Do you work hard all day, but your poor time management stops you from ever getting caught up on your to-do list?
You’re definitely not alone. Most working professionals struggle with poor time management, and the problem only seems to be getting worse.
The average employee spends almost two hours per day on tasks that aren’t work-related, and there seem to be more demands on our attention every day. Meanwhile, companies expect ever-rising levels of productivity and employee efficiency.
So what can you do about it – besides throwing your cell phone in the nearest dumpster?
Thankfully, there are several powerful strategies you can employ today that don’t require going completely off the grid or cloning yourself to get twice as much work done at the office. It all comes down to effective planning, strategic scheduling, and training your brain to resist the attention-destroying habits of modern life.
1. Schedule Effectively and Plan Ahead
The most important thing you can do to prevent poor time management is to make a sufficient schedule. After all, you can’t see whether you’re managing your time well unless you know what that looks like.
It’s important to have a process when it comes to scheduling your time. Make sure you’re blocking in your essential tasks, slating time for unpredictable interruptions or last-minute jobs, and making room for personal time.
Many find it helpful to plan their week on Sundays. You could use a matrix (like the one below from Rafael Sarandeses) to divide your week’s activities by type:
This way, you can easily see what greater-impact items take a high level of focus, versus “filler” items like answering emails or checking in on your social media networking, which you might reserve for your commute.
Another great hack is to use the “W5 D3” method, where you choose five weekly tasks that need to be done by the end of the week, and then three smaller daily tasks that need to be done by the end of the next day.
It’s a great way to divide up your schedule into manageable chunks.
Finally, make sure you’re treating yourself like a human. Block downtime into your schedule.
If your finished schedule is missing rest/recreational time, it’s a good sign you need to cut back on something else.
2. Stop Poor Time Management by Getting Your Priorities in Order
How do you know what to do and in what order when everything seems like it’s the top priority?
It’s all about knowing the difference between “urgent” and “important” tasks, and then setting priorities in order of the value they bring to the business.
Some tasks will have an impending deadline, but the consequences of being late or left undone will be minimal. Other tasks might have a vague end date, but getting them done quickly and correctly could have significant benefits to you or your company.
For instance, do you have client work that needs to get done? Choose that over internal work like revamping the payroll system or ordering new snacks for the breakroom. You will have a greater sense of accomplishment and won’t feel bad if you need to reschedule a less important task for tomorrow.
Another way to prioritize your tasks is to organize them by the amount of effort. Like Mark Twain said, if you have to eat a frog, eat it first thing in the morning (this is a revolting way of saying you should do the hardest thing first).
Finally, be prepared not to get everything done.
In a perfect world, you get to complete everything you wanted in one day—but we all know most days aren’t like that. You’ll end up rescheduling some tasks for the rest of the week, and that’s okay.
That’s why you’ve prioritized the most important things, and you’ve done them first.
3. Remove Non-Essential Activities
If you got your priorities right, now you can think about what to do with not so important tasks.
To determine whether you should keep a task on your planner, ask yourself: What happens if I don’t do it? Can I delegate it to someone else? How does this task align with my (or my company’s) values and goals?
Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen suggest sorting your low-value tasks into three categories:
- Drop: don’t do it, and you’ll see no negative consequences.
- Delegate: someone else can handle this task with relative ease.
- Redesign: restructure this task to make it less of a time-waster.
Do you spend more than an hour a day going through your email?
The odds are good that you can ignore most of the emails you receive, especially ones sent from batch mailing lists. Try unsubscribing from as many newsletters as you can (dropping), and if possible, ask your assistant to handle simpler emails so that you’re only answering what you need to (delegating).
What about social media? These activities can be huge drains on your time, and you can cut them out of your life with practically no downside.
If you must be on social media for business, get a scheduler like Hootsuite or Buffer to help you spend less time on those platforms while looking like you’re ever-present (an excellent example of redesigning).
4. Batch Similar Tasks Together
One fantastic hack for productivity is to batch similar tasks together. Instead of jumping from one type of task to another, work smart by doing all similar tasks at once.
Group all comparable tasks together (like answering emails, returning phone calls, or writing reports), and then do as much as you can in a single category at the same time.
This method keeps you from wasting time switching mental gears from project to project.
For instance, when you’re in “email-answering” mode, you might power through 35 emails all at once. Then you switch to “report-writing” mode and hammer out twice as many pages as you would have if you’d worked on one project at a time.
