Do you ever feel rushed or anxious, like you don’t have enough time in the day? Learning effective time management could help with these feelings and give you a more productive life.
You’ve probably heard about time management before, but what is it, exactly?
The basic definition of time management is effectively dividing your time between specific activities. These activities include things you have to do—going to work, cooking, completing your schoolwork, etc.—and things you want to do, like playing a board game with your kids, reading a book, or watching a television show. There are also extra activities you don’t plan for but spend time on anyway—like scrolling through social media.
Some of the items on your list are nonnegotiable. If you work a standard 40-hour job, for example, you have to show up on time and leave on time. But some things are flexible and can be moved, eliminated, or reduced to give you back your time.
Would more time in the day benefit you? Then give this guide a read and take the steps necessary to learn effective time management.
Steps 1: Track Your Time
For the first step, you don’t have to change anything. Really! Simply track how you use your time—without drastically changing your routine. Keep a Time Management journal to write down your activities and how long they take. Does it take you thirty minutes to get ready in the morning? An hour? If you’re a mom, how long does it take you to dress your child and make their lunch?
Write down the time when you complete an activity and the length it takes. Do this for a couple of days if your schedule varies from day-to-day. You can even track your time for an entire week to get an in-depth view.
Your journal might look something like this:
6 a.m. – Wake up and get ready for work, 30 minutes
6:30 a.m. – Feed kids breakfast, get them dressed, walk them to the bus stop, 1 hour
7:30 a.m. – Commute work, 1 hour
8:30 a.m. – Work, 3.5 hours
12 p.m. – Lunch and complete online coursework, 1 hour
1 p.m. – Return to work, 4.5 hours
5 p.m. – Commute home, 1 hour
6 p.m. – Make dinner, 1 hour
7 p.m. – Get the kids ready for bed, 1.5 hours
8:30 p.m. – Complete homework and study for test, 2 hours
10:30 p.m. – Go to bed
If you’re trying to develop better time management at work, you may want to keep track of your tasks there too. If you’re trying to find time in your schedule before and after work, then you can lump work into one task. It all depends on your time management goals.
Step 2: Evaluate Your Time
Once you’ve recorded how you use your time, you’ll want to analyze your journal. To create more time in the day, here’s what to look for:
We’ve all done it. We go onto our phones or computers for one task, and we spend an hour mindlessly scrolling through social media. Or maybe you window shop online for things you know you won’t buy. These activities are time wasters because they don’t add tangible value to your life, and they suck up a surprising amount of your day.
A recent study by research group Global Web Index found that people spend an average of two hours a day on social media—and that figure is rising every year. If you’re an average user, cutting out social media alone could give you two hours back! What would you do with that time instead? Maybe study for a test, plan a family game night, or get ahead with your work.
And reducing time-wasters like social media could be worth it in other ways—Facebook recently released a statement saying social media use can be bad for your mental health, depending on how you use the platform.
Tasks that take too long
Have you heard of Parkinson’s law? It’s the idea that the time it takes to complete a task will expand or contract depending on the amount of time you have to complete it. For example, when you decide to clean your house over the weekend, it tends to take the entire weekend, right? But if you have surprise visitors, you can probably clean your house in an hour!
Look at your Time Management journal and start with the tasks that took the longest. Do you need three hours to complete an essay, or did you waste time putting it off or feeling anxious about it but not actually working? Start identifying the places where Parkinson’s Law might be in effect.
These are the tasks that can’t be changed. Going to work isn’t negotiable, for example. You may be able to move your schedule around depending on the flexibility of your workplace, but you’re more or less locked into a set amount of time. Other immovable items include commutes, childcare tasks, and certain household chores. You can’t speed through changing a diaper or driving through rush-hour traffic. It’s important to identify these tasks so you don’t put energy into trying to change things that can’t be changed.
The best thing you can do with immovable tasks is to evaluate how effective you are during them. For example, if you have a long commute, you can listen to an audio version of your textbook in the car or on the bus. That way, you’re completing a separate task at the same time and possibly freeing up time later in the evening.
Step 3: Develop Your New Schedule
How’d it feel to write out your activities for the day or week? Did you find that your schedule was mostly unplanned or unstructured? Maybe you look at your tasks as individual activities instead of a whole. You might even be surprised by how the hours add up when you look at them all together!
