We've prepared this ultimate time management guide to help you become better at time management step by step and flourish in your personal and professional life.
You probably stumbled upon this ultimate time management guide because you were frustrated with the piles of work you have. Perhaps you are wondering how to organize it in a way that won’t leave you completely drained and even with some free time in the end.
There is a chance you've heard about the “eat the frog” technique where you start your day with a difficult task so that all the subsequent ones will seem easier. Techniques such as this are extremely useful, but we must confront the ugly truth right from the start – time management is hard. There is no fast and easy technique that will solve your problems in a flash, no magic wand to wave that will make you more productive and create more free time.
But since when were the truly beneficial things in your life easy? Think about running. At the start it's a painful and miserable experience, but it gets better with time, and you are better off in the end. Of course it’s easier to just slack around and eat junk food, but we all know that that path doesn't lead anywhere.
The same is with time management. It’s a pain, but at the end of the day when you master time management, you will see the positive effects, like stress reduction, more organized workflow, less pressure, traceable results, and much more. That’s why we've prepared this ultimate time management guide to help you become better at time management step by step and flourish in your personal and professional life.
Time management is a process of planning and organizing your time in the most productive and efficient way. By cleverly using the available hours, you will be able to complete more tasks in a specific period of time. In the past the term applied mostly to work-related problems but has since broadened to cover personal time management as well.
The value that time management brings can be boiled down to the question of how much you actually value your time. Your time is limited, and it should be the most precious resource you can manage. Everything else is just a consequence of setting priorities and deciding how much time you are willing to sacrifice to achieve a specific task. When time management is done properly:
First things first: before you dive into time management strategies, tools, and techniques, with the goal of enhancing your efficiency and productivity, let’s take a close look at the main challenges time management poses. There’s a chance that you can identify with at least one of these problems and mistakes in time management, and this is a great start to a more successful management strategy. Pinpoint your worst time management mistakes and start from there. We've listed just a few of the problems that usually arise in a work environment.
So that you don’t get bored with over-the-top definitions, here are the simple explanations of effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity.
Productivity is one of the top buzzwords in time management. Numerous articles discuss it and promise you a huge boost in productivity if you follow some particular steps. Productivity, similar to time management, is a learning process that takes time and effort.
The best way to tackle the problem of low productivity is to determine what productivity means to you, and how the term applies to your work environment. Productivity is a term that originated in economics (measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input) especially in industry, where outputs and inputs can be easily measured.
So, what happens if we apply this strict term to an office environment?
It’s almost impossible to exactly pinpoint and measure productivity in the average office job. So again, we come to the place of needing to understand what productivity is. In the beginning, we said that productivity consists of efficiency and effectiveness.
The easiest factor to improve is effectiveness. Simple math states that by choosing the right tasks you will have a better output at the end of the day. No particular skill except an in-depth understanding of your work and prioritization of know-how is needed to greatly improve your effectiveness.
On the other hand, efficiency is about how much you can do in a specific time period. It is much more dependent on factors that you may not change at such short notice, and they mostly involve work ethics. Efficiency is built on the skills and techniques that help you work faster.
A good start towards improving your effectiveness is reading about planning and scheduling, and a good start for improving efficiency is attention management.
There is a great article by Adam Grant that discusses how productivity is more closely related to attention management than time management. Grant makes a valid point that instead of approaching productivity from the mechanical standpoint where you measure everything and figure out how to cram more activities in your workday, we should look at it through the attention point of view. This is the exact thing that efficiency and effectiveness describe.
Grant points out that the ups and downs of our productivity can be blamed on a lack of motivation. You may feel like you are constantly working but still fall behind your schedule, or that there are always some tasks left unchecked in your daily to-do list.
That is because you solely focus on using your time in the most efficient way, and not in the most effective way. Attention management describes how you should focus on the right project, task, person, or meeting no matter how much of your time it takes. You are probably saying “Well then I won’t get any work done.” Wrong!
