We all have 24 hours in day. But why is it that some people get more done compared to the rest? Why it is that some people achieve more success in the same amount of time as everyone else? The reason may very well be effective time management.
Time management is the ability to plan and control the time you spend on specific activities. Effective time management allows you to attain maximum productivity, accomplish your goals, and achieve an ideal work-life balance.
So forget the old adage. Your time is more valuable than gold, or any other precious metal or stone for that matter. But do you use your time as such? If not, then here are the best ways to help you make the most of your time and achieve effective time management.
1. Set goals the right way
Any worthwhile endeavor in life begins by setting goals. Goals are your targets, the objects of your ambition and effort. Goals provide clarity, purpose, and meaning. When you set goals, you give yourself direction – you know where to head for, you know where to go. You understand exactly what you want in life.
Without goals, your efforts become pointless. You can spend the entirety of your life working hard, struggling, and yet never achieve anything, simply because you have no idea what you are working towards, what you are aiming for in the first place.
It’s not enough to just have goals in life, however. You have to have to the right goals. You need to set goals the right way. A lot of people fail to fulfill their goals not because their goals were impossible to attain in the first place, but because they set their goals the wrong way.
And so it is with time management. It begins with goals. Setting the right goals is akin to laying the foundation of an effective time management strategy. When you set goals the proper way, you ensure that your time is spent productively on a worthwhile purpose instead of being squandered on meaningless pursuits. After all, time spent on chasing something you shouldn’t even be bothering with in the first place is time wasted.
So, to achieve effective time management, start by establishing goals the right way. Consider the S.M.A.R.T goal setting method, which calls for your goals to have the following attributes:
- SPECIFIC – Your goals should neither be vague nor abstract. Instead, they should be clear and precise. Make sure you know exactly what you want to achieve, and that you can clearly envision your intended end result. For instance, instead of simply aiming to lose weight, make your goal more specific, like striving to lose 30 pounds (or 13.6 kilos) within six months.
- MEASURABLE – You should be able to measure your progress and determine whether you are on track to meet your goals. You can divide long-term goals into a series of sequential milestones. If your goal is to lose 30 pounds (or 13.6 kilos) within six months, then aim to shed 5 pounds (or 2.3 kilos) every month for six months. That way, you can keep track of your progress month by month.
- ACHIEVABLE – Your goals should be realistic, not idealistic. They should take into consideration prevailing constraints, strain your abilities, and push you to your uttermost, but still ultimately fall within your reach. Don’t set goals whose accomplishment lies beyond your power. Losing 30 pounds (or 13.6 kilos) within six months is an achievable goal. Losing 30 pounds (or 13.6 kilos) within six days, on the other hand, is nigh impossible. And even if you manage to achieve such a feat, you may be left struggling with negative health consequences.
- RELEVANT – Your goals should be aligned to your overall purpose. They should be meaningful to you. They should be worth striving for. For instance, if you want to lose 30 pounds (or 13.6 kilos) within six months, you should have a rationale behind such goal. Otherwise, why bother? It might be that you want to lose weight as part of your overall effort to live a healthier lifestyle.
- TIME-BOUND – Your goals should have realistic deadlines. When you give yourself a set amount of time to reach your goal, you are making that goal a priority and adding a sense urgency to it, making it less likely it would be sidelined by less significant goals.
Effective time management begins with S.M.A.R.T. goals. By setting S.M.A.R.T. goals, you are setting objectives truly worth working towards, and thereby ensuring the effective use of your valuable time and effort.
2. Learn to prioritize
Anything and everything you do consumes time, whether you decide to work on an important project or while the hours away on social media. You can have a million goals and tasks, but with only so much time to spend, you simply cannot do them all. Therefore, the onus is on you to make the most of your hours through effective time management.
When you have so many things to do, you get caught up in struggling to accomplish them all. But you need to stop for a second and ask yourself “Do I really have to do this?”
With finite time, you cannot do everything you want to. And you don’t have to. The truth is, a lot of the things you want to do are really not worth doing at all. Only a few are. And when you learn how to prioritize, you can identify which tasks are really worth doing.