Now that you’ve seen how you normally use your time, you’re ready to make adjustments and create a thoughtful schedule. Here’s what you can do to make a new plan with better time management.
Don’t set yourself up for failure
So you’re really excited about improving your time management, and you’re ready to radically change your schedule. Don’t do that—and here’s why.
Just like extreme diets, you may be setting yourself up for failure if you swing too far in the other direction. It’s probably not a sustainable change, and you’ll make yourself feel bad by trying to do too much too fast.
For example, if you use social media a lot, it might not be a good idea to try to quit cold turkey. Drop yourself down to a reasonable limit and stick to it. If you usually spend two hours a day on Facebook, limit yourself to one hour. Then slowly decrease from there, until you only log on a few times a day—or not at all.
Eliminate wasteful practices in your schedule
Reducing activities like internet browsing can give you the most room for immediate gains—but your tasks that take too long also have a lot of potential.
Shorten tasks by giving yourself a set amount of time to finish something—and sticking to it. Make sure the amount of time is less than you would normally allot yourself. So for an essay that would normally take you 3 hours, set a timer for one hour. Start the timer and work on your essay nonstop the entire time. No breaks, no distractions. You might find yourself more focused knowing there’s a time limit.
At the end of the hour, you’ll probably complete more than you thought you would. You may even finish it and win back a few hours!
Use this technique for cleaning the house, studying for a test, cooking dinner, making phone calls—it’s good for all sorts of things.
As you change your schedule, you’ll probably notice that your tasks have different levels of importance to you. For example, maybe you talk to your mother via Facebook messenger every night. So even though social media is technically a time waster, you’re actually using it for something very important—catching up with family.
This is where your own personal priorities come into play. You might want to eliminate television but keep a few hours to read a novel. You may prioritize schoolwork over everything—or spending time with your children might top your list.
Whatever is important to you, make sure it’s reflected in your schedule. This includes important tasks like schoolwork, but it also includes things you want to do in your spare time. In fact, the more you eliminate extra activities that don’t add value, the more time you can find for substantial things that really make a difference in your life. So you can finally start writing that book or learning how to play guitar.
Time management shouldn’t eliminate activities that make you happy. It should help you find and hold to your top priorities.
How to make your time management plan
To form your plan, start with the most important things. Work, school, and childcare might be the biggest items on your list. Decide how much time you’d like to dedicate to each—40 hours per week for work, 15 hours per week for schoolwork, and 20 hours a week for childcare activities, for example.
From there, you can divide those into the smaller, everyday tasks that make up each category. For example, you spend 20 hours per week on childcare, but you spend one hour helping your child with homework every day.
Once you have all of your big categories broken down into manageable tasks, start arranging them into a weekly schedule. Use the same approach from the Time Management journal—write when you want to accomplish something and how long you want it to take.
As you form your schedule, remember to use the strategies within this section. Reduce tasks that take too long, eliminate time wasters that don’t add value to your life, and keep your priorities in mind.
You should end up with a working schedule for the week. Now all you have to do is put it into practice and stick to it!
Step 4: Stick to Your Schedule
So you have a new schedule that should help you manage your time better. But the schedule won’t do you any good if you don’t stick to it. Here are some tips for how to do just that.
Find the right tools
A great place to start is finding a time management app that works for you. Google Calendars, ToDoIst, iPhone Reminders, and iPhone and Android calendars are a few tools people use to keep track of their schedules. You can use whatever works for you.
You might want to arrange your schedule in a list form, like in a To-Do app, or you might want to see your monthly or weekly calendar overall, like in Google Calendars. You can set notifications in most of these apps, so you’ll receive reminders on your phone about your tasks. Lots of people find these tools useful for sticking to their time management goals.
If you want, you can also get a physical planner and keep track of your time the same way. You won’t have the benefit of reminders or having your calendar with you everywhere you go, but you might like writing out your schedule and seeing it physically.
There are also apps available that can track how long you spend on various sites, including social media. Some of them also limit your usage, so the page won’t load if you’ve gone over your allotted amount. These can be helpful tools to reducing your overall time spent online.
In addition, you might find it useful to use your phone and computer’s Do Not Disturb feature to keep distractions at bay. You can also buy headphones or other noise cancellation devices to help limit distractions.
Be sure to test different methods to see which one works best for you. With so many time management tools out there, you can experiment and find the perfect app, daily planner, white noise machine or headphone set for you.
Take care of yourself
Motivation is a key part of time management. You can make your schedule and download every organizational app, but ultimately, you have to want to make the changes. It’s important to take care of your health and wellness so you can stay motivated.
Sleeping is very important to your overall health. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, getting the right amount of sleep helps your brain function properly. It helps you learn, make decisions, be more creative, and solve problems. What’s more, lack of sleep can cause you to be less productive, take longer to finish tasks, and make more mistakes.
It stands to reason, then, that not getting enough sleep can derail your time management plans.To start each day well-rested and refreshed, go to bed at a good time, eliminate possible distractions that can wake you during the night, stick to a regular sleep schedule, and avoid caffeine and exercise before bed.
Your body also needs nutrients to function properly. Make sure to eat healthy meals with whole grains, vegetables, lean meats, and non-processed foods. Also make sure to stay hydrated and drink lots of water throughout the day. These small steps toward self-care and self-consideration can help you stay focused and alert—and ultimately help you be more productive.
Remember why you’re doing this
What made you want to read this guide in the first place? It was probably because you were fed up with not having enough time.
There’s a reason you want to develop your time management skills. Maybe you have specific goals you want to reach, like learning to play the piano or picking up a new career skill—but you feel like you can’t because you’re too busy. Keep that in mind when you’re tempted to waiver from your schedule. You may be able to binge-watch that guilty pleasure TV show now, but it means less time to study for your test. Everything is a give-and-take, so keep yourself motivated by thinking about what you could be giving up when you waste time.
To stay focused, try decorating a bulletin board or your wall with images and words that remind you of your goals. Create a vision board that shows where you want to be at the end of the year, or what you want to accomplish with your newfound time management skills.
The point is to remember why you’re doing this in the first place—so you can keep going even if it gets a little tough.
Create a rewards system for yourself
We all need help with motivation sometimes. You can put a rewards system in place to help you stay on track. For example, if you finish studying for a quiz in the allotted time, reward yourself with half an hour to watch your favorite television sitcom. Just make sure to hold firm on your rewards—if you don’t meet your goal, you shouldn’t take the extra treat for yourself.
Not only will this method help you stay on track, but it will also help you feel like you still have time to do the things you really enjoy, which can help you avoid burnout.
Another way to reward yourself is to plan your rewards in advance. Say you have a really busy day with a lot to accomplish. Establish your reward in the morning so you can keep it in mind throughout your day.
If you’re productive through work, schoolwork, and dinnertime, you can take an hour for yourself to take a bubble bath and read your novel. Knowing this reward lies at the end of your day can help you find your motivation for all the tasks you need to get done.
Step 5: Adjust as you go
Once you’vbeen following your new schedule for a few weeks, you’ll be able to see if it needs any adjustments. Do some things take longer than you anticipated? Or maybe you feel rushed and stressed because you need more breaks between activities. Whatever it is, you’ll likely find areas that need tweaking in your new time management schedule.
Adjusting your schedule is a delicate balance, because you don’t want to step back into poor time management. Make sure you’re only adjusting to make your schedule realistic, but not adjusting to allow yourself more time to waste.
As with creating your schedule, you’ll also want to think about priorities. Were your priorities accurate when you made your schedule? Or did you discover that something else is important—something you didn’t originally consider? Now is the time to readjust for those things.
Also consider how well you’re accomplishing tasks in the time allotted. For example, maybe you need more than two hours per night to study in order to ace your exams. The purpose of time management is to help you complete tasks efficiently but also to the best of your ability. So be sure to adjust to give yourself enough time to finish everything well.
Also don’t be afraid to make changes. You made your schedule with an idea of how much time you needed for different tasks, but it’s okay to adjust as you come to understand how long things actually take. Keep pushing yourself to shorten tasks and eliminate time wasters, but there’s no need to hold yourself to an unrealistic schedule. Make adjustments as necessary! This is an ever-evolving process, and it’s important to be open to changing things that don’t work for you.
Time management isn’t always easy. But luckily it’s a learned skill, and you can pick it up with enough practice. Try these steps to develop time management and establish a schedule that helps you get your work done and feel fulfilled in your life.