“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim,” wrote Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life .
This quote summarizes how humans conceptualize time and how we can develop skills and schedules to maximize productivity and achieve our goals.
In school, work, and daily life, we may encounter people who seem to have it all together. They are productive, stress-free, high achievers. But chances are, they were not born that way. Managing, organizing, and distributing time are skills that we can learn. Doing so can help you control your time and promote overall satisfaction.
Here are some tips and methods that can help you harness your time for better well-being.
Time management is the process of consciously planning and controlling time spent on specific tasks to increase efficiency. You may be familiar with setting deadlines, writing to-do lists, and giving yourself small rewards for accomplishing certain activities. Motivating ourselves to do the things we have to do in order to do the things we want to do, is a part of life.
Developing good routines and habits for managing your time starts with knowing what strategies are out there, then testing them in your life. Good time management can lead to a healthy, balanced lifestyle that may manifest as:
Achieving goals more efficiently
Prioritizing what's important
Accomplishing more in less time
Getting further in your career or education
At the core of time management methods are the basic skills of awareness, arrangement, and adaptation, according to Harvard Business Review . This means being mindful of your time, structuring it, and adjusting it as you go, is the secret to effective time management. Executives now point to behavioral skills as the most important for the 21st century workforce, with “time management skills and the ability to prioritize” ranking second in IBM’s skills gap survey .
If you’re looking to take control of your time, here are six tips and strategies to get you started:
Start by assessing where you actually spend your time. Create a visual map of approximate hours you spend on work, school, housework and chores, commuting, social media, and leisure activities. Then, you can drill in on school or work, dividing your previous week into days, then hours. How much time did it take to finish that paper? Did a work project take longer because you were scrolling through Facebook while working from home? Take the time to reflect and quantify how you spend your time.
Set goals based on this outcome. Planning ahead and setting time limits on your tasks and priorities can free up time for what’s most important to you, like spending more time with friends and family. Start by dedicating a half hour every Sunday to intentionally planning your week ahead and setting daily goals.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a popular tool that helps you distinguish between tasks that are important, not important, urgent, and not urgent. The quadrant has four boxes in which you can split your tasks to prioritize what you should focus on first. They also correspond with the 4 D’s of execution: do, defer, delegate, and delete.
Quadrant 1: Important and urgent. Do these tasks first. These are priorities that are most relevant to your goals.
Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent. Defer these for later in your schedule.
Quadrant 3: Urgent but not important. Delegate these to others, if possible, especially if they do not contribute to your long-term goals.
Quadrant 4: Not important and not urgent. Delete these tasks, or do them when you have free time because they are distractions from your priorities.
For an even simpler approach, create a task list and mark each item as urgent or important. Often, we prioritize urgent tasks instead of important ones—such as tasks that may be creative, important, and fulfilling, but do not have a deadline—so identifying and labeling them can be a helpful step toward accomplishing your personal and professional goals.
Once you have a better idea of what your priorities are, setting limits can be an excellent time management tool. There are several options for chunking your time into digestible pieces.
Try the Pomodoro method. This technique was developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, a university student who was overwhelmed by studying and assignments. The Pomodoro method requires using a timer to break down your work into 25-minute intervals, separated by 5 minutes of break time. After four pomodoros, you may take a longer 15-30 minute break. Pomodoro (“tomato” in Italian) promotes concentration and relieves mental fatigue, especially useful for open-ended work like conducting research, studying for an exam, or finishing a consulting project. You might try Pomodor on your desktop or Focus Keeper app on your phone.
Adopt the Swiss Cheese Method. Similar to Pomodoro, the Swiss Cheese Method breaks down a large project into smaller tasks. Coined by Alan Lakein, author of How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, the Swiss cheese technique “pokes holes” in an overwhelming task by breaking it into tasks that take five to 10 minutes to complete. And maybe, just maybe, that 10 minutes is enough to continue focusing on the task for longer.
By “chunking” time, you make big projects and goals less daunting. Less procrastination, more productivity.
For most of us, multitasking is generally less efficient than focusing on one task at a time. In fact, one study found that only 2.5 percent of people are able to multitask effectively . Doing too many things at once can impact your cognitive ability, making you feel unproductive or dissatisfied with your progress. Arranging your time so that you complete one task before starting another can boost your confidence.
Further, it may be helpful to compartmentalize tasks. If you are a writer, for example, you might dedicate Monday to research, Tuesday through Thursday to writing, and Friday to editing.
Rewards are not reserved for well-behaved children and pets. They can be a great source of motivation for adopting good time management habits. For every task you accomplish in a day, you can give yourself a little reward. These rewards don’t need to be extravagant or expensive. Some options include:
Taking a break to enjoy your favorite snack
Going for a short walk outside
Call a friend or family member
Meditate for five minutes
Listen to a podcast episode or a chapter of an audiobook
For bigger rewards, you can indulge in activities like reading a book in the bath, planning a night out with friends, or booking a getaway. You have the power to determine which goals deserve which indulgence. Exciting rewards can help you push through an especially tough project or work period.
Sometimes, rewards and good intentions are not enough to keep us focused. An app or browser extension can help you minimize distractions by blocking you from using social media or touching your phone. Here are some apps and extensions you can try:
Forest is an app that helps you stay focused and off your phone. The company partners with an organization called Trees for the Future to plant trees when you spend virtual coins earned in Forest.
StayFocused is a browser extension that prevents you from using time-wasting websites like Reddit, Twitter, Wikipedia, Instagram, and more. It’s highly configurable, so you can customize it to your specific distractions.
Freedom is a tool that can block both websites and apps on all of your devices, simultaneously. Take advantage of their free trial to know if it’s right for you.
Now that you have some potential time management tips and methods in your toolkit, it’s time to create a strategy. You might experiment with several techniques before establishing the most effective long-term habits and routines for you.
Consider your lifestyle, whether you are a student or a working professional (or both), whether you have a family or aspire to become a digital nomad (or both!). Think of your long- and short-term goals for your career and personal development. Make sure the goals are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. What will it take to achieve them? How can you manage your time to maximize your productivity?
Once you have established your goals, prioritize them in order of importance. It may be helpful to use Post-its or pen and paper to better visualize your priorities.
Using the list of tips above, decide upon a method or two to implement. Based on what has worked for you in the past, you can mix and match different time management skills. If you are unsure of which ones will work for you, pick one at random and give it a try.
Apply your chosen method over a period of time. A month is typically enough time to evaluate whether a strategy is working. Over 30 days, monitor your progress. Take notes on how you feel after one or two weeks. Was one method more effective than the other?
Use a planner, Google calendar, or simply pen and paper to set your monthly and weekly goals. For daily tasks, write a to-do list every morning with achievable (Swiss Cheese) goals. Feel free to buffer your days with flexibility and sprinkle in plenty of little rewards.
After one month of your new time management methods, it’s time to reassess. What’s working? What’s not working? Adjust your strategy and plan to be more effective. Continue to practice these habits each month, adapting them as your priorities change. What works for you when you are a student may not be the same as when you start a new job.
Remember, practicing time management is an ongoing process, and life happens (along with the additional stressors and challenges that come with it). It’s okay if you don’t transform into a time management guru overnight. It’s about progress, not perfection.
Learn more effective time management tips from instructors at top universities with a course like Work Smarter, Not Harder: Time Management for Personal & Professional Productivity from the University of California Irvine or Finding Purpose and Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most from the University of Michigan.
1. Dillard, Annie. “The Writing Life, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Writing_Life.html?id=it8NwjEKwCMC." Accessed January 26, 2022.
2. Harvard Business Review. “Time Management Is about More than Life Hacks, https://hbr.org/2020/01/time-management-is-about-more-than-life-hacks." Accessed January 26, 2022.
3. IBM. “Research Insights the Enterprise Guide to Closing the Skills Gap, https://www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/epymnbja." Accessed January 26, 2022.
4. Springer-Verlag. “Supertaskers: Profiles in Extraordinary Multitasking Ability - Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/PBR.17.4.479." Accessed January 26, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.