Prioritization is the act of deciding the relative importance or urgency of the things you want to do. Prioritization is crucial to effective time management. When you know how to prioritize, you can spend your precious time and effort on tasks that provide value and meaning, and help you advance towards your goals. You can eliminate nonessential tasks that only waste your time, and leave you exhausted without any meaningful accomplishment to show for it.
A useful technique in helping you prioritize your tasks, and an effective time management tool overall, is the so-called Eisenhower Method, named after the legendary Dwight D. Eisenhower himself. This method is derived from his quote (which he in turn quoted from Dr J. Roscoe Miller, then the president of Northwestern University) which goes as thus:
I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.Dwight D. Eisenhower
The Eisenhower Method helps you identify what tasks to work on and what to ignore depending on their importance (i.e. does this task help you achieve your goals?) or urgency (i.e. does this task require your immediate attention?). Under this method, tasks are classified according to the following categories:
- IMPORTANT AND URGENT TASKS – These are critical tasks that you need to do immediately and personally. These are valuable and meaningful tasks that contribute to your long-term goals. Usually comprised of emergencies and unforeseen circumstances, the prompt completion of these tasks enables you to avoid their negative consequences. Planning your work ahead of time helps you lessen the number of these tasks.
- IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT TASKS – These are long-term tasks of value that you need to do personally but do not require immediate attention. You can make time for these tasks by scheduling them in advance. If you fail to plan ahead, you are likely to work on these tasks at the last minute. Ideally, most of your tasks should fall under this category.
- UNIMPORTANT BUT URGENT TASKS – These are tasks that demand immediate attention, but not necessarily from you. These are usually other people’s priorities, not yours, and so the completion of these tasks is associated with achieving someone else’s goals. If possible, delegate these tasks.
- UNIMPORTANT AND NOT URGENT TASKS – These are tasks that provide no real value and will not bring you closer to your goals. Because these are mostly a waste of time, do not hesitate to completely remove them from your list.
The Eisenhower Method, though by no means a perfect strategy, can make your workload more manageable by helping you organize and prioritize your tasks. And knowing how to prioritize is part and parcel of effective time management. When you can wisely decide what to work on and what to ignore, you ensure that you spend your time productively. You get meaningful work done, meet deadlines, and move closer to your goals.
3. Stop being a perfectionist
We all want to do a good job, to deliver high-quality results. And so we work harder on our tasks. But sometimes, we take it to a whole new level and start aiming for perfection.
Perfectionism is the tendency to regard anything with flaws as unacceptable. It is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, perfectionism can motivate you to exert only your best effort on a given task to ensure a quality outcome. After all, acute attention to detail and laser-like focus can help guarantee excellent results.
More often than not, however, perfectionism can get in the way of progress, and can become the biggest obstacle to effective time management.
Perfectionism can exacerbate procrastination. A perfectionist mindset tends to engender fear of failure, causing you to needlessly delay getting started on your tasks rather than risk committing errors and mistakes. You end up deferring action and thereby sabotaging your progress towards your goals.
Worse, a perfectionist mindset is often riddled with self-doubt. If you are a perfectionist, you most likely lack confidence in yourself and your abilities. You cannot guarantee that you can produce a perfect outcome. As a result, you opt instead to work on other tasks where your chances of failing are significantly lower. This only leads you to waste time, however, as instead of focusing on the tasks that matter, you while your hours away on the trivial ones.
Perfectionism also induces fear of being negatively evaluated by other people. You are afraid that you might not meet other people’s expectations, simply because you fail to live up to your own extremely lofty ones. So, rather than risk receiving negative feedback, you delay releasing your work for evaluation.
Another instance where perfectionism hinders effective time management is when you squander valuable time and effort on ‘fixing’ your work, i.e., you revise your work over and over again because you keep finding supposed faults and flaws. Most of the time, however, only you can perceive these faults and flaws. In fact, these are too negligible or inconsequential for other people to even notice.
Striving for a perfect outcome is commendable, but not if it comes at the cost of progress and of missing deadlines. A perfectionist mindset can get you caught up in the tiny and insignificant details that you forget the big picture altogether. Because you are too busy ensuring every detail is flawless before you move on, you stall progress on the entire task. As a result, you take up more time to complete your work, if at all.
Perfectionism can take a toll not only on your attempts toward effective time management and optimal productivity, but on your overall well-being as well. When you are a perfectionist, you strive for nothing less than perfection, a goal that is simply unrealistic and therefore unattainable. Thus, by pursuing unrealistic expectations, you usually only end up in failure, which can damage your self-esteem and can lead to self-repudiation, self-contempt, and general unhappiness.
To overcome perfectionism – and thereby achieve effective time management – you need to change your mindset. Instead of aiming for unrealistic expectations, set goals that are less lofty. Instead of focusing on your faults and flaws, highlight instead your strengths and skills.
Instead of harboring a fear of failure, convince yourself that everyone commits mistakes, and that you are no exception. Any action – however imperfect – is better than no action at all. To avoid wasting time on needlessly ‘fixing’ your work, spend more time creating, not correcting.
If you fear that your work will never be good enough, accept the fact that your work will never be perfect in the first place anyway. Learn to regard feedback in a positive light. Release your work as soon as you can for evaluation, accept whatever comments and criticisms are heaped upon it, and use those to improve your work.
Remember, for effective time management, choose progress over perfection. There is nothing wrong with aiming for perfection, but you must know when it is applicable. Not all your tasks need to be perfect, so save perfectionism for the tasks where it is really valuable.
4. Set deadlines
As has already been mentioned, effective time management starts with laying down S.M.A.R.T. – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound – goals. Concerning the latter attribute, to ensure that each of your goals or tasks is indeed time-bound, you need to set a deadline – the latest time or date by which something should be completed.
Unfortunately, deadlines have gained a rather unfavorable reputation. To many, deadlines have come to mean nothing more than a constant source of stress, fear, and anxiety. Deadlines have become almost synonymous with sleepless nights, panic attacks, and last-minute work.
Such ill repute, however, has nothing to do with the definition of the word itself. It actually stems from people’s negligent and lamentable use of deadlines. The truth is, there are people who set deadlines that are highly unrealistic and then wonder why no one ever seems to meet them.
There also people who set deadlines without really meaning them, i.e., there are no rewards for meeting the deadlines, and no penalties for missing them. Then they wonder why no one ever takes their deadlines seriously.
Then there are those who consistently fail to meet deadlines because they are chronic procrastinators. However, instead of acknowledging and remedying their maladaptive behavior, they would rather heap the blame on deadlines and call them pointless!
This unjustified notoriety, therefore, does not diminish the value of deadlines. Contrary to popular opinion, deadlines are – and will always be – important to effective time management. Here are several reasons why:
First, deadlines allow you to determine whether you are completing a task on time. Without deadlines, there is no way of knowing if the results you are delivering are timely or not. You might have used too much time in completing your tasks, but without deadlines, there is no way to prove this. Deadlines enable you to measure if your actions amount to effective time management or not.
Second, deadlines encourage productivity by ensuring that you get the important tasks done. When you set a deadline for a task, you are making it a priority over your other tasks. You are adding the element of urgency to that task, reducing the likelihood that you will delay or altogether forget it, or that it will be sidelined in favor of less significant work.
Without a deadline, you are more susceptible to procrastinating on a task because it lacks a sense of primacy. Because you feel that you have an indefinite timeline to work on it, you are convinced that you can actually afford to shelve it or wait until the last minute before getting started.
Without deadlines, tasks that you find unappealing suffer especially. You are more likely to delay working on such tasks if you are not in the mood, believing you will be later on. In the meantime, you would rather engage in short term tasks that feel less burdensome and more pleasurable, even at the cost of long term development and progress.
When setting deadlines, there are some tips you need to consider to help you ensure that you are using them as the effective time management tool they are meant to be.
First, your deadlines should be clearly defined and specific. For instance, setting a deadline of Tuesday at 10:30 AM is preferable to anytime next week. Establishing a concrete deadline on a task makes it feel more urgent, prompting you to act on it sooner to avoid wasting your limited time.
Second, your deadlines should be realistic. Allow yourself sufficient time to get the tasks done. Your deadlines should account for the challenges and contingencies that you might encounter along the way and the time these might cost you.
When setting deadlines, don’t be too harsh with yourself. Deadlines that give you inadequate time to accomplish tasks are counterproductive to effective time management. Unrealistic deadlines can make you more stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. Instead of encouraging you to work, such deadlines can actually demoralize you, and make you more susceptible to procrastination or even total inaction.
But don’t be too lenient with yourself, either. Lax deadlines reduce the element of urgency and encourage you to delay unnecessarily because you feel you have the luxury of time.
Finally, your deadlines should be serious. There should be consequences attached to them – penalties for missing them, and rewards for meeting them. This way, you ensure that your deadlines are not just random dates and numbers, but are in fact a meaningful and effective time management tool.
5. Do the most important tasks first
Celebrated humorist Mark Twain is known for his remarkable wit and memorable words. He was not one to state things in a bland and simple way, no. Rather, it was his style to proffer advice in a clever, amusing, and sometimes perplexing manner.
Throughout his life, he has uttered words of wisdom to inspire a better way of living, from guidance on how to gain broader perspectives to advice on effective time management. Concerning the latter, one popular quote of his goes as such:
If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.Mark Twain
It’s safe to say that when he uttered that quote, he wasn’t actually referring to consuming real, live frogs. He was alluding to tasks you find difficult and unappealing, and yet are the most important. Thus, according to Mr. Twain, for effective time management, it is best to start your day with your greatest, most challenging, and most important tasks.
There are several logical reasons why doing so is an effective time management technique. First, by doing the most important tasks before all others, you ensure productive use of your time.
After all, you are more likely to procrastinate on the difficult and daunting task in favor of the smaller, less difficult, and more appealing tasks that yield little value or meaning. But by‘eating the frog’ early on, you get straight on the tasks that really count, those that deliver the most impact, instead of wasting your time and energy on the easier but less meaningful work.
Second, there are usually fewer distractions to compete for your time and attention in the morning. By scheduling your most important tasks in the morning or in the first available timeslot, you reduce the likelihood that you will be beset by distractions. This allows you to work without interruptions and concentrate on any given task, thereby ensuring high productivity and effective time management.
Third, it is in the morning that you have the greatest reserve of energy. Since it is only logical that the most important tasks demand the greatest amount of your effort, scheduling them in the morning means you can deliver the requisite amount of energy to complete them.
On the other hand, when you put off working on such tasks until late in the day, you may likely find yourself too exhausted and so struggle to muster the level of energy required to finish the tasks at hand.
By devoting the bulk of your energy to the most important tasks, you guarantee your best performance and deliver high-quality results. You practice not only effective time management, but also effective energy management.
Finally, the psychological implications of ‘eating the frog’ before anything else cannot be discounted. It feels easier and more convenient to put off working on your difficult and intimidating but very important tasks, and instead be tempted to work on the smaller and less daunting ones that are actually petty in nature. But no matter how many of the trivial tasks you finish, you will always be left feeling unsatisfied and unaccomplished. The thought that you have not yet ‘eaten your frog’ will weigh on your mind and nag your conscience.
However, by tackling the tasks you find most difficult and least appealing early on, you ensure that the rest of your tasks will seem easier and more pleasant to work on. The fact that you have managed to conquer your most dreaded tasks can give you the motivation to breeze through the rest of your workload and end the day on a positive note.
We all have the same amount of hours each day to work with. However, we also dream of getting more done each day. After all, if you can get more work done in a day compared to the rest, would you not get ahead in life?
To some, getting more done means literally getting more things done – that means a higher work volume by cramming more tasks in their schedules and attempting to work on them all at once. Such is the allure of multitasking.
Multitasking – the ability to do more than one thing at a time – is touted as an effective time management technique, one that can guarantee higher productivity in less time. After all, when you have so many things to do, but so little time to do it all, would it not make sense to work on all your different tasks simultaneously? That way, you would get more work done in the same amount of time. Or would you?
Unfortunately, you would not. Multitasking is a myth. It may sound attractive in theory, but when put into practice, is actually far from being the effective time management strategy it is touted to be. In fact, it can – and will – cost you valuable time and productivity.
There are several good reasons why multitasking is not an effective time management technique. First, multitasking reduces your efficiency and productivity. When you multitask, you regard every task you do as a priority – everything seems important or urgent, and so deserves equal time and attention. This prevents you from committing the necessary time and effort to the tasks that really matter. You might look busy – and so feel that you are being productive – but at the end of the day, you have no meaningful results to show for it. Ironically, by trying to get more done with multitasking, you only end up doing less!
Second, multitasking diminishes the quality of your work. Switching back and forth between tasks disrupts your short-term memory and focus. You lose depth of engagement with your work. Without focused concentration, you get easily distracted, make worse decisions, and are prone to committing more errors and mistakes. Because your attention is spread thin across multiple tasks, you end up doing a mediocre job of everything.
Third, multitasking costs you time. Jumping from one task to another means you constantly lose focus, and it takes no small amount of time and effort to refocus your brain, get back to that state of flow, and pick up where you left off. You end up taking more time to complete your tasks, even the simple ones!
Fourth, multitasking is detrimental to your health. Attempting to handle too much work all at once is incredibly stressful and exhausting. Switching back and forth between multiple tasks takes a far heavier toll on your cognitive functions than when you work on one task a time. You consume more energy and deplete your mental resources faster. You only end up feeling far more exhausted and fatigued, yet without meaningful accomplishment to show for it.
Finally, multitasking deprives you of the joys of accomplishment. When you complete a task, you are more motivated and enthused to proceed to the next one. But when you multitask, you find it more difficult to complete tasks, and instead only end up with half-finished ones, which can be demoralizing.
The better approach to effective time management is to singletask – to focus on only one task at a time. When you singletask, you can devote the necessary time and attention to the tasks that do matter, and ignore those that are usually only a waste of time and effort. You ensure productive use of your time by delivering high-impact results.
Besides, when you focus on a single task, you can exert your best effort and thereby guarantee the quality of your work. Singletasking allows you to get in a state of flow, work more intensely, think more creatively, and ensure attention to detail. You are less prone to poor judgement. You also derive enjoyment, find more meaning, and feel less stressed with each task.
7. Reduce or eliminate distractions
The ability to focus – to concentrate – on any given task is essential to effective time management. When you can commit your full attention to a single task, you can perform at your best and make productive use of your time. By focusing on your work, you can deliver high-quality results in a timely manner.
Maintaining focus, however, is easier said than done. It requires almost superhuman effort to do so. And to make matters worse, everything around you is a potential distraction vying for your time and attention, seemingly intent on disrupting your focus and keeping you from expending your time productively.
Therefore, reducing or eliminating distractions is a must in any effective time management strategy. A distraction is anything that prevents you from committing your full attention to a particular thing. By reducing or altogether eliminating potential distractions, you can work uninterrupted and focus on the task at hand.
There are several ways to reduce or eliminate potential distractions while you are working. You can start by organizing your working environment.
Your working environment can either help or hinder your attempt towards effective time management. A chaotic workplace can cost you precious time. Nothing can slow you down more than not knowing the location of the things you need, and having to rifle and rummage through all the mess just to find whatever it is you’re looking for. Besides, having numerous, unnecessary objects that can catch your attention makes you more likely to be distracted while working.
In contrast, a clean, tidy, and organized workplace facilitates effective time management and fosters productivity. It enables you to not only focus on the task at hand, but to feel less stressed and overwhelmed, too.
So, declutter your workspace and remove all potential distractions. Keep only the devices, tools, and equipment you need in your work. By removing nonessential objects that might steal your attention and throw you off focus, you lessen your susceptibility to distraction and enhance your ability to concentrate on a given task. If you declutter your workspace, you are in a way also decluttering your mind, thereby gaining yourself a sense of peace and calm.
