using the time that you have available in a useful and effective way, especially in your work.” Time management means that you organize your time to optimize it.
Time management seems like hard work, but it’s well worth it: Learning how to manage your time actually frees up your schedule so you can spend less time on the boring stuff and more on the fun activities you love.
For effective time management, you need time management skills, methods, and tools. These are often used interchangeably, but are each separate and important components of effectively using your time.
Time management skills are abilities that enable you to strategize your time. They include planning, prioritizing, delegating, and even saying no. If time management were a game of baseball, your skills would be hitting, batting, catching, and running fast. Building skills takes practice and dedication, but they enable you to succeed at the game.
Time management methods or techniques are frameworks that you set up to utilize your time management skills. This is the game plan that will help you put your skills to work so your team (even if it's a team of one) can win the game.
One popular time management method is the Pomodoro Technique, in which you alternate between a designated period of uninterrupted work and a shorter interval of complete rest. Other methods include the Eisenhower Matrix, and the Rapid Planning Method (RPM).
All this brings us to time management tools, which are the software (like apps) and/or hardware (clocks, paper, physical timers) used to carry out time management methods and to maximize your time management skills.
In the baseball analogy, these tools would be your ball, bat, and glove. You may have the skills and you may have the strategy, but you can’t play ball without the tools. In the same way, tools are what makes time management actually happen.
Tools are so important that this entire article is dedicated to helping you pick the best time management tools. We’ll first explain the benefits of using these tools, then give you guidelines for picking the right ones as well as features that you want to look out for. Finally, we’ll give you a few more time management sources. By the end, you’ll be equipped to go out into the world and know what time management tools best fit your needs.
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Do you even really need time management tools to manage time?
The short answer is not always. You also don’t need a bottle opener to open a beer bottle, and can use your teeth or the edge of the table instead. But in the long run, your teeth or table will suffer, and you will have to spend more energy than necessary opening the beer.
Tools for time management work the same way. They are designed to supplement and empower (not burden) users to manage their time better, to do more with less effort—the definition of efficiency.
Apps are useful tools for those who feel comfortable with them and can help you manage many things in a convenient and accessible way, but you can also opt to go analog with a notebook and pen, a wall calendar, and a clock.
The best time management tools keep the basic needs of time management in mind. With that in mind, for any type of time management you will at the very minimum need something to keep time—a clock and a timer—and something to keep a record of your tracked time. In the sense that there are apps that have all of those features in one place, a digital solution might be simpler than an analog one.
There are so many time management tools, both analog and digital, that it can often feel overwhelming to choose between the seemingly endless options.
Testing different tools is a good way to find the tools that work best for you. But before you waste many hours looking for “the one,” use these questions as guidelines to find actual matches.
The best tools for time management are flexible and versatile.
This is a general principle that applies to most tools. A bowl can be used for many things in a kitchen. You can use it to prepare food, to serve food, to store food, and even as a temporary food-waste bin while you prep ingredients. This is why you will most likely find a bowl in any kitchen in the world.
Sure, you can have a unitasker in your kitchen, but you’ll only take out that sushi rolling mat when you need to make sushi, whereas the bowl you will use every single day.
A good time management tool is like a bowl. You will be able to use it in many ways on an everyday basis. Look for a tool that can work in various contexts and workflows.
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While you want versatility in your time management tools, you also don’t want extraneous features that are distracting. The best time management tools are, well, time management-focused.
The best tools do several things very well rather than hundreds of things mediocrely. These several things, however, can be used in many ways.
A bowl is versatile but it is used to work with food. You don’t want a bowl that plays music and streams TV. Being minimalist and focused is what makes bowls an open-ended tool.
The same applies for time management tools. A tool that helps you track your time and then enables you to export and download time tracking as reports is great, since all of these features are focused on managing your time. And just as sometimes a synopsis of a movie can be more helpful for decision-making than a 1500-word think piece, if your time management tool can provide time tracking reports that are insightful and relevant, not just exhaustive, that’s even better.
Effective time management tools pair well with other tools.
For example, while time management is a key part of project management, you shouldn't try to tackle an entire project armed only with a time management tool or some all-in-one that promises more than it can deliver.
Again, you don’t want a bowl that doubles as a sushi rolling mat, but it is easy to use both for different tasks while making sushi. The ability to integrate with other tools—the more, the merrier—adds to the versatility and usefulness of your tool.
The time management tool you use will be part of your project tool kit and it will help much more if it works seamlessly with other types of productivity and communication tools.
One of the best things about the internet is that people love to give their opinion on products that they try. This is great both when you’re shopping for physical tools or time management apps.
You have a wealth of information in the form of user reviews. And while you should take everything with a grain of salt—the ridiculous complainers lurk in all corners of the internet—if many reviews repeat a message, it’s one worth paying attention to, be it good or bad.
For physical tools, you can read reviews before ordering online or going to the store to buy it. For apps, it’s a bit easier, since the app store will readily give you user reviews before you decide to download.
One thing you never want to have to do is spend precious time trying to figure out how to use a time management tool.
If a tool is not easy and intuitive to use, discard it right then and there. A good tool will help you gain time, not waste it. This is especially true of apps, which can often be way too complicated to be worth using.
You don’t need a bowl to be weird and complicated. Even babies can intuitively put things into bowls without anyone explaining or demonstrating it to them. Select a time management tool that you can start using right away.
