To get started with time management, you need to set goals, research different time management techniques and pick one you want to test, and decide which tools you’re going to use.
Setting Long-Term Goals
The first step in time management is making an intentional plan for the change we want to embrace, or in other words, setting goals.
Long-term goals provide the framework we need to execute our chosen strategies and give us an idea of when it’s time to reflect and reassess. Short-to-medium long goals complement them: they give purpose to our weeks and months and make it easier to stay on track.
A good way to set both types of goals is to follow the SMART matrix, which stipulates that goals need to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
The University of California has shared an incredible resource on how to set SMART goals successfully that also includes some great examples and a template.
Finding a Strategy that Works for You
A big part of time management is creating tasks, prioritizing, and ticking them off. In other words, maintaining a to-do list or a daily plan that doesn’t feel like just an extra thing you need to do; but rather, makes everything else easier for you.
To set yourself up for long-term success, you’ll need to find a technique for this that works specifically for you.
There are many popular, proven techniques that have already helped millions of people across the globe. We encourage you to read our guide on time management strategies and techniques to learn more about them, but to help you get started with your research, here’s a list of the most popular ones:
Because there are a lot of different methods to prioritize tasks, the one you choose for yourself will mostly depend on your job requirements, the nature of the work you’re doing, and ultimately your preference.
The most important factor when deciding on what technique to go for in your daily planning is reflecting on what you personally find to be the most challenging aspect of your daily life and then picking a strategy that you think has the best chance to help you overcome that challenge.
For example, a big challenge in managing to stay on top of everything can be maintaining your concentration and focus. In that case, your goal would be to find a way to work smarter, not harder to concentrate on the task in front of you and resist distractions.
Timeboxing is a technique that can help you learn how. All you have to do is allocate certain periods of time to specific tasks/assignments and work on them until that period of time passes. You create a longer timebox for a complex or time-consuming task, but then you also split each timebox into smaller chunks and take breaks in between.
In essence, timeboxing relies on setting deadlines for each of your tasks to make it easier for you to maintain concentration. By “forcing” you to focus all of your attention on a single “problem” until it’s solved, the technique doesn’t let you get stuck and discourages multitasking.
Here’s how it works:
- List all of your tasks and other obligations
- Set goals; Anticipate the end result of completing your assignments; What is it you want to accomplish?
- If you have urgent or important tasks on your plate, allocate longer periods of time to them (Create a longer timebox, 1-2 hours in length, for example).
- If possible, divide more complicated tasks into smaller, more easily manageable ones. Set smaller periods of time aside for each part of the larger task (e.g. half an hour).
- Start working on your first task.
- Work until the allocated time for it is up.
- Take a break.
- Analyze what you’ve managed to accomplish (have you finished the entire task within the allocated time frame). If not, make adjustments accordingly (e.g. Increase the length of the said timebox, adjust the length of other timeboxes, and such).
- After the first task on your list is done, start working on the second one, while following the same steps, as listed above.
Not every method will work for everyone, so don’t be afraid to try out a few different ones until you find the one that is the best fit.
Finding the Right Tools
How you choose to go about tracking your time daily and listing and ticking off to-dos is completely up to you. However, that can make the whole process seem overwhelming. So before you get into planning, we advise that you ask yourself the following questions to identify which tools will work the best for you.
Is it important for your tool of choice to:
- Make it easy for you to convey progress to team members and delegate?
- Sync with other tools?
- Create backups of your to-dos and appointments?
- Make it easy for you to stick to managing your time?
- Do you want to automate what you can, or prefer a more old-school method?
- Are you planning on tracking how you spend your time?
- Do you want to have separate to-do lists for work-related and personal items?
Depending on how you answer these questions, you have a variety of tools at your disposal.
- A hardcopy productivity planner for long-term goals and personal to-do lists.
- A to-do list app or project management software if you prefer a digital tool.
- A productivity tracker designed to monitor your behaviors and give you insights about them.
- A digital calendar if you collaborate with a team, managers, or clients.
- TA time tracking software if you want a really robust solution for all your time management needs.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. All these tools can be used in a variety of combinations, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Which one you pick will also depend on how simple or powerful you want your tool to be.
However, we recommend that you go with a digital solution like time tracking software, as it can automate a lot of the grind of time management for you. What’s even more important is that tools like this can be your all-in-one solution for tracking, sharing, and reporting anything you need using a single interface instead of 3 different tools.
Getting Into a Rhythm
The practice of time management is all about planning your day using your favorite method or tool, reflecting on your progress, and reassessing if needed.
1. Create a Task List
Now that you’ve picked your tool and time management technique of choice, it’s time to create your first to-dos or daily plan.
Important things to consider when creating to-do lists:
- The approximate amount of time you would need to complete each individual task.
- How important, urgent, and difficult each task is - prioritize according to your chosen technique, like:
- Eat the Frog (complete complex tasks first)
- Chunking (assign blocks of time to each task)
- ABCDE (assign each task a letter grade based on importance)
- If your tasks have deadlines, add that information as well.
2. Schedule and Start Completing!
So, how do you anticipate how long certain challenges, tasks, or projects will take or know how to prioritize?
You learn how by doing the work.
Estimating the amount of time you’ll need for your tasks and deciding what to prioritize first is a science in itself. To succeed at the first, you’ll need to learn to overcome the planning fallacy (overestimating or underestimating how much time you need). To get better at the second, you’ll need to do some trial and error until you find the technique that works for you.
Both start with setting deadlines for yourself and working towards them according to your chosen prioritization method, even if you miss them the first few times. The more historical data you acquire regarding how much time your tasks take, the more likely it is that you’ll estimate and prioritize your tasks more accurately in the future.
This makes it obvious how impactful time management can be in our everyday life, as all of the most popular time management techniques we’ve listed are designed to help you gradually get better at prioritizing tasks, identifying challenges, and anticipating how much time your responsibilities take so that you can meet deadlines.
Reflect on Your Progress and Reassess
There will come a time when you’ll want to circle back to the long-term goal you set for yourself.
Let’s say your goal is to “get better at time management.” If you followed the SMART matrix and made this goal timebound, you’d know when you need to assess your progress.
Asking yourself whether you’ve met it will be an opportunity for growth for you, as you can see whether:
- You’ve created new habits that stick
- You’ve identified challenges or obstacles
- You’ve fallen off the track because of X and Y
- You’ve picked the right tools for you or not.
The scientific consensus is that the purpose of time management as a tool is to serve us so that we feel in control of our lives. A person’s time management practice shouldn’t feel rigid; on the contrary, it needs to evolve and adjust to the dynamic of their life.
The practice empowers individuals to experiment with how they manage their time and encourages them to see each challenge as an opportunity for growth.
If your reassessment shows that there is something you struggle with when you’re learning to get better at managing time, that’s a positive thing you can use to your benefit. Next, we’ll focus on giving you strategies that will help you regroup, make adjustments, and overcome your personal challenges with time management.
Learn How to Overcome the Biggest Challenges of Time Management