You don’t have to be a project manager to manage your time or tasks well. It’s a soft skill everyone wrestles with (and a skill most of us could use some help improving).
There are telltale signs that you need to improve your time management skills and habits:
- You can’t seem to stick with your long-term goals.
- You’re consistently missing or moving deadlines.
- You can’t seem to stay focused and have difficulty finishing tasks or projects.
- You are overwhelmed by your task list. You don’t have enough time to do it all!
- You spend more time than you should be working on specific activities.
- You’re constantly feeling stressed.
- You’re working hard but feel like you’re getting nowhere.
If any of the above rings true for you, it’s time to start adulting and address your time management skills.
Finding out what tactics work for you and help you manage time effectively takes some trial and error. But there are several tried and true ways to develop effective time management.
12 essential time management tips
- Focus on your goals
Goals are one of the most important things we overlook in managing our time. It’s not uncommon to lose sight of long-term goals amid the frantic demand of urgent and daily tasks. You may find it hard to focus on the most important matters at hand or even to identify what on your long list of functions is the most important.
Feeling overwhelmed is an excellent cue to review your task list. Ask yourself: Will spending time on this bring me closer to achieving my goals?
Pro tip: Make sure your goals are SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time-based. Vague or unrealistic goals are challenging to track and often lead to incompletion.
- Structure your time
It’s easy to float from task to task, meeting to meeting, and passively let others structure your time for you. Being intentional about how you spend time is the most impactful way to develop good time management skills. Structuring your time doesn’t just help you progress toward your long-term goals; it can also help you reduce distractions and improve focus.
While working at home, it’s essential to consider differing schedules when structuring your time. Communicate to your roommates when you don’t want to be disturbed, when you plan to use a public space, or when you may make disruptive noise. Proactively setting expectations for how you want to interact during business hours is respectful and reduces potential conflict.
- Schedule time blocks
Blocking out your time effectively ensures you get to different kinds of work—particularly non-urgent, long-term, essential tasks that require focus and deep work. This kind of work is usually on the back burner when urgent tasks demand your attention.
By blocking out time to work on specific activities, you ensure that you make progress. Additionally, limiting the work time reduces the odds of task burnout.
Pro tip: If you have a shared calendar at work, add your time blocks to keep coworkers from scheduling meetings.
- Discover your power hours
Power hours are when you have the most energy and when you get your best work done. If you call yourself a night owl or a lark, you may already know when your power hours are. If unsure, track your time to determine when you are most productive.
Pro tip: Schedule your most important tasks and tasks that require deep focus during your power hours. During less energetic times of the day, schedule more mundane tasks that require less stress.
- Focus sprints
It’s not always easy to start a task or to get into a deep workflow. When you’re struggling with task initiation or focus, the Pomodoro method is an effective way to keep procrastination at bay. Schedule short bursts of time (usually 15- to 30-minute intervals) when you focus on a single task, really pushing yourself. Then, reward yourself with a five-minute break in between sprints.
Set yourself up in a distraction-free space when preparing for a focused sprint. Clear your workspace from everything except what you need to do your focus work. Enable your devices’ to do-not-disturb functions. And steer clear of setting up near chatty housemates.
Pro tip: You can make your sprints as long—or as short—as you like. Five- and 10-minute sprints with one-minute breaks may better match your personal pace.
- Prioritize your tasks
Our task lists can quickly get out of hand. Humans are very good at generating ideas and imagining ideal outcomes. Ideas are infinite, but time is finite—no one can do it all. Pretending you can put your stress levels through the roof.
One of the most effective prioritization tools is the Eisenhower matrix. Even if you don’t use the diagram to map out task priorities, the terminology and framework help assess the value of your tasks.
Urgent: Tasks that demand your immediate attention.
Important: High-value, high-impact tasks that further your goals. These aren’t always urgent, but there are severe consequences if they’re not done.
The Eisenhower matrix has four quadrants to organize your tasks. Use this framework to understand the level of priority you should give to anything on your task list.
- Urgent and important: Do these tasks first.
- Essential but NOT urgent: Do these tasks next.
- Urgent and unimportant: Do these tasks later or delegate them to someone else.
- NOT urgent and NOT important: Don’t do it! Delete this task from your list.
Pro tip: You don’t need to do everything. Saving time by deleting tasks that don’t serve your goals is fine, mainly if you create those tasks for yourself.
- Plan your week and days
Set your intentions and priorities at the same time each day and each week. Planning your schedule gives you a better picture of what’s to come and enables you to prepare for the immediate future. Regularly checking in on your priorities keeps you in line with your goals and allows you to adapt to new changes.
- Learn to say no
Your time is finite. Boundaries are essential, even when you work. You may feel like you’re expected to say yes to every request your way—but most assuredly, you’re not. It’s essential to be assertive, recognize your limits, and not over-commit to obligations you can’t keep. Failing to follow through on your commitments erodes trust in your relationships.
- Nourish your brain
We often take our brainpower for granted. Focus is not merely the product of willpower and determination. Our brain has to be in good, functioning form. Taking breaks, getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals, regular exercise, and socializing all promote optimum executive function.
If you’ve ever been “hangry” or grumpy after a poor night’s sleep, you know you’re not operating at 100% capacity. When you’re primed for irritability, you’re likely to cause conflict in your relationships at work and home. Pushing yourself while you are not at your best is a recipe for low-quality work and emotional distress.
- Stop waiting for inspiration or motivation.
If you wait for these to strike you before beginning any tasks, you will cross nothing off your task list. The trick is to set a bite-sized goal to get you started. Use focus sprints to tackle demanding tasks you’ve been putting off. Creating them—even for just five minutes—can spur your motivation and inspiration.
- Don’t multitask
Multitasking is a trap with diminishing returns. Constant interruptions erode your ability to maintain focus, slowing your ability to complete tasks. Instead of switching from task to task, note the tasks that crop up and schedule a time to do them. It can be complicated to avoid multitasking when you’re not the only one in your household working from home, but enforcing your boundaries will pay off in the long run.