You most likely already have paper, pens, and a clock around, but if you want to go the tech route and use an app, consider the cost before committing.
There are many free time management tools online, but if you want to go premium on an app, try the free trials or free version to decide if it's worth it. In many cases, it absolutely is, but you don’t want to spend money (even if it’s a small amount) only to find out the app does not work for you at all.
Finally, remember that you don't need to use all the tools all at once. Simplify your life by choosing a few time management tools and strategies that can get you to your goals.
There are many lists out there that give you app recommendations, but rather than overwhelm you with a lot of names, we’re going to give you generic features that are helpful. This way, you know what to look for when choosing your software (or hardware).
Timers are a simple yet amazing tool that can help you focus for a controlled period of time. A timer can give you the freedom to immerse yourself in an activity without the risk of going overboard. For instance, a timer can remind office workers to stand up every hour and stretch their legs.
There are both online and offline timers and whichever is best depends on your needs. If you are already working on a computer, it may be easier to simply use an online timer in the same browser window. However, if you find yourself easily distracted or doing a task that doesn’t require technology, take this as a chance to disconnect and focus.
Your timer might be a standalone app or part of another app, but it should always be easy to turn on and off.
Time trackers can be a great way to see where exactly your time is going without being hyper aware of it. They can help you organize your schedule and prioritize tasks by showing you what your time suckers are.
Time trackers also let you lose yourself in an activity while the timer is running and have a tool do the calculating for you without needing to physically make note of the times. Time tracking makes invoicing, reporting, and time audits much easier and less time consuming.
Pareto Analysis (80/20 rule)
Look for a time tracker that is accurate, actually turns on without making you do any extra work, and gives you the option of filling in gaps or manually correcting things if you want to.
It can also be handy to have a recording feature like Toggl Track’s Timeline feature, which automatically makes a note of your computer activity.
A good time tracker allows you to zoom into the minutes but also pan out to get the big picture and observe trends. For example, your time tracker might show your time entries as blocks of time on a daily timeline by default. But if you had something like a calendar view, or an option that allowed you to visualize your tasks in calendar form, you’d be able to see repeating tasks and compare different days.
Ideally, there should at least be two views, detailed and broad. Multiple views allows you to zoom out to see your weekly or monthly schedule as well as to zoom in when you need to focus on the minutes and hours. Toggl Track, for example, allows you to view your time entries as a list, a daily schedule, and a weekly calendar.
As the name suggests, organization is not so much an inherent feature as the way the features are organized—and how they organize your time tracking. This becomes much more important when you’re managing a team and overseeing multiple time entries, or tackling many tasks simultaneously.
The Eisenhower Matrix, as well as any time tracking technique that involves having to put tasks into different categories.
The kind of organization you should look for depends on your specific needs, but in general, an organizational system should strike a happy medium between too granular or too broad. Toggl Track has a built-in hierarchy of Projects and Tasks that help you categorize time spent (labeled as entries) into categories, a level of granularity that can accommodate most work needs.
However, if you find that most of your work falls into one of two categories, or are uninterested in the details of what you’re working on, you might not need a time tracker with tiered categories.
A feature that presents your time usage in the form of a report can be great for sharing what you've done. But even if you’re time tracking for your personal productivity, the visual synopsis provided in a report can help you notice patterns in your time management habits.
A reporting feature can make it easy for an agency to bill a client for a project where they are being paid by the hour. Reports can also help a team understand its own processes better, such as which tasks should be handled more efficiently why certain tasks are taking longer than they should.
Big and small teams, freelancers, and contractors who have to report work time to their bosses or clients.
A reporting feature should be insightful, drawing out patterns and presenting them in a way that’s visually intuitive—more than just a play-by-play of how you spent every minute.
Knowing you spent just five minutes eating lunch on Wednesday doesn’t really say much. But observing that you seem to be working longer on Wednesdays without breaks—and without a corresponding increase in performance—brings up interesting questions. Maybe Wednsedays just happen to be busier, but maybe the lack of scheduled breaks is affecting your productivity.
The same principle applies to teams. If you’re managing multiple teams, and notice that one team seems to be putting much longer hours than others, it’s worth paying attention to. It might just mean that they were going through a busy patch. Or it might indicate overwork.
A good reporting feature can’t make the decisions for you, but it can provide powerful insights to help guide your decisions.
If you're looking for guides on general time management skills—skills to cultivate to become better at time management—check out our guide to Time Management Skills and Methods.
If you’re interested in learning more about specific Time Management Techniques, check out the linked guide.
If you’re looking for a back-to-the-basics primer on everything time management, try starting with Time Management 101 or even explore our A-Z of Time Tracking.
For time management advice tailored to teams and team leads, our Team Time Management guide is a good place to start.
One enjoyable way to learn more about time management is by reading books with more in-depth information on specific time management methodologies and systems. Read our round up of the Best Time Management Books to get knowledge from experts who have studied systems and mastered them.
Want something a bit more engaging? Try some of the games on our Time Management Games list to help yourself or your team members become better at managing time while having fun.
Learning time management skills and methods, and choosing the right time management tools takes commitment—and time.
But if time is money, investing in time management skills and learning how to use the right time management tools is a wise investment, one that can end up saving you more time in the long run.
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