You will finish the most important part of your work first, and that is a huge step forward from simply watching the productivity meter all the time. If you focus on solely boosting your productivity, you are in for a nasty surprise. But if you actually focus on the task at hand and understand why you are doing it, you will be more motivated and in the end more productive because of it.
There are of course numerous mundane tasks that need to be done and that you will need to push through, however, there is an elegant solution to this problem. You should divide your tasks into:
An important part of attention management is the balance between management and creative tasks.
Take a look at your energy levels throughout the day (the table from the PDF test in the first chapter). You should schedule the management tasks for when you have the most energy and creative tasks when you have less, as you will be doing less linear thinking then, which is perfect for creative tasks.
The creative tasks should be approached with attention management in mind and the management tasks should be looked at with time management (efficiency especially) in mind.
And last but not least, attention management and time management strongly align in terms of one thing: you should know how to get rid of your distractions. This doesn’t just mean external distractions either, it also means you should be able to stop interrupting yourself, which is a much harder task today than it was in the past because of all the possible ways that we can distract ourselves.
Pay attention to what consumes your attention rather than just knowing where your time drains are and trying to fill them up with more tasks.
To effectively apply time management to your work routine, you need a certain set of skills and techniques: both the skills and techniques to help you approach time management in a smart way and to give you a versatile tool belt to improve your time management. This is great because every one of us works a little differently and there are many different jobs that require good time management.
Here is the main difference between skills and techniques:
And if we apply that to time management:
Let’s focus on time management skills first. Time management should not be understood as a standalone skill, but rather a wide variety of skills like planning, prioritizing, and goal setting to name just a few.
Out of all the time management skills, there are three that are the most essential for time management and a great way to start if you haven’t given it much thought. As said, there are numerous time management skills and you should pick the ones that suit your personality best, but most of us will need the following time management skills in one way or another:
If you don’t find yourself in any of these, we have put together a more comprehensive list of time management skills so you can do a self-assessment of which ones you still need to develop to become really good at time management. Build a suite of unique time-management skills for your character and become a time management superhero.
As mentioned, a technique is an efficient way to put a skill into practice, and a practice that gives the best results in certain cases. There are more than 50 time management techniques out there for all different personality types, productivity issues, and business needs. We have gathered all these time management techniques here:
So as not to get lost in all the techniques, we have selected the best time management techniques you definitely have to know:
A to-do list is nothing but a list of tasks you need to complete in a certain period of time. It’s a very simple, efficient, and extremely popular productivity tool. There are several ways of keeping your lists in check: you can use a pen and paper, desktop software, or a digital notepad.
There are a few different to-do lists (and a few sub-lists) you should keep in order to stay completely organized on a daily basis, while also keeping a macro perspective on what you want to achieve in your business or personal life, and where you want to go. Some examples of such lists are a vision list, a maybe someday list, a weekly list, a daily 3T list, and so on.
Kanban is a Japanese word meaning a billboard or signboard. The main idea of the Kanban board is to have a visual table that helps you to track the progress of your goals. A Kanban board is basically a visual to-do list. You can use a big, dry‑wipe whiteboard to visualize the tasks, or software that supports Kanban visualization. In our experience, a physical Kanban board works much better.
The use of the Kanban board is quite simple. You should draw several columns on the whiteboard, visualizing the stage of each specific task. The columns on the board are usually:
Then you need sticky notes. Every sticky note represents a task that needs to be completed, and you can use different colors of sticky notes for different types of tasks. After you have the big board and sticky notes with tasks, you simply stick the notes in one of the columns, depending on the phase the task is in.
If you’ve followed all the steps, you should have a nice visual representation of your tasks and in which stage they are. Based on your progress, you can then move sticky notes through these columns.
The Timeboxing technique means that you open your calendar and enter a block of time that you’ll spend on a certain task in the future. Instead of working on the task until it’s done, you proactively decide how much time you’ll spend on it and when (and even where).