Dreading making a particular phone call? Power through all the calls you need to make in one fell swoop. Once you’re in “phone” mode, it’ll seem much less intimidating to make that one call you’ve been avoiding.
Another reason this method works so well to combat poor time management is that you’re thinking about projects in their smallest components. You’re breaking each task into manageable chunks.
For example, instead of “writing a blog post on productivity,” you’ll break it down into researching, outlining, drafting, editing, and publishing.
When you have several big projects on your plate, it can quickly get overwhelming. But if you break up all of your tasks into their smallest components and work in batches, you’re able to crush them one hyper-productive batch at a time.
5. Include Breaks and Buffer Time in Your Schedule
Science shows that rushing from one task to another without a break makes you less satisfied with your productivity.
How about the fact that your brain can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes at a time?
You need an appropriate mental transition between tasks so that your mind has the chance for closure on the previous activity and can get prepared for the next one.
This is where buffer time, or the extra “padding” you should put into your schedule between tasks, comes in handy. Forbes contributor John Rampton swears by 25-minute buffer blocks.
Including time for breaks in your schedule serves another purpose: it can act as contingency planning by making space for unexpected events in your day. If you end up running late on a task due to an unforeseen interruption, it’s no big deal—because you’ve built in extra padding thanks to your buffer time.
Here are some tips for using buffer time between your tasks:
- Use movement. Do push-ups, a short yoga flow, or take a brisk walk around the block.
- Meditate. Closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing for a few minutes at your desk will do wonders for resetting your mind. Or, you can use a meditation app like Insight Timer or Smiling Mind for quick guided meditations.
- Do low-energy tasks during buffer time. Tidying, filing, or copying are great examples of tasks that don’t require much mental or physical energy, which you can use as a small way to reset before tackling that next task on your list.
However you choose to use your buffers, just remember that they benefit your mental power and help you better focus—ultimately leading to better time management.
6. Rookie Time Management Mistake: Overextending Yourself
Do you have trouble delegating and letting anyone else handle a task because you don’t trust them to do it right?
But what if you still struggle with saying “no,” even though you know a task or project isn’t for you? Someone approaches you with a task, and you can’t resist jumping on board. Sounds familiar?
Whatever the reason, know that overloading your to-do list is a rookie mistake that can lead to frustration, burnout, and a perpetual failure to meet your daily or weekly goals.
Much like the tip above about removing non-essential activities, it’s essential to know your priorities to avoid doing this.
Ask yourself whether the task has to be done (or has to be done by you).
Learning how to say “no” is just as important as knowing how to say it. Try using diplomatic wording like “I’d love to help with this, but my schedule is too full right now to dedicate the time needed for this project.”
That will go down better than a simple, “No thanks, I’ll pass.”
Overextending yourself with too many tasks is often the consequence of poor prioritization and avoiding to delegate tasks. Deal with the foundation, and you will get better at managing your time and schedule.
7. Track Your Time to Get a Better Sense of How You Spend It
It’s all well and good to create a schedule based on a task’s due date, but if you keep running behind or taking longer than you expected on certain tasks, it could be because you don’t know how long something takes to begin with.
That’s where time tracking comes in.
Sometimes it’s as simple as jotting down when you start and end a task on a notebook next to your computer.
And if you want to get a little more technical, there are plenty of apps out there that can help you accurately track how you and your team are spending your time—from simple Pomodoro timers to advanced time-tracking apps like Buddy Punch.
Time tracking can be beneficial for your whole team. When you know how much time does a task require, you’ll be able to better predict the work hours needed during high-workload weeks and organize work schedules accordingly.
The main thing: you need to know where your time is going so you can compare it to your mental picture of how you and your team spend your time.
It’s hard to see what you need to change unless you know what you’re already doing, right?
Recommended reading: Time Tracking Best Practices Guide
8. Focus On a Task At Hand
We can all agree that you won’t be very productive if you can’t concentrate. Organizing your schedule and giving yourself breaks goes a long way towards helping you focus on the task at hand, but you can still teach yourself to be better at it with a few more specific tips and tricks:
Limit your outside distractions
Make your workspace comfortable and ergonomic, and keep the room temperature comfortable. Find ways to prevent others from interrupting you (like putting a “deep work” sign on your office door), and turn off all distracting notifications from your devices.
Think about common distractors in your daily routine and which ones you can remove.
Do your creative work first
You’ll experience decision fatigue as the day progresses, so you should do things that require more mental energy first. Check our article on productivity methods for more tips on deep, creative work.
Treat your mind like a muscle
Train it to focus for a few minutes every day. Use the Pomodoro technique to keep yourself focused in 25-minute increments, and try meditation and mindfulness techniques to build your attention span.
Create a distraction to-do list
Just a pad of paper next to your computer will do; anything that lets you quickly jot down the random thoughts, ideas, or to-dos that pop into your head while you’re trying to focus. If you get these out of your head quickly, you can return your undivided attention to the task in front of you.
Today, our focus is more challenged than it was before, so putting effort into improving it can go a long way for being more productive and better managing time. Now, let’s address the focus’ main enemy: multitasking.
9. Never, Ever Multitask
Are you the kind of person who can successfully multitask?
Spoiler: you’re not.
“People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” Stanford University Study
Think about it: if you’re trying to focus on multiple things at once all day, every day, you’re training your brain to never fully pay attention to anything.
You’ll lose the ability to concentrate and will be perpetually distracted by irrelevant things. This can bleed into your relationships with friends, family, coworkers, and customers—if you can’t pay attention, you can’t deeply connect or form authentic relationships.
Did you know that studies show it can take 20-40 percent more time to get through your to-do list while multitasking?
Plus, you’re almost guaranteed to do all of your tasks much more poorly. Your concentration is split, so you’ll either go more slowly or make more mistakes.
Probably, you’ll be doing both. And it’s going to make you anxious to boot.
And not only does multitasking damage your ability to concentrate, but studies show it also affects your memory. Multitasking wrecks your “working” or short-term memory. Researchers found that there’s a link between attention and memory, and if you can’t pay close attention, your working memory suffers.
By its very nature, multitasking means you’re dividing your attention, so it makes sense that your memory would be affected.
10. To Ditch Poor Time Management, Forget About Perfection
If you struggle to delegate (see tip #6), have unrealistic standards for yourself and others, often stay late at the office, and avoid things you don’t think you’ll be outstanding at, you might be a perfectionist.
While you might think this personality trait is a good thing, perfectionism can hurt your time management because you get caught up in insignificant details. You may struggle to prioritize certain tasks over others because everything seems of utmost importance to you.
Sometimes perfectionists resist beginning a project until they know how to do it perfectly. Just dive in—you’re probably more prepared than you realize!
If you tend to spend more time on tasks than necessary by making sure everything is just-so, simply set yourself a (reasonable) time limit.
In the grand scheme of things, tasks are better done than perfect. When you understand how negatively perfectionism affects your work results, you will be more willing to work on improving it.
As they say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!
11. Use Anti-Procrastination Strategies to Quit Poor Time Management for Good
Perhaps the biggest culprit in poor time management is procrastination, which is different from laziness: it’s the active avoidance of a task by doing something else instead.
If you procrastinate, you need to figure out why you’re doing it.
Are you afraid of doing the task incorrectly? Is the task boring? Are you a perfectionist (see tip #10)?
Here are a few strategies to avoid procrastination:
- Set a realistic deadline for your task. Having an impending due date could help you get started.
- Reward yourself for meeting your deadlines. It’s best to avoid negative consequences for missing deadlines, so focus on positive reinforcement for achieving your goals.
- Do the hardest task first thing in your day. Commit to getting the hardest or most dreaded task out of the way early. It will create positive momentum for the rest of the day.
- Use focus sprints paired with breaks. Some people swear by power hours, and others use the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break).
- Use peer pressure. Tell a coworker or friend when you’re planning to accomplish a task and ask them to check up on your progress. You can also use a tool like Procraster for some extra accountability.
Okay, Now You’re Just Stalling
And that’s all, folks! Eleven useful ways to avoid poor time management.
First, it’s all about setting up your schedule. Make sure you know how to design an effective schedule by using a routine, prioritizing and batching your tasks, and eliminating non-essential items from the to-do list.
Don’t forget to build in buffer time to keep yourself sane and pad your calendar for unforeseen interruptions.
Then, remember to train your mind by teaching yourself not to take on more than you can handle, pay attention to where your time goes, and stay focused on one task at a time.
Finally, avoid the evil P’s: perfectionism and procrastination!
Now that you know how to prevent all the biggest pitfalls of poor time management, what are you waiting for? Get back to work—and start crushing it!