There are times, however, when organizing your workspace just can’t cut it. In such cases, you need to change your location altogether. If you find that no matter how you try to improve your surroundings, you still can’t focus, then try working elsewhere. Look for a place conducive to effective time management and optimal productivity.
Next, regulate the time you spend on social media while working. Nothing is more distracting than social media, the controlled use of which is severely detrimental to effective time management. If not reined in, it can rob you of valuable time and productivity.
So if social media is not part of your job, make it inconvenient for you to check on your accounts while working. Log out of your accounts, or consider temporarily blocking social media sites.
Limit your phone usage overall. If your phone does not have anything to do with the task at hand, put it on silent or airplane mode. Or better yet, keep it out of your sight and reach. Only allot time to check your phone for emergency calls and other important notifications.
You also have to consider the people around you. From work colleagues, if you are working in an office, to your family, if you are working at home, the people around you can be the biggest sources of distractions.
So if you want to focus solely on your work, then make sure that you communicate clearly to the people around you that you do not want to be disturbed. Or better yet, if at all possible, find a workplace with fewer or no people where you can work uninterrupted.
8. Take breaks
Effective time management means you know when to keep working and when to take a break. Yes, breaks – pauses in work or during activities – are a must to any effective time management plan. Contrary to popular belief, breaks are not a waste of time! And though it might seem counterintuitive, breaks actually do help you get more done.
After all, it’s impossible to keep working for hours on end without taking any breaks while still maintaining high productivity. Your brain simply is not wired to concentrate on a single task for hours and hours. It can only take so much before it suffers from stress and fatigue.
When your brain is forced to exert continuous effort for an extended period of time, its performance eventually deteriorates. Your decision-making ability is hit most of all, rendering you more prone to poor judgment and so more likely to commit mistakes and errors. And when your performance declines, so does the quality of your work.
Without breaks, your ability to focus is impaired. Monotonous work without scheduled interruptions eventually causes your mind to wander and lose track of the task at hand. And once you are thrown out of focus, you are more susceptible to distractions and procrastination, both of which drastically impede effective time management.
Plus, without breaks, you are more likely to suffer from mental exhaustion in the long run, leaving you with impaired cognitive functions and no longer able to meet the constant demands of your work.
Not only does forgoing breaks affect your mental health, it also impacts your physical well-being. Sitting at your desk for too long damages normal blood circulation and can distort your posture. You are also more likely to suffer from heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Staring at your computer screen for prolonged periods can cause headaches and eyestrain, and can eventually lead to poorer eyesight.
So, it is essential to take breaks when working. You need to take breaks between tasks, and especially during extensive tasks. Not only is it an effective time management tool, it is also an effective way to maintain optimal work performance and safeguard your mental and physical health.
Taking regularly-scheduled breaks heightens your productivity. It allows your mind to rest and recuperate. Breaks reduce mental fatigue, boost cognitive function, refresh attention, and sustain concentration. Breaks restore your brain’s optimal performance, enabling you to make better decisions and commit fewer errors.
Moreover, taking regular breaks enhances your creativity. When you allow yourself a breather every now and then, your mind uses the downtime to better process and consolidate information taken in – in short, your brain is trying to make sense of what it has just learned. Once refreshed, you are able to think of new ideas and creative solutions to the task at hand.
Taking regular breaks benefits your physical health as well. It affords you enough time to stand, walk around, stretch your muscles, and do some exercises to improve blood circulation and increase blood flow to the brain. It gives you a chance to rest your eyes, too.
Plus, you have time to grab nourishing food or drink and ensure that you’re getting enough sustenance to keep your mind and body at peak performance. After all, you can’t work effectively if you’re hungry!
Taking regular breaks also makes you feel happier and increases your enthusiasm for your job.
So, for effective time management and maximum productivity, make sure that your schedule accommodates short, regular breaks between tasks and especially during long tasks. Even five-minute breaks for every half-hour or hour of work can do miracles.
And don’t forget, you need to take longer breaks from work, too, like a vacation or a holiday. Just like short breaks, longer breaks from work improve your productivity in the long-run, benefit your physical and psychological health, and allow you to achieve a good work-life balance through effective time management.