It’s like scheduling a meeting in your calendar: you select the day, the hours at which you’ll start and finish, define the desired outcome, and reserve the time in your calendar - and once you reserve a box of time, you should treat it like a scheduled meeting. That means no rapid rescheduling, no distractions when you work on the timeboxed task, etc.
For bigger tasks, you can reserve several blocks of time in advance. With such an approach, you have complete control over your schedule and priorities.
The Pomodoro (Tomato) Technique is a very popular time management method invented by the software developer and author Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980's. The idea of Pomodoro is very simple, which is probably what makes this technique so popular.
You should break down your daily work and complete it in intervals separated by short breaks. You work for 25 minutes straight, which is called one Pomodoro, and then take a 3 – 5 minute break. After 4 Pomodori, you take a longer break of 15 – 30 minutes to recharge.
You should use a simple timer to follow the Pomodoro Technique – it can be a software solution, mobile phone alarm clock, or dedicated Pomodoro timer. Following the technique should give you enough focus and recovery time to maximize your productivity.
The Eisenhower Matrix is one of the most popular frameworks for prioritizing tasks. The matrix was invented by the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower , and popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
The Eisenhower matrix is quite simple to understand and use: based on two dimensions – urgency and importance – you build a matrix of four quadrants. These quadrants are:
Of course, you should always tackle urgent and important tasks. The important but not urgent tasks, like sports, learning, creating, and bonding with people you should schedule in your calendar (and make sure you do them regularly). All other tasks you should delegate or simply delete.
The Eisenhower matrix
Deep work is a term developed by Cal Newport, and states that all intellectual activities should be performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
Only when you do deep work can you can create new value, improve your skills, and do things that are hard to replicate. Many people call the psychological state that enables you to do deep work, “the flow.”
The opposite of deep work is “half-work” or “shallow work.” That kind of low‑value work usually goes along with multitasking, working on many projects, and having many distractions in the environment (email, telephone, chat, and other interruptions).
The best way to overcome “half-work” is by focusing for a significant amount of time on one thing and eliminating everything else-every single distraction.
Technology is a tool. Think of it like a hammer: you can use it to hit a nail or hit your fingers - it all depends on how good you are at managing the tool. The same goes for technology. Technology can be great at helping you become more productive, or it can completely kill your productivity.
The best way to explain technology as leverage is to look at very practical examples of how you can use it to increase or decrease your productivity. Let’s start with a few examples of how technology can kill your productivity:
As we all do, you probably love your laptop, tablet, phone, and smart TV, and so you let all these lovely devices constantly ring, send you notifications, and distract you from doing real work or forging deep connections with people. That’s how your productivity suffers.
The second case: With one click you have access to all the knowledge humans have accumulated. Yes, the internet. But then you use all of your lovely devices to browse funny cat photos (from time to time we all need to do that, but the point is to put limits on entertainment). That’s another way technology is killing your productivity.
Now let’s look at the scenarios in which using tech leads to improvements in productivity:
You decide to listen to audio books during your commute. Your car becomes a university on wheels. You drive and learn. You just became more productive.
You delete all social networks from your phone and install reading apps and apps for different online courses. You turn your mobile phone into an educational device. You just became more productive.
Now you have an important choice to make. Will you be the one managing technology, or will you let technology manage you? Will technology work for you, or will you work for technology? Don’t be a slave to tech-make sure you’re on the right side of the equation. And make sure you use the right apps to make you more, not less, productive.
The point of time management tools is to help you govern your time better. By using these tools, you can become more productive, make better decisions about your time, and reduce the time you spend on things like reporting and invoicing.
There are five different types of time management tools that you must use and logically combine. On top of these tools, you can also apply different time management techniques, such as Getting Things Done, the Eisenhower matrix, the Pomodoro timer and others.
Here is the list of the main five time management tools:
The biggest benefit of time management tools and apps is that they are better at keeping things in order than your brain. Today, most of us use some kind of app to employ the above-mentioned tools. Some of the apps are designed primarily for individuals and freelancers, while others are used to manage small, medium, or large teams. And there are thousands and thousands of apps out there.
The positive thing is that there has been a rise in the production of time management tools. But more choices are not always better, and you may get lost in the flood of apps and tools. Before you set out on a wild hunt for your new time management app, take some time to answer these questions:
Ultimately, the tool you will actually use will prove to be the best tool for you. If you don’t know exactly what you want to achieve, you will have a hard time picking the right one. The pitfall here is that either you will settle for an expensive tool with so many features that you won’t use it in the end, or a tool so simple that it will not suit your needs and you'll stop using it. If you want to track your time, for example, don’t choose a project management tool (which has time tracking built in) but a lean simple time tracker with a lower learning curve and faster results.
Some tools are good at scaling, and some are not. Try to figure out how a specific tool works with teams the size of yours. If you a larger team, this will narrow it down quite a bit, and if you are a freelancer you will have no problem eliminating the tools that are meant for large companies, or even corporations.
The hardest task when choosing a tool will fall on the medium-sized teams. When in doubt, always turn to your team. Maybe they already have a preferred tool, or they may be using one for personal time tracking.
Sadly, this is probably one of the largest obstacles for smaller teams and freelancers, but many great apps offer a freemium version that is ideal for these kinds of cases. If you want a really complex time management app, you will probably need to dig deep into your pocket. Again, don’t forget that the most valuable tool will be the one you use.
Other criteria to consider:
If you want to achieve maximum productivity in today’s hectic times, you have to manage technology right, and you have to choose the right tools and apps for you as an individual and for your team. So, explore different apps and see what suits you best.
Time management tips are very specific recommendations on how to manage your time better. We have selected the 10 best time management tips ever created:
Now let’s deep dive into each time management tip.
Working in a flow is one of the most productive states a human being can experience. When you get into the flow, you forget about the time, your worries and problems, and just about everything else. You just create and deliver.
To work in the flow, you have to work on a task that is a little bit out of your comfort zone, a task that represents a challenge for you and is also something that you are naturally skilled at. Additionally, you have to work in complete focus, without any distractions and interruptions. You also need to be well-rested and emotionally calm.
A very important rule among time management techniques is sharpening the saw. Sharpening the saw means not forgetting to take care of all four of your bodies– the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual body. The more you take care of yourself, the more energy you will have for productive work.
Procrastination is the feeling of knowing you should get some work done but somehow not being able to. There are two types of procrastination, chronic and acute. Chronic procrastination has a deep, strong, and permanent psychological cause that may not be so easily eliminated. It can be done, but it takes patience and hard work.
On the other hand, acute procrastination can be caused even by small mood or energy swings throughout the day, or other minute psychological triggers that aren’t a steady natural part of your psyche (like having a bad day, for example).
There are proven tips to overcome acute procrastination:
Proven tips to overcome chronic procrastination
One of the biggest productivity killers is distraction. Reacting to every interruption or distraction from your environment is a productivity disaster. That’s because it takes 5, 10, 30 or even more minutes to fall back into a working flow every time you’re interrupted.
Here is the list of the main distractions trying to steal your attention:
Here is by far the best advice for dealing with distractions: eliminate them way before they get a chance to kick you out of the flow. You have to outsmart all the distractions and interruptions. There are three simple steps to achieve that:
Here is an example of set of rules out of which the productivity system can be built in order to prevent/outsmart distractions and interruptions:
You have to analyse your weak points, set rules to help you neutralize weaknesses, grab the most appropriate productivity tools, and build a unique system that really works for you. You have to outsmart yourself and the environment you currently operate in. It's not that easy to do, but it’s hard to be productive if you don’t organize yourself and everything around you in a smart way. Also, never rely on your self-discipline because this is not how you’ll win this game. Think of yourself as the architect of a system that will enable you to be super productive.
Learn more how about to handle distractions in our other resources:
Email can be one of the biggest distractions during working hours. If you have your email client constantly open when you’re behind your computer, it can be a big obstacle to doing real deep work. Emails that persistently flow in can be a perpetual distraction, and while in some cases email can be real work, in many cases it is the biggest time waster.
Here are the best tips on email management:
Some people are big believers in the “creative chaos” philosophy, but in reality it usually only means that they are messy Clean your desk and have everything in its place. It will go a long way towards helping you focus. Mess and chaos are nothing but distractions.
In order to be organized to the fullest, you should be a fan of minimalism. Try to have as few things as possible in life. Much like people, thoughts, words and tasks - material things also take room, energy, and time in your life.
Throw away everything you haven’t used in the past three months. All you need is your brain, happiness, some money in your bank account, and things in your digital cloud. Eliminate all the waste from your life.
You want to have as many things as possible in the cloud – everything from your music, movies, documents, software, notes, records, and so on. If you have everything in the cloud, you won’t lose anything if your device is lost or breaks down. You just buy a new device, enter your passwords, and everything synchronizes.
You can be really productive by having your life organized in the cloud. You can work from anywhere; which means you are not chained to your personal physical possessions and so on. All you have to do is make sure that your life in the cloud is also organized to the fullest. You don’t want to be wasting your time looking for files, folders, notes, or information. If you have a good system, living life in the cloud can be miraculous for your personal productivity.
Every one of us has a different personal biorhythm, therefore, you have hours when you are extra productive and hours when you feel less energetic. Being an early riser brings many benefits, but still some people, especially in the creative fields, are at their most fruitful when the sun goes down.
Find out if you are more of a morning or an evening person. Identify your personal biorhythm, then plan naps and walks for the less energetic time of the day, and creative flows or agile execution for that time of the day when you feel the most productive and energetic.
Having two monitors definitely brings a big improvement in productivity. You should maybe even use three, but they can emit too much radiation and cause a headache. In any case, you won’t believe how much more productive you can be on a computer with two big screens compared to a laptop or a tablet.
Buying a second monitor is not expensive at all and is easy to set up. Just don’t have e-mail open on one of your screens, since that will just interrupt you all the time.
We might be biased here at Spica when it comes to time tracking, having developed My Hours, the simplest and most useful time tracker, as well as our time and attendance tool, All Hours; but we have often seen what time tracking can do for the productivity of individuals and teams.
A good time tracker gently pushes you to be more productive, enables you to analyze how you spend your time, and on top of that, allows you to focus better on the more important tasks.
As the saying goes, you can only manage what you measure. By employing time tracking, you have a clear picture of how you spend your time, how much you work on different projects, and how much you really earned.
With accurate statistics, you can optimize your time better. If you use a time tracker, you will also be more prone to consistently using other time management techniques.
Drinking at least 2 - 3 liters of water per day will help you stay fresh, focused, and energized. When your mouth is dry, you are already too late. The best way to follow this advice is to have a bottle of water with you at all times and just drink it throughout the day.
You can buy a nice looking plastic, ecological, antibacterial bottle for less than 30 dollars. Regular water drinking is basically the only distraction allowed when you are in the flow.
There are many time management resources out there, but the best are books and various productivity blogs such as ours. Quotes can also be a good source of inspiration to manage your time better. Here you can find some of the best time management resources we’ve found:
One of the best ways to excel at time management is to acquire knowledge from time management books. There are more than 50.000 time management books out there, so there’s no way one could read them all, but if you read just a few of our top picks, you will definitely improve greatly in how well you manage your time. Here’s the list of our 10 all-time favorite time management books:
You can read the summaries of these time management books here .
If you are a time management enthusiast, reading time management quotes can be one of the best ways to motivate yourself to become even better at it. These are so many popular quotes out there, but these are the ones we like the most:
And if you are up to reading more, we have prepared a list of 100+ time management quotes.
And here are some of our additional resources, where you can learn